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Learning gain in English universities varied across subjects

Lead researcher

Completed project

Undergraduate dissertation

More project details are available here and more research details available upon request

Spark: Learning lies at the heart of higher education. The growing marketisation of British higher education results in rising expectation of university students in the UK towards learning and teaching quality. Therefore, scholars are driven to search for the mechanism behind learning in higher education so that programmes, policies and teaching practices can be developed to promote excellent learning

Gap in research: Epistemological belief refers to the structure, the certainty, source of knowledge, and the control and speed of knowledge acquisition. Students who held more naïve epistemological beliefs tended to view the task as easy and straightforward, whereas students with more sophisticated epsitemological beliefs tended to integrate ideas with prior knowledge and making comparisons when necessary. Critical processing strategies take place when learners intend to integrate, organize and summarize ideas as well as metacognitively engage with learning materials. Following this thread of thoughts, self-regulated learning is the end product that relies on students’ expertise in the subject domain and metacognitive control. Studies on personal epistemology have been primarily conducted in North America, thus there is a research gap in examining top British university students’ beliefs towards knowing and knowledge. Most importantly, there is a limited amount of large-scale well-powered studies that have tested the mediating effect of critical processing on the relationship between personal epistemology and self-regulation, and whether this model varies across Medicine, Business, Chemistry, English and Biochemical-related courses.

Research context: This study used the first round of survey data (N= 4306), which was collected in 8 Russell Group universities.

Research findings: 

  • This study found that critical processing mediated the relationship between epistemological beliefs and self-regulation. This indirect effect was 95% of the total effect. That is, students who tended to hold more sophisticated epistemological beliefs were more likely to engage with critical thinking process, thereby adopting self-regulated learning.

  • “Hard” subjects like Biochemical and Medicine were associated with less use of critical processing and self-regulatory approaches compared to “soft” subjects like English and Business.

Take-home message: universities need to promote teaching of critical processing strategies as they are the key to achieve self-regulated learning. Compared to Business students who have more opportunities to practise problem-solving tasks, trainings on critical processing strategies should be offered to English, Medicine, Chemistry and Biochemical-related subjects. However, this is one of the very first studies that found this pattern. More research are called to replicate this study. 

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