Plain Language Summaries

How are students' beliefs about science related to their knowledge about how science works?

Whoever asserts something today often justifies it either with scientific findings or with personal experiences. The current age of "post-truth" is characterized, among other things, by the fact that justification by personal experience is experiencing an upswing. If one wants to examine this phenomenon scientifically by looking at beliefs, various constructs that have already been researched to a greater or lesser extent suggest themselves: Beliefs about the utility of science and of personal experiences, trust in science, and epistemic beliefs, i.e., beliefs about the nature of knowledge and knowing.

Person  who considers alternatives
Aims and questions of the study

So far, little is known about how these different constructs are related. Moreover, knowledge might also play a role, more specifically knowledge about how science works. It was therefore the aim of the present study to explore the relationships between beliefs about the utilits of science and personal experiences, trust in science, epistemic beliefs, and knowledge about how science works.

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A paper-based questionnaire study was conducted in which 315 students of psychology, educational science, and teaching at the University of Bamberg participated. The data were collected before the Covid-19 pandemic at the end of various university courses. The students indicated their agreement with four statements each about the usefulness of science and personal experiences and with eight statements about their trust in science and scientists. They also indicated their agreement with 26 statements about epistemic beliefs related to the following five subdomains:

  • the uncertainty of knowledge, i.e., whether knowledge is considered more tentative or certain (not changing);
  • the simplicity of knowledge, i.e., whether knowledge is more likely to be viewed as simple or as complex;
  • the possibility of justifying knowledge by personal opinion, i.e. whether knowledge can be justified by personal opinion or whether facts exist;
  • the possibility to justify knowledge by reference to an authority or an expert;
  • the need to justify knowledge by reference to multiple sources.

To assess their knowledge about how science works, the students were presented with nine short scenarios, in each of which they had to select the one from four alternatives that most closely corresponds to a scientific procedure. Topics were, for example, the control group design of a study, probabilities or the generalizability of results. For each correct solution, the students received one point, so a total of 9 points could be achieved. In addition, the students were asked to indicate which courses on scientific methods they had already attended. From this, the number of attended courses was included in the further analysis.

For the analysis, a latent model was specified, i.e., a model in which a latent measurement error-adjusted value was calculated for each construct, which was then correlated with the other latent values. For knowledge about how science works and number of courses, only the respective summed value (without measurement error adjustment) was included.


A number of interesting findings emerged regarding the correlation of beliefs:

  • Trust in science correlated positively with perceived utility of science, but not with perceived utility of personal experiences.
  • The belief that knowledge is uncertain (normatively a desirable belief) correlated negatively with trust in science. Trust in science was also positively correlated with the belief that knowledge can be justified by reference to authority and negatively correlated with the belief that knowledge can be justified by personal opinion.
  • Perceived utility of science and of personal experiences, respectively also correlated with epistemic beliefs.

Knowledge of how science works was also correlated with beliefs. Knowledge correlated ...

  • ... positively with trust in science,
  • ... positively with the conviction that knowledge is uncertain,
  • ... negatively with the conviction that knowledge is simply structured,
  • ... negatively with the belief that knowledge can be justified by personal opinion.

Controlling for knowledge, the number of methods courses correlated negatively only with the perceived simplicity of knowledge.

Relevance of the results

The results show that the different constructs on science-related beliefs cover different aspects. This means that in further studies on this topic several of these constructs should possibly be included; at least it should be considered which construct is best able to capture the research question.

Furthermore, the results show that some normatively desired beliefs seem to contradict each other. For example, both a high level of trust in science and a rather skeptical attitude toward authority (as justification of knowledge) are normatively desired - however, these two constructs correlate highly with each other. However, this also makes sense against the background that scientists (who are to be trusted) are experts and therefore authorities.

The findings on the connection between knowledge about how science works and (desired) beliefs about science are encouraging - after all, they give rise to the hope that positive beliefs could also be fostered by appropriate training. However, the latter would first have to be verified in a further study.

The scientific publication

Schoor, C. (in press). University students’ beliefs about science and their relationship with knowledge about science. European Journal of Psychology of Education. (Open Access)

The project

The study was conducted within the project Contexts, which was funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG).