Date of Award

Winter 2011

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Dawn Meredith


Physics Education Research studies the science of teaching and learning physics. The process of student learning is complex, and the factors that affect it are numerous. Describing students' understanding of physics knowledge and reasoning is the basis for much productive research; however, such research fails to account for certain types of student learning difficulties. In this dissertation, I explore one source of student difficulty: personal epistemology, students' ideas about knowledge and knowing.

Epistemology traditionally answers three questions: What is knowledge? How is knowledge created? And, how do we know what we know? An individual's responses to these questions can affect learning in terms of how they approach tasks involving the construction and application of knowledge. The key issue addressed in this dissertation is the effect of methodological choices on the validity and reliability of claims concerning personal epistemology. My central concern is contextual validity, how what is said about one's epistemology is not identical to how one behaves epistemologically. In response to these issues, I present here a new methodology for research on student epistemology: video artifact-based reflective interview protocols. These protocols begin with video taping students in their natural classroom activities, and then asking the participants epistemological questions immediately after watching selected scenes from their activity, contextually anchoring them in their actual learning experience.

The data from these interviews is viewed in the framework of Epistemological Resource Theory, a framework of small bits of knowledge whose coordination in a given context is used to describe personal epistemology. I claim that the privileged data from these interviews allows detailed epistemological resources to be identified, and that these resources can provide greater insight into how student epistemologies are applied in learning activities.

This research, situated within an algebra-based physics for life scientists course reform project, focuses on student work in Modeling Informed Instruction (MII) laboratory activities, which are an adaptation of Modeling Instruction. The development of these activities is based on the epistemological foundations of Modeling Instruction, and these foundations are used to describe a potential assessment for the epistemological effectiveness of a curriculum.