What Makes Service-Learning Unique: Reflection and Reciprocity

Let’s start out by defining our terms. The definition of service-learning differentiates it from volunteering and old-fashioned community service.

It is true that there are many definitions about service-learning floating around, some since the 1970s. In fact, everyone reading this probably has one. But this definition is a solid working one, succinctly covering the distinctives:

“Service-learning is a form of experiential education in which students engage in activities that address human and community needs together with structured opportunities for reflection designed to achieve desired learning outcomes.” (Jacoby, Service-Learning in Higher Education, 1996)

Service-learning is based on the principle that learning doesn’t necessarily occur as the result of experience itself, but rather, as a result of reflection designed to achieve specific outcomes. Two key elements that need to be drawn out are the concepts of reflection and reciprocity. Let’s look more carefully at the first.

In the middle of the definition of service-learning is this phrase: “Structured opportunities for reflection.” Reflecting combines two processes — the affective and the cognitive. It connects service and learning in a very intentional way.

Reflection is fundamental to successful service-learning because it is the element that connects service and learning. Reflecting is the bridge, like a hyphen, that connects the two.

We know that learning doesn’t necessarily occur just as a result of an experience. In fact, students sometimes come away with the wrong message. Service-learning is based on the idea that learning doesn’t occur only as a result of an action or experience, but as a result of intentional reflection on that experience, in the service of achieving specific learning outcomes.

In service-learning, opportunities for learning aren’t incidental to the course — instead, they are integrated into the course or program structure, instead of being added on at the end. Reflection must be designed by intention to facilitate the desired learning outcomes.

A reliable guide to help you is The 4C’s of Critical Reflection provided by Eiler, Giles and Schmiedes (1996). It has guided many service-learning practitioners in planning and implementing reflection activities.

Let’s look more closely at each of the types of reflection so you can see how you can use them with a course:

Continuous Reflection: It occurs before the service-learning experience, during it, and afterward. It is not something to be tacked on at the end of the service. It is not an afterthought. For the deepest learning to occur, reflection must be ongoing.

Connected Reflection: This type of critical reflection builds bridges between learning content, personal reflections, and firsthand experiences. It

  • makes theories real,
  • turns statistics into people and situations, and
  • raises questions that, were it not for the service experience, might not be raised.

But it must be intentionally connected to the content.

Challenging Reflection: Challenging reflection means reflecting so old questions are seen in new ways, new perspectives are revealed, and new questions are raised. It avoids simplistic, one-dimensional conclusions. It examines causality. And as the service-learning course goes on, it raises deeper and deeper questions.

Balance is the key with this “C.” What’s optimal is a balance of challenge and, at the same time, support of the student. Too much challenge with no support means students may go inside themselves and avoid the risks necessary to experiment with new ideas and points of view. If there is a lot of support but a lack of challenge, students may not leave their “comfort zones” and little or no learning or growth is likely to occur.

Contextualized Reflection: This means that topics and activities for reflection are meaningful with regard to the experiences the students are having at the community site. There is meaningful interaction occurring between the student, the activity, and the setting. It may or may not involve community members. The form, process, and setting of the reflection should be guided by context.

Context can relate to critical incidents or what’s going on in students’ lives. When the Haiti earthquakes occurred, a number of colleges and universities had courses across the academic spectrum in which they stopped what they were doing and used critical reflection to relate issues about the earthquake to their course content. If it is mid-term exam time, students may be stressed and may find it difficult to concentrate.

Editor’s Note: The above is an excerpt from Service-Learning Course Design: What Faculty Need to Know. This 39-page whitepaper is based on an online seminar by Barbara Jacoby, PhD, and includes comprehensive checklist that will guide you in all phases of design and execution of a successful service-learning offering.