Thinking about thinking, or metacognition, is important in problem solving. Without it, students often use the first idea that occurs to them, whether or not it is appropriate. The degree to which students engage in metacognitive thought will depend strongly on their personal epistemologies.

If a student views knowledge as only having simple, unconnected structures, or does not believe that she or he can be the source of knowledge, then that student has no motivation to reflect on her or his observations.

Consequently, that student will not see the schema within physics and will likely struggle to make sense of many examples and demonstrations.


May & Etkina observed this correlation in their courses, in which students were asked to keep weekly journals. Those physics students who showed the greatest reflection and most sophisticated epistemology were the students who scored higher on conceptual diagnostic surveys, such as the FCI.1


Lawson has proposed that Piaget’s notion of concrete and formal operational stages be replaced by intuitive and reflective stages. Students in the intuitive stage are not reflective, rely on hunches, and lack the ability to perform hypothesis testing. Reflective students are aware that alternative hypotheses are possible, and are more deliberate and intentional in their thinking.


  1. D. B. May and E. Etkina, "College Physics Students' Epistemological Self-Reflection and Its Relationship to Conceptual Learning" Am. J. Phys., 2002. 70(12): p. 1249-58.