2016 Individual Grant Winner

Nugrahenny T. Zacharias

English (ESL Composition)

Improving Criticality and Reflectivity in Students’ Writing:
Critical Reflective Writing (CRW) Tasks in ESL Composition Classes

Potential Impact: Need, Benefits for Students, Number of Students Benefited

Need and Benefits for Students

Critical Reflection is, perhaps, one of the most important skills determining students’ academic success in higher education not only in the US but also around the world (Macknish, 2011). In Miami University, critical reflection is one of the necessary skillsets addressed in the Miami Plan. I use ‘critical reflection’ here to mean the combination of critical thinking and reflection skills. International students in particular are often faced difficulties when asked to write academic papers depicting their critical reflective (CR) skills (Tian and Low, 2011). Although there are various reasons cited in the literature of international students’ lack of CR skills, many agree of the significance role of instruction to improve students’ CR skills. The big question is: What kind of instruction that leads to students’ improved CR skills?

In recognition to the importance of CR for international students’ success in US higher education, the present project will attempt to address this question by proposing a series of CR writing (CRW) tasks to increase their academic writing quality. The CRW tasks will be implemented in three sections of US Cultures and Compositions for Second Language Writers (ENG108 sections EC, GB, and PB), a four-credit hour course, in Fall 2017 where I will be the course instructor.

CRW tasks are a series of scaffolding writing activities to improve the quality of students’ major (writing) assignments in ENG 108 classes with regards to their criticality and reflective aspects. Underlying the design of CRW tasks is the intersection between currents views of writing and critical reflection. First is writing as a collaborative act and dialogic activity between the teacher, the students, and the knowledge construction in the classroom. Second is the close connection between reading and writing (Hirvela, 2004; Grabe and Zhang, 2013). And finally, following Lewinson et al. (2002) and Vasquez et al. (2013), the present project attempts to put forward the idea that a strong argument/thesis is developed through critically reflecting on the everyday or taken-for- granted practice and/or assumption. For this project, the ‘everyday practice’ that will be chosen as the writing content for all students’ major assignments is renaming practices; a common social phenomenon among many international students. Despite the pervasiveness of this phenomenon, to my knowledge, it has not been capitalized as part of learning pedagogy in the writing classroom.

Although one might argue that asking students to write based on a teacher-selected theme throughout the semester might be limiting and curtailing students’ creativity, the present project will illustrate that through a systematic and careful design of scaffolding writing tasks teacher can develop students’ interest toward a particular topic. By creating a writing condition where all students write about the same theme, the CRW tasks will reinforce the current views of writing as a “social activity” (Canagarajah, 2002, p. 161). Students also will learn the different ways they can critically and reflectively use the experiences and knowledge they bring from their home countries and culture to craft a strong argument for their major assignments. The writing strategies that they will learn through CRW tasks hopefully will help them in completing other writing assignments in other courses as well in in their own majors.

Number of Students Benefited

ENG 108 is a course with approximately 15 students per semester. Since the present project will be implemented in three section of ENG 108 where I am the course instructor, certainly the students in these courses (+ 45 students) are the ones who will experience the direct impact of the project. The CRW tasks will facilitate students’ critical thinking and reflection, which I believe will be transferable to other writing tasks in their respective disciplines.

One of the assignments that will also be facilitated by the CRW tasks is a multimedia video project about naming practices of international students at Miami University (Major Assignment 4). I am planning to share best-selected video projects to other faculties such as in the ISAAC (International Student Administrative Advisory Council) and Confucius Institute so that the project can benefit other international students even more.

Project Objectives

Through the CRW tasks proposed in the present project, students will learn how to craft their argument/thesis in more critical and reflective ways. This project has five primary objectives:

  1. Create a space where students can craft their arguments/thesis in more reflective and critical ways.
  2. Assess the CRW tasks that are most effective in facilitating their critical reflection in writing academic essay (Major Assignment 1, 2, 3, and 5) and composing a multimodal text (Major Assignment 4).
  3. Evaluate sources that best support students’ arguments in academic settings.
  4. Provide strategies to critically engage with digital sources.
  5. Illustrate writing as a process to develop critical and reflective skills toward the writing topic and the writing self.

Project Plan

The following are the overview of the CRW tasks that I will develop and implement through this project. The project will be implemented in Fall 2017 with the following plan:

Week 1-2
  • Invite students to fill in a survey (see Appendix A for a tentative questionnaire) to understand their pervious experiences with critical reflection in the US as well as in their home countries.
  • Introduce students to the CRW tasks which, tentatively, include:
    • Critical Reading Journals
    • Weekly reflective Journals
    • The QUEST questioning strategies to read texts critically:
      • Q: Are there any questions you would like the author?
      • U: What new understanding you gain about naming practices from the text?
      • E: What evaluative comments do you have about the text?
      • S: How would you summarize the reading text?
      • T: What new terms about naming practices that you learn from the text?
Week 4-14
  • Implement the CRW tasks to scaffold students’ critical reflection in completing the major assignments.
  • HOWE writing center will be invited to give workshops on writing a thesis and using citation style for their writings.
Week 15
  • Invite students to voluntarily fill in a survey to document their experiences, attitudes, and feelings with regards to the CRW tasks and in particular the extent to which these tasks develop their critical reflective skills when completing the major assignments.

Assessment Strategy

To document the effectiveness and students’ experiences in integrating CRW tasks into their writing, I will utilize surveys that will be administered at the beginning and the end of ENG 108 classes. Students are invited to participate voluntarily. Other assessment will be conducted qualitatively in the form of a continuous assessment on students’ CRW tasks that I will be documented through Canvas submission as well as audio-recording student interaction during group work. I will also do a content analysis to see if students’ major assignments reflect aspects of criticality and reflectivity and how these aspects are developed throughout the different major assignments. All these feedback not only allow me to critically examine the effectiveness of the project but they also will give valuable direction on how to revise and improve the CRW tasks for future use.

Team Members

For this project, team members will be:

  1. Dr. Nugrahenny T. Zacharias (Instructor of ENG 108)
  2. Howe Writing Center staff for feedback on learning activities, assignment sheet, and the writing rubric.


Summer 2016
  • Attend Howe writing center boot camp on May 7, 2016. I will use the time during boot camp to read academic sources and brainstorm characteristics of writing tasks to facilitate international students’ critical thinking and reflection.
  • Attend Howe writing center workshop in May 2016 and use the information from the workshop to design CRW tasks.
  • Find, if necessary adapt, reading texts about (re-)naming practices from online resources (E.g. New York Times, Huffington Post, CNN news, TED talks, picture books, etc.)
  • Develop assignment sheets for the scaffolding tasks, argumentative essay, and multimodal presentation.
  • Develop assessment rubric for the major assignments in ENG 108 classes.
  • Solicit feedback from HOWE writing center for assignment sheets and rubrics
  • Develop Canvas resources for the students.
  • Draft an IRB approval for the project to be able to disseminate the result to wider academic communities through publication in peer-review journals and conferences.
Fall 2016
  • Implement the CRW tasks in ENG 108 classes.
  • HOWE writing center will be asked to hold workshop on citation styles and on thesis statement.
Spring and Summer 2017
  • Develop manuscripts for scholarly publication and conference presentation.


I am requesting the full $2000 grant fund for:

  1. Stipend for my time and energy to develop assignment sheets and teaching materials over summer 2016.
  2. Stipend for my time and energy to collect and analyze data that would lead to manuscript for journal submission and conference proposal over winter 2016/2017.
  3. 3-4 voice recorders to document student-student interaction during group work brainstorming to complete the CRW tasks for research and/or publication purposes.

Dissemination of Results

When approved, I am planning to obtain IRB approval before the start of the course. By obtaining an IRB approval, students’ experiences as well as the products of their writing will be systematically and formally documented. It would also allow me to share the result of the teaching strategy to a wider academic community through publication and conference presentation (E.g. Lily Conference, TESOL Conference, or AAAL conference).


Canagarajah, A. S. (2002). Critical academic writing and multilingual students. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.

Grabe, W., & Zhang, C. (2013). Reading and writing together: A critical component of English for Academic Purposes Teaching and Learning. TESOL Journal, 4(1), 9-24.

Hirvela, A. (2004). Connecting reading and writing in second language writing instruction. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Lewison, M., Flint, A. S., & Van Sluys, K. (2002). Taking on critical literacy: The journey of newcomers and novices. Language Arts, 79, 382–392.

Macknish, C. J. (2011). Understanding critical reading in an ESL class in Singapore. TESOL Journal, 2(4), 444-472.

Tian, J., & Low, G. D. (2011). Critical thinking and Chinese university students: A review of the evidence. Language, Culture and Curriculum, 24(1), 61-76. doi:10.1080/07908318.2010.546400.

Vasquez, V. M., Tate, S. L., & Harste, J. C. (2013). Negotiating critical literacies with teachers: Theoretical foundations and pedagogical resources for pre-service and in-service contexts. New York, NY: Routledge.

Appendix 1


Dear Students,

The purpose of the present research is to explore your understanding of critical thinking and reflection. If you are unsure or do not know the answer to a particular question, you may leave it blank or ask your instructor.

Thank you for participating in this study.

Nugrahenny T. Zacharias.

Part 1. Please respond to the following question by putting a cross [X] in the appropriate box. Put a cross in one box only.

A. Critical Thinking in My Home Country

(originally formatted as Likert Scale table; reformatted for web)

Options: Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree


  1. Writing critically is important in my home country.
  2. I think being able to read articles critically is important in my home country.
  3. I learn about critical thinking from my professors in my home country.
  4. I think critical thinking is important for educational success in my home country.

B. Critical thinking in the US

(originally formatted as Likert Scale table; reformatted for web)

Options: Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree


  1. I think being able to read texts/articles critically is important in the US.
  2. Writing critically is important in the US.
  3. I learn about critical thinking from my professors in the US.
  4. I think critical thinking is important for educational success in the US.

Part 2. Answer the following questions briefly.

  1. Write what you understand by critical thinking.
  2. Do you consider yourself as a critical learner? Explain your answer!
  3. Do you think writing critically is important? Why or why not?
  4. Do you find difficulties when teachers expect to write critically? If you answer yes, continue to number 4b.
    • 4b: What are those difficulties?

Part 3. Demographic Information.



Home country: