Critical Reflection and Service-Learning Courses

“Reflection is the hyphen in service-learning.”
~~Janet Eyler “Creating Your Reflection Map”

Written by Veronica House

The hyphen between service and learning embodies the philosophy behind the service-learning movement. The concepts are intimately connected, and the purpose of our courses is to join the two. We can work towards that connection through reflection.

Numerous studies have found that service-learning’s effectiveness comes with well-integrated service work, academic study, and critical reflection activities. The reflections are a key to pushing students to connect theories from the classroom with their fieldwork.

Assessment studies have shown that little to no change in understanding/assumptions takes place where the service component in a course is minimal or extra credit. If the service is sustained throughout the semester and reflection exercises are well-aligned with the academic work AND service work, there is a much higher rate of continued engagement once the course ends.

Virtually all academic definitions of service-learning now include reflection as essential to the definition, so it is important that we understand ways to effectively use it in our classes.
This definitional inclusion has grown from evidence that the service element of a course does not, necessarily, generate learning and, much to the surprise and dismay of many instructors, can sometimes even re-enforce stereotypes and previous assumptions. Reflections are key to moving students to deeper levels of understanding.

From Bringle and Hatcher's "Reflection in Service Learning: Making Meaning of Experience" (1999):

Reflection is the intentional examination of an experience in light of particular learning objectives. It is both retrospective and prospective.

Effective reflection activities should
(a) clearly link the service experience to course content and learning objectives,

(b) be structured in terms of descriptions, expectations, and the criteria for assessment,

(c) occur regularly during the semester,

(d) allow for feedback and assessment by the instructor, and

(e) include the opportunity for students to explore, clarify, and alter their personal values.

When reflection activities are integrated into class discussions, appear on exams, and are part of formal assignments, students report higher levels of satisfaction with the course and greater academic gains from the experience.

How we set up reflection matters:

It may help to consider a few things before your course begins:

Determine when and why will you have students reflect. This will relate to your learning goals.
How will you help students to achieve these goals through reflection?
What kinds of feedback will students receive on reflections?
From whom? – other students? You? Community Partner?
How will reflections build on one another and connect to reading and assignments? This means thinking not only about the individual reflection activities, but how to scaffold them throughout the semester to maximize student learning.

As Bringle and Hatcher have noted, reflection is a “learned skill,” which means that reflection assignments and activities should cover the span of the semester so that students can develop the capacity to engage in deeper and broader examination of issues. They should happen before, during, and after service, alone, in groups, and with the community partner. Because experiences may create confusion, disillusionment, guilt, despair, or the much discussed "savior complex," it is our role to help students delve into the complexities of their experiences to understand the deep social and political structures that underpin the problems they’re seeing. We have a spectrum of students with wide variation of experience, knowledge, and enthusiasm, so our responses to their refelctions will be a continuous, individualized dialogue.

How do we use reflections to help students develop their critical consciousness?
How do we best get students to GENERATE and DEEPEN understanding, knowledge, and experience through reflection?

Patti Clayton at N.C. State has suggested the D.E.A.L model for engaging students in "critical reflection."
Here's the progression that Clayton suggests we seek:
Describe->Examine->Articulate Learning
There is a 4-part structure for written articulated learnings.
Students answer:
What did you learn?
How did you learn it?
Why is it important?
What will you do because of it?

In other words:
emotional/gut response-> increased understanding –> connection to course content –> transformational thinking with strategies for short and long term solutions

To develop critical thinking skills we can ask students to move from description to analysis to advanced reflection based on learning theorist David Kolb’s (1984) cycle of action and reflection:
What/ so what/ now what?

If critical reflection is integrated throughout the semester, students will begin to anticipate the reflection questions, and when they go out into the community or read something new, they will think, “what am I learning, how am I learning it…” They are deepening their reflective, critical thinking skills and they will begin to engage with the world in reflective ways.