Conceptions and beliefs as fostering or impeding adult learning on an individual level

In addition to cognitive basic mechanisms and motivational factors, different types of conceptions and beliefs that we possess have an impact on learning. These conceptions may affect motivation by acting as if they were factual things even if they are not. For example, having a conception of girls as poor mathematics learners (Bieg, Goetz, Wolter, & Hall, 2015) may cause low motivation for girls in mathematics learning and thereby poor preparation, for example, for further studies, as long as the learner is stuck with the conception. In a learner, conceptions may form conceptual frameworks that include many interconnected conceptions that have an impact on learning. For example, it has been found that university students who thought that they are not mathematically talented, even though they had high grades on math courses, experienced difficulties in the learning of statistics and research skills, and they also thought that they would not need research skills in their future working life (Murtonen, Olkinuora, Tynjala, & Lehtinen, 2008). Thus, conceptions and beliefs may have powerful consequences in adult learning and development of thinking.

We grouped conceptions and beliefs concerning the learning and teaching situations into five types (see Table 7.1): conceptions about 1) the learner, 2) learning, 3) knowledge, 4) the subject to be learnt, and 5) teaching.

Firstly, the conceptions about the learner may concern oneself, fellow learners, or learners generally. These beliefs can be domain-general, such as “I am a good learner”, or domain-specific, such as “Oliver is good in drawing”. These beliefs can also concern a group of people, for example “Our colleagues are good in learning” or “Our team is not so good in learning of international marketing”. The way people see themselves is connected to motivation. The term “self-schema” is used to describe personal knowledge about oneself, such as self-efficacy that is trust in ones’ capacity to execute certain tasks (Murphy & Alexander, 2000). According to the classical attribution theory (Weiner, 2010), success in achievement can be attributed as 1) internal or external, 2) stable or unstable, and 3) controllable or uncontrollable. Self-conceptions often tend to be stable, since people seem to rely on unchangeable “self’, which, however, has actually been shown to be not so stable after all (e.g., Lakoff & Johnson, 1999).

In addition to the personal conceptions of a learner or learners, which are modified through our personal experiences and interaction with others, we have common cultural conceptions of people, modified and kept alive in our society for some reasons. An example of a harmful but usual common belief is the idea of girls as poor mathematics learners (Bieg et al., 2015). Such conceptions impede individual learning, since these types of conceptions also include the ideas of intemality, stability, and uncontrollability, i.e., that these situations cannot be changed. Only by understanding that these are beliefs that we can change if we want to, these types of beliefs and conceptions can be overcome.

The second group of conceptions, those concerning the learning itself, have a tremendous impact on thinking and learning in adulthood. If we believe that learning happens by passively receiving facts in a certain place assigned by an authority, it is most unlikely that we are going to form a deep understanding of the subject to be learnt. Instead, if we think that in order to learn we need to participate in knowledge creating processes (Paavola et al., 2004), which may physically take place anywhere, we will probably take part in processes that develop our expertise in a deep manner. The theory of surface and deep learning, i.e., the students’ approaches to learning, the SAL tradition (Entwistle & Ramsden, 1983; Marton & Saljo, 1976), has been very powerful in explaining differences among higher education learners. It has been shown that a deep approach, meaning an intention to understand in-depth the subject to be learnt, results in better quality learning than a more superficial leaming-by-heart approach (Vennunt, 2005). Students have been

TABLE 7.1 Different types of conceptions affecting learning and teaching processes, presented with examples. (Adapted from Murtonen, 2017)

1. Conceptions of oneself (also

a group) and other people (or groups 4. Conceptions of the subject of

of people) 2. Conceptions of learning 3. Conceptions of knowledge learning/teaching 5. Conceptions of teaching

Beliefs of oneself in general. “Usually I'm a good/bad learner/ teacher”.

Conceptions of things affecting to learning/teaching. Attributions (extemal/intemal): rush, coincidences, abilities etc.

Beliefs of oneself associated with learning/teaching in a particular field.

“I'm a good/bad - learner/ teacher in this field”.

Adopted general/cultural beliefs, such as misconceptions: “women are bad at mathematics”.

What learning is:

Surface approach: remember-ing/Deep approach: understanding.

Misconceptions of learning (e.g. visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning styles).

How learning happens: Passive: intake of knowledge/ Active: developing expertise through participation and knowledge creation.

Where learning happens:

Being in a certain place (e.g. sitting obediently in a lecture hall).

Certainty of knowledge:

Black-and-white concep-tion/Relativism/Evaluativist commitment to knowledge.

Stability of knowledge: Stable facts/Changing knowledge.

Origin of knowledge in society:

Eternal facts/Socially produced knowledge (e.g. research done in universities).

Origin of one’s own knowledge:

Beliefs of omniscient author-ity/Own estimation.

How knowledge is acquired:

Innate learning ability/Quick leaming/Development process.

Nature and level of the subject:



Theoretical/Pragmatic Simple/Complex Familiar/Unfamiliar

Interesting/Not interesting Useful/Not useful.

Competencies needed for a profession:

E.g. do teachers need research skills?

Conceptions related to jobs and professions:

“Do I see myself as a worker on this field?”

What teaching is: Content focus: delivering facts/Learning focus: supporting learning as understanding.

How teaching happens:

By lecturing facts/Cre-ating possibilities for learning.

Where teaching happens:

Only in a classroom/By creating a learning environment that supports learning.

found to be very flexible in using different approaches, depending on the subject to be learnt (Vermunt & Vennetten, 2004) and timing of learning (Lindblom-Ylanne, Parpala, & Postareff, 2014). Learning approaches are further connected to other study processes, for example, using a deep approach predicts better persistence in major studies (Lastusaari & Murtonen, 2013).

Learning approaches have been separated from the more general orientations to learning, such as goals and expectations of studying (Vermunt, 1998). According to Vermunt (1998), the tenn “learning styles” can be used to refer to more generalised collections of cognitive processing strategies, mental models of learning and teaching, learning orientations, and regulation strategies. Although some stability has been discovered among these, they should not be conceived of as unchangeable traits of people. Personality has been found to be very flexible and it changes according to the situation and time (Chamorro-Premuzic & Fumham, 2009), so conceptions of learning or learning styles should not be considered as stable.

However, there is a tendency for people to consider learning processes as stable. This is the case, for example, in an explanation that Howard-Jones (2014) calls a neuromyth. According to this myth, students learn more if they are taught in the learning style they prefer. This myth is based on the simplified idea that because different regions of the cortex have distinct roles (visual, auditory, and kinesthetic/sensory processing), teaching should be designed in a manner that takes into account which part of the student’s brain works best. As Howard-Jones argues, the findings of the brain’s interconnectivity doesn’t support this assumption. In addition, reviews of educational and laboratory studies do not support the idea to modify teaching according to students’ learning style.

What was very worrying in a collection of the results of four earlier studies presented by Howard-Jones (2014), 93%-97% of the teachers, as studied in five countries (China, Greece, the Netherlands, Turkey, and United Kingdom), reported agreeing with this neuromyth. In a study by Kratzig and Arbuthnott (2006), it was found out that the learning style preference reported by the learner did not correlate with the objective test performance. Furthermore, they also found out that the preferred learning style was based on memories and beliefs rather than specific experiences of learning when using different modalities. What is most problematic about these false conceptions of learning is that they are often considered as stable and also innate. This may implicate that a learner may think that he or she is receiving the wrong type of teaching and that is why he/she is not learning properly. The learner is viewed as a passive receiver of information who cannot influence his own learning. This type of a misconception of learning harms the learning processes of the learner in a profound way.

The third group, the conceptions of knowledge are close to the conceptions of learning, since the views about what knowledge is and how it is received or built is part of the idea of learning, or vice versa. While the conceptions of learning are conceptualised as deep and surface approaches, the conceptions of knowledge are depicted on the axis from dualistic black-and-white truths via relativistic views to personal commitments to knowledge (Perry, 1968; see Part I of this book). Since

Perry’s (1968) original theory the domain has been extensively studied. Schommer (1990) studied students’ beliefs with respect to simplicity of knowledge, certainty of knowledge, quick learning, and innate abilities. She found out that those students who believed in quick learning had lower study success than others, and the belief in the certainty of knowledge predicted ill-founded absolute conclusions. Hofer and Pintrich (2002) described individual ways to approach knowledge as personal epistemologies, and King and Kitchener (2002) formed a theory of the development of these personal epistemologies. The lowest of the seven levels of the development are called pre-reflective thinking, the intermediate levels are quasi-reflective and the highest two levels depict reflective thinking. Kuhn and Weinstock have also proposed a theoretical model for epistemic development, with a “movement from a dualistic, objectivist view of knowledge to a more subjective, relativistic stance and ultimately to a contextual, constructivist perspective of knowing” (Kuhn & Weinstock, 2002, p. 121).

Fourthly, conceptions about the subject to be learnt can be examined either from the perspective of the subject itself or situations where the subject-related skills are needed. Conceptions concerning the subject often focus on the difficulty or easiness of learning. Different factors connected to the level of difficulty have to do with subject matter attributes such as abstract or concrete, theoretical or pragmatical, simple or complex, and familiar or unfamiliar. Factors causing heavy cognitive load (Sweller et al., 1998), e.g., by overburdening one’s working memory, increase the experience of difficulty. A target of learning can also be evaluated in terms of how interesting it is to learn. As regards situations where a skill could be needed, the conception of the usefulness of the skill comes in to question. If, for example, a student teacher thinks he/she is not going to need research skills when working as an elementary school teacher, he/ she is most probably not interested in learning those skills (Onwuegbuzie, Leech, Murtonen, & Tahtinen, 2010). Mental images of certain careers or practitioners in particular domains may also have an effect on learning motivation. In a study by Hannover and Kessels (2004), some high-school students did not like math and science because they had a conception that the students liking those subjects are not very socially capable, being isolated and less creative. Students thus compared “their self-views to both a prototypical student liking a certain subject and a prototypical student disapproving of it” (Hannover & Kessels, 2004, p. 51).

The fifth group, the conceptions of teaching resemble the conceptions of learning, i.e., what teaching is by its’ nature, how it happens and where. Similarly to the conceptions of learning, the conceptions of teaching have to do with the question about where the focus of action is. According to Trigwell and Prosser (2004), a teaching approach can be either teacher-focused or student-focused. The former approach means that rather than paying attention to students’ learning, the teacher concentrates on the delivery of the content, whereas in the latter approach students’ learning is the starting point for the teaching activities. Like having conceptions about learning, students and teachers alike also have conceptions about teaching. A teacher has conceptions about how to teach, and students hold conceptions about how they should be taught. A student may give feedback to a teacher if the teacher’s way of teaching is conflicting with the student’s own views on how teaching should take place. In addition, this category of conceptions also includes ideas about how and where teaching can take place, i.e., is it only in a traditional setting with a teacher lecturing in a classroom, or can teaching take place in any form in the environment, for example, by creating possibilities for virtual learning.

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