Plain Language Summaries

The role of conceptions of knowledge and knowledge acquisition in the content areas of history and physics in managing mental demands of understanding multiple texts

The appropriate use of information available via print or digital technologies has become an important issue in today's society. Digital information sources, such as the Internet, often contain an unmanageable amount of unfiltered information, which poses a challenge for readers when it comes to evaluating and integrating information from different sources. In this context, the competence to successfully understand, present, and integrate information from multiple texts is essential.

There is growing evidence that "epistemic beliefs" play an important role in understanding multiple texts. By "epistemic beliefs" we mean a person's individual beliefs about knowledge and knowledge acquisition, e.g., whether knowledge is static or changeable. There is a research tradition that considers a particular combination of epistemic beliefs to be naïve. Empirical research shows that individuals who hold such "simple" beliefs have problems integrating information from multiple documents because they use superficial strategies and search for the "truth" without paying attention to the sources.

Background and questions of the study

Assuming that epistemic beliefs relate to a specific content area such as history, this study examines how epistemic beliefs in the content areas of physics (representing science) and history (representing humanities and cultural studies) influence mastery of the mental demands of understanding multiple texts (e.g., comparing source information). The following questions are explored:

  1. Are beliefs considered advanced associated with comprehension of multiple texts in both content areas?
  2. Do more advanced beliefs about knowledge of history increase the likelihood that source comparison tasks will be solved correctly?
  3. Do more advanced beliefs about knowledge in physics increase the likelihood that tasks that focus on integrating content from multiple texts will be solved correctly?


The study analyzed data from 156 students who reported their epistemic beliefs in physics or history and completed a computerized test of multiple documents comprehension. Epistemic beliefs were assessed at five dimensions:

  • The first dimension refers to the simplicity of knowledge, i.e., whether knowledge is considered simple or complex.
  • The second dimension refers to the certainty of knowledge, i.e. whether knowledge is considered rather certain (not changing) or provisional.
  • The third dimension refers to the degree to which knowledge can be justified personally (facts exist and knowledge cannot be justified by personal opinion vs. knowledge can be justified by personal opinion and there are no facts).
  • The fourth dimension reflects beliefs that knowledge is passed on by authorities/experts.
  • The fifth dimension refers to beliefs that knowledge can only be justified by multiple sources.

The Multiple Document Comprehension test consists of questions that can be assigned to one of four areas with different requirements:

  1. Compare content across texts,
  2. link content across texts,
  3. assess and compare sources,
  4. combining sources and content.


The results show that understanding multiple texts is significantly predicted by the dimension of personal justification in physics. This means that individuals who believe that knowledge in physics is not justifiable by personal opinion and experience are more likely to correctly solve multiple text tasks than individuals who place high importance on personal opinion.

If - as in the present study - many statistical tests are performed, results may appear to be (statistically) significant even though they were obtained by chance. This can be statistically corrected, but may lead to significant results being overlooked, as this is a more rigorous approach. Looking at our data under the more rigorous approach, there are no interaction effects between epistemic beliefs and mastery of specific mental demands, but the results without this correction suggest associations with epistemic beliefs in physics but not in history. Thus, the results from the less rigorous approach support our assumption that more advanced epistemic beliefs in physics promote the integration of content from multiple texts. However, there is no evidence that more advanced epistemic beliefs in history favor the comparison of sources.

Relevance of the results

The ability to deal with multiple texts helps university students not only to succeed in their studies, but also to participate competently in contemporary society. It has been shown that epistemic beliefs can predict academic performance, such as comprehension of multiple texts. Understanding the relationship between epistemic beliefs and multiple text comprehension can help support students' multiple text comprehension competence. We hypothesize that fostering epistemic beliefs (toward advanced beliefs) can lead to positive effects on competence in understanding multiple texts.

The scientific publication

Mahlow, N., Hahnel, C., Kroehne, U., Artelt, C., Goldhammer, F., & Schoor, C. (2022). The role of domain-related epistemic beliefs for mastering cognitive requirements in multiple document comprehension.Learning and Individual Differences, 94 , 102116.

The project

The study was conducted within the project MultiTex, which was funded by the German Ministry of Education and Research.