Using Reflection

Why Reflection?

Reflection is the key ingredient for transforming service experiences into learning. It is basic to the process of integrating service with the academic concepts presented in the classroom:

“(T)he academic payoffs of having students engage in community service are substantial when the service activity is integrated with traditional classroom instruction. The key word here is integrated. The kinds of service activities in which the students participate should be selected so that they illustrate, affirm, extend, and challenge material presented in readings and lectures. Time in class meetings should be set aside regularly for students to reflect upon and discuss what they are learning in the community. These recommendations are consistent with conclusions of others who have studied service-learning (e.g., Barber, 1992; Hedin, 1989; Station, 1990).”
*Markus, G.B., J.P.F. Howard, and D.C. King. (1993). Integrating Service and Classroom Instruction Enhances Learning: Results from an Experiment. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. 15 (4): 410-419.

3 Basic Questions of Reflection

Components of Reflection**

What will / are / have you been doing?
So What?
What will / are / have you been learning?
Why is your service work needed?
Critical Thinking
Now What?
What should others do about it?
What are you going to do about it?
Decision Making

Reflection Activities


Exchange of ideas between students and faculty about the subject matter of the course can provide service-learners a chance to relate their service to course concepts and share their experiences with traditional learners. Discussions need not be focused on the service aspect of the student’s experiences, but course concepts. Discussions offer a forum which encourages students (both traditional and service-learning) to process and relate what they are studying, doing, and learning, and is an opportunity for the instructor to emphasize key concepts through the examples provided by the students. Faculty may arrange discussions separately for service-learners and for traditional students, however this is not necessary. With content-focused discussion questions and encouragement for service-learning students to apply their service experience in the discussion, all class members can be included and benefit.


Reflective writing is a primary tool used by educators engaged in service-learning. Asking students to consider their experiences can be very effective; however, it is important to guide students in their journals so that they are not simply logs of events. The students should be encouraged to address objective events, subjective impressions, and an analytic response, at the very least, in each journal entry. In addition, some instructors include specific guided questions which assist students to integrate their experience with particular course concepts. Journals are reviewed periodically by the faculty member during the semester.

Analytical Papers

In contrast with a traditional research papers, service-learners can incorporate examples from their service experiences with course material to demonstrate their learning. Analytical papers might include: a detailed description of the type of work they did, the environment and goals of the agency and/or project, and a summary of their experiences; an evaluation of the purpose and meaning of their service and the needs met by it, what they learned from their experience, the strengths and limitations of those addressing the issues and needs, and changes and improvements they would make in their service and the project or agency; and an integration section in which students elaborate on how their service experience related to and/or conflicted with course concepts, affected their evaluation of or changed their assumptions about the material discussed in class, demonstrated ways in which academic learning is relevant and can be applied in the community, and ways in which their experience impacted their educational and/or career goals.


Compiling an array of materials related to their service can help contextualize student’s experiences. Some service-learning portfolios consist of other reflection elements, such as a journal, a paper or presentation. They can also hold artifacts from the service project, such as pictures, brochures, as well as additions items which might relate to the service project and the course, such as newspaper clippings, articles, etc. As a practical tool, portfolios can further serve as an organizer for the various documentation for the service-learning experience, such as the time-sheet, handbook, service-learning agreement, and training materials. Both faculty and students can be very creative with the portfolio concept and find many ways to use it.


Either group or individual presentations by service-learning students to the class can offer traditional students a chance to learn from the others’ experiences. Following the same format as the analytical paper, students can describe, evaluate, and integrate their service with the course, while also using visual materials and responding to questions to convey their learning to the instructor and class.

Reading Responses

Students write about their service experience in relation to assigned course readings. The questions you formulate for their responses can be open-ended or pointed in helping students think critically about the academic material in a real-world context. This activity can be particularly valuable when the readings incorporate the similar issues as those being confronted by the service agencies and projects engaging the students.

Student Forum

Electronically (by e-mail or listserv) or during in-class forum groups, students respond in writing to your discussion questions and to each other. Each student should talk about or post a response to the week’s reflection question and to at least one other student’s entry. Some discussion questions may be directly related to course readings, others more open-ended regarding their service or personal perceptions and experiences. You respond to students as appropriate and can use their entries in the forum for future discussion topics. A listserv allows both service-learning and traditional students to consider the values, ideas, and experiences of other students and your questions can guide them towards integrating these with course material.


Reflection Questions

Some questions you might present for your students to consider in discussions, journals, portfolios, student forums, and other contexts:

  • What expectations do you have about your service experience?
  • What do you think your project or the service agency will be like?
  • What do you think you will do and what impact do you think you will have?
  • What are the social issues that this project or service agency addresses?
  • How does this project or agency address community needs?
  • What are the causes of those community needs?
  • How do people contribute to this problem?
  • How do we help to solve it?
  • Did anything surprise you? If so, what?
  • What did you do today that made you feel that you made a difference? Why?
  • Did anything happen that made you feel uncomfortable? If so what, and why do you think it made you feel this way?
  • What did you do that seemed to be effective or ineffective in service to others?
  • How does your understanding of the community change as a result of your participation in this project?
  • How can you continue your involvement with this group or social issue?
  • How can you educate others or raise awareness about this group or social issue?
  • What is the most positive thing that happened in your service experience this week?
  • What are the most difficult and most satisfying parts of your work? Why?
  • What do you think is your most valued contribution of your project?
  • Is there a person or activity you finding interesting or challenging in your project?
  • How do you see your role with this project? How does that compare with how others may see your role?
  • Have you learned from any disappointments or successes of your project?
  • Has there been a problem situation that you want to discuss with your supervisor or instructor?
  • How is your service relevant to the readings and discussions in class?
  • How does your service experience connect to your long-term goals?

Adapted from: Center for Public Policy & Service, Mesa Community College. Student Guide for Service-Learning.) and Virginia Campus Outreach Opportunity League. (1995). Reflections – A Resource Book.

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