It is a core principle of any experiential-learning pedagogy that student learning results not from the experience itself, but from their reflective meaning-making of the experience. For community engagement to achieve the intended learning objectives, students must make connections between their experiences and the course and think critically about what they have observed and what they have done.
Reflection in Course Design
Eyler, Giles and Schmiede (1996) describe critical reflection as needing four parts:
Continuous: Reflection activities should be undertaken throughout the service-learning course, rather than irregularly or only at mid-term/end-of-term. Reflection should not be tidy and bring closure, rather it should be messy and create more questions than answers.
- Connected: Reflection discussions and assignments should be structured such that they relate directly to the learning objectives and the course content.
- Challenging: Faculty should expect high quality of student effort, with demonstrated complex and critical thinking. Reflection must be more than a simple retelling of events or an emotional outlet for feeling good or feeling guilty.
- Contextualized: Reflection activities should compliment the other course activities, including texts and other assignments.
Reflection Assignment Prompts
A common structure of reflective thinking is the What? So What? Now What? model. The benefit of explicitly teaching this format is that it helps students develop a habit of thinking reflectively about their experiences - preparing them for lifelong learning. The prompts under each heading of the model are just a few suggestions. Yours should fit your course and encourage students to explore their own questions under each heading. Note: feel free to add examples that you use with your students.
- What did you observe?
- Describe a critical incident that stands out from your experience.
- Describe what is happening with your project right now. What is working smoothly and what have been the unexpected challenges?
- What do you interpret your observations to mean?
- Think critically - what assumptions might you be making in your interpretation? What assumptions may others be making? What other reasonable explanations might there be?
- How does your position as internal or external to this community affect your perceptions?
- How would you apply our class readings/discussions to interpret what is happening?
- Do our social institutions and structures help address the problems you see or do they create them? How so?
- Do people who receive service benefit as much as those who give it?
- What do you still need to learn? How will you get the information you need to know?
- What needs to happen here to make a positive difference?
- How can you influence that change? What collective effort needs to happen?
- What is the role of your discipline/profession in addressing the issue? What is the role of government? What is the role of citizens/community members?
Reflection Assignments Formats
Faculty have a great deal of flexibility and room for creativity in determining the best format for students to share their reflective thinking. For more extensive descriptions, we encourage you to explore the GW Service-Learning Faculty Handbook (beginning on p 33).
- Research papers
- Reflective essays and directed writing assignments
- Journals (individual or collective)
- Electronic discussion boards
- Photo essays
- Digital stories and other multimedia presentations
The GW Symposium on Community-Engaged Scholarship
The Nashman Center's Symposium on Community-Engaged Scholarship is a great opportunity for you to engage students in a uniquely powerful final reflection experience. The Symposium gathers students from Community-Engaged Scholarship courses across the disciplines as well as their faculty and community partners. Students can share their experiences through presentations, panels, posters or multi-media presentations, and reflect with community partners as well as with students and faculty from other courses/disciplines. We recommend building participation in this day into your syllabus.