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Reflecting on Service

According to John Dewey, “truly educative” experiences generate interest, are intrinsically worthwhile, present problems that awaken new curiosity and create a demand for new information and take sufficient time to foster development. Critical reflection and analysis are crucial to the process of transforming experiences gained from the service activities and the course materials into genuine learning. Reflection is essential for integrating the service experience with the classroom topics. It fosters learning about larger social issues such as the political, economic and sociological characteristics of our communities. Reflection enhances students’ critical understanding of the course topics and their ability to assess their own values, goals, and progress.

Critical Reflection
Reflection is a process designed to promote the examination and interpretation of experience and the promotion of cognitive learning. It is “a process by which service-learners think critically about their experiences.” It is the process of looking back on the implications of actions taken – good and bad – and determining what has been gained, lost or achieved and connecting these conclusions to future actions and larger societal contexts. Through reflection students analyze concepts, evaluate experiences and postulate theory. Critical reflection provides students with the opportunity to examine and question their beliefs, opinions, and values. It involves observation, asking questions and putting facts, ideas and experiences together to derive new meaning.

Benefits of Critical Reflection
Reflection improves basic academic skills and promotes a deeper understanding of course subject matter and its relations to the non-academic world; it improves higher level thinking and problem solving and students’ ability to learn from experience. Critical reflection promotes personal development by enhancing students’ self-awareness, their sense of community and their sense of their own capacities.

Facilitating Critical Reflection and Analysis
Effective reflection depends on appropriate contexts and real problems and issues. The culture of the class community must be one in which students feel included, respected, and safe. The dialogue between instructor and students must be meaningful to the students. Students are helped to feel respected and included in the class community through small groups in which they can exchange concerns, experiences and expectations about the service and the class. By involving them in real community problems, service-learning provides students with a need to know, a desire to enhance their skills and a commitment to solving problems of importance to them.

Helpful Tips for Faculty

  • Prepare a framework for guiding the discussion.  
  • Lead the group by actively engaging each student.
  • Set the tone by establishing norms of behavior such as the following:
    • Anyone in the group may speak at any time – no hand-raising is required, but the rules of polite conversation should be followed.
    • Profanity and sexual innuendoes are not necessary to make a point.
    • Speakers should be respectful, open-minded, and not aim to put anyone down.
    • Insist that responses are clear, coherent sentences, not just a few words.
  • Clarify students’ responsibilities and expectations. Write them down and copy for all.
  • Arouse interest and commitment to service-learning.
  • Assess the values, knowledge, and skills that each student brings to the project.
  • Develop background information about the people and problems the students will encounter in the service situations to sensitize them and help to revise any misconceptions.
  • Develop and practice any skills that will be required, including being active observers and questioners of experience.
  • Get closure on emotional/affective issues by the end of each reflective session.
  • Leave some cognitive/topical issues open until the next session to give group members an opportunity to think more about them.
  • Caution students about protecting the confidentiality and integrity of persons at their worksite.

Effective Reflection
Effective academic service-learning reflection will:

  • Occur before, during and after the service component of the course.
  • Clearly link the service experience to the course content and learning objectives
  • Be structured in terms of description, expectation, and the criteria for assessing the activity
  • Occur regularly during the semester so that students can practice reflection and develop the capacity to engage in deeper and broader reflection
  • Provide feedback from the instructor about at least some of the reflection activities so that students learn how to improve their critical analysis and develop from reflective practice
  • Include the opportunity for students to explore, clarify and alter their values.
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