Skip to main content

Discussion of Reflective Judgment

Howard Drossman

Howard Drossman

Refining the Purpose of Liberal Arts Education:

Assessing the relation between reflective judgment and interdisciplinary learning

by Howard Drossman
Professor of Environmental Science and Education, Colorado College
Member of the Contested Spaces seminar leadership team

One of the most important goals and enduring themes of a liberal arts education is the need for educating informed citizens who can understand and effectively address complex, difficult issues. John Dewey (1933) suggested that these reflective judgment skills are essential for a democratic society and defined them as the ability to bring closure to uncertain situations. Though reflective judgment is related to critical thinking, the latter may include problems that have correct answers while the former is specific to complex problems with no single correct answer. The Association of American Colleges defines the need for reflective judgment when they suggest that: "[college] students need to learn ... to be able to state why a question or argument is significant and for whom; determine what the difference is between developing and justifying a position and merely asserting one; and how to develop and apply warrants for their own interpretations and judgments" (cited by King and Kitchener 1994, p. 19).

The multiple perspectival seminar approach towards land stewardship issues embodies the goals of a liberal arts education.

One way to conceptualize reflective judgment is through Kurt Fischer's (1980) skill theory, which provides a cognitive model for how we learn new skills in any domain. Fischer's model hypothesizes that we learn skills through first expressing them as representations, then relating these to form abstractions and finally creating overarching principles. King and Kitchener (1994) applied Fischer's skill theory to describe the acquisition of reflective judgment skills. They posit that reflective judgment requires relating the abstractions knowledge and justification. King and Kitchener's (1994) long-time work assessing reflective judgment indicates that most entering college students understand knowledge and justification but can only begin to relate the two, while most graduating seniors can successfully relate knowledge and justification, at least in their disciplinary major. But, how do students come to master reflective judgment skills and what might be the role of interdisciplinary learning in promoting such skills?

Our working hypothesis in the Contested Spaces seminar is that explicitly using multiple perspectives to address complex problems like environmental issues will promote students’ skills in seeing connections among the different ways that various disciplines relate knowledge and justification. The multiple perspectival seminar approach towards land stewardship issues embodies the goals of a liberal arts education, which are often defined by classic philosophical conceptions of knowledge that include understanding the "Good," "Truth," and "Beauty." By collaborating across their different domains of knowledge as they develop their Contested Spaces learning expeditions, participants will ask whether a multiple perspectival conception of stewardship can enhance their students' understanding of sustainability and their skills in reflective judgment, as well as how they might assess their understanding.

If using multiple perspectives to address environmental problems does promote students’ reflective judgment skills, and we have the appropriate assessment tools, we should be able to measure gains in reflective judgment for students more grounded in interdisciplinary study relative to students who might relate knowledge and justification from a single disciplinary perspective. If this hypothesis has merit, we believe that methodological pluralism, the application of multiple epistemological approaches to open-ended problems, provides an organizing principle for guiding curriculum development of new advanced interdisciplinary classes.

Though King and Kitchener (1994) developed the reflective judgment interview more than 20 years ago to assess college students' reflective judgment skills, we propose using a more practical assessment tool called the Lectical Reflective Judgment Assessment (LRJA), which was first developed eight years ago, and provides calibrated developmental scores based on written responses to open-ended questions. Contested Spaces seminar participants will have the opportunity to take and be scored (anonymously) on the LRJA before the Contested Spaces seminar begins to become familiar with this new research and learning instrument. During the seminar, participants will discuss how they might use such tools to more effectively help their students learn reflective judgment skills. Lectical assessments have also been created to assess leadership, ethics, self-understanding, mindfulness, multiple perspectival thinking and developmental pedagogy. With a better understanding of these new assessment tools, seminar participants might consider, as a long-term goal, collaborating on a future ACM-wide proposal for studying the relation between interdisciplinary learning and students’ reflective judgment skills.


  • Dewey, J. (1933). How We Think: A Restatement of the Relation of Reflective Thinking to the Educative Process. Lexington, MA: Heath.
  • Fischer, K. W. (1980). A Theory of Cognitive Development: The Control and Construction of Hierarchies of Skills. Psychological Review, 87(6), 477-531.
  • King, P., & Kitchener, K. S. (1994). Developing Reflective Judgment. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • The Lectical Reflective Judgment Assessment (LRJA)

Additional reference:

  • King, P. M. & Kitchener, K. S. (2004). Reflective judgment: Theory and research on the development of epistemic assumptions through adulthood. Educational Psychologist, 39(1), 5-18.