Service Learning: How to Implement Effective Reflection

    Posted: March 24, 2016

    When one thinks of Service-Learning the two aspects that come to mind are often the two so nicely outlined in the name itself. There will be a service component as well as an educational aspect to the experience. However, there is a third element that synthesizes and connects the service with the learning. Reflection. Service Learning’s often forgotten, yet absolutely essential ingredient.

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    Reflection is the bridge that ties the entire experience together. However, effective reflection takes a bit of work and understanding in order to be impactful.

    Below are 8 essential ways to ensure that reflection is effectively executed.

    1. Vary the ways in which reflection is conducted

    Different manners of reflection bring about different interpretations of a situation. We have all experienced how debriefing verbally with a friend yields different thoughts than writing in a journal will. A successful reflection curriculum shouldn’t ignore this fact and should vary the ways in which Service Learning participants are asked to reflect on their experience.

    Some effective tools include:

    • Journal writing
    • Group Dialogues
    • Presentations
    • Experiential Research Papers

    Dariusz Sankowski

    2. Accentuate the importance of listening

    Creating connections during the service learning experience is as much about personal reflection as it is about listening to the others participating with you. Listening is a skill that can and should be developed and strengthened. Active listening means listening for understanding in order to create mutual understanding.

    When active listening takes place participants expand their own opinions and ideas and gain insight into new perspectives that they may not have thought of.
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    3. Make sure that reflection is ongoing and not an isolated occurrence

    Reflection should not just occur one day of the week, nor should it always occur at the same time of the day. Make sure that reflection is added in throughout the day as experiences occur.

    Service Learning students should start to see reflection as a regular part of the experience, not as an isolated occurrence. This will start to reinforce the practice of continuously interpreting events, not simply experiencing them.
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    4. Ensure that reflection revolves around three essential questions

    Making meaning out of the service learning experience means that reflection should be based on three key components; objectively synthesizing the event (what?), critically analyzing events (so what?), and thinking about future implications of the experience (now what?). Focusing on these three questions flushes out the reflection process so that students are taking into account the past, present, and future implications of their experiences.

    Focusing on these three questions flushes out the reflection process so that students are taking into account the past, present, and future implications of their experiences.

    Ask Service Learning Students:

    • What?
    • So What?
    • Now What?

    5. Establish a safe space

    Before jumping into reflection the group should establish rules and expectations for the space. In order for reflection to be effective, it needs to be honest and participants need to feel comfortable being vulnerable.

    This means that the space itself needs to be one in which all service learning members feel safe and respected. This begins with a conversation in which all members discuss what they expect from themselves, one another, and the facilitator.

    Guidelines regarding respectful listening, appropriate responses, and how to handle conflict should be discussed before dialogue begins.
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    6. Aim to facilitate the reflection not to lead it

    A facilitator should be “a neutral mediator whose job is to provide information and accommodate the exchange of dialogue among … participants.” Instead of controlling and directing the group a facilitator should know how to direct conversation, mutually participate in the discussion, and open up dialogue instead of shutting down ideas and opinions.

    The facilitator’s role in the group is crucial as they will help establish and maintain the previously established safe space.

    7. Remember that reflection should be challenging

    Some topics that arise during a Service Learning trip can be harder to tackle, they might bring up topics that are uncomfortable or shed light on unfortunate disparities that still exist. The goal with reflection is to not shy away from these topics.

    Effective reflection will address these moments head on and ask participants to dive in as well. This is essential because it will push service learning participants to question their old thought patterns thus igniting change.
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    8. Encourage participation, but don’t force it

    It is essential to engage all service learning participants in the discussion, but part of creating a safe space is that nobody should ever feel forced to contribute their ideas. When people feel forced to join a discussion it often has the opposite effect and creates withdrawal and resentment. This is why having different outlets for reflection is so important, as everyone will have their own way in which they feel most comfortable engaging with their experience.

    These eight tips are simply a start to making reflection a successful element of any service-learning program. What other elements of reflection should be considered?

    Share your suggestions with us and other educators in the comments section below.

    GVI is a multi-award winning international Service Learning organization. Find out more about our international programs and see how students from around the world are making a difference.