Reflection is a critical and essential component of curriculum-based service learning. It is what distinguishes service-learning from community service.

Reflection helps students to:

  • Make connections between the service activity and the academic content.
  • Understand how to apply content knowledge to service-learning projects
  • Assimilate and link the service experience back to the content.
  • Develop a deeper understanding of the academic concepts.
  • Strengthen critical thinking skills such as being able to identify issues, being receptive to new or different ideas, and foreseeing the consequences of one’s actions.
  • Refine a range of competencies including communication and teamwork skills, self-understanding, leadership and problem solving critical to students’ ethical development and civic responsibility.

At the same time, the quality of the service is enhanced if students are encouraged to reflect upon the responsible use of academic content in their service settings.

Effective curriculum-based service learning requires more than a report or presentation at the end of the service-learning project. By providing numerous opportunities for reflection before, during and after the experience this ongoing process of reflection enhances student/teacher communication and provides teachers with a better understanding of student projects, understanding of the academic content as it applies to the service-learning project, problem-solving efforts and progress. Such communication can help in improving project effectiveness as well as student learning.

The role of reflection varies according to the stage of the project.

Reflection before the project can be used to prepare students for the service-learning experience. Reflective preparation is key to the effectiveness of service learning. At this stage reflection can be used to teach students academic concepts and knowledge required for the project, orient them towards the community and/or organization and its needs, and offer them problem-solving skills to address the challenges that might arise in the community setting.

Reflection during the project teachers can use reflection to encourage students to learn independently while providing feedback and support as needed to enhance student learning. Reflection not only offers teachers an opportunity to reinforce the connection of academic content with the service experience but also allows teachers an opportunity to seize the teachable moments that arise during the service-learning project.

Reflection after the curriculum-based service learning project has ended can help students evaluate the meaning of the experience, grasp their emotional responses to the experience, think about the integration of knowledge and new information, and begin to explore further applications/extensions.

A variety of activities can be used to facilitate student reflection. Teachers can require students to keep journals, organize presentations by community leaders, encourage students to publicly discuss their service experiences and the learning that ensued, and require students to prepare reports to demonstrate their learning. When constructing the reflection activities teachers should consider the following:

  • Reflection activities should involve individual learners and address interactions with peers, community members and staff of community agencies.
  • Students with different learning styles may prefer different types of activities. Teachers should select a range of reflective activities to meet the needs of different learners.
  • Different types of reflection activities may be appropriate at different stages of the service learning project. For example, case studies and readings can help students prepare academically for the service experience.
  • Reflection activities can involve reading, writing, doing and telling. Some examples of reflective activities are briefly described below:
Case studies Assign case studies to help students think about what to expect from the service project and to plan for the service activity. Use published case studies or instructor developed case studies based on past service-learning projects.
Journals Ask students to record thoughts, observations, feelings, activities and questions in a journal throughout the project. The most common form of journals is free form journals. The journal should be started early in the project and students should make frequent entries. Explain benefits of journals to students such as enhancing observational skills, exploring feelings, assessing progress and enhancing communication skills. Teachers should provide feedback by responding to journals, class discussions of issue/ questions raised in journals or further assignments based on journal entries.
Structured journals Use structured journals to direct student attention to important issues/ questions and to connect the service experience to academic content. A structured journal provides prompts to guide the reflective process. Some parts of the journal may focus on affective dimensions while others relate to coursework or problem-solving activities.
Team journal Use a team journal to promote interaction between team members on project related issues and to introduce students to different perspectives on the project. Students can take turns recording shared and individual experiences, reactions and observations, and responses to each other’s entries.
Critical incidents journal Ask students to record a critical incident for each week of the service learning project. The critical incident refers to events in which a decision was made, a conflict occurred, a problem resolved. The critical incident journal provides a systematic way for students to communicate problems and challenges involved in working with the community and with their teams and can thus help in dealing with the affective dimensions of the service learning experience.
Portfolios Ask students to select and organize evidence related to accomplishments and specific learning outcomes in a portfolio. Portfolios can include drafts of documents, analysis of problems/ issues, project activities/plans, annotated bibliography. Ask students to organize evidence by learning objectives or standards.
Papers Ask students to write an integrative paper on the service learning project. Journals and other products can serve as the building blocks for developing the final paper.
Discussions Encourage formal/informal discussions with teammates, other volunteers and staff to introduce students to different perspectives and to challenge students to think critically about the project.
Presentations Ask student(s) to present their service learning experience and discuss it in terms of concepts/theories/content covered and discussed in class.
Interviews Interview students on service learning experiences and the learning that occurred in these experiences.

Adapted from: Using Structured Reflection to Enhance Learning from Service.

To begin conversation with staff about the role of reflection in service learning read, Reflection as a Tool for Turning Service Experiences into Learning Experiences..

The following websites provide additional information about the role of reflection in curriculum-based service learning and specific strategies found to be most effective in structuring reflection. Service Learning:

K-12 Reflection

Facilitating Reflection: A Manual for Leaders and Educators

Academic Service-learning – The Reflection Concept by Drew Blanchard

Service Learning Reflection Activities

Service Reflection Toolkit

Reflection: Connecting Service to Academic learning

The Importance of Reflection in Service learning

National Service Learning Partnership

Pennsylvania Service learning alliance

National Youth Leadership Council

ESD 112 Service Learning Northwest

Corporation for National and Community Service

National Service Learning Clearinghouse

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