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Epistemological Reflection in the First Year Experience Course

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Epistemological Reflection in the First Year Experience Course

Program Charge

The Student Development Division staff subcommittee of ABC Community College has been tasked to present to the Dean of Student Affairs a theory based program to foster student development. The subcommittee proposes a revision to the first year experience course curriculum which will integrate outcomes based on Baxter Magolda’s Model of Epistemological Reflection.
Proposed Program Goal and Context
Overall, this program is designed to “validate students as knowers, situate learning in the students’ experiences, encourage the processes of jointly constructed knowledge, and facilitate learning relationships that empower students” (Bock, 1999, p. 39). More specifically, the First Year Experience Curriculum Revision will challenge first-year community college students’ assumptions about the nature, limits, and certainty of knowledge (Evans et al., 2010, p. 125).
Target Demographic
The traditional and nontraditional community college students enrolled in a first year experience course are the target demographic for this program. While the average age of the community college student is twenty nine years old, the students enrolled in the first year experience course will range from new high school graduates to working adults.
Program Description
The proposed student development initiative will be carried out through curriculum revision of a First Year Experience Course. This course will provide a non-lecture, discussion-driven classroom format to allow students to collaborate with peers and the instructor and to share ideas about diversity on campus. The content, structure, and assignments within the First Year Experience course will provide an environment conducive to students’ transition from an absolute knowing stage to a transitional knowing stage. Students will have the opportunity to reflect on readings, discussions, and exercises to internalize course learning about diversity issues when they compare and contrast ideas among peers and instructor to assist the students to move to an understanding that “some knowledge is uncertain” (Evans et al., 2010, p. 126).
The structure of the course will support the development of the transitional knowing stage by removing the instructor as the absolute authority figure through “ill-structured questions” in which one definite answer is not attainable (Evans, et. al, p. 130). Specific content of the course will include assignments where students will be required to conduct independent and group research on conflicting perspectives surrounding diversity within the community. They will then be expected to present their findings to the class by facilitating an informed discussion on their assigned topic. As the course develops, students will be expected to participate in team-based debates over the subject matter.
As practitioners and instructors for the First Year Experience program, we will be required to meet students where they are developmentally and support and challenge them to advance one stage further developmentally. Tinberg and Weisberger “feel that an essential part of Kegan’s theory in regard to education lies in his point that we have to see both ourselves and our students as having particular capacities - ways of seeing the world - that differ” (Tinberg and Weisberger, 1998, p.46). This concept can be applied to most developmental theories, and should be considered when challenging the students to transition from one stage of knowing to the next. While we cannot expect for students to develop fully in the duration of one semester, we can expect them to develop from a state of absolute knowing to a state of transitional knowing.
Theoretical Background

Baxter Magolda’s Model of Epistemological Reflection contains four stages of assumptions about the nature, limits, and certainty of knowledge: absolute knowing, transitional knowing, independent knowing, and contextual knowing. In the first stage of absolute knowing, knowledge is viewed as certain, instructors are seen as authorities with the correct answers, and the goal of evaluation is to measure how accurately information can be reproduced. Absolute knowers may take a receiving knowledge approach- passively acquiring knowledge- or a mastering knowledge approach- actively engaging peers and instructors to attain a mastery of knowledge. In the second stage of transitional knowing, some knowledge is uncertain, authorities are not all knowing, and instructors are expected to facilitate and evaluate students’ understanding and application of knowledge. Transitional knowers engage in either interpersonal knowing- valuing interactions with peers and instructors to develop understanding and employing personal judgment to resolve uncertainty- or impersonal knowing- valuing intellectual challenge, debate to share views, and using logic/research to resolve uncertainty (Evans et al., 2010, p. 125-127).
The final two stages are independent knowing and contextual knowing. In the independent knowing phase includes two main expressions: interindividual and individual. An inter individual knowing pattern can be described as primarily making judgments based off the inner concerns of the self, such as personal aspirations and fears. In contrast, individual knowing judgments are made by exchanging with others in relation to support one's own beliefs, which are held in the highest esteem. Contextual knowing is the highest stage of knowing according to Baxter. It is demonstrated by a knowers understanding that knowledge is constructed in context and built on many different perspectives that are backed by evidence-based on reality. The focus of our program will be the absolute and transitional stages (Evans, et. al, 2010, p. 125-126).
We expect first year students to be in the stage of absolute knowing. Many of the students are recent high school graduates. First-time college community college students have many attributes. They tend to be older, are more likely to be minority students and are more “underprepared students” than their university counterparts. (Fike & Fike, 2008, para. 7). We recognize that a substantial portion of our population is outside of the traditional age for first year college students, and may have developed in ways recent high school graduates have not. We expect that our non-traditional age students may still exhibit absolute knowing approaches to academics, and would benefit from participation in this program. Desirable behavior includes any of the behaviors associated with the stage of transitional knowing. Students should recognize that some knowledge is uncertain. Students should begin to expect their instructors to go beyond supplying information by offering opportunities to construct knowledge outside the classroom. Students should employ strategies to resolve uncertainty- either through use of personal judgment or research and logic.
Program Outcomes and Rationale 1. Students will be able to use transitional knowing strategies to resolve uncertainty. Class exercises such as diversity book discussions (interpersonal knowing); formal and team-based debate sessions (impersonal knowing) will allow the student to appreciate alternative viewpoints controversial subject matters in an active and respectful manner. 2. Students will actively construct knowledge by engaging in classroom discourse informed by their personal experience and independent research on the subject. Students will demonstrate engagement and knowledge construction by completing diversity self-assessments, research papers, journaling assignments and in-class reflective statements. 3. Students will be able to respectfully question certainty of knowledge presented by authority. They will explore the concept “authority figures do not have all the answers” through independent study of several “ill-structured problems” surrounding the subject of diversity, which are issues that “have no certain answers” (Evans et al., 2010, p. 130). This activity will provide evidence that authority figures do not always have the correct answer but rather that some questions have multiple possible answers and require abstract thought. As a result of this abstract thought, students will question the reliability of authority figures as a source of absolute knowledge. They will be able to demonstrate competence through connecting self-reflection and/or personal experience to current research on a particular topic.


Bock, M. T. (1999). Baxter magolda's epistemological reflection model. New Directions for Student Services, (88), 29.
Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., Guido, F. M., Patton, L. D., & Renn, K. A. (2010). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Fike, D. S., & Fike, R. (2008). Predictors of first-year student retention in the community college.Community College Review, 36(2), 68-88. Tinberg, H., & Weisberger, R. (1998). In over our heads: Applying Kegan's theory of development to community college students. Community College Review, 26(2), 43-56.

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