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Seminar Topics: Reflective Writing (faculty module)

As previously stated, the Corps (regardless of format) should include a required writing component.  This section is designed to help you understand the value of the writing component and to help you use reflective writing to enhance the service learning experience for your students.  It is accompanied by Seminar Topics: Reflective Writing (student module).

Background and Rational for Service Learning in Higher Education

History of Service-Learning in Higher Education (Source: National Service-Learning Clearinghouse, January 2008)

Service and Service-Learning on Colleges and University Campuses

Community service and civic engagement have a long history on American campuses beginning in the 19th century and finding revitalization in the 1960s, 1980s, and today. For example, community service activities in Greek-letter organizations and campus faith-based groups have had an enduring presence on campuses. The civil rights movement of the 1960s, and the formation of the Peace Corps in 1961, and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) in 1965 brought a new passionate energy to activist education by engaging young people and giving them real opportunities to make a difference in the world. It was during this time period that the early pioneers of the service-learning movement began to emerge and attempted to combine 'service' to 'learning' in a direct and powerful way.

In 1969, these pioneers and others concerned with higher education and community service met in Atlanta to discuss the pros and cons of service-learning and the importance of implementing these types of programs in American colleges and universities. Sponsors included the Southern Regional Education Board, the City of Atlanta, Atlanta Urban Corps, Peace Corps, VISTA, and the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. The participants in the conference came up with the following recommendations:

  • Colleges and universities should encourage students to participate in community service, help to make sure that academic learning is a part of this service, and to give academic recognition for that learning.
  • Colleges and universities, private organizations, and federal, regional, and state governments should provide the opportunities and funds for students wanting to participate in service-learning.
  • Students, public and private agency officials, and college and university faculty should all participate in the planning and running of service-learning programs.

Since that first conference service-learning scholars and participants have been advocating for these same recommendations, and the vibrant and vital discussion of the best practices and ideas for service-learning continues to this day.

Revitalization in the 1980-90s

The early to mid 1980s saw a resurgence of interest in campus service and service-learning, with a national initiative to promote service among undergraduate students. National service efforts were launched across the country, including the Campus Outreach Opportunity League (1984), which helps to mobilize service programs in higher education; the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps (1985), which helps replicate youth corps in states and cities; National Youth Leadership Council (1982), which helps to prepare future leaders; and Youth Service America (1985), through which many young people are given a chance to serve. And in 1985 the Education Commission of the States began Campus Compact.

The period from 1989-1990 saw the creation of the Office of National Service and the Points of Light Foundation in order to foster volunteering at a national level. This led to the National and Community Service Act of 1990, which was passed by Congress and signed by President George H.W. Bush. The legislation authorized grants for schools to support service-learning and demonstration grants for national service programs to youth corps, nonprofits, as well as colleges and universities. It also created the organization Serve America whose goal was to “distribute grants in support of service-learning in order to simultaneously enrich the education of young people, demonstrate the value of youth as assets to their communities, and stimulate service-learning as a strategy to meet unmet community needs.” In 1993 President Clinton approved legislation that repositioned Serve America, as well as the AmeriCorps and Senior Corps programs, under one roof with the creation of Learn and Serve America.

The present moment of renewed attention to the civic mission of universities has been called the “fourth wave” of higher education civic engagement initiatives. This wave is a forward-looking vision at the future of higher-education itself. We are seeing a movement beyond efforts to bring civic engagement to individual classrooms. Instead there is a push toward a fully-engaged university as a whole: active, vibrant partnerships of scholars, as well as students and citizens who have the support and resources to achieve phenomenal things in education and in transforming communities nationwide.

Reflection in Higher Education Service-Learning

Source: Kara Connors and Sarena D. Seifer, Community-Campus Partnerships for Health, September 2005

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” has been interpreted as representing this connection (Eyler and Giles 1999).

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.

When developing opportunities for reflection in service-learning, it is important to consider students' diverse learning styles. The most effective reflective practices will appeal to and meet the needs of different student's learning styles. Having students complete Kolb's Learning Style Inventory (described here) can help to inform your selection and design of reflection activities.

Eyler's reflection map template, below, can be a helpful tool for thinking through the various options for incorporating reflection into a service-learning course or program (Eyler 2001). A slide presentation that describes the reflection map is available here.



Before service activity

During service activity

After service activity





With fellow students




With community partners





There are a wide range of meaningful reflective practices and strategies that can be incorporated into service-learning, including the frequently used approaches listed below. The list below was adapted from those developed by The Career and Community Learning Center at the University of Minnesota.

  • Discuss and/or have a speaker on a certain issue that relates to the students' service experiences.
  • Have guided discussion questions in large or small groups that challenge students to critically think about their service experiences.
  • Find events in the community that students can attend together and debrief about afterwards.
  • Find articles, poems, stories or songs that relate to the service students are doing and create and discuss questions around relevant social issues. Or, ask students to write or bring in such items and describe how it is relevant to or reflects their service experience.
  • Use case studies or scenarios for students to act out and discuss something they did not know how to handle during their service in the community. Have the students role play appropriate and inappropriate responses to the situation.
  • Ask students to create a map that shows how their service-learning experience connects to larger issues at the state/national/global level and where community involvement and citizenship fit in.
  • Have student view a video or documentary to elicit discussion about critical issues that relate to their service experiences.
  • Write letters-to-the-editor or to government officials that address issues important to the community organizations with which they are working and that can help inform the general public.
  • Have students make a collage to express how they view their service site and their service.
  • Have students maintain a print or electronic reflective journal. Writing in journals is widely used by service-learning programs to promote reflection. Journaling exercises are most meaningful when instructors pose key questions for analysis and description concerning their opinions before and after the service-learning experience.

Citations, references and other resources

Bringle, R. G., and J.A. Hatcher. “Reflection in service-learning: Making meaning of experience.” Educational Horizons , 77.4 (1999): 179-185.

Connors, K.M. “Unit 4: Plan course instruction and activities.” Advancing the Healthy People 2010 Objectives Through Community-Based Education: A Curriculum Planning Guide . Eds. K.M. Connors, S. Cashman, S.D. Seifer, and M. Unverzagt. San Francisco , CA: Community-Campus Partnerships for Health, 2003. This unit provides useful reflective learning tools.

Crews, R. “Benefits of service-learning.” Communications for a Sustainable Future . Boulder , CO : University of Colorado at Boulder , 1999.

Eyler, Janet, and D.E. Giles. A Practitioners Guide to Reflection in Service- Learning. Nashville : Vanderbilt University , 1996. This guide is a resource for anyone seeking to use critical reflection in service-learning. Drawing upon student testimony of successful reflection, it assists in developing reflection activities for service-learning courses or programs. The guide is practical and interactive by design and should foster active engagement on the part of the reader, through both the nature of its content and it's accessibility. The authors discuss different ways to reflect and learn suited to different learning styles such as the activist, reflector, theorist, pragmatist learning styles. Various reflection activities are covered including reading, writing, doing, and telling. The book includes a reflection bibliography, reflection guides and handbooks, and an interview guide.

Eyler, Janet and D.E. Giles. Where's the Learning in Service-Learning? San Francisco, CA : Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1999. Available at

Eyler, Janet. “Creating your reflection map.” In Service-Learning: Practical Advice and Models. Ed. M. Canada. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass New Directions for Higher Education Series, 2001. 35-43. Available at

Eyler, Janet. “Reflecting on Service: Helping Nursing Students Get the Most from Service-Learning.” Journal of Nursing Education 41.10 (2002): 453-56.

Hatcher, J.A., and R.G. Bringle. (1997). “Reflections: Bridging the Gap between Service and Learning.” Journal of College Teaching 45 (1997): 153-158. [Reprinted in NSEE Quarterly, 24.3 (1999): 12-16.]

Howard, J. (2001). Service-Learning Course Design Workbook . Ann Arbor : University of Michigan OSCL Press, 2001.

Kolb, D.A. Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development . Engelwoods Cliffs , NJ : Prentice-Hall, 1994.

Kolb, D. Learning Style Inventory . Boston , MA : McBer and Company, 1985.

Mezinow, Jack, ed. Fostering Critical Reflection in Adulthood: A Guide to Transformative and Emancipatory Learning. National Helpers Network, Inc, 1999.

Moon, J. Reflection in Learning and Professional Development . London : Kogan Page Limited, Stylus Publishing Inc, 1999.

Olson, R. and M. Bush M. “Reflection and Service-Learning.” A Guide for Developing Community-Responsive Models in Health Professions Education. Eds. K.M. Connors, and S.D. Seifer. San Francisco , CA : Community-Campus Partnerships for Health, 1998. This chapter provides an overview of reflection and examples of reflection.

Parrillo, L.A. How to Guide to: REFLECTION. Holland , PA : Brighton Press, Inc, 1994.

Rama, D.V. and R. Battistoni. Service-learning: Using Structured Reflection to Enhance Learning from Service . The purpose of this website is to provide guidance to educators on using structured reflection to enhance the learning from service experiences.

Reed, J. and C. Koliba. Facilitating Reflection: A Manual for Leaders and Educators. This online manual was designed for educators and leaders of service groups who have an interest and a commitment to provide reflection opportunities for students and community partners alike.

Reflection Activities. The reflection strategies described in this online document are based on Robert Bringle and Julie Hatcher's “Reflection in Service Learning: Making Meaning of Experience” (1999) as well as examples from community college faculty around the country.

Silcox, H.C. Reflection: The Key to Service Learning . New York : National Helpers Network, 1995.
The Feinstein Center at the University of Rhode Island has developed “issue packets” to help students reflect on the issues they will be confronting in their service experiences. Issue packets have been developed for these issues: arts, children and families, elderly, environment, health care, homelessness, hunger and literacy.

Welch, M. “The ABCs of Reflection: A Template for Students and Instructors to Implement Written Reflection in Service Learning.” NSEE Quarterly 25 (1999): 1, 23-25. This article describes a theoretically based template for implementing written reflection now being taught to faculty by the Bennion Center at the University of Utah . Students are led to reflect on the following aspects of the service-learning program: the Affect (which involves exploration of feelings and emotions), Behavior (meaning the actions taken before, during, and after the service-learning project), and Cognition or Content (information, concepts, or skills examined).

Jacoby, B. (1996). “Service-Learning in Today's Higher Education”. In Barbara Jacoby and Associates, Eds., Service-Learning in Higher Education: Concepts and Practices, San Francisco CA: Jossey-Bass.

Stanton, T., D. Giles, and N. Cruz. (1999). Service-Learning: A Movement's Pioneers Reflect on its Origins, Practice, and Future. San Francisco CA: Jossey-Bass.

Southern Regional Education Board (1969). Atlanta service-learning conference report. Atlanta: Author.

Stanton, T.K., and J.W. Wagner. (2006). Educating for democratic citizenship: Renewing the civic mission of graduate and professional education at research universities. California Campus Compact, Stanford, CA.

Reflective Writing Practices

Reflection is one of the most academically rigorous components of a service-learning course. Students who take the time to reflect on service-learning experiences will get more from those experiences. Reflection helps students thoughtfully process their community work. It helps them critically assess and understand what they are seeing and doing.

Conditions inhibiting reflection

In the workplace, lack of time frequently limits opportunities for learning through reflection. People may not have time to stop and think. Similarly, time is an issue for students.  For students, perhaps the major obstacle to learning through reflection is devoting insufficient time to it, and consequently failing to explore the experience in depth. Students sometimes write simply to meet the assessment requirements, without genuinely engaging in the process. This will not lead to meaningful insights or positive change.

As students participate in a service-learning class and do the related community work (such as the Leadership Projects in the Corps) , they should ask themselves these questions: What? So What? Now What? The reflection 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?"

Ideas for Reflection

Reflection can happen in the classroom, at the community organization, or individually through course assignments. There are a wide range of meaningful reflective practices and strategies that can be incorporated into service-learning, including the frequently used approaches listed below.

  •  Journals: Writing in journals is widely used by service-learning programs to promote reflection. They're most meaningful when instructors pose key questions for analysis. (See bottom of page for sample reflection questions.)
  • Ethnographies: Students capture their community experience through field notes.
  • Case Studies Papers: Students analyze an organizational issue and write a case study that identifies a decision that needs to be made.
  • Multimedia Class Presentations: Students create a video or photo documentary on the community experience.
  • Theory Application Papers: Students select a major theory covered in the course and analyze its application to the experience in the community.
  • Agency Analysis Papers: Students identify organizational structure, culture and mission.
  • Presentations to Community Organizations: Students present work to community organization staff, board members, and participants.
  • Speakers: Invite community members or organization staff to present in class on their issue area.
  • Group Discussion: Through guided discussion questions, have students critically think about their service experiences.
  • Community Events: Identify community events that students can attend to learn more about issues.
  • Mapping: Create a visual map that shows how the service-learning experience connects to larger issues at the state/national/global level.
  • Videos: View a video or documentary to elicit discussion about critical issues that relate to their service experiences.
  • Letters-to-the Editor: Students write a letter-to-the-editor or to government officials that address issues important to the community organizations where they are working.
  • Creative Projects: Students make a collage or write a poem or song to express an experience.
  • Blog: Create a course blog where students can post comments on their experiences.
  • Reflective Reading: Find articles, poems, stories or songs that relate to the service students are doing and that create discussion questions.

Resources for Reflective Writing in the Corps

How-to guide to SL reflective writing

Critical Incident Report

Here is a suggested format for this report.

  1. Describe the context of the incident.
  2. Describe the actual incident in detail.
  3. Explain why the incident was critical or significant for you.
  4. Explain your concerns at the time.
  5. Describe what you were thinking and feeling as it was taking place, and afterwards.
  6. Mention anything particularly demanding about the situation.
  7. Explain how the incident will impact on your studies.
  8. Explain how it will impact upon your future role as a Computing professional.

Integrative Papers

Problem Solving Papers:  Students investigate a social problem related to their service-learning assignment by defining the problem, analyzing root causes, indentifying the stakeholders, identifying alternative policy solutions and recommending a policy to be pursued. "Research" is not confined to the library, but includes interviewing experts working to deal with the issue in the field.

Theory Application Papers:  Students indentify a particular theoretical perspective or concept and then use the experiences with community service to "test" the theory. Students argue for or against key points of the theory with examples from their experience.

Case Studies:  Case studies can focus on individuals, on the service project itself or on the agency's role in meeting the needs of community members.   Students can develop case studies to be used in class discussions or role plays.

Service-Learning Self-Assessment:  Some classes make the final paper an explicit evaluation of the students' service-learning experience using criteria identified for effective experiential learning. Students discuss personal growth and critique the program and the placement.

Agency/ Site Analysis:  Students analyze the agency they worked with using appropriate organizational frameworks and evaluation tools. They combine their observations with information about who is served, how policies are made, where funding is obtained and future plans for the organization.

Book Review

Another option is to ask students to select a book to review (or have them choose one from a list) and to incorporate their critique with a discussion of their service-learning experience.


Journals can be open ended and personal or structured as critical reflections integrated into the curriculum.   A common approach is called The What, So What,  Now What? Journals are often structured to address the following questions:

  • What? Report the facts and events of an experience, objectively.
    • What happened?
    • What did you observe?
    • What issue is being addressed or population is being served?


  • So What? Analyze the experience.
    • Did you learn a new skill or clarify an interest?
    • Did you hear, smell, or feel anything that surprised you?
    • How is your experience different from what you expected?
    • What impacts the way you view the situation/experience? (What lens are you viewing from?)
    • What did you like/dislike about the experience?
    • What did you learn about the people/community?
    • What are some of the pressing needs/issues in the community?
    • How does this project address those needs?


  • Now What? Consider the future impact of the experience on you and the community.
    • What seem to be the root causes of the issue addressed?
    • What other work is currently happening to address the issue?
    • What learning occurred for you in this experience?
    • How can you apply this learning?
    • What would you like to learn more about, related to this project or issue?
    • What follow-up is needed to address any challenges or difficulties?
    • What information can you share with your peers or the community?
    • If you could do the project again, what would you do differently?

Below are some sample questions that you may also adapt to help structure students’ reflections and their reflective writing:

Sample Questions:

  • What happened today?
  • What were the effects of what you did?
  • How does what you were observing at your site relate to what we are learning about in class?
  • What were your first impressions?
  • What is different than what you expected?
  • What are the biggest challenges faced by your organization/ Corps leadership team?
  • Write your journal from the perspective of someone else in the organization/ Team .
  • Create an advertisement about your service site describing its need, target audience, outcomes.
  • Describe your worldview.  How has your service experience influenced this view?

Sample Critical Questions:

  • Deepening Personal Exploration
    • Did you have an emotional reaction?
    • Did this experience remind you of past experiences? 
    • Were you proud or disappointed by your reactions?
  • Seeking Evidence to Defend Claims
    • How did you know that? 
    • What background/research lead you to this conclusion? 
    • How could you have obtained more data?
  • Dealing with Differing Views
    • How do you think people of different life experiences would feel? 
    • What is the opposing viewpoint to your opinion? 
    • How do we decide which position is correct?
  • Evaluating the Effect of the Community
    • Who benefited from our efforts? 
    • Who might oppose such a project?
    • Could the community suffer any negative effects? 
    • What will long-term impact of your project be?   

More Sample Reflection Questions

  • What is your role at the community site/ on the Corps Leadership Team?
  • What were your initial expectations? Have these expectations changed? How? Why?
  • What about your community involvement has been an eye-opening experience?
  • How do you motivate yourself to go to your site when you don't feel like it?
  • What specific skills have you used at your community site?
  • Describe a person you've encountered in the community who made a strong impression on you, positive or negative.
  • Do you see benefits of doing community work? Why or why not?
  • Has your view of the population with whom you have been working changed? How?
  • How has the environment and social conditions affected the people at your site?
  • What institutional structures are in place at your site or in the community? How do they affect the people you work with?
  • Has the experience affected your worldview? How?
  • Have your career options been expanded by your service experience?
  • Why does the organization you are working for exist?
  • Did anything about your community involvement surprise you? If so, what?
  • What did you do that seemed to be effective or ineffective in the community?
  • 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 are the most difficult or satisfying parts of your work? Why?
  • Talk about any disappointments or successes of your project. What did you learn from it?
  • During your community work experience, have you dealt with being an "outsider" at your site? How does being an "outsider" differ from being an "insider"?
  • How are your values expressed through your community work?
  • What sorts of things make you feel uncomfortable when you are working in the community? Why?
  • Complete this sentence: Because of my Leadership Project, I am....

You may refer students to Seminar Topics: Reflective Writing (student module) for specifics on writing a reflective journal.

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