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Seminar Topics: Reflective Writing (student module)

Team topics included in this Module:

Community service, in itself, can be meaningful, pointless, or harmful. Reflection is the key to getting meaning from your service experience. What is reflection? A process by which service-learners think critically about their experiences. Reflection can happen through writing, speaking, listening, and reading about the service experiences. Why is reflection important? Learning happens through a mix of theory and practice, thought and action, observation and interaction. It allows students to learn from themselves.

The process of reflection is a core component of service-learning. Service-learning practitioners and researchers alike have concluded that the most effective service-learning experiences are those that provide “structured opportunities” for learners to critically reflect upon their service experience. Structured opportunities for reflection can enable learners to examine and form their beliefs, values, opinions, assumptions, judgments and practices related to an action or experience, gain a deeper understanding of them and construct their own meaning and significance for future actions (Moon 1999). Reflection “facilitates the student's making connections between their service and their learning experience” and indeed the hyphen in the phrase “service-learning” can has been interpreted as representing this connection (Eyler and Giles 1999). This fact sheet provides an overview of reflection in higher education service-learning and links to helpful resources.

The Theory behind Reflection

Service-learning is deeply rooted in the action-reflection theories of John Dewey and David Kolb, who both describe the importance of combining individual action and engagement with reflective thinking to develop greater understanding of the content being studied (Crews 1999). Kolb is widely cited for providing a scientific interpretation of reflection (Olson 2000). Kolb illustrates the process of reflection in the Experiential Learning Cycle (Figure 1). The process begins with a defining and sharing of the “What?” of the student's experience and follows a continuous cycle towards “So What?” and “Now What?”. Answers to the what, so what and now what questions are tied together to form a comprehensive and integrated discovery and learning cycle for the student throughout the duration of a service-learning experience (Eyler 1999).

The Experiential Learning Cycle

Strategies for fostering reflection

Effective strategies for fostering reflection are based on four core elements of reflection known as “the four C's” (Eyler and Giles 1999). These elements are described below:

  • Continuous: The reflective process is implemented and maintained continuously before, during and after the service-learning experience.
  • Connected: The service experience is directly linked, or connected, to the learning objectives of the course or activity and allows for “synthesizing action and thought.”
  • Challenging: Learners are challenged to move from surface learning to deeper, critical thinking through the use of thought provoking strategies by the instructor or community facilitator. Since learners may encounter uncomfortable feelings, it is important that the students feel they are in a safe and mutually respectful atmosphere where they can freely express their opinions, ideas and thoughts.
  • Contextualized: Reflection is contextualized when it “corresponds” to the course content, topics and experience in a meaningful way.

What is a reflection journal?

In experiential learning you are both a participant and observer. As a participant you will be contributing to the organization in which you are placed and learning new skills. But this is not what makes the experience worthy of academic credit. The academic component of your community service results from your ability to systematically observe what is going on around you. This requires a kind of mental gymnastics that does not come without training and tools. A well- written journal is a tool, which helps you practice the quick movements back and forth from the environment in which you are working to the abstract generalizations you have read or heard in class.

How do you write a reflection journal?

As with any tool, beneficial use of a journal takes practice. You must force yourself to just start writing. You should write an entry for each day you attend your community service and it should be written immediately upon leaving the community service. At the risk of taking the spontaneity out of it, here are some tips on keeping a journal during your community service.

A journal is not a diary – you are not merely recounting the happenings of the day. Your entries, to be sure are based on the activities of the day, but they are more. Below are several ways in which you can move beyond a mere chronology of events.

Detailed description as if to an outsider. Often you will use your journal to record detailed descriptions of some aspect of your internship environment, whether physical, behavioral, or organizational. When you write them, you will not have a clear idea of what you will make of these details, but you will sense that they might be important later. These descriptions should sound as if you were describing them to someone who was never there. Journals allow you to sound naïve.

Tentative explanations. At times you will want to speculate as to why something that you have observed firsthand is as it is. You might derive your explanation from a lecture you have heard, a book you have read, or your own reservoir of “common sense”. Having posited an interpretation, you will want to continue with your detailed observations on the topic to see if you want to stick with your hypothesis or alter it. Journals allow you to change your mind.

Personal judgments. Less often you can use your journal to make judgments about something in your community service environment. There may be people’s actions that you find unpleasant, ways of doing things that are not as you would do them, work environments in which you would not want to remain. These judgments will help you learn about yourself, your values and your limits. Journals allow you to speak your mind.
 

Getting Started

So, buy a notebook or start a computer file. Date each entry. Have an entry for each day you attended your placement. Each entry should be at least a page or two in length. Write your first entry on the process of finding your placement. Write your second entry on your first impressions at your placement. Then take off on your own.

What Should I Write in My Journal?

Here are a few of the ingredients that go into a keeping a great journal:

  • Journals should be snapshots filled with sights, sounds, smells, concerns, insights, doubts, fears, and critical questions about issues, people, and, most importantly, yourself.
  • Honesty is the most important ingredient to successful journals.
  • A journal is not a work log of tasks, events, times and dates.
  • Write freely. Grammar/spelling should not be stressed in your writing until the final draft.
  • Write an entry after each visit. If you can’t write a full entry, jot down random thoughts, images, etc. which you can come back to a day or two later and expand into a colorful verbal picture.

Structuring Your Writing:

  • Use the journal as a time to meditate on what you’ve seen, felt, and experienced, and which aspects of the volunteer experience continues to excite, trouble, impress, or unnerve you.
  • Don’t simply answer the questions listed below, but use the questions as a diving board to leap from into a clear or murky pool of thought. Use the questions to keep your writing/“swimming” focused.
  • Final journals need to be edited for proper grammar and spelling. The Three Levels of Reflection

The Three Levels of Reflection

The Mirror (A clear reflection of the Self)

  • Who am I?
  • What are my values?
  • What have I learned about myself through this experience?
  • Do I have more/less understanding or empathy than I did before volunteering?
  • In what ways, if any, has your sense of self, your values, your sense of “community,” your willingness to serve others, and your self-confidence/self-esteem been impacted or altered through this experience?
  • Have your motivations for volunteering changed? In what ways?
  • How has this experience challenged stereotypes or prejudices you have/had? Any realizations, insights, or especially strong lessons learned or half-glimpsed?
  • Will these experiences change the way you act or think in the future? Have you given enough, opened up enough, cared enough?
  • How have you challenged yourself, your ideals, your philosophies, your concept of life or of the way you live?

The Microscope (Makes the small experience large)

  • What happened?
  • Describe your experience.
  • What would you change about this situation if you were in charge? What have you learned about this agency, these people, or the community?
  • Was there a moment of failure, success, indecision, doubt, humor, frustration, happiness, sadness?
  • Do you feel your actions had any impact?
  • What more needs to be done? Does this experience compliment or contrast with what you’re learning in class? How?
  • Has learning through experience taught you more, less, or the same as the class? In what ways?

The Binoculars (Makes what appears distant, appear closer)

  • From your service experience, are you able to identify any underlying or overarching issues that influence the problem?
  • What could be done to change the situation?
  • How will this alter your future behaviors/attitudes/and career?
  • How is the issue/agency you’re serving impacted by what is going on in the larger political/social sphere?
  • What does the future hold?
  • What can be done?

Journal Samples to get you started

Excerpt from Honors Service Learning Student Reflection Journal

Today I got to really to really help people. It was such a thrill to use my knowledge to really help people. Generally I see my skills as somewhat esoteric. Being a history student sometimes feels a bit wasteful. But today I helped a middle-aged woman called Marie. To her passing the language section of the GED really means something concrete. My one semester of Spanish really helped. I couldn’t really say anything useful, but I could use little examples to help him: “What would the Spanish word for ‘it’ be here? ‘Los’? That’s plural isn’t it? In English ‘los’ is always ‘them’, not ‘it’.” It’s so nice to feel useful.

Apparently my background check still hasn’t gone through, and I’m not supposed to be helping. I know this is a side issue, but it is one of the things about volunteering that upsets me. When a potential volunteer approaches an opportunity full of enthusiasm, and a background check takes over a week, and no one contacts her, it is easy to quickly loose that enthusiasm. I was the only person assisting the two teachers; they clearly needed me. But I no one contacted me about the classes starting. I had to take my own initiative. I don’t feel particularly wanted by the organization. This has been a problem for me in the past when I tried to volunteer. It seems sometimes organizations think people who are not being paid don’t care about details.

October 13th


Today was a little slow, so I got to chat with Jane. She only works on Saturdays at the clinic then does outreaches during the rest of the week, so I hardly get to see her. She was giving me advice about Nursing school as she went back to school to do her Nursing degree. She’s always so grateful as the work I do saves her from having to stay over an hour or so just to complete her paper work. Most of the people who work at the clinic have children, so it surprises me that they still hang on to the job especially since it takes so much of their free time and they don’t get paid for any overtime hours…that is what I call dedication!

We also got a new Medical Assistant. She’s called Helen and will be working in the lab sometimes; God knows Martha needs that help. She’s really nice too, but we have to share her with the clinic in Butler, so that’s a bummer.

September 6, 2001


My first day and already I am reminded of why I love doing this…those revelations about your life that you can only acquire while being a part of others. If I wanted to be bland I could say that I spent the day teaching homeless children how to make pop up cards, but that would not do justice to what really happened. It was bitter sweet, to have the importance of a mothers care in hard times highlighted in front of me, while the pain of the recent loss of my own mother is still strong and undoubtedly will always be.

Alva didn’t think twice about who she would make a card for… “her mama” she proclaimed proudly. She chatted away on how her mother worked late at the ballpark and I could sense just how proud she was of her mother as she described her mothers work duties, “she works the register and sometimes she makes the food”. I knew the feeling, my own mother was a welder, the only woman where she worked and although many people would look down at the job, I was very proud. The burns on her arms and the dirt under her fingernails showed me just how much she loved me. She worked for all of us and it didn’t matter that I didn’t have everything because I had all that mattered. It gave me hope that, although the current situation Alva found herself in at such a young age was difficult, she was going to be alright …maybe better than a lot of kids sleeping in their own beds because in her life she had what really mattered. That can make all the difference.

Yesterday I held the card that my mother had sent me when I first went away for college. I can’t express how much it meant to me, maybe even more than when I first received it. It read, “I’m missing something…you.” Gosh, how it seems so appropriate yet so ironic. I was thinking of how exactly I would start my creative project class for this course…what better way than a scrapbook…with a card to my own mother to start.

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