Primary Source Analysis Tool: Using the “Reflect” Column to Develop Critical Thinking

What’s the difference between observation and inference? It’s an important distinction students can learn by using the Primary Source Analysis Tool, and it’s key to critical thinking.

The Library's Primary Source Analysis Tool

The Library's Primary Source Analysis Tool

I believe that if every student learns how to develop and defend his or her own ideas – and feels safe to share them, knowing that peers will respect those thoughts – it can be an exhilarating experience for both students and teacher.  Helping educators use the “Reflect” column of the Analysis Tool to guide students as they learn to think critically and confidently is one of the most exciting parts of my job here at the Library.

What goes into the “Reflect” column?  It’s the part of primary source analysis where students interpret what they see or hear (observations), consider what they already know (prior knowledge), and make inferences.  To simplify, it’s where students answer the question, “What do you think is going on here?”  As you’ll see on the Teacher’s Guide to Analyzing Primary Sources, it’s where teachers “encourage students to generate and test hypotheses about the source.”

You can begin to guide your students toward critical thinking when they are reflecting and making inferences with the Analysis Tool – especially when they mistakenly think they are making observations.  A Library of Congress Summer Teacher Institute participant said, “My students wanted to rush to a conclusion (generation of instant gratification)….”  For example, instead of saying, “I see drawings of ships and cannons and smoke” (an observation), a student might say, “This is a war map” (a reflection).  The Summer Institute teacher solved this problem by having her students “slow down and pull the details out before moving on to an inference based on [those details].”

When students learn to slow down and consider whether a thought is based in observation or is an inference, they begin to assume less and question more.  I believe that as they learn to support their hypotheses with evidence, they feel safer to think outside the box and to share their thinking with their peers.  After all, with a carefully-supported hypothesis, there is no right or wrong. Every student’s ideas have value and are worthy of further inquiry and research.

Strategies for using the “Reflect” column:

  • Focus students with questions selected from the “Reflect” column of one of the Teacher’s Guides.
  • Ask students questions such as, “What makes you say that?” or “What do you see (or hear) that makes you think that?” Such questions require students to provide evidence of their thinking, including clues from the primary source, information from the bibliographic record, personal experience, and prior knowledge on the topic.
  • Encourage students to slow down and structure their thinking by using use a sentence starter, such as “I think … because …” (for primary grades) or “My hypothesis is … and the supporting evidence is …” (for upper elementary and secondary grades).

When students learn to form a hypothesis and support their views with evidence, they are thinking critically and are well on their way to deepening content understanding.  I can’t think of anything more exciting.  For an overview of ways to teach with the Primary Source Analysis Tool, check out the blog post The Library’s Primary Source Analysis Tool: Helping K-12 Students Start Analyzing Primary Sources.

In a future blog post, we’ll share tips from teachers in the field about using the Primary Source Analysis Tool.  What are some strategies you’ve used in your classroom to help your students distinguish between observation and inference, or to guide them in creating and supporting hypotheses?   Let us know your grade level.

5 Comments

  1. David J Maurice
    March 1, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    Hello,
    I learned from my father from an early age that it is more important to think critically than memorize information like a parret learns to speak.

    I am a firm believer in teacher/professor/educational institution accountability. I am a 56 year old male with a masters in social work and a passion to continue to learn until the day I die.

    I believe that my passion is not unique and offers both myself and others the opportunity to “give back.”

    I don’t want to spend time justifying my credability other than I am in a state of being or approach to contentment (balanced with external feedback and continuous open/filtered approach to working outside the box figuratively.

    This leads the value approach to the approach to education and motivation for children and adolescents development . I continue to research the great minds and come to learn that the learning process forwords community and family development and includes the great thinkers from the beginning of time.

    In summary, our focus on measuring academic growth does not come from a state or government mandate found in canned testing. Rather, quoted by a development non for profit organization, teach a person to fish and they can fish for life. Feed them a fish a day and you will be feeding them for life. Rather than can academia, offer rigid dogmatic standards and measures, and society will be dependent on a system of education for their lives. Ethically speaking, standardized testing is immoral because it causes a version of determinism and confinment.

    Learning to think is so much more effective in the process of academic development resulting in a future optimism and motivation necessary for all the minds of the world.

  2. David J Maurice
    March 1, 2012 at 3:31 pm

    Thank you for offering the opportunity to communicate and continue the freedom that so many people forged over time.

  3. CARLOS ARTURO PEREZ
    March 1, 2012 at 8:18 pm

    FELICITACIONES…BIEN,NO SOY PROFESOR,PERO SOY PADRE DE FAMILIA..MUY PENDIENTE DE LO QUE MIS HIJOS APRENDEN EN EL COLEGIO Y LA CALIDAD DE LOS PROFESORES Y LA EDUCACION…GRACIAS Y ME AGRADARIA SEGUIR RECIBIENDO ESTOS ARTICULOS..PARA DARLOS A CONOCER EN EL COLEGIO,A LOS PROFESORES Y ALUMNOS Y POR SUPUESTO A MIS HIJOS,,,MUCHAS,PERO MUCHISIMAS GRACIAS POR SUS AYUDAS,PARA PAISES COMO EL MIO…COLOMBIA,DONDE LA EDUCACION Y EL SER HUMANO ,NO ES IMPORTANTE PARA EL ESTADO…

  4. Jennifer Simms-Ingraham
    July 24, 2016 at 10:29 pm

    This really provides critical thinking for the students and helps them to explore information using digital technology.

  5. Marybeth Reilly
    July 26, 2016 at 10:41 pm

    Using this analysis tool can help students to slow down a bit with their thinking. Rather than just sharing a response, when students observe, reflect, and question, they give themselves a chance to really “think” about the source with which they are interacting.

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