Reflection On Service Learning Essay

"Democracy is the art of thinking independently together." Alexander Meiklejohn

Reflection is a key component of service learning, and is that component which distinguishes service learning from volunteerism. Reflection provides faculty the means to assess the experiential learning that occurs when students participate in service activities outside the classroom. Reflection also allows students to synthesize the observed data gleaned from service activities and connect the new knowledge with the formal knowledge obtained from classroom activities and materials.

To reflect in service learning means to think critically about and analyze emotional responses to service activities in the context of course content and the learning objectives of a particular course or curriculum. It is important to incorporate structured reflection so that students develop a deeper understanding of course subject matter outside of the traditional classroom environment. Reflection can promote; interpersonal communication, problem solving skills, self-awareness, a sense of civic responsibility, and a sense of belonging.

Effective reflection:

  • links service to course objectives and fosters civic responsibility
  • occurs throughout the course and not just at the end
  • is structured, guided, purposeful, with well-defined criteria for evaluation
  • challenges current realities, perhaps creating cognitive dissonance and/or conflict; see
  • goes beyond the descriptive nature of the experience and asks students to interpret and
    evaluate the relevance of their experience in relation to classroom knowledge with real-life service experience
  • asks students to apply new information to real-life problems and situations

Types of Reflection

The sample questions below are meant to give you an idea of how reflection may be structured in your classroom.

Group Discussions

Discussions can occur in several small groups or as one large group. NOTE: Should you have time discussions held at placement sites are equally valuable.

Reflection questions for the beginning of the semester

  • Examples for the beginning of the semester (may be used in journaling assignments as well):

  • What is the identified problem/community need?

  • How is your community partner site addressing that need?

  • Why are you needed?

  • What are some of your perceptions or beliefs about the population you will be serving?
  • What fear, if any, do you have about working in the community?
  • What do you hope to gain from this experience?

Reflection questions during the semester

  • How does your service learning experience relate to the learning objectives of the course?
  • What did you do at your site since the last reflection discussion?
  • What did you observe?
  • What did you learn?
  • What has worked? What hasn't?
  • What do you think is (will be) the most valuable service you can offer at your site?
  • Is there something more you could do to contribute to the solution?

Reflection questions toward the end of the semester

  • What have you learned about yourself?
  • What have  you learned about your community?
  • What have you contributed to the community site?
  • What values, opinions, beliefs have changed?
  • What was the most important lesson learned
  • How have you been challenged?
  • What should others do about this issue?
  • What impact did you have on the community?


Journaling offers students an opportunity to practice writing, analyze and articulate their service experience and record and document their progress toward their learning objectives. Each of the questions above can also be incorporated into a journaling assignment.

Examples of a journaling assignment:

  • In small groups or individually have students conduct a community scan. A community scan allows students to describe the community where they will be working. Have students take a drive or walk around the community and describe what they see. For example, have the students take notes of the people (age, gender, ethnicity, etc), activities and problems (e.g., litter, pollution, graffiti, homelessness) and where it is located. Count the number of businesses, government agencies, housing units, churches, etc. 

When the community scan is finished have students reflect on the following (can be done as an in class discussion) recording their answers in their journals.

  • What are the best things you discovered about your community?
  • Do you have a different picture of your community than you had before you began your search?
  • What new questions do you have?
  • What would you like to change about your community?    

Examples of journaling assignment questions:

  • Describe your service-learning project. Include a description of the agency or organization you will be working for (i.e. what is their purpose? How big are they? What is their history? What is their mission? What are their goals?).
  • How is your service-learning experience related to the readings, discussions, and lectures in class?
  • How does the service-learning experience connect to your long-term goals?
  • What new skills have you learned since beginning your service?
  • What have you done this week to make a difference?
  • What characteristics make a community successful?
  • Report a civic experience you have had in the past. Include comments about what type of difference you made to those you served. How did you feel about your service? What if any attitudes or beliefs changed for you as a result of your service?
  • Describe what you have learned about yourself as a result of your service.


A final paper or several small papers throughout the semester may be an alternative to journaling.

Example: Describe the community site where you served, including the site's mission and goals. What were your duties and responsibilities at the site? How has this experience changed your value and belief system? How has your service affected your own sense of civic responsibility? Explain why your service was important to you and the service learning site.


This is a way to present a collection of information obtained throughout the semester. It may include portions of a journal, pictures, poems, community site information, brochures etc. Portfolios can be presented formally or handed in at the end of the semester.


This medium can be used to showcase a community site and can be accomplished in a large group, several small groups or individually.

Need More Reflection Ideas?

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Essay on Service Learning

While I was working on databases and spreadsheets at the American Red Cross, for hours at a time, I would often think to myself, “what is service learning, and why do we have to do it?”

Most of the time, I simply thought of it as forced volunteerism, with no real direction, or purpose. This is due to the fact that the reason that we were made to volunteer was not exactly revealed to us. So, I decided, for my paper, to make some discoveries about Service Learning.

These discoveries would be made most likely by viewing other schools’ programs, which implement service learning. The facts that would be of most interest are, service learning itself, the definition of service learning, the benefits of service learning, and finally, how service learning should and needs to be implemented into the curriculum, most importantly, the pharmacy curriculum.

I thought, before heading into my service learning experience at the Red Cross, that Duquesne’s pharmacy school would already have a grasp of the concept of service learning, how it should be implemented into the curriculum, and most importantly, how it benefits the students. Benefit to the students, has to be the most important aspect of the entire concept, because if there is no real benefit to the students, there is no good reason to waste valuable time on an education strategy known as service learning.

The education strategy that is known as service learning is not a new strategy at all. The roots of service learning can be traced back to the 1930’s. It was during this time that a man by the name of John Dewey founded the concepts that would eventually lead to the formation of service learning. This was apparent in his assessment of education, in which, he theorized that effective learning required context through application and experience. Dewey called for an approach to teaching that was democratic, participatory, and interactive. His philosophy of education was the foundation for approaches such as service learning that extend students’ learning beyond the walls of the classroom. An important aspect of Dewey’s assessment of learning and education was that learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection. It is in the reflection stage, through discussion groups, journals, and papers, that Dewey believes, students really learn from their experiences and make connections to things relevant in society and also their future profession, which is pharmacy, in this case.

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Although Dewey made his introduction of a new approach to learn in the ‘30’s, his concepts were not really put into practice until recently. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, various government, organizational, and educational programs sponsored activities that included service learning, such as internships with government agencies. Pharmacy internships, or experiential education, as Duquesne would call them, would be included here. In the 1970’s, several national associations dedicated to service learning were established. By the 1980’s and 1990’s, many national groups involved with higher education launched service learning initiatives. Among them, was the American Association of Higher Education’s Service Learning Project, which includes a multiyear initiative to enrich service learning practice in 18 disciplines, one of which, is pharmacy.

Dewey did not, himself, define service learning. He simply laid out the ideas for what would become service learning. With Dewey not defining service learning, many different interpretations of it can be made. One good definition of service learning that I found, was, “Service learning is a form of experiential education in which students engage in activities that address human and community needs together with structured opportunities intentionally designed to promote student learning and development.” (Fredericksen). This definition seems a bit wordy and it is easiest to define service learning if you break it down. If broken down, Service Learning is a combination of Service, community action and Learning, often seen as additional knowledge gained. Thus, when the two are put together Service Learning is the acquisition of knowledge through community service.

Although the key component of service learning is volunteering, service learning differs from volunteering in that service learning is connected to classroom instruction and academic requirements. Service learning can also be distinguished from internships and other forms of experiential learning. This is due to the fact that these types of learning do not necessarily involve students in social problems or in addressing unmet community needs, as service learning does.

Service Learning was created for a purpose. The main purpose behind it was to benefit the student in a way other than the benefits received from the classroom. These benefits, however must be real and evident to the students, if the program is to be successful. When the College of Pharmacy at the University of Texas first incorporated service learning into their curriculum, some the intended benefits to the students were to improve their communication skills and to help them gain a better understanding of needs and issues in the community. When comparing other service learning programs, having students interact with members of the community seems to be a common benefit. According to the Academic Service Learning Advisory Committee, some of the benefits of students interacting with members of the community are that students become aware of their community’s needs, they have an opportunity to connect with members of the larger community who can offer important partnerships and resources, and also makes students more committed and involved in the community they belong to, thus building teamwork and leadership skills.

Another benefit that the University of Texas College of Pharmacy believes can result from service learning is that students will learn the concepts of caring and social support. This, the college believes, is where pharmacy students benefit most from service learning. This is due to the fact that pharmacists should be able to understand patients’ circumstances and be able to empathize with their situations. According to the University of Texas, an essential characteristic for pharmacists is being able to show empathy to patients. This beneficial trait of a pharmacist can be gained through service learning, where students often go to locations where the people there do not have very much, and are often not as privileged as themselves. The University of Texas also hopes that its pharmacy students will develop more effective communication skills as a result of service learning. The communication will be improved by it being necessary for the students to modify their communication style to the people and situation they are working with.

Teacher, Rebecca Sipe gives many reasons why service learning is beneficial and is more than simply, “doing time.” According to Sipe, the various benefits of service learning include, academic development, cognitive development, career development, social development, personal growth, increased civic mindness, motivated, involved students, collaboration and research opportunities, and reduced behavioral disruptions. Other proponents of service learning claim that it improves student learning, helps students understand the responsibilities of living in a democratic society, and addresses important social problems facing communities. All of these benefits might seem possible from service learning, but all are qualitative benefits and cannot really be measured to prove the fact that there is any real benefit from service learning.

While service learning has many supporters, it also has many who disapprove of it. Some academics feels that service learning dilutes the curriculum by consuming student time and energy that could be better spent in traditional academic pursuits such as library work or research. I know that many pharmacy students feel the same way. They would rather spend more time on learning about drugs and pharmacy than volunteering their time at a soup kitchen. Another criticism of service learning is that the true impact of the projects to the community. This is also a common problem with service learning. Although sixteen hours may seem like an eternity to some students, the truth is that more time must be put in for students to do something real and truly develop skills such as communication skills.

Although there are numerous faults with service learning, there are many benefits apparent that can help students. But, this is only possible if the course is structured and implemented into the curriculum appropriately. This must involve the faculty to evaluate the community sites and have the school and the organization have an agreement on what types of work the students will be doing. For example, the University of Texas has an agreement with the sites that the students go into that mandates interaction of the students and the people that organization serves. The faculty should also assist the student in the goals that are to be accomplished at the site. Rebecca Sipe continues in her article about how to have a beneficial service learning experience. She maintains that successful service learning projects are built on three key elements. First, the project should provide meaningful service to others and this service must meet the needs identified by both the school and the community organization. Second, the service learning project must provide clear connections to the goals for the class. Finally, service learning projects must provide ample time to allow self-reflection of the experiences. This will allow ongoing and in-depth learning.

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