Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Reflective Practice That Persists: Connections between Reflection in Service-Learning Programs and in Current Life

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Reflective Practice That Persists: Connections between Reflection in Service-Learning Programs and in Current Life

Article excerpt

This study investigates the relationship between reflective practices in college service-learning programs and alumni's current reflective practices. Additionally, this study explores how graduates 'present reflective practices help to shape their civic and professional identities. Mixed methods using survey and interview data explore reflective practice in the lives of alumni from three multi-term community engagement programs. The research reaffirms the importance of reflective practice in college-level community engagement programs in influencing reflective practice after graduation. The results of this study strongly suggest that multi-term, community engagement programs, where critical reflection is continuous and occurs in a variety of ways, support a reflective practice that persists in the lives of program graduates, helping them develop their civic and professional identities.

The Importance of Reflection

Reflection has long held prominence in service-learning. Scholars have defined reflection as the activity that "mak[es] meaning of experience" (Bringle & Hatcher, 1999, p. 179), that "pushes us to step outside the old and familiar and to reframe our questions and our conclusions in innovative and more effective terms" (Eyler, Giles, & Schmiede, 1996, p.13), and that "transform[s] our values" (Cooper, 2003, p. 93). One longtime service-learning practitioner even claimed, "reflection is so critical; there can be no higher growth for individuals or for society without it. Reflection is the very process of human evolution itself" (David Sawyer, quoted in Reed & Koliba, 1995, p. 6).

Critical reflection also holds a prominent place in civic and political learning. Theorists as far back as John Dewey have contended that civic identity development requires ongoing, active reflection, whether done individually or in concert with others, formally or informally (Dewey, 1933; Knefelkamp, 2008; Mitchell, Visconti, Keene, & Battistoni, 2011). In a study of the political impact of 21 campus-based courses and programs, the Carnegie Foundation's Political Engagement Project found strong connections between learning through structured reflection and what the project termed "politically engaged identity," which "involves seeing or identifying oneself as a person who cares about politics and has an overarching commitment to political participation" (Colby, Beaumont, Erlich, & Comgold, 2007, p. 17).

Critical reflection in civic and professional realms offers citizens the time and space to make "sense of contradictory options" and resolve "difficult tensions" (Youniss, McLellan, & Yates, 1997, p. 630) in order to develop a personal framework for citizen action (Roholt, Hildreth, & Baizerman, 2009). In a statement that certainly can be applied to civic practitioners, Donald Schon (1983) argues that practitioners need to step back and think about their actions lest they "miss important opportunities to think about what [they are] doing" and "afflict others with the consequences of [their] narrowness and rigidity" (p. 61).

Yet with all the significance placed on reflection, there is limited research examining the impact of reflection in service-learning programs on reflective practice after students leave college. It would seem axiomatic that critical reflection, done well, would lead to a lifetime reflective practice that may impact a graduate's civic attitudes and actions, but no studies have looked at the persistence and benefits of reflection in the lives of service-learning alumni.

Reflection in Service-Learning

Service-learning and community-based experiences provide a rich context for learning. Dewey (1933, 2007) explained that reflection provides a framework within which students can address the uncertainties of a complex situation and make meaning of these varied experiences. As students are challenged by community-based experiences and find their preconceived notions inadequate to explain the realities of their experience, critical reflection helps students revise the misconceptions they have about the world to align with new realities. …

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