5.6 Epistemological development

Because the seminal work of van Rossum and Hamer [2010] — “The meaning or Learning and Knowing” — is so accessible and so relevant, the next sections will consists predominantly of verbatim selections (with permission graciously given). Especially chapters 1 and are a must-read for anyone interested in the processes of learning, teaching, and intellectual development known as epistemological development.

Developing Conceptions of Intelligence

Academic development involves the development of the intellect. Van Rossum and Hamer have proposed a theoretical framework that involves at least 6 levels of intellectual development. Each of these levels corresponds to a particular conception of intelligence. These six levels were the outcome of hundreds of an analysis of essays on the basis of open-ended questions. The subjects were Hotel-school students in The Hague, a school of higher professional education (HBO) in the Netherlands. One of the essay question addressed the student’s conception of intelligence. This led to 6 conceptions of intelligence outlined in table ‘Conceptions of intelligence’. These are later combined with how students conceptualize learning and teachers conceptualize teaching. [Rossum & Hamer, 2010), p 21–24]

Conceptions of intelligence
Level Conception of Intelligence
1 No concept of intelligence
2 As learning at this level of thinking, intelligence is seen as a one-dimensional, self-evident concept: it says something about how smart you are, how little trouble you have with learning. However, intelligence is something that is not necessarily connected to ‘knowing a lot’; it’s more an innate talent.
3 Students at this third level of thinking about learning and teaching still feel that intelligence (IQ) is fixed and innate, but that intelligent behaviour is something that can be learned. The focus at this level is on applying or using one’s innate intelligence, the more one uses it, the more intelligent one’s behaviour.
4 By students that see learning as understanding - and applying what is learned based on this understanding, both in academic areas and in everyday life – intelligence is viewed in a logically coherent way, as the ability to function well and independently in everyday life: as one student puts it, intelligence is “a way of life”. Intelligence is also something that can be developed. It loses its absolutist interpretation and it leads to reflection about many things.
5 At his level, intelligence is sometimes seen as problem solving in the broadest sense. It includes a view on which (problem solving) skills are most necessary in society for it to function well, and intelligence is clearly seen as something that can be developed, and needs to be developed when society needs it.
6 At this level, views on intelligence include cognitive and affective aspects, seeing it as a comprehensive, intellectual and non-intellectual phenomenon. Where at the previous level intelligence was seen as problem solving, here it is seen as a creative process. Perhaps the distinction is between problem solving (5) and problem posing (6).

The development of conceptions of intelligence can be explained in terms of developing agency (the capacity to be an autonomous source of behavior).

  1. At level 1 there is very minimal agency, the student does as told and has no notion of its role in the process.
  2. At level 2 the student sees intelligence as ‘ease of learning’ that is beyond control.
  3. At level 3 the student begins to realize that learning and intellectual development depends on practice and is therefore in part under control.
  4. Level 4 is the first stage beyond the watershed and reflects the transition from cognition without and cognition with understanding. At level 4 intelligence is no longer apparent as way of learning things, but apparent from how one understands the things one does and now intelligence can come under full control, which leads to completely new levels of self- direction.
  5. At level 5 intelligence develops further from personal empowerment to creating the conditions of a society in which one wants to life, with the consequence that the individual sees himself (for the first time in its intellectual development) as an active non-negligible contributor to the solutions of societal problems.
  6. At level 6 the individual integrates intellectual and affective behavior in a more reflective stance towards societal functioning, which may include a more critical, creative and independent attitude towards societal functioning and development.

For their sample of the Hotel School in The Hague van Rossum and Hamer found only a minority of 25% that had crossed the watershed. Although the reported results in the next section pertain to higher professional education and not to scientific education, the researchers warn for expectations that the epistemological development during university education is necessarily much different from the results reported below. In particular they expect that the majority of (Dutch) university bachelors will not exceed level 3.

Learning and Teaching Conceptions

Equally interesting are the conceptions of learning and teaching. These match the development of conceptions of intelligence. In particular Learning-teaching conceptions 1 through 3 can be associated with surface-level processing and learning outcomes that are mostly of a reproductive nature. Learning-teaching conceptions 4 through 6 in turn can be associated with deep-level processing and learning outcomes that are mostly of a constructive nature [p 30] The next extensive quote provides a careful analysis of the 6 different levels they identified for conceptualization of learning and teaching. This is especially useful to apply to existing policy documents to determine from which level from which they originate.

In learning-teaching conception 1, learning is not reflected upon: it is simply something “everybody does,” like breathing. Learning is described as a list of activities or synonyms. Students with this learning conception view teaching as the transfer of knowledge. The role of the student is minimal and the teaching-learning process is defined entirely by the teacher.

To students with learning-teaching conception 2, learning is equal to memorizing and the ability to reproduce what is memorized, usually in a school test setting. Level-two-thinkers see learning in quantitative terms: learning more is being able to reproduce more, but they also have a budding awareness of not having to learn everything, being able to make a selection of the facts to be memorized. For these students teaching needs to be clear, orderly, efficient, entertaining and must include opportunities to ask questions, implying a limited type of student-teacher interaction in a still very teacher-dominated environment.

At learning-teaching conception 3, the process of learning is selecting and memorizing those facts, procedures, ideas, etcetera which may prove useful later in life. Learning and understanding both are interpreted as being able to apply what is learned in the future. The major focus of learning is still quantitative and reproductive, and neither the learner nor what is learned is changed in any way. Teaching is characterized by teacher-dominated discussion, up-to-date examples, cases from practice, and an enthusiastic teacher who shapes and motivates the students using positive and negative feedback. These students attach a lot of importance to being heard, to giving them the opportunity to express their opinions. They feel any opinion is as good as any other.

About three quarters of all our students could be allocated to one of the three reproduction oriented learning-teaching conceptions described above.

In moving to learning-teaching conception 4, students move across what we call the watershed: the focus shifts from taking in ready-made things (facts, procedures) existing ‘out there’ to actively constructing meaning. Such students prefer teachers who:

1) challenge students to (start to) think for themselves,
2) encourage students to realize that multiple informed approaches and solutions to problems are possible,
3) encourage and coach students to develop “a way of (disciplinary) thinking” through
4) a less formal — confidence building — interpersonal relationship.

Level-four-thinkers have become active participants in the teaching-learning process. Student and teacher both focus on understanding and finding evidence-based solutions within a particular discipline. They realize that most knowledge is uncertain and consequently authorities lose the exclusive ownership of it [emphasis added]. Everybody may develop a point of view based on a set of arguments using the rules of the discipline. About one in four of our students had crossed this watershed to a way of thinking that is generally accepted as the outcome of higher education, on average about 20% of our students was allocated to this particular way of knowing at any time.

For students functioning at the fifth level of thinking, learning has acquired a more personal meaning as opposed to the relatively technical view on learning in the previous stage. This way of thinking is characterized by notions such as broadening one’s outlook on things, opening one’s mind, widening horizons, or looking “at the world with those eyes”. By changing the eyes one sees with, students can transform the way they perceive reality (i.e. self-transformation). Level-five-thinkers appreciate a teaching environment based on dialogue, where teachers and students become equal partners in the mutual construction of knowledge. About 4% of our students could at any time be allocated to this category of description. (Note that the AAC&U Board of Directors’ statement on Academic Freedom and Educational Responsibility on the goal of liberal education corresponds closely to the description of level 5)

The most sophisticated learning conception that we have found in our student data is characterized by an existential dimension, the self of the learner seems to have become the focus of learning. This position is extremely rare, only slightly more than 1% of all our students studied over about three decades was identified as making meaning in this way. The process aspect of this conception is growing self-awareness, looking for answers to the question “Who am I?” The self has become the ultimate object of reflection. The product is self-realization: becoming or defining the person you feel you are (i.e. self-definition). Good teaching to level-six-thinkers seems to be defined almost exclusively in language referring to emotion, autonomy and reciprocal relationships and it boils down to mutual trust and caring while showing an almost dismissive approach to teaching techniques and methods.

Learning-teaching conception 4 can be interpreted as the expression of academic or scientific thinking: the ability to use the full range of rules and assumptions of a discipline or system such as scientific thought. The move from reproductive to constructive thinking, the move from learning-teaching conception 3 to 4, is the largest and most difficult one to effectuate in higher education: we refer to this move as crossing the watershed [p 30–31].

This leads to a summary table, including references to the conceptions of intelligence, are provide below.

Developmental model of students’ learning and teaching conceptions
Level Learning conception Object of reflection Teaching conception Conception of intelligence
1 Increasing knowledge none Imparting clear/well structured knowledge -
2 Memorizing Exam relevancy Transmitting structured knowledge (acknowledging receiver) Innate and fixed IQ
3 Reproductive understanding/ application or application foreseen Usefulness later on Interacting and Shaping Innate and fixed IQ versus intelligent behavior
4 Understanding subject matter Subject matter meaning Challenging to think for yourself / developing a way of thinking Not fixed anymore Independently thinking and solving everyday problems with ease
5 Widening horizons Personal development Dialogue teaching Personal development Problem solving skills, as needed in society
6 Growing self awareness Self Mutual trust and authentic relationships: Caring Intelligence is intellect and affect

Van Rossum and Hamer validate their 6 level approach with comparison with other accounts of intellectual developments (e.g. [p 145]).

Relating epistemological development to agency and authority

The epistemological development as sketched above can be connected to the development of agency — in the form of particular epistemological level dependent behavioral syndromes — as well as to developing attitudes toward external authority and the gradual internalization of authority. Table Epistemological development, behavior, and authority summarizes this.

Epistemological development, behavior, and authority
Level Behavioral pattern Role of authority Description
1 Opportunistic behavior Authority rewards and punishes One only understands the consequences of behavior in terms of direct effects on self as (un)pleasantness and one knows that obedience is a way to avoid punishment. At this stage right action concerns mainly the satisfaction of one’s (direct) needs. In a learning context the individual does as told and has no notion of its role in the process.
2 Norm compliant behavior Authority corrects inappropriate behavior The individual’s moral attitude is not only one of conformity to personal expectations and social order, but of blind loyalty to it. The individual actively maintains, supports, and justifies the normative order and identifies with the persons or group involved in it. The individual understands some of the roles and benefits of learning, but learning is something that is beyond one’s control.
3 Tolerant behavior Authority protects individual freedoms The individual begins to realize that learning and intellectual development depends on practice and is therefore in part under control. He/She actively searches interaction with other opinions; not in the first place to be persuaded or to convince, but to understand the basis of one’s own opinions. Through this process the individual becomes aware of differences in personal expectations and social order ideals, develops personal interpretations of norms, and accepts the existence of opinions of persons or group with a different normative outlook.
4 Independent expertise Authoritative opinions The individual has – within the domains of competence where one feels most secure – developed the critical reasoning capacity to identify better supported opinions and adopt these as substitute for lesser supported ones. Intelligence now becomes less and less apparent as a way of learning things, but apparent from how one understands the things one does (i.e., how one can apply knowledge and skills independently). Now intelligence can come under full control, which leads to further levels of self-direction (5 and 6)
5 Principled behavior Individual as authority At level 5 one becomes aware of the fact that many valid opinions exist and that context is essential for the validity of any opinion. Individuals at this stage make a clear effort to define moral values and principles that have validity and application apart from the authority of the groups of persons holding them and apart from the individual’s own identification with the group: the individual is intellectually autonomous. Now intelligence develops further from personal empowerment to creating the societal conditions in which one wants to life, with the consequence that the individual sees himself (for the first time in its intellectual development) as an active and potent contributor to the solutions of societal problems.
6 Self-actualizing behavior Wise individuals At level 6 the individual integrates intellectual and affective behavior in a more reflective and at the same time participatory stance towards societal functioning. This includes a positive critical, creative and independent attitude towards society’s functioning and development. At this level pretty much every thought can be – and is – evaluated critically and as such much attention is focused on the self. The result is maximal personal effectivity (and maximizing agency) in contributing to a better world for all through a very well developed sense of reality, an appreciation of reality’s opportunities and the acceptance of its flaws.


  • van Rossum, E J, and RN Hamer. 2010. “The Meaning of Learning and Knowing.” Edited by JDHM Vermunt. University of Utrecht.