How student beliefs about knowledge and knowing influence their satisfaction with assessment and feedback


Students’ beliefs about the nature of knowledge and knowing frame how they interpret their educational experience and their approaches to, and perspectives on, learning, teaching and assessment. This paper draws on previous research identifying the ways of knowing of undergraduates on entry to a UK post-92 university, findings from which confirm the prevalence of absolute beliefs in which knowledge is viewed as certain, uncontested and students are largely authority-dependent. Student perspectives on assessment and feedback are explored based on thematic analysis of student responses within two main categories of beliefs, absolute/dualist versus contextual/pluralist. The paper teases out the implications of these perspectives for students’ satisfaction with their assessment and feedback experience in the context of today’s increasingly market-orientated higher education environment. Findings demonstrate that student perspectives on, and satisfaction with, assessment and feedback are strongly intertwined with their beliefs on knowledge and teaching. Students holding absolute/dualist beliefs considered ‘good’ assessment and feedback practice to entail clear and unambiguous assessment tasks, criteria and standards along with the receipt of unequivocal and corrective feedback. The paper concludes that faced with assessment tasks that move beyond established facts and demonstrable theories it may only be students who view knowledge as relative and mutable that will likely be satisfied with their assessment and feedback experience.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Access options

Buy single article

Instant unlimited access to the full article PDF.

US$ 39.95

Price includes VAT for USA

Subscribe to journal

Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.

US$ 99

This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.


  1. Ahmed, I., Nawaz, M. M., Ahmad, Z., Ahmad, Z., Shaukat, M. Z., Usman, A., et al. (2000). Does service quality affect students’ performance? Evidence from institutes of higher learning. African Journal of Business Management, 4(12), 2527–2533.

  2. Annamdevula, S., & Bellamkonda, R. S. (2016). The effects of service quality on student loyalty: The mediating role of student satisfaction. Journal of Modelling in Management, 11(2), 446–462. doi:10.1108/JM2-04-2014-0031.

  3. Arambewela, R., & Hall, J. (2013). The interactional effects of the internal and external university environment, and the influence of personal values, on satisfaction among international postgraduate students. Studies in Higher Education, 38(7), 972–988. doi:10.1080/03075079.2011.615916.

  4. Ashwin, P. (2005). Variation in students’ experiences of the Oxford tutorial. Higher Education, 50(4), 631–644. doi:10.1007/s10734-004-6369-6.

  5. Baxter Magolda, M. B. (1992). Knowing and reasoning in college: Gender-related patterns in students’ intellectual development. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

  6. Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2004). Evolution of a constructivist conceptualization of epistemological reflection. Educational Psychologist, 39(1), 31–42. doi:10.1207/s15326985ep3901_4.

  7. Bedggood, R. E., & Donovan, J. (2012). University performance evaluations: What are we really measuring? Studies in Higher Education, 37(7), 825–842. doi:10.1080/03075079.2010.549221.

  8. Belenky, M. F., Clinchy, B. M., Goldberger, N. R., & Tarule, J. M. (1986). Women’s ways of knowing: The development of self, voice and mind. New York: Basic Books.

  9. Bensimon, E. M., Polkinghorne, D. E., Bauman, G., & Vallejo, E. (2004). Doing research that makes a difference. The Journal of Higher Education, 75(1), 104–126. doi:10.1353/jhe.2003.0048.

  10. Bernstein, B. (1999). Vertical and horizontal discourse: An essay. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 20(2), 157–173. doi:10.1080/01425699995380.

  11. Boyle, B., & Bragg, J. (2006). A curriculum without foundation. British Educational Research Journal, 32, 569–582. doi:10.1080/01411920600775225.

  12. Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3(2), 77–101. doi:10.1191/1478088706qp063oa.

  13. Brimi, H. (2012). Teaching writing in the shadow of standardized writing assessment: An exploratory study. American Secondary Education, 41(1), 52–78.

  14. Brownlee, J., Walker, S., Lennox, S., Exley, B., & Pearce, S. (2009). The first year university experience: Using personal epistemology to understand effective learning and teaching in higher education. Higher Education, 58(5), 599–618. doi:10.1007/s10734-009-9212-2.

  15. Cano, F. (2005). Epistemological beliefs, approaches to learning, and academic performance. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 75, 44–57. doi:10.1348/000709904X22683.

  16. Chickering, A. W. (1969). Education and identity. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

  17. Cronin, J. J., Jr., & Taylor, S. A. (1992). Measuring service quality: A re-examination and extension. Journal of Marketing, 56(3), 55–68. doi:10.2307/1252296.

  18. Dabholkar, P. A., Shepherd, C. D., & Thrope, D. I. (2000). A comprehensive framework for service quality: An investigation of critical conceptual and measurement issues through a longitudinal study. Journal of Retailing, 76(2), 131–139. doi:10.1016/S0022-4359(00)00029-4.

  19. Dean, A., & Gibbs, P. (2015). Student satisfaction or happiness? A preliminary rethink of what is important in the student experience. Quality Assurance in Education, 23(1), 5–19. doi:10.1108/QAE-10-2013-0044.

  20. Donald, J. G. (2009). The commons: Disciplinary and interdisciplinary encounters. In C. Kreber (Ed.), The university and its disciplines (pp. 181–195). New York: Routledge.

  21. Elby, A. (2009). Defining personal epistemology: A response to Hofer and Pintrich (1997) and Sandoval (2005). Journal of the Learning Sciences, 18(1), 138–149. doi:10.1080/10508400802581684.

  22. Elliott, K. M., & Shin, D. (2002). Student satisfaction: An alternative approach to assessing this important concept. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 24, 197–209. doi:10.1080/1360080022000013518.

  23. Gerstman, B. (1995). Student evaluations of teacher effectiveness: The interpretation of observational data and the principle of faute de mieux. Journal of Excellence in College Teaching, 6(3), 115–124.

  24. Gibbs, G. (1992). Improving the quality of student learning. Bristol: TES.

  25. Gibbs, G. (2010). Dimensions of quality. York: Higher Education Academy.

  26. Goodyear, P., & Ellis, R. (2007). The development of epistemic fluency: Learning to think for a living. In A. Brew & J. Sachs (Eds.), Transforming a university: The scholarship of teaching and learning in practice (pp. 57–68). Sydney: Sydney University Press.

  27. Gow, L., & Kember, D. (1990). Does higher education promote independent learning? Higher Education, 19(3), 307–322. doi:10.1007/BF00133895.

  28. Guolla, M. (1999). Assessing the teaching quality to student satisfaction relationship: Applied customer satisfaction research in the classroom. Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, 7(3), 87–97. doi:10.1080/10696679.1999.11501843.

  29. Harvey, L. (1995). Keeping the customer satisfied: The student satisfaction approach. Birmingham: University of Central England: QHE.

  30. Hill, F. (1995). Managing service quality in higher education: The role of the student as primary consumer. Quality Assurance in Education, 3(3), 10–21. doi:10.1108/09684889510093497.

  31. Hofer, B. K. (2004). Exploring the dimensions of personal epistemology in different classroom contexts: Student interpretations in the first year of college. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 29(2), 129–163. doi:10.1016/j.cedpsych.2004.01.002.

  32. Hofer, B. K., & Pintrich, P. R. (1997). The development of epistemological theories: Beliefs about knowledge and knowing and their relation to learning. Review of Educational Research, 67(1), 88–140. doi:10.3102/00346543067001088.

  33. Iacobucci, D., Ostrom, A., & Grayson, K. (1995). Distinguishing service quality and customer satisfaction: The voice of the customer. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 3(4), 277–303. doi:10.1207/s15327663jcp0403_04.

  34. Kegan, R. (1982). The evolving self: Problem and process in human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  35. Kember, D. (2001). Beliefs about knowledge and the process of teaching and learning as a factor in adjusting to study in higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 26(2), 205–221. doi:10.1080/03075070120052116.

  36. King, P. M., & Kitchener, K. S. (1994). Developing reflective judgement. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

  37. Kolitch, E., & Dean, A. V. (1999). Student ratings of instruction in the USA: Hidden assumptions and missing conceptions about ‘good teaching. Studies in Higher Education, 24(1), 27–42. doi:10.1080/03075079912331380128.

  38. Kuh, G. D. (2003). What we’re learning about student engagement from NSSE. Change Management, 35, 24–32.

  39. Kvale, S. (1996). An introduction to qualitative research interviewing. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

  40. Lattuca, L. (2001). Creating interdisciplinarity. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.

  41. Lucas, U., & Tan, P. L. (2013). Developing a capacity to engage in critical reflection: Students ‘ways of knowing’ within an undergraduate business and accountancy programme. Studies in Higher Education, 38(1), 104–123. doi:10.1080/03075079.2011.569706.

  42. Mark, E. (2013). Student satisfaction and the customer focus in higher education. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 35(1), 2–10. doi:10.1080/1360080X.2012.727703.

  43. McKay, J., & Kember, D. (1997). Spoonfeeding leads to regurgitation: A better diet can result in more digestible learning outcomes. Higher Education, Research and Development, 16(1), 55–67. doi:10.1080/0729436970160105.

  44. Meyer, J. H. F., & Land, R. (2005). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (2): Epistemological considerations and a conceptual framework for teaching and learning. Higher Education, 49(3), 373–388. doi:10.1007/s10734-004-6779-5.

  45. Munteanu, C., Ceobanu, C., Bobalca, C., & Anton, O. (2010). An analysis of customer satisfaction in a higher education context. International Journal of Public Sector Management, 23, 124–140. doi:10.1108/09513551011022483.

  46. National Union of Students. (2008). Mark my words, not my name. The campaign for anonymous marking.

  47. Nelson, H. (2013). Testing more, teaching less: What America’s obsession with student testing costs in money and lost instructional time. New York: American Federation of Teachers.

  48. Nyman, M. A., & Berry, J. (2002). Developing transferable skills in undergraduate mathematics students through mathematical modelling. Teaching Mathematics and its Applications, 21(1), 29–45. doi:10.1093/teamat/21.1.29.

  49. O’Donovan, B. (2010). Filling a pail or lighting a fire? The intellectual development of management undergraduates. International Journal of Management Education, 9(1), 1–10.

  50. O’Donovan, B., Price, M., & Rust, C. (2004). Know what I mean? Enhancing student understanding of assessment standards and criteria. Teaching in Higher Education, 9(3), 325–336. doi:10.1080/1356251042000216642.

  51. Perry, W. G. (1970). Forms of intellectual development in the college years. New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston.

  52. Price, M., Handley, K., Millar, J., & O’Donovan, B. (2010). Feedback all that effort, but what is the effect? Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 35(3), 277–289. doi:10.1080/02602930903541007.

  53. QAA. (2006). Code of practice for the assurance of academic quality and standards in higher education. Section 6: Assessment of students (2nd ed.). Mansfield: Quality Assurance Agency.

  54. Ramsden, P. (1992). Learning to teach in higher education. London: Routledge.

  55. Rust, C., Price, M., & O’Donovan, B. (2003). Improving students’ learning by developing their understanding of assessment criteria and processes. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 28(2), 147–164. doi:10.1080/02602930301671.

  56. Ryan, S., & Neumann, R. (2013). Interdisciplinarity in an era of new public management: A case study of graduate business schools. Studies in Higher Education, 38(2), 192–206. doi:10.1080/03075079.2011.571669.

  57. Saljo, R. (1982). Learning and understanding: A study of difference in constructing meaning from a text. Goteborg Studies in Educational Sciences (Vol. 40). Goteborg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis.

  58. Saljo, R. (1988). Learning in educational settings: Methods of inquiry. In P. Ramsden (Ed.), Improving learning: New perspectives (pp. 32–48). London: Kogan Page.

  59. Sandoval, W. A. (2009). In defense of clarity in the study of personal epistemology. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 18(1), 150–161. doi:10.1080/10508400802581700.

  60. Schommer, M. (1994). Synthesizing epistemological belief research: Tentative understandings and provocative confusions. Educational Psychology Review, 6(4), 293–319. doi:10.1007/BF02213418.

  61. Scott, S. (1999). The academic as service provider: Is the customer ‘always right’? Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 21, 193–202. doi:10.1080/1360080990210206.

  62. Shanahan, M., & Meyer, J. H. F. (2006). The troublesome nature of a threshold concept in economics. In J. H. F. Meyer & R. Land (Eds.), pp (pp. 100–114). London: Routledge.

  63. Snowden, G. (2012). Graduates: Is a 2:1 the best qualification for landing a job?. London: The Guardian.

  64. Sturman, L. (2003). Teaching to the test: Science or intuition? Educational Research, 45, 261–273. doi:10.1080/0013188032000137256.

  65. Tsinidou, M., Gerogiannis, V., & Fitsilis, P. (2010). Evaluation of the factors that determine quality in higher education: An empirical study. Quality Assurance in Higher Education, 18(3), 227–244. doi:10.1108/09684881011058669.

  66. Van Rossum, E. J., & Hamer, R. (2010). The meaning of learning and knowing. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Download references


The author would like to thank the many colleagues who have read and suggested revisions to this paper including, Professor Margaret Price, Professor Chris Rust, Dr. Karen Handley, Dr. Jan Harwell and Birgit den Outer.

Author information

Correspondence to Berry O’Donovan.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

O’Donovan, B. How student beliefs about knowledge and knowing influence their satisfaction with assessment and feedback. High Educ 74, 617–633 (2017).

Download citation


  • Student satisfaction
  • Ways of knowing
  • Assessment and feedback
  • Personal epistemology