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Few previous studies have compared students' epistemological beliefs in mathematics with those in science. To ascertain the discipline and gender differences on students’ epistemological beliefs, this study conducted a survey with 495 Taiwanese ninth graders in junior high school. Findings show that female students express the stronger belief that science learning occurs in a quick fashion as compared with the view that mathematics learning occurs in a quick fashion , both male and female students express the stronger belief that mathematics knowledge is certain as compared with the view that science knowledge is certain, and male students express the stronger belief that science knowledge is simple and the ability to learn science is fixed as compared with the view that mathematics knowledge is simple and the ability to learn mathematics is fixed. Male students were also in more agreement in their belief about quick learning, certain knowledge, simple knowledge, and the innate ability of mathematics, as well as certain knowledge, simple knowledge, and the innate ability of science, than were female students. This study also revealed that students’ beliefs about knowledge are domain-specific, but some evidence of domain-general beliefs also exists.

During the last two decades, the study of students’ epistemological beliefs, which refers to students’ beliefs and views about how knowledge is developed and justified and involves a set of ideas and assumptions about the nature of knowledge that students have, has become a popular research topic in educational psychology [

Recent research has also suggested that students’ epistemological beliefs, to some degree, are domain specific [

In junior high school, mathematics and science are two important, but different learning domains. Both disciplines appeal to logic to assess the validity of knowledge claims, but science must also refer to the empirical observation, while mathematics does not [

Gender issues have been discussed extensively in mathematics and science education research. Males generally consider themselves as relatively more advantaged than females in learning mathematics and science [

In short, the purposes of this study were to investigate

the differences (if any) between students’ epistemological beliefs toward mathematics and those toward science;

the gender differences (if any) of students’ epistemological beliefs toward mathematics and science.

The sample in this study included 495 ninth graders (around 15 years old). These students came from nine junior high schools, three schools from the North, and two each from the Middle, South, and East regions of Taiwan. Among these respondents, 255 were female and 240 were male. The students were across different demographic and academic backgrounds, and, to a certain extent, represent the population of Taiwanese junior high school adolescents. Because all students were ninth graders, they had completed at least a one-year course in science and at least a two-year course in mathematics at the junior high school level and had an adequate background to develop epistemological beliefs regarding the nature of mathematics and science. The participants completed two questionnaires; one explored their epistemological beliefs in mathematics, and the other one investigated their epistemological beliefs in science.

To assess students’ views about the nature of mathematics and science, two questionnaires (see Table

Examples of items from each scale in REQ, REQ-M, and REQ-S.

Factors | Sample items | ||

REQ | REQ-M | REQ-S | |

Quick learning | Successful students learn things quickly. | Successful students learn | Successful students learn |

Certain knowledge | Truth is unchanging. | Truth in | Truth in |

Simple knowledge | Working on a problem with no clear solution is a waste of time. | Working on a | Working on a |

Innate ability | An expert is someone who has a special gift in some area. | An expert in | An expert in |

Each item in both REQ-M and REQ-S used a five-point Likert scale with categories ranging from strongly agree (5 points) to strongly disagree (1 point), while items stated in a reverse manner were scored accordingly. The reliability coefficients of REQ-M were 0.60, 0.63, 0.73, and 0.61, respectively, for the four scales, indicating satisfactory reliability in assessing students’ epistemological beliefs in mathematics. The overall alpha for REQ-M was equal to 0.73. Similarly, the reliability coefficients of REQ-S were 0.80, 0.61, 0.63, and 0.69, respectively, for the four scales, indicating satisfactory reliability in assessing students’ epistemological beliefs in science. The overall alpha for REQ-S was equal to 0.80. For each scale, an average score was calculated to represent each individual’s agreement with the scale statements, ranging for 1 to 5. For example, a higher average score on the certain knowledge scale in REQ-M indicates stronger agreement with the belief that mathematics knowledge is unchanging. To discuss conveniently and efficiently in the later sections, QL, CK, SK, and IA are abbreviated from the four scales: quick learning, certain knowledge, simple knowledge, and innate ability, respectively, in both REQ-M and REQ-S.

Summary of male and female group means of participants’ math and science scores on quick learning scale.

Gender/Discipline | Math | Science | Total |
---|---|---|---|

Male | 2.299 (0.356) | 2.257 (0.473) | 2.278 (0.415) |

Female | 2.205 (0.340) | 2.274 (0.452) | 2.240 (0.396) |

Total | 2.2517 (0.351) | 2.2656 (0.462) |

Simple main effects of gender and discipline factors on quick learning scale.

Comparison | Effect size (Cohen’s d) | |||
---|---|---|---|---|

Discipline | ||||

Male | 1.242 | 0.216 | ||

Female | −2.421 | 0.016 | Science > Math | 0.173 |

Gender | ||||

Math | 2.452 | 0.015 | male > female | 0.270 |

Science | 0.424 | 0.672 |

In regard to CK scale, the ANOVA results indicated no significant interaction effect between discipline and gender (

Summary of male and female group means of participants’ math and science scores on certain knowledge scale.

Gender/Discipline | Math | Science | Total |
---|---|---|---|

Male | 3.521 (0.468) | 3.458 (0.574) | 3.490 (0.521) |

Female | 3.083 (0.730) | 2.990 (0.598) | 3.036 (0.664) |

Total | 3.302 (0.651) | 3.224 (0.631) |

With regard to SK scale, the ANOVA results indicated a significant interaction effect between discipline and gender (

Summary of male and female group means of participants’ math and science scores on simple knowledge scale.

Gender/Discipline | Math | Science | Total |
---|---|---|---|

Male | 3.071 (0.511) | 3.170 (0.491) | 3.121 (0.501) |

Female | 2.750 (0.733) | 2.696 (0.420) | 2.723 (0.576) |

Total | 2.911 (0.651) | 2.933 (0.514) |

Simple main effects of gender and discipline factors on simple knowledge scale.

Comparison | Effect size (Cohen’s d) | |||
---|---|---|---|---|

Discipline | ||||

Male | −2.236 | 0.026 | Science > Math | 0.198 |

Female | 1.008 | 0.315 | ||

Gender | ||||

Math | 6.403 | 0.000 | Male > Female | 0.508 |

Science | 8.385 | 0.000 | Male > Female | 1.037 |

Concerning the IA scale, the ANOVA results indicated a significant interaction effect between discipline and gender (

Summary of male and female group means of participants’ math and science scores on innate ability scale.

Gender/Discipline | Math | Science | Total |
---|---|---|---|

Male | 2.464 (0.641) | 2.750 (0.806) | 2.607 (0.724) |

Female | 2.018 (0.485) | 2.045 (0.581) | 2.031 (0.533) |

Total | 2.241 (0.610) | 2.397 (0.786) |

Simple main effects of gender and discipline factors on innate ability scale.

Comparison | Effect size (Cohen’s d) | |||
---|---|---|---|---|

Discipline | ||||

Male | −5.024 | 0.000 | Science > Math | 0.393 |

Female | −0.836 | 0.404 | ||

Gender | ||||

Math | 9.226 | 0.000 | Male > Female | 0.785 |

Science | 10.897 | 0.000 | Male > Female | 1.003 |

A series of mixed design ANOVAs for mean scores on the scales showed several differences between epistemological beliefs in mathematics and those in science (shown in Tables

The correlations among epistemological beliefs toward mathematics and science (

Quick learning (Math) | Certain knowledge (Math) | Simple knowledge (Math) | Innate ability (Math) | |
---|---|---|---|---|

Quick learning (science) | 0.004 (n.s.) | −0.255*** | −0.169*** | |

Certain knowledge (science) | 0.126** | 0.259*** | 0.580*** | |

Simple knowledge (science) | 0.359*** | 0.243*** | 0.487*** | |

Innate ability (science) | 0.530*** | 0.363*** | 0.288*** |

**

By means of surveying a group of Taiwanese junior high school students, this study reveals that female students express the stronger belief that science learning occurs in a quick fashion as compared with the view that mathematics learning occurs in a quick fashion. Girls may consider that mathematics learning relies on more logic reasoning than science learning and mathematics learning is more difficult than science learning for female students. Hence, females tended to show the stronger view on quick science learning than quick mathematics learning. Furthermore, both male and female students express the stronger belief that mathematics knowledge is certain as compared with the view that science knowledge is certain. This may have come from recent innovative developments in science and technology, which may shape a relatively dynamic perspective on science knowledge. On the other hand, they may regard mathematics as a more stable discipline. Finally, male students express the stronger belief that science knowledge is simple and the ability to learn science is fixed as compared with the view that mathematics knowledge is simple and the ability to learn mathematics is fixed. One possible explanation is that male students consider that learning science relies on more memorization than mathematics. Therefore, they perceive that science knowledge is simpler than mathematics knowledge. In addition, male students may still find ways to improve their science learning and perceive that the ability to learn science is more fixed than that to learn mathematics [

Female students were less likely than male students to believe in certain knowledge, simple knowledge, and innate ability for mathematics and science as well as certain quick learning for mathematics. One possible reason for the results may be that male students have more favorable attitudes toward mathematics and science [

This study revealed that students expressed a stronger view on the certain knowledge of mathematics than that of science. The use and existence of mathematics proofs support this notion, and students believe the goal in mathematics problem solving is to find the answer [

This study found that male students had a stronger view on the simple knowledge and innate ability of science than those of mathematics. Female students had a stronger view on the quick learning of science than that of mathematics. Science teachers may communicate expectations in their interactions with male students during classroom instruction, through their comments on male students’ papers, when assigning students to instructional groups, through the presence or absence of consistent support for students who are striving for high levels of attainment, and in their contacts with significant adults in a student’s life. These actions could provide male students opportunities to learn and may influence male students’ beliefs about their own abilities to succeed in science. They may have a chance to understand that science knowledge is organized as highly interrelated concepts. Furthermore, science teachers may provide females students with complex problem solving in authentic contexts which focus on engaging them in collaboration to construct science knowledge and offer enough time for female students to learn. Consequently, these problem-solving activities may have some impact on female students’ view on the quick learning of science. On the other hand, mathematics teachers may need to focus on accommodating differences to help students learn mathematics. Technology could help achieve this end in the classroom. For example, technology tools and environments could give students opportunities to explore complex problems and mathematical ideas and could also furnish structured tutorials to students needing additional instruction and practice on skills, or link students in rural communities to instructional opportunities or intellectual resources not readily available in their locales [

This study also found that male students expressed higher agreement with quick learning, certain knowledge, simple knowledge, and innate ability of mathematics, as well as certain knowledge, simple knowledge, and innate ability of science than did female students. In other words, junior high school boys had relatively more unsophisticated epistemological beliefs in mathematics and science than did girls. Mathematics and science teachers may develop learner-centered activities to help male students gain insight into their beliefs about mathematics and science. For example, explicit reflections on these beliefs, writing reflective journals, small group discussions and sharing [

Furthermore, notwithstanding the mean differences between students’ epistemological beliefs toward mathematics and science, their views of these two domains had the positive correlation. For example, the extent of agreement with certain knowledge of mathematics was statistically different from that of science (as shown in Table

Although the interaction effects between discipline and gender are significant on QL, SK, and IA scales, the effect size is small. Future studies need to examine the interaction between discipline and gender more carefully with a big sample size. Because the results reported in this study were based upon students’ self-reported surveys, combining qualitative assessment, including interviews and observations of actual teaching and learning, would be helpful to more deeply explore their views and provide a more holistic understanding of their epistemological beliefs. Researchers are encouraged to examine students’ epistemological beliefs among different countries. Such cross-national studies could help educators understand how different cultures may guide the development of students’ epistemological beliefs about specific knowledge domains. Finally, how students’ epistemological beliefs are intertwined with cognitive and motivational variables is an important issue to discuss in the future. For example, how are students’ beliefs about knowledge related to their perceived competencies and interests? Do these beliefs play a role in students’ choice of academic major and future careers? Do students of different epistemological orientations benefit from varied forms of instruction and classroom activities? The answers to such questions would likely improve our understanding of the learning process and potentially allow educators to teach more effectively.