Reflective Thinking Stages

Note: Characteristic assumptions of Stage 1 reasoning has been skipped, because it is not applicable to college or higher). Stage 2 Stage 3 Stage 4 Stage 5 Stage 6 (Stage 7) (Note: for an alternate and less expansive version of this see Perry.)

Stage 2 Reasoning:

Characteristic assumptions of Stage 2 reasoning:

1. Knowledge is certain, but some people do not have access to it.

2. Authorities such an scientists, teachers, and religious leaders know the truth.

3. When the truth is uncertain, accept the view of an authority.

4. Evidence is not a criterion for establishing truthfulness.

Instructional goals for students:

1. Accept that there may be several opinions about a controversial issue, none of which is known to be absolutely correct.

2. Recognize that authorities sometimes disagree with each other.

3. Give reasons for beliefs beyond relying on the word of an authority.

Difficult tasks from a Stage 2 perspective:

1. Recognizing that there are legitimate differences of opinion about some issues.

2. Giving reasons for a belief beyond reference to an authority's view.

3. Accepting that even authorities do not have right or wrong answers for some issues.

Sample developmental assignments:

1. Consider two interpretations of a poem, historical event, scientific study. and so forth.

2. Provide arguments on two sides of an issue, giving reasons for the arguments.

3. Identify the evidence for different views on the same issue.

4. Consider the views of different experts on a particular event.

Developmental support for instructional goals:

1. Acknowledge that decisions are harder when there are no right or wrong answers.

2. Attempt to legitimize students' feeling of anxiety when confronted with multiple perspectives on an issue.

3. Provide clear, unambiguous directions (including details and deadlines) for


4. Point out noted authorities who hold alternative points of view.

Stage 3 Reasoning.

Characteristic assumptions of Stage 3 reasoning:

1. Knowledge is absolutely certain in some areas and temporarily uncertain in other areas.

2. Beliefs are justified according to the word of an authority in areas of certainty and according to what 'feels right" in areas of uncertainty.

3. Evidence can neither be evaluated nor used to reason to conclusions.

4. Opinions and beliefs cannot be distinguished from factual evidence.

Instructional goals for students:

1. Learn to use evidence in reasoning to a point of view.

2. Learn to view their own experiences as one potential source of information but not as the only valid source.

Difficult tasks from a Stage 3 perspective:

1. Recognizing legitimate sources of authority as better qualified than themselves in making a judgment about a controversial issue.

2. Understanding the differences between interpretation and opinion.

3. Using evidence to justify a point of view.

4. Appreciating multiple evidence-based perspectives on a single issue.

Sample developmental assignments:

1. Evaluate an inadequate argument [one that uses Stage 2 reasoning] in terms of its use of evidence, dependence upon authority, and understanding of the other side of the argument.

2. Here is one point of view on an issue. What are other possible perspectives on this issue? Cite evidence for each perspective.

3. Critique a specified point of view, paying particular attention to the use of evidence.

4. Defend a specific point of view, giving the best evidence you can find in support of it.

5. Give the best evidence you can find for a specific point of view, bearing in mind issues of what counts as evidence and what makes one source of evidence more credible than another.

Developmental support for instructional goals:

1. Attempt to legitimize students' struggle with feelings of being confused and overwhelmed by the issue of what counts as evidence.

2. Model good use of evidence by explicitly presenting justification for both sides of an argument, distinguishing inapplicable evidence from relevant evidence and explaining the rationale behind one's choice of appropriate authorities.

3. Provide detailed assignments and clear expectations whenever possible.

Stage 4 Reasoning:

Characteristic assumptions of Stage 4 Reasoning:

1. Knowledge is uncertain because of limitations of the knower.

2. Beliefs are justified by idiosyncratic uses of evidence and opinion.

3. Differences in points of view exist because of people's upbringing or because they deliberately distort information.

4. Evidence is used in support of a point of view along with unsubstantiated opinion.

Instructional goals for students:

1. Learn that interpretation is inherent in all understanding and that the uncertainty of knowledge is a consequence of the inability to know directly.

2. Learn that some arguments can be evaluated as better within a domain on the basis of the adequacy of the evidence.

Difficult tasks from a Stage 4 perspective:

1. Understanding that the nature of knowing itself leads to the uncertainty of knowledge.

2. Understanding that all points of view are not equally valid.

3. Understanding that opinions should be based on evidence.

4. Understanding that different perspectives may lead to different legitimate interpretations of evidence but that this is not the same as bias.

5. Understanding the difference between facts and interpretations.

Sample developmental assignments:

1. Explicitly consider the extent to which knowledge is certain within a specific discipline and across disciplines by comparing and contrasting the reasons for uncertainty in difficult cases.

2. Compare good and bad arguments on one side of an issue; evaluate the adequacy of these arguments by looking at the evidence and how it is interpreted and noting what makes a stronger argument.

3. Here are two conflicting points of view on an issue. Explain how the author of each arrived at his or her conclusions. Pay careful attention to the academic discipline or perspective from which the issue was approached.

4. Distinguish between evaluating the adequacy of arguments and making judgments about people.

Developmental support for instructional goals:

1. Model evaluating arguments without being intolerant.

2. Model and explain how different interpretations may legitimately arise.

3. Legitimize students' discomfort with evaluation.

Stage 5 Reasoning.

Characteristic assumptions of Stage 5 reasoning:

1. Interpretation is inherent in all understanding; therefore, no knowledge is certain.

2. Beliefs may be justified only within a given context or from a given perspective.

3. Evidence can be evaluated qualitatively: within a perspective, some evidence is stronger or more relevant than other evidence.

Instructional goals for students:

1. Learn to relate alternative perspectives on an issue to each other by comparing and contrasting them and evaluating their strengths and weaknesses.

2. Learn to determine whether it is possible to arrive at an appropriate integration of the competing alternatives.

Difficult tasks from a Stage 5 perspective:

1. Choosing among competing evidence - based interpretations.

2. Explaining relationships between alternative perspectives on an issue.

3. Recognizing that choosing one alternative does not deny the legitimacy of other alternatives.

Sample developmental assignments:

1. Compare and contrast two competing (and unequal) points of view, citing and evaluating evidence and arguments used by proponents of each. Determine which proponent makes the better interpretation of the given evidence and which conclusion is stronger.

2. Here are two conflicting points of view on the same issue. Explain how each author arrived at his or her conclusions. Identify the evidence and arguments for each point of view, suggesting which has stronger support. Explain which view you would endorse and why you would do so.

3. Select and analyze one controversial issue from among those discussed in class or in the course readings. Your analysis should consist of (a) a summary of the issue, including an explanation of its significance to this discipline; (b) a description of at least two points of view from which this issue has been addressed by scholars; and (c) some indication of which point of view you believe to be the most appropriate of those selected and the grounds upon which you base this decision.

Developmental support for instructional goals:

1. Model and explain appropriate scholarly inquiry, explicitly approaching issues from several inter- or intra disciplinary perspectives.

2. Give relevant interpretations of evidence from each perspective chosen, and explain the reasoning behind choosing one interpretation over another.

3. Legitimize students' struggle to adjudicate between competing interpretations and perspectives, both cognitively and affectively.

Stage 6 Reasoning.

Characteristic assumptions of Stage 6 reasoning:

1. Knowledge is uncertain and must be understood in relationship to context and evidence.

2. Some points of view may be tentatively judged as better than others.

3. Evidence on different points of view can be compared and evaluated as a basis for justification.

Instructional goals for students:

1. Learn to construct one's own point of view and to see that point of view as open to reevaluation and revision in light of new evidence.

2. Learn that even though knowledge must be constructed, strong conclusions are epistemologically justifiable.

Difficult tasks from a Stage 6 perspective:

1. Understanding that even though knowledge may change at some future point, some principles or procedures are currently generalizable beyond the immediate situation.

2. Constructing one's own point of view and defending it on the basis of evidence or argument as being better (for example, having greater truth value) than other points of view.

Sample developmental assignments:

1. Develop and defend firm arguments for a particular point of view, perhaps in conjunction with your own research.

2. Provide your own organization of a given field of study (for example, concept mapping of a course or a discipline), with explicit reference to the interrelationships between elements.

Developmental support for instructional goals:

1. Model holding and defending firm points of view without exhibiting intolerance for other points of view.

2. Provide examples of increasingly better points of view (for example, more comprehensive, more coherent) developed over time as more and better evidence, arguments, and techniques become available.

3. Emphasize the importance of developing and defending arguments about complex ill-structured problems, as well as the difficulty in doing so.

My addition:

Supplemental: Characteristics of Stage 7 Reasoning:

1. Individual acts confused and disoriented.

2. People walk on the other side of the street to avoid coming in contact.

3. I don't care. I am in my own world.

This description, through stage 6, was in a handout I received in a seminar for faculty to assist in teaching to the proper level of student reflective thinking. I believe it is from How College Affects Students : Findings and Insights from Twenty Years of Research by Ernest T. Pascarella (Author), Patrick T. Terenzini (Author)  chapter 1.


This page is maintained by William S. Jamison. It was last updated July 11, 2016. All links on these pages are either to open source or public domain materials or they are marked with the appropriate copyright information. I frequently check the links I have made to other web sites but each source is responsible for their own content.