Without reflection, service-learning has little merit as a pedagogical tool. It is through the process of structuring and guiding a student's reflective process that a faculty member can help students extract lessons from their community experiences. While all experiences are educative, not all education is what we would expect or want. An unguided student venturing out across cultural boundaries may gather information to support racist ideas. A student critical of bureaucracies may see only the worst excesses of an organization.
We see what we expect to see or have been told to see.
Without guidance, students working in communities will often see what they expect to see and will generally fail to see other things. With guidance, a faculty member or guide can help them see even the most abstract and theoretical bound phenomena. Our job as service-learning educators is to help them learn to see and understand the world at a deeper, more critical level. (Here is an interesting activity to illustrate how this phenomenon works.) With guidance, a faculty member or guide can help students see the practical applications of even the most abstract and theoretical concepts.
Too frequently, we assume that students will be able to reflect without guidance or with only very broad, open-ended questions to guide them. Our experience is that the vast majority of students see little beyond the most obvious when working in communities. What they "learn" relative to classroom material is scant, unless a great deal of thought goes into helping them extract multiple meanings from their experiences. This is not necessarily true when it comes to gaining a new understanding of themselves, new career options, new takes on citizenship or other more personal gains that come from being involved in community work. But even here, we have found that students are more successful at integrating their experiences into their being when they have some thoughtful questions to guide them.
All of these categories are essential to the well-designed service-learning course. Students should be able to reflect on the personal and academic lessons they can extract from their experiences, and they should be able to do so in both spoken and written formats. Guided, reflective conversations result in a synergy of ideas that help students learn from peers and derive even more from their experiences. Written reflection asks each student to take time to think about what the experience means to her or him and plays upon the uniqueness of experiences.
Asking students to respond to sets of questions can guide the reflective process. Even a generic set of questions, can help students look at a set of experiences from multiple perspectives which offer students a different vantage point each week as they venture into the community. More course-specific questions help students probe the link between readings and lecture material and phenomena they may have an opportunity to see in operation in the community.
These reflective questions are not easy to write. They require a clear understanding of which course concepts are likely to be the most salient – and observable – in a variety of community contexts (assuming students are placed at more than one site). It is easy to fall into a trap of writing questions that are so bound to classroom material that they can be answered without spending any time in the community. It is even easier to write questions that students can answer without referencing academic theories or concepts. We include in this site, items we have created for a variety of social science courses. These provide an opportunity for readers to see how questions are tied to specific course material.
It is not enough to ask students to reflect. They must also get regular feedback on their reflective responses. We have seen many faculty members assign reflective journal responses, ask students to do a formal verbal report on their experiences, and/or prepare a final paper, yet make them due at the conclusion of the academic quarter or semester. Such an approach does not allow students to learn from their mistakes, correct assumptions, become a more careful observer, or learn to challenge their stereotypes. Even if a faculty member diligently adds notes and comments to end-of-term work, students are unlikely to read and learn from these notes and comments.
We advocate for weekly readings of reflective responses, realizing that this is labor intensive and lies beyond the capability of a faculty member with many students engaged in community work. We think that students should receive comment at least three times during the term and have done some work with tri-semester papers that can facilitate reflection with feedback. We know of faculty members who have used peer read-arounds as a way of getting every paper read and helping to bring to the surface the larger questions and problems associated with community work and intellectual growth. This process allows the faculty member, too, to reflect on and improve his or her teaching methodologies.
Reading and commenting on students' reflections is an often delicate task. It is important that they have ownership of their observations. There are no right and wrong ways of looking at the world. The best strategy for readers of reflective responses is the oldest of educational strategies - the Socratic question. Comments such as, "What observations led you to this conclusion?" serve to not only challenge a response but to offer the student some assistance in learning how to document points of view established through observation. This can be an especially helpful tool for providing feedback for teaching assistants or other graders who may have less familiarity with the academic content of the course. We provide a list (.pdf) (JEP > Socratic.pdf) of effective "Socratic Questions" to our undergraduate Program Assistants.
We teach our student staff members something we have come to call "reading between the lines." The technique pays close attention to the use of pronouns that are often indicative of an "us vs. them" way of looking at the world, a common phenomena when students are asked to cross cultural boundaries. When students make comments like "These neighborhood kids are lazy," our staff members might not only ask for documentation of this "fact" but also invite the student to come in and talk about language. We have found this technique to be more effective than labeling the statement as "racist" and more socially responsible than letting it pass.