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Structured Reflection

1. What is structured reflection?

Effective service-learning programs provide opportunities for people to reflect critically on their service experience. Service-learning projects can be used to reinforce course content and to develop a variety of competencies including critical thinking, communication skills, leadership, a sense of civic responsibility and multicultural understanding. Structured reflection can help students make meaningful connections between their service experience and course content, and in the process develop various skills.

The term structured reflection is used to refer to a thoughtfully constructed process that challenges and guides students in (1) examining critical issues related to their service-learning project, (2) connecting the service experience to coursework, (3) enhancing the development of civic skills and values, and (4) assisting students in finding personal relevance in the work.


2. Why is structured reflection critical to effective service-learning?

The previous section introduced reflection as a process, one that is structured by faculty with the intention of assisting students in making connections between course content and the service experience. Reflection is a critical component of all experience-based pedagogies. However, a well-designed reflection process is particularly important in service-learning for the following reasons:

  • Textbooks and lectures use techniques such as highlighting key points, examples, clarifying common misconceptions, and summaries to facilitate student learning. In contrast, experience provides few explicit guides to learning. Students need to be challenged, encouraged and supported in reflecting on service projects and in connecting these experiences to coursework.

  • Experience is unstructured and messy. Real-world projects are not simple applications of concepts and rules learned in the classroom. The tasks of collecting information, framing the problem, identifying alternatives and recommending and justifying solutions appropriate to specific contexts are challenging tasks. Reflection activities such as project logs and journals provide opportunities for students to share project progress and concerns on an ongoing basis. Project effectiveness and student learning can both be enhanced by reviewing student reflection and providing guidance.

  • The importance of structured reflection is underscored by the realization that a significant portion of the learning experience cannot be observed or controlled by the instructor. Faculty may not be priveleged to the complexity of detail in a service project, yet faculty are expected to provide guidance to students in addressing problems. Further, different students/ teams can be involved in different projects. Thus unlike textbook problems/ cases, it may be difficult to integrate discussion of project details in classroom discussion. A carefully structured reflection process can facilitate the exchange of relevant information between students, faculty and the community in a timely manner.

  • Reflection is also important because students need a safe space for grappling with the range of emotions that arise from a service experience.

3. What are the goals of reflection?

Service-learning can be used to support a variety of educational goals. Educators have defined and organized service-learning goals in different ways.

One critical goal for reflection is to help students make connections between the service activity and coursework. Reflection can be used to help students understand how to apply course knowledge to service-learning projects, and to assimilate and link the service experience back to course work. By incorporating such reflection, students get a deeper understanding of course material. At the same time, the quality of the service is enhanced if students are encouraged to reflect upon the responsible use disciplinary knowledge in their service settings.

Another goal for structured reflection is the development or refinement of 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.

Structured reflection can reinforce and foster a range of competencies identified in service-learning, including communication and teamwork skills, self-understanding, leadership and public problem solving. These are skills and competencies critical to students' ethical development and civic responsibility.

Regardless of the outcomes emphasized in a particular service project, the reflection process must be structured to reinforce specific educational outcomes that faculty have identified as critical in the course. For example, if critical thinking is a goal, then faculty must design reflective exercises that help students understand the uncertainties inherent in the service-learning project, identify a range of possibilities for addressing those uncertainties, and examine these possibilities from the perspective of different stakeholders. Faculty cannot assume that the service experience will automatically result in enhanced problem-solving skills; an intentional, ongoing process is required for coaching students and helping them acquire such skills.


4. When should reflection occur?

Effective service-learning requires more than a report or presentation at the end of the semester. Faculty must provide numerous opportunities for reflection before, during and after the experience. An ongoing process of reflection enhances student faculty communication and provides faculty with a better understanding of student projects, 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 concepts/ theories required for the project, orient them towards the community organization and its needs, and offer them problem-solving skills to address the challenges that will arise in the community setting.

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

Reflection after the service experience 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.


5. Who is involved in structured reflection?

Many reflection activities involve a critical examination of the service experience by individual students. However, faculty must consider how student interactions with faculty, peers, and clients, staff and volunteers at community organizations can enhance student reflection. Some examples of how communication with others can enhance the quality of student projects as well as student learning include:

Faculty can guide students by modeling practice, giving suggestions and examples, providing feedback and asking questions. Faculty can also provide tips and advice to help students avoid pitfalls.

An orientation session by community agency staff can help students understand project requirements and prepare students for working in that setting.

Discussions with teammates, other volunteers and community agency staff can also enhance reflection by introducing students to different perspectives. Such discussions can be helpful in challenging students to think critically about the project. Regular communication between stakeholders is also important for ensuring project success.

Structured reflection allows students, faculty and community agency staff to assess and review project effectiveness and offer lessons learned from the community service experience.


6. What is the role of faculty in structured reflection?

As discussed in previous sections, reflection is an intentional process structured by faculty to facilitate student learning. As such faculty must: (1) design reflection, (2) coach students during reflection, and (3) monitor reflection and provide feedback.

A key role for faculty involves designing appropriate reflection activities at different stages of the service-learning project. Faculty must consider how these activities can be structured to involve peers and the community. Faculty must also decide on appropriate ways to monitor student reflection and to measure progress towards project/course goals. Finally, faculty must devise ways to integrate reflection activities with other course activities.

A second key role of faculty involves coaching students. Coaching during reflection can help promote effective service and enhance student learning. In addition to concepts and guidelines learned in the classroom, students need additional skills related to information gathering, problem-framing, and problem-resolution. Students cannot learn such problem-solving skills simply by being 'told' by an instructor. These skills are better learned by active participation and by faculty coaching. Faculty can coach by modeling practice, giving suggestions and examples, providing feedback and asking questions. Faculty can also provide tips and advice to help students avoid pitfalls.

Finally, the effectiveness of reflection in enhancing project quality and in promoting learning depends on continuous faculty feedback. For example, if reflection suggests that students are not considering particular constituencies' alternative options in addressing a problem, faculty may have to assign additional exercises that facilitate student reflection in those directions. Monitoring student reflection also helps faculty in enhancing the reflection process over time. In addition, project quality and learning can be enhanced by student feedback which in turn can depend on the communication environment that the faculty member has facilitated.


7. What are the different types of reflective activities that can be used in service-learning projects?

A variety of activities can be used to facilitate student reflection. Faculty 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 faculty 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. Faculty 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 experience. For example, case-studies and readings can help students prepare 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 to record thoughts, observations, feelings, activities and questions in a journal throughout the project. The most common form of journals are 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. Faculty 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 classwork. A structured journal provides prompts to guide the reflective process. Some parts of the journal may focus on affective dimensions while others relate to 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 others entries.
Critical incidents journal Ask students to record a critical incident for each week of the service 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 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.
Papers Ask students to write an integrative paper on the service 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 experience and discuss it in terms of concepts/theories discussed in class.
Interviews Interview students on service experiences and the learning that occurred in these experiences.


8. How can faculty design a reflection process that is appropriate for the context and setting of a service-learning project?

The previous section described a variety of reflection activities that can be used in service-learning projects. Faculty must carefully structure reflection according to the specific service-learning context. Moreover, the nature of the course, project characteristics and student characteristics must all be considered in designing effective reflection.

Service-learning projects can vary considerably in scope and in nature. Projects that are less complex may be selected earlier in the curriculum since students may not have acquired enough disciplinary knowledge at this stage. Projects later in the curriculum may be more complex. Further, the weight assigned to projects may differ across courses. Service-learning may be an extra credit requirement or one of many requirements in some courses. On the other hand, the service project may be the focus of a capstone course. Such differences must be considered in designing an appropriate reflection process. For example, the extent to which reflective activities can be assigned may be limited by the weight assigned to the service-learning project in grading.

Faculty must also consider student characteristics that are likely to have an impact on their learning in service situations including prior knowledge, motivation and goals, learning styles, and intellectual development. For example, cognitive development literature suggests that many students may not be ready to handle adequately the complexity that direct contact with communities can engender. Thus reflection must be designed to provide adequate support and guidance to students during service-learning projects. It also should assist students as they move developmentally over the course of the semester. These factors are discussed in more detail in the best practices section.


9. How can faculty design effective reflection?

This section summarizes key principles that faculty can use as a starting point for the design of reflection.

In order to design an effective reflection process, faculty must address the question: How can reflection contribute to effective service-learning? The six principles below can help faculty in enhancing both the quality of students' service as well as the quality of student learning through reflection.

Connected: Effective service-learning integrates service with course work. Reflection is the means through which faculty can help students develop meaningful connections between the service experience and course content.

Continuous: Student learning is enhanced by providing multiple opportunities for reflection before, during and after the project. Project effectiveness is also enhanced by using reflection to prepare students for the service-learning experience and to guide students as they address community concerns.

Challenging: Service-learning projects should challenge students to think in new ways, raise new questions, and explore new ways of problem-solving, including the kind of public problem-solving connected to democratic civic engagement. By encouraging students to explore issues more deeply and to think about issues and solutions they may not have considered, faculty can enhance students' problem-solving efforts as well as the resulting learning.

Coaching: Faculty must challenge students while simultaneously providing support and creating a 'safe' environment--one where students are confident that their contributions and feelings will be respected. Furthermore, students need support in executing complex project tasks. Note that continuous reflection facilitates the faculty coaching role by providing project related information in a timely manner.

Contextualized: Faculty can enhance the effectiveness of service-learning projects by ensuring that reflection activities are appropriate for the context and setting of the project. Faculty must consider factors such as student knowledge and attitudes, community needs, and course objectives and constraints in designing the reflection process. 

Communication Structured reflection should provide opportunitues for communication with peers, faculty and community organizations. Communication with community organization and faculty is essential to ensuring that the project is effective in meeting community needs. Communication with faculty, peers and community organizations can also enhance student learning by exposing students to multiple perspectives.


10. What is the potential impact of structured reflection on a course?

The previous section discussed the need for an ongoing, structured process of reflection that connects service to coursework, challenges students while providing guidance and support, is contextual, and fosters communication between stakeholders. An effective reflection process with these characteristics could result in radical changes in a course.

If several reflective assignments are used before, during and after the service experience, faculty must identify ways of incorporating these assignments into the course. Students may not see the relevance of service-learning or reflection if the assignments are not coherently integrated. In order to effectively combine service, reflection and assignments, faculty should consider the following:

  • Integration can be challenging if students are working on diverse projects with various community agencies.
  • Faculty should create adequate opportunities for small group and large group interaction to help students consider various perspectives and appreciate diverse experiences.
  • Another issue in integrating reflection relates to monitoring reflection and providing feedback in a timely manner. If several reflective assignments are warranted, faculty should consider the amount of time this will entail and how that additional time and effort will be negotiated and assessed. Faculty may need to assign significant weight to reflective assignments in order to motivate students to spend adequate time and effort on such activities.
  • Finally, faculty must recognize that the process of integrating reflection is imperative given that service-learning involves dynamic real-world situations. This requires students to assume a higher level of responsibility and accountability for thier work and to recognize that the ramifications for failure will impact others. Further, individual student characteristics such as intellectual development will affect a students performance as well as the quality of reflection. Faculty may have to assign additional questions or redesign assignments that respect the developmental levels of students.