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Critical thinking, reflective writing: learning?


One of the main roles of educators is to help students become prepared to be active members of a society. To achieve this goal, teachers are encouraged to help students develop the ability to reflect and think critically. Reaction papers are written assignments devoted to doing so. A case study was conducted to explore the relationship between reaction papers, reflective writing, critical thinking and learning. The main findings demonstrate how useful reactions papers are to facilitate learning, reflection and critical thinking.


In order to develop reflection and critical thinking, many graduate students are encouraged to write "reaction papers"--also named response or reflective papers- as part of their regular teaching program. A reaction paper is a means to express one's own opinions about the readings in a course that should include "critical, informed, thoughtful, and intelligent responses to the claims that are made in the readings" (Pols, 2001. p.1). According to Gala (2001) the main purpose of this assignment is to stimulate the development of critical thinking. However, writing reaction papers seems to be a very difficult job. Many graduate students are used to writing summaries or at the most reviews about the texts they read. In most public schools, students' opinions are not required in their written assignments at all. Memorisation of information is at the core of the learning situation and the exams are normally the context in which this information is supposed to be tested. As a consequence, it is possible to speculate that many students see writing reaction papers as a purposeless activity because they do not know what to include in a reaction paper. They probably know that they are required to express their ideas, but it is not an easy task. Even if they are asked to reflect on the ideas they have read and make connections; the task does not seem to be easier. However, reflecting and thinking critically are at the core of a reaction paper.

1.1 Research problem: In this pilot case-study research, I explored how one student of a graduate course at the University of Los Andes dealt with the idea of writing "reaction papers" in which she was expected to reflect, critically think and give personal opinions about the ideas expressed in her readings.

1.2 Purpose of this study: The purpose of this pilot research was to find out in what ways reflective writing, through the use of reaction papers, can promote the development of critical thinking and how critical thinking can facilitate the process of learning.

2. Theoretical Framework

2.1 Reflection, critical thinking and reflective writing

The terms reflection and critical thinking can be widely found along the literature. They both refer to a mental capability for analysing, judging, measuring, accepting/refusing ideas, and making decisions or modifying behaviour. Dewey is considered to be the first educator who introduced the term "reflective thought" into the literature (Shermis, 1999). John Dewey's definition of reflective thought endues the "active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends" (1933, in Krol, n.d.). In this sense, reflection takes time and implies a mental effort that conduces to a personal measurement of a previous concept. Clark (1999) considers that "reflection is thinking for an extended period by linking recent experiences to earlier ones in order to promote a more complex and interrelated mental schema" (p.1). According to this idea, reflection implies the connection of previous knowledge to new information to form a new expanded-improved version of an idea and/or conceptualization. Some authors (Bloom, 1956; Ennis, 1962; Eisner, 1965; Costa, Hanson, Silver, & Strong, 1985; Minick, 1985, Villalobos, 2000) have developed several models and definitions of critical thinking. However, I consider that any definition or model of critical thinking has to have at least some of the following elements:

a) Observing/locating the issue and describing it: There must be something to look at in order to reflect. It is necessary to know exactly what we are dealing with to avoid ulterior wrong speculations.

b) Internalising: When the information is localised, then we have to intake it. To intake it does not mean to accept it, but to be as familiar as possible with it. Observing is getting to know the information. Internalising is to create a personal file about the information than you can use whenever you want.

c) Analysing/evaluating: Here we start to process the information. Is it relevant or not? What is right and wrong about it? How do you feel about it?

d) Concluding: Finally we obtain an answer, a final conclusion, which is the product of the whole process of reflecting and for which we have been reflecting.

Reflective writing -as its name suggests- refers to the activity of writing with the purpose of reflecting and as a consequence, learning. However, reflective writing is not so easy to define. According to Hillocks (1995) reflective writing helps us in the process of learning. For Hillocks "writing cannot be disconnected from its sources, the processes of observation, interpretation, imagination, and inquiry" (p. xvii). Therefore, writing and reflecting are extremely connected to the point that writing facilitates reflecting and vice-versa. We learn easily when we write because "writing facilitates learning by helping writers explore, clarify, and think deeply about the ideas and concepts they encounter in reading" (Harris and Perzynski, 2001, p.2).

2.2 Previous studies

Considerable research has been conducted in relation to the use of reflective writing as a means to develop awareness about the things we do in class either as teachers or as learners. However, there is little research directly related to the topic reaction papers as a means to develop reflective writing and critical thinking. Hatton and Smith (1994), for instance, focused on the possible techniques and strategies used to foster reflection in teacher preparation programs, but among the whole universe of possibilities they studied, reaction papers were not mentioned -although writing was considered to be a means to help reflecting. Serrano de Moreno (1998) collected the data for her research mainly from journals and from what she called "reflections" that appeared there as papers in which the participants reflected upon their performance by writing their ideas, thoughts, and feelings down on paper. Serrano de Moreno found that by writing reflectively the participants in her study considerably improved in their competence to compose more complex and better texts. They started progressively to include their personal perceptions about a topic and not just summarising what the others have said before. King (2002) stated that it is important to develop a culture of reflection which he considers to be a culture in which people are aware of the things they do by using critical reflection and, therefore, reflective writing.

3. Methodology

3.1 Participants

The participants in this investigation were a student and a professor, named in here as Trinity and Prof. Smith. They were both taking part in a specific subject of the first semester of an M.A. program in Teaching/Learning of the Foreign Languages at the University of Los Andes, Merida-Venezuela. The research was conducted during one semester period. The selection of Trinity as a participant in this research is based on the following reasons. First, I conducted parallel research based on reaction papers another student, Neo, a participant of the same M.A. program. Neo showed himself to be one of the most concerned students in relation to the reaction-paper assignment. He seemed to be in disagreement with what was required from the students. On the other hand, Trinity did not seem to be worried at all. She looked as if she was completely aware of the assignments she was facing. I determined this awareness after conducting some semi-structured interviews.

3.2 Data collection

The information was mainly obtained by collecting and analysing reaction-paper samples, as well as, "reflective windows" (very short papers that explained what the student had learnt about the reaction paper) written by Trinity and assessed by Prof. Smith. Finally, I conducted semi-structured interviews with the student and with Prof. Smith. I also took notes about the professor's ideas about writing. I wrote down the professor's indications (taken from classroom observation) in relation to his expectations about what to include in the reaction papers and I read previous publications of the professor in relation to writing, reflecting, and critical thinking to see if there was coherence between his assignment and his ideas.

4. Findings

The findings of this study were organized in three major categories:

4.1. Content of the reaction papers

To Prof. Smith, writing reaction papers is not merely a matter of putting words down on paper about the text, but "based on the text, the writer reads that text and, then, in a critical way ...-and here we're talking about critical thinking-... the writer critically expresses his or her opinions about the text" (Prof. Smith, personal communication: interview, November 27, 2003) At the beginning, Trinity seemed to be just writing something, but she was not critically reacting to the readings as can be confirmed on marginal notes written by Prof. Smith, such as: "Why not?, How would you define this?" Prof. Smith also wrote a comment at the end of the reaction paper recommending her to "keep making more connections".

4.2. Purpose of the reaction papers

From the very beginning of the course, Prof Smith clearly expressed what the purpose of writing the reaction papers was. I quote very briefly some of the oral directions he gave in class several times in relation to what should be included in a reaction paper: "I do not want summaries"; "Make connections"; "I want to know what you think"; "I want your opinions, ideas, reflections"; "I want you to write your ideas about something that catches your attention from the method/approach we study in class" Prof. Smith' comments in Trinity's following reaction papers were diverse. In the second reaction, she seemed to have improved in stating her ideas with more precision and making connections. He even recognised this when he wrote, "Nice connections! Keep working this way. It's a real improvement! Congrats! Keep up the good work". Nevertheless, in the third paper, he stated that he believed she "could have expanded your (Trinity's) ideas a little more- as you did in your previous paper. Do not fall back but move forward! Keep trying!" These comments implied that she was not well aware of what she was doing.

4.3. Improvement in writing

In the last three reaction papers, Trinity showed a great improvement in terms of expressing her ideas more clearly, supporting for her ideas on the literature, making connections, and judging whether she agreed or not with what she had read. It is possible to confirm her improvement by reading the notes Prof. Smith wrote including, "Indeed; good question; good; keep up the nice job; this is valid; good point; agree" among others.

For Trinity, writing a reaction paper was not unfamiliar. Nevertheless, she considered this assignment a very difficult one, as it stated by herself in an interview:
 Writing reaction papers is a very complicated job. Sometimes, I
 don't know if what I think is valid or not. But I write anyway
 because I know I have to write my ideas, my feelings. The problem
 is that I don't know if my ideas would please those of the

However, Prof. Smith was well aware of this fact. Moreover, he did not expect that the students knew what a reaction paper was. That was not one of his expectations. Instead, he knew that he had to help them grasp the idea of reflecting, of writing reaction papers. However, he assumed that,
 ... After giving the students clear instructions of what a reaction
 paper might look like ... the student might be able progressively
 to grasp the idea and then, little by little, with more help
 -basically from me- this student here, eventually, get what a
 reaction paper should look like.

Hence, the professor was very clear from the beginning of what the students and he himself were about to face. Prof. Smith was sure that he was there to help the students as much as possible in the assignment they were to accomplish. To Prof. Smith, a reaction paper was the voice of the student him/herself. He wanted to "see the student in the paper". To achieve this purpose, the students were "to question what the author has written down, to think about that and to express their opinions, feelings, emotions, agreements or disagreements in terms of that reading text". Prof. Smith wanted Trinity to realise that she was doing that on the reaction paper, but she needed to improve.

To Prof. Smith reflection is a mental process in which you "are getting something, you are learning something" by expressing your ideas about something. He also considers that "you start the process with thinking ... and then you move one step further up in the mental process and then you're getting something and you're learning" Trinity started to grasp this idea with difficulties, but she was progressively realising that it was a process which involves thinking critically, reflecting and learning. She also realised that, by writing reflectively, she could learn easily and learning itself became an active and significant process.

5. Conclusions, implications and recommendations

Fostering students to write reaction papers help them to develop a reflective skill and therefore to think critically about a topic. It also gives students the possibility to express their ideas, feelings and opinions without being afraid of making mistakes. Reaction papers encourage students to provide a personal but objective reflection on the ideas exposed in a text as well as to connect these ideas with the students' own teaching and learning situations. That is, they help to connect any new idea and/or information with one's own performance for the purpose of constructing meaning and learning. Reaction papers inevitably lead to reflective writing because their main purpose is to expose the student to a writing situation in which he/she needs to critically reflect about a topic and see how it is applicable in his/her own teaching/learning situation. Moreover, reaction papers provide the student with the possibility to keep a record of his/her achievements in terms of what he/she has learnt in a written form (Villalobos, 1997). However, it is also of paramount importance that the professor promoting reflective writing through reaction papers knows that for most of the students this is a new challenging activity to which they are not used to dealing with. Professors should give as many indications as necessary to help students to grasp the idea of what a reaction paper might look like. Professors must also be patient enough with those students who take more time to understand the underlying principle of writing the reaction papers. This is unquestionably necessary to achieve a satisfactory level of development in the student as a potential reflective thinker. Otherwise, instead of helping them to think critically and to reflect deeply about something, they would be creating a kind of psychological trauma and as a result a possible rejection of the process of reflecting.

In conclusion, reaction papers offer a viable way to encourage students in reflective writing assignments; therefore, their value as a technique to be emulated. However, it is strongly recommended to continue researching this topic to achieve a better understanding of the possible advantages related to the use of reaction papers as a means to develop reflective writing as well as effective tools to promote development of critical thinking.


Bloom, B.S. (Ed.) (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives, handbook 1: Cognitive domain. New York, NY: David Mckay.

Clark, D. (1999). Critical Reflection. Recovered on the 22nd of November, 2003 in:

Costa, A.L., Hanson, R., Silver, H.F., & Strong, R.W. (1985). Building a repertoire of strategies. In A.L. Costa (Ed.), Developing minds: A resource book for teaching thinking (pp.141-143). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Dewey, J. (1933). How We Think: A Restatement of the Relation of Reflective Thinking to the Educative Process. In Krol, C. (n.d.) Kum' itoo--Turmz. Coming to terms. Recovered on the 27th of November, 2003 in: courseReadings/krol.doc

Eisner, E.W. (1965). Critical thinking: Some cognitive components. Teachers College Record, 66, 624-634.

Ennis, R.H. (1962). A concept of critical thinking: A proposal basis for research in the teaching and evaluation of critical thinking ability. Harvard Educational Review, 32, 81-111.

Gaia, C. (2001). Guidelines for reaction papers in response to theoretical/philosophical articles. Recovered on the 3rd of November, 2003 in:

Harris, J. D. and Perzynski, H. (2001). The web of writing using reflective writing as a literacy strategy. Recovered on the 2nd of November, 2003 in:

Hatton, N. and Smith, D. (1994). Reflection in teacher education: towards definition and implementation. Recovered on the 20th of November, 2003 in:

Hillocks, G. (1995). Teaching writing as a reflective practice. Teachers College Press, NY.

King, T., (2002). Development of students skills in reflective writing. Recovered on the 29th of October, 2003 in:

Minick, J.M. (1985). Interpretative models of six types of thinking for professional educators. (Doctoral dissertation, The University of Iowa).

Pols, H. (2001). Reaction papers. Recovered on the 27th of October, 2003 in:

Serrano de Moreno, S. (1998). La escritura: instrumento de reflexion y descubrimiento. Entre Lenguas, 4. (Especial), 17-33.

Shermis, S. (1999). Reflective Thought, Critical Thinking. Eric Digest. Recovered on the 30th of November, 2003 in:

Villalobos, J. (2000). The role of critical thinking in the teaching/learning process. Entre Lenguas, 5. (1), 5-17.

Villalobos, J. (1997). An integrated reading and writing course in the department of modern languages at the University of The Andes, Venezuela: theoretical and practical considerations. Entre Lenguas, 1. (1), 48.

Jaimes is a Professor at the University of The Andes.
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Author:Jaimes, Jhony
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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