Supporting Critical Reflection in Community-Engaged Learning

image of a black-covered notebook on a wooden background

Compiled by Kathryn Van Zanen, Engaged Learning Graduate Consultant

Reflection is a critical component of community-engaged courses and programs. Reflection supports meaning-making, and regular reflection activities help students connect their community engagement experience to course or program learning objectives. Studies show that reflection can strengthen critical thinking1 and enhance student development on measures of civic values and personal growth.2  Reflection can come in many forms, but it’s most advantageous when it’s ongoing. Continuous, connected, challenging, and contextualized reflection helps students negotiate the stages of community engagement and supports them to prepare for and process their experiences.3

The resources below offer guidance, examples and further reading around reflection. We would be glad to work with you to incorporate any of these resources into your community-engaged efforts.

How can I promote reflection with my students?

  • Make reflection a regular– and rewarded– part of your course. You don’t have to grade the quality of students’ reflections, but giving them credit for doing it signals how important reflection is for their learning and your course objectives.
  • Give feedback on student reflections, especially at the early stages. Reflection helps you to collect data about your students’ experiences and prompt them to deepen their thinking. Learn more about assessing reflection from Bradley (1995) and IUPUI.
  • Reflect in a variety of ways. Invite multiple modes of reflection for students, from text to audio to video to artistic representation, and make time for students to reflect together and with you (Mabry 1998). The Northwest Service Academy Toolkit offers a wide range of possible activities organized by time commitment, while Clemson University organizes activities by the kind of learning they promote.
  • Talk to students about why reflection is important. Many of the reflection models and resource lists linked below provide language for talking to students about why reflection matters; modeling reflective practices in your instructor role also underscores their value for your students. What are you learning from community engagement?

Additional Resources

What are some examples of reflection activities I can use?

Explore a range of reflection activities that can be used in many different ways, organized from shortest to longest: 

  • Reflection Guidebook, Santa Monica College
    This 5-page piece explains the basics of reflection and provides brief descriptions of many different kinds of reflection, as well as tips on what to consider as you determine what fits your course and learning goals.

  • Reflection toolkit, Northwest Service Academy
    This toolkit, designed for leaders facilitating reflection for the first time, explains what reflection is and why it’s important, and provides guidance for leading a variety of reflection activities. The activities are categorized by time commitment.

  • Reflection resources, Clemson University
    A collection of 28 different reflection activities for instructors, organized by category: reflection activities for prior knowledge (to use before engagement), cognition, metacognition, competency, and personal growth & change. Activities are marked for formative and graded, summative assessment.

  • Reflection activities: Service-Learning’s not-so-secret weapon, Katie Halcrow
    This 13-page piece outlines 33 different reflection activities for classroom use, grouped by “Reflection Activities In and Out of Class,” “Rigorous Academic Links,” and “Presenting Culmination of Experience.” The list includes group work, written activities, discussion activities, artwork, and ways to showcase students’ work.

  • Service-Learning Reflection Journal, Purdue University
    This student-facing handbook includes an initial assessment scale, pre-service project planning documents, a daily or weekly journal template, a final reflection assignment prompt, and a post-assessment.

  • International Service-Learning Reflection Journal, Purdue University
    This handbook, explicitly directed to students studying abroad, includes a pre-entry reflection and assignment, public affairs scale, daily/weekly journal template, reflective paper prompt, re-entry reflection and assignment, and a post-assessment public affairs scale.

What are some articles I can explore for further reading?

Below is a list of peer-reviewed articles about reflection (most recent first) 

  • Reflective Practice, Campus Compact

    An extensive bibliography with links to peer-reviewed research on reflective practice in community-engaged learning.

  • Richard, D., Keen, C., Hatcher, J.A., and Pease, H. A. (2016). Pathways to Adult Civic Engagement: Benefits of Reflection and Dialogue across Difference in Higher Education Service-Learning Programs. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 23(1), 60-74.

    Drawing from a 30-campus, 1000+ participant dataset, Richard et al. explore the relationship between college engagement experiences and civic outcomes after college. They found that “dialogue with others across difference was the strongest predictor of cultivating civic outcomes after college. In addition, both structured and informal reflection independently contributed to civic outcomes (i.e., civic-mindedness, voluntary action, civic action).”

  • van Goethem, A., van Hoof, A., Orobio de Castro, B., Van Aken, M., & Hart, D. (2014). The role of reflection in the effects of community service on adolescent development: a meta-analysis. Child development, 85(6), 2114–2130.

    This meta-analysis of 49 studies finds again that reflection is essential to the positive academic, personal, social, and civic outcomes of service-learning. Positive effects of service-learning increased with greater reflection and particularly reflection on academic content.

  • Ash S.L., Clayton P.H. (2004). The Articulated Learning: An Approach to Guided Reflection and Assessment. Innovative Higher Education 29(2), 137–54.

    The academic article that originated the DEAL reflection framework, this text describes the Articulated Learning framework’s three main components: description of an experience, analysis in accordance with relevant learning categories, and articulation of learning outcomes. It also considers applications for the framework in research and faculty development.

  • Hatcher, J.A, Bringle, R.G, & Muthiah, R. (2004). Designing effective reflection: What matters to service learning? Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 11(1), 38-46.

    This study, based on survey responses of undergraduate students, found that successful courses included reflection activities that (a) clarified personal values, (b) were a regular part of the course, and (c) were structured with clear guidelines and directions. The paper also discusses implications for practice.

  • Eyler J. (2002). Reflection: Linking Service and Learning—Linking Students and Communities. Journal of Social Issues, 58(3), 517–34.

    This article reviews research on reflection practices in service-learning and collects concrete suggestions for attaining service-learning learning goals. It includes the reflection map from Eyler (2001) that can guide faculty to support students in multiple dimensions of reflection, including reflecting alone, with classmates, and with partners as well as before, during, and after service. 

  • Eyler, J. (2001). Creating Your Reflection Map. In M. Canada (ed. ) Service-learning: Practical advice and models. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, New Directions for Higher Education, 2001(114), 35–43.

    This piece outlines the how and why or reflection in a guide to using the reflection map, a “tool to help practitioners organize their thinking about integrating continuous reflective processes into their service-learning practice.” The tool invites faculty to think about reflection in a matrix of time and interaction: reflecting alone, with classmates, and with partners, as well as before, during, and after service. 

  • Bringle, R.G. and J.A. Hatcher (1999). Reflection in Service Learning: Making Meaning of Experience. Educational Horizons, Summer, 179-185.

    This brief article offers an easy introduction to service-learning, including narrative about the philosophical basis for reflection, types of reflection for service learning, assessing reflection, and consequences of reflection.


1. Eyler, J., & Giles Jr., D.E. (1999). Where’s the Learning in Service-Learning? San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
2. Ash, S.L.; Clayton, P.H.; Atkinson, M.P. (2005). Integrating Reflection and Assessment to Capture and Improve Student Learning. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 11(2), 49-60.
3. Eyler, J., Giles Jr., D.E., and Schmiede, A. (1996). A Practitioner’s Guide to Reflection in Service-Learning: Student Voices and Reflections. Vanderbilt University.