Facilitated reflection is the most consistent predictor of achieving learning outcomes in community-engaged learning (CEL).¹ Facilitated reflection helps students make connections between their community experiences, observations, and course content.

Keys to a successful reflection

It needs to be a continuous, cyclical process –  you will benefit from continued engagement throughout the entire CEL project (2).

It is an important bridge between course intended learning outcomes and community experiences. Four reflection characteristics predict course quality:

      1. Ones that explore and clarify your personal values and relationship to course content
      2. Ones that are ‘regular’ (i.e., activities are integrated into the course in a way that makes sense, rather than tacked on as an afterthought)
      3. Ones that have structure and clear guidelines
      4. Ones that progress and change in line with your learning journey, both in terms of the particular community experience and course as well as in terms of your degree program.

Students will benefit from witnessing their instructor model reflection. The reflection process also supports the instructor’s learning about their teaching and course content.

Considerations when choosing reflection tool or structure

How many students are you working with? Some activities work better with more or less students; also keep in mind how much capacity you have (or a TA has) to mark any reflections if they will be graded.

How long is the experiential component? Does it run the length of the course, or is it a shorter segment? Will the students reflect just on the experiential component, or all the course content? You want to strike a balance of continuous reflection throughout the course, without overwhelming students.

What level of study are your students? First-year students may need a more prescriptive reflection assignment than fourth-year students.

Do all reflections need to be graded? Will reflections make up part of a formative or summative assessment structure?


Scaffolding across a term

It is possible that incoming students will not know how to reflect in an academic context. Reflection, like any other skill, requires practice and coaching to achieve a high caliber of work and the full learning potential that facilitated reflection promises.

Therefore, we suggest an approach wherein reflection is scaffolded across the course. As Owen and Stupans explain, “Scaffolding guides learners to perform tasks which are normally slightly beyond their ability.”³ By gradually increasing what is required of students for each reflection assignment or activity and giving them feedback along the way, they have the opportunity to practice and improve their reflection ability. In addition, clarifying what is expected from each reflection activity helps students understand the assignment better. Instructors may consider offering reflection prompts or questionsto help guide students through a reflection.

Explore models for reflection

DEAL Model

The DEAL model was originally developed by Ash & Clayton (2009; 2004) to help students reflect on their service-learning experiences and achieve intended learning outcomes (ILOs). The model...

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What? So what? Now What? Framework

Drawn from Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning cycle, this commonly-known framework asks the reflector to describe the situation, articulate why it matters, and what they will do with that...

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Mirror, microscope, binoculars

The Mirror, Microscope, Binoculars (Cooper, 1997) framework helps students to frame their reflections from different perspectives. These lenses can be used either to engage students directly by...

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5 C’s Framework

Eyler, Giles, and Schmiede’s (1996) 4 Cs framework outlines the four principles for ensuring an effective reflection strategy. The 4 Cs explain that good reflection is continuous, connected,...

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Questions for Reflection

Students can benefit from being asked probing questions, especially if they are new to reflective writing. Below are some areas to reflect on.

Personal involvement

What? (inward-looking) 

  • Why do you do service? Is it for self-interest or altruism (or something else)? 
  • If you were one of the people receiving services, what would you think of yourself? 
  • How did this experience make you feel (e.g., frustrated, excited, motivated, apathetic) and why? 
  • How did you handle your emotional reactions? 
  • In what way did this experience challenge or reinforce your values, beliefs, or attitudes? 
  • What are the personal strengths that you relied on and developed during your experience? 
  • What is the most interesting thing that you discovered about yourself from the experience? 
  • How did this experience challenge your assumptions and stereotypes? 
  • How do you motivate yourself to go to work for or with community when you don’t feel like it? 
  • Has the experience affected your worldview? How? 
  • Complete this sentence: Because of my community-engaged learning, I am…. 
  • Have you changed any ideas you used to have on this subject? If so, how did those changes come about?  
  • What does that tell you about yourself and how you learn?  
  • What questions did your experience raise for you in relation to _____?  
  • What is one thing you did today that made you proud?  

Making Connections (backward-looking) 

  • How have your experiences in the past influenced the way in which you’re interacting with others now? 
  • What communities that you belonged to in the past have influenced your opportunities that you are accessing now? 
  • Is there a time when you learned a lot or learned well?  What made that a good learning experience for you? How might that influence what you’re doing now? 
  • Have you admired someone in the community in which you are working? If so, are they similar or different to people that you have known in your past? How does that influence your experience? 
  • To what extent do you think your personal background/positionality may have impacted the potential power dynamics during your CEL experience? 

Points of View (outward-looking) 

  • How are you similar or different to the others in the community (those in your service group, seeking services, or in your learning cohort)? Did you feel like an “outsider” or “insider” and how did that impact your experience? In what ways did being different help or hinder the group? 
  • What about your community involvement has been an eye-opening experience? 
  • Do you see benefits of doing community work in relation to your studies and/or as a citizen? Why or why not? 
  • How are your values expressed through your community work? 
  • What sorts of things make you feel uncomfortable when you are working in the community, and why? 

Now What? (forward-looking) 

  • What are characteristics that you need to develop in light of the experience? What will you do to improve? 
  • What do you understand better about yourself as a result of the experience? 
  • How can this experience and the way you navigated it apply to other situations in your life? 
  • How do you think you will continue to be a part of community after this experience ends? 

Professional development

What? (inward-looking) 

  • How has your service contributed to your growth in any of these areas: civic responsibility/engagement, political consciousness, professional development, spiritual fulfillment, social understanding, intellectual pursuit? 
  • In what ways have you gotten better at this kind of work?  
  • Did you give your best effort? If so, what supported you? If not, what hindered you? 
  • What insights did you gain from the experience about your professional goals, skills, expertise and direction(s)? 
  • What professional skills do you want to practice during the experience? Why are these important to you? How will you go about this? How will you know if you are improving? 
  • Did the experience confirm your expectations about careers and roles in this area or were you surprised? 
  • Talk about any disappointments/frustrations or successes of your project, in terms of both product and process. What did you learn from it? 

Making Connections (backward-looking) 

  • What experiences from your past prepare(d) you for this experience? 
  • Have you done a similar kind of work in the past (earlier in the year or in a previous grade; in school or out of school)?  
  • If you could go back to the first day of this program, what would you do differently? What would you do the same?   

Points of View (outward-looking) 

  • How can your solutions apply to other problem(s) of other groups? 
  • What is a professional skill that you saw others using during the experience? Describe these skills. 

Now What? (forward-looking) 

  • What’s one goal you would like to set for yourself for next time?  
  • What things might you want more help with? 

Social Justice

What? (inward-looking) 

  • What have you learned about a particular community or societal issue? 
  • Do you think these people (or situations) are unique? Why or why not? 
  • How do you define community? How might this differ from others’ definitions of community? 

Making Connections (backward-looking) 

  • Did this experience connect with any social issues you’ve been interested in or worked on in the past? 
  • What (historical, social, political, etc.) systems have contributed to an organization like this being necessary for the community? 

Points of View (outward-looking) 

  • What public policies are involved in the community and what are their implications? How can they be improved? 
  • Who determines what’s best for the community? 
  • How can society better deal with the problem? 
  • How can society be more compassionate/informed/involved regarding this community? 
  • What is the difference between generosity, charity, justice, and social change? 
  • How was the situation connected to larger systems/issues? 
  • What privilege did you and others bring to the situation? 
  • What were the sources of power and who benefited? Who was harmed? Who was excluded? 
  • Who has a voice in decision making and priority setting? Why?  
  • Did your actions support systemic social change or provide immediate change/relief (i.e., will anyone be immediately affected by your contributions)? 
  • Evaluate your and others’ approach in terms of the prospect for long-term, sustainable, and/or systematic change. 
  • How have the environmental and social conditions affected the people that you are working with in the community? 
  • What institutional structures are evident in the community you are working with? How do they affect the people you work with? 
  • Why does the organization you are working for exist? 

Now What? (forward-looking) 

  • What more do you want or need to learn in this area? How will you achieve that learning? 
  • What will you do to continue being aware of and/or address this issue? 
  • How can you educate others or raise awareness about this group or social issue? 

    Describing the experience

    What? (inward-looking) 

    • Why do you think [the activity described in previous questions] happened? 
    • What was the best/worst/most challenging thing that happened? 
    • Describe an internal or external conflict that has surfaced for you during your CEL experience, and explain the factors that contribute to it and how you might resolve or cope with the conflict. 
    • Did anything about your community involvement surprise you? If so, what? 
    • What were your goals for meeting this product/service and how did you set them? Did your goals change as you worked on it? Did you meet your goals? 
    • Name three things that stuck in your mind about the CEL experience and explain why (this could also relate to personal development/learning).

    Making Connections (backward-looking) 

    • How would you do this differently if you were in charge? 
    • Describe what you expected to happen and how it was the same or different than what actually happened. 

    Points of View (outward-looking) 

    • Describe the atmosphere of the CEL site. 
    • Describe some of your interactions. 
    • What did the “body language” of the people tell you? 
    • What brings people to the CEL site (both people seeking service, volunteers and employees)? 
    • Are “strangers” welcomed at the CEL site? Why or why not? 
    • Describe what a typical day might be like for someone who uses the services of the organization you worked with. 
    • What could this group do to address the problems you saw at the CEL site? 
    • What could each participant do on their own? 
    • Who was involved in the experience? What roles did you and others play? How were roles decided? Could this have been done differently? 
    • What objectives or goals were you trying to achieve? Were these shared with or by the group? 
    • How were decisions made? How did you know? 
    • What strengths did each person bring to the situation? Were these leveraged effectively to meet the goal? 
    • How well did you communicate with others? How do you know if you were communicating effectively? 
    • Were there things that other people did that helped you learn or work toward your goal? Were there things that you did that helped others with their goals and learning? 
    • Was there conflict or disagreement? How was this handled? Do you think it was handled effectively? 
    • Describe a person you’ve encountered in the community who made a strong impression on you, positive or negative. 
    • What did you do that seemed to be effective or ineffective in the community? 
    • What deliverables—product(s) or service(s)—did you create with community? 
    • What process did you go through to produce this product/service?  
    • What problems did you encounter while you were working on this product/service? How did you solve them?  
    • What resources did you use while working on this product/service? Describe how these resources did or did not support your work.  
    • Does this work tell a story?  

    Now What? (forward-looking) 

    • Where do you go from here? What’s the next step? 
    • How can you continue your involvement with this group or social issue? 

    Academic integration

    What? (inward-looking) 

    • What do you need to know or research before engaging in this experience? 
    • Which theories/concepts do you anticipate being helpful in understanding this experience? 
    • In light of [a particular theory/concept], what do you expect to experience?  
    • In light of [a particular theory/concept], were you surprised by what you experienced? 
    • Did the experience enhance your understanding of a theory/concept? Did it support the theory or did it challenge it? 

    Making Connections (backward-looking) 

    • What academic/disciplinary skills did you use or could you have used to approach the situation? 
    • How much did you know about the subject before we started?

    Points of View (outward-looking) 

    • How would an expert in the field approach this situation? 
    • What theories/concepts are relevant to the experience? 

    Now What? (forward-looking) 

    • What similarities or differences are there between the perspectives offered by the academic concepts discussed in class and the experience? Describe how you could apply different frameworks to the experience. Which fit best? Which do not fit? 
    • What further questions has this experience raised for you? 

    Reflection Activities

    There are many creative ways to encourage students to reflect on their CEL experience. Regardless of the method you choose, make sure to facilitate reflection in ways that are authentic to the learning experience. Here are some ideas of reflection activities.

    Assumption statements

    Assumption statements help students recognize their positionality and biases before entering a CEL experience. Eyler proposes offering statements that voice specific assumptions (often invoking stereotypes) about the population or the topic of the CEL project; for example, “students who fail in school usually have parents who don’t care much about their progress” (Eyler, 2001, p. 38). These assumption statements are evaluated by students using a living Likert scale model, where Likert anchors ranging from Strongly Disagree to Strongly Agree are posted across the classroom. As assumption statements are read out, students can physically move to where they are on the Likert scale. Assumption statements could also be used in written form for an individual reflection (or online for group reflection) for a less intimidating version of this activity. 

    Body part debrief

    Ask students to answer reflection prompts based on parts of the body. This can either be individually written down or discussed in small groups. For example: 

    • Eyes: Reflect on something you saw in yourself or someone else (a peer, a community organization employee or user). 
    • Stomach: Reflect on something that took guts for you to do. 
    • Brain: Reflect on something you learned about yourself, a peer, or the group. 
    • Heart: Reflect on a feeling you experienced. 
    • Hands: Reflect on the way(s) in which your group or community partner ‘gave you a hand’/supported you. 
    • Ear: Reflect on feedback you received from the community. 


    It is important to remember that CEL experiences are worth celebrating, and that is a good opportunity to reflect as well. Celebrating students’ accomplishments at the end of a CEL course or project is a prime time to encourage students to reflect on the work they have done in and with the community. A celebration may have informal reflection or may include more structured reflection activities. 


    Critical moments

    Critical moments in CEL are those particular instances in which learning occurs or greater understanding of a situation is achieved. Based on the Critical Moments Reflection Methodology (McDowell et al., 2005), this activity is intended for classes that have collectively worked on the same project, but may be adapted for individual projects as well. Invite students to record their critical moments on sticky notes and work together as a class to then place them on the blackboard in a pattern that represents the phases of the CEL experience/course in a timeline. Students can then explore the relationships between the critical moments identified by themselves and their peers, reflecting on their experiences in the process. Critical moments could also be categorized by ‘inquiry questions’; for example, “What value added have we brought to our main partners with our participation in the project?” (Ferreira, n.d., p. 11). 

    Faculty-led discussion

    Faculty-led discussion in the classroom remains an effective way to help students reflect on their CEL experiences (Eyler, 2010) as long as the right structure is in place to help focus the discussion. Harris (2005) suggests a ‘scaffolding’ approach, wherein instructors provide enough guidance when needed in order for students to feel supported, but also withhold some information to help nudge students out of engrained patterns of thinking. By striking a balance between supporting and challenging students, instructors can assist students in developing their critical thinking and emotional intelligence. 

    Fishbowl reflection

    The fishbowl reflection technique is a method for structuring group discussions. The basic fishbowl technique involves one student sitting with the instructor in the middle of the classroom (the ‘inner ring’), with the rest of the students sitting in a circle surrounding them (the ‘outer ring’). The student in the middle responds to the instructor’s questions about their CEL experience while the outer ring students observe the discussion and takes notes. The discussion is then opened up for the other students to voice their observations and reflections on the questions and answers of the inner ring. There are several variations of the fishbowl, which can be read about in Bursaw, Limber, Mercer, and Carrington (2015). The fishbowl reflection technique could also be transitioned into an online format using technologies such as Blackboard, Zoom, or discussion boards. 


    Free associating brainstorming

    This activity can be used once the CEL experience is well underway and is a way to approach group reflection in a non-threatening way. Give each student 10-20 sticky notes and ask them to record their feelings from when they first learned about or decided to enroll in the CEL course (each feeling on a separate sticky note). Second, ask the students to write down their feelings when they had their ‘first encounter’ with the community. Third, ask them to record all their feelings they are having currently in their CEL experience. At each stage, encourage the students to brainstorm as many thoughts and feelings as possible and record each on a separate sticky note. The instructor can then place posters around the room, each with a different emotive face (i.e., happy, sad, confused, unsure, or as many as the instructor feels is necessary). The students are then invited to put their sticky notes next to the poster that corresponds to their emotions. When every sticky note has been placed, each student stands next to the poster where they placed the greatest number of their sticky notes. This can then be the basis for a group discussion. 

    Grafitti wall

    Tape posters up on the walls of the classroom with statements like “I’d like to see more of…”, “I’d like to see less of…”, and other relevant prompts. Provide students with sticky notes and invite them to post their ideas under the prompts. The instructor can then read students’ thoughts aloud and use them to begin a group discussion. 


    Interviews for reflection

    Students can interview each other at the beginning of a CEL course to both reflect on their own experiences leading up to the course and try and understand others’ experiences and how they are different or similar to one’s own. Brock University professor Dr. Tim Fletcher offers an example of how he uses this technique for his course Reflective Practice in Physical Education. In his course, students interview each other about their previous experiences of physical education, what they and their peers liked and disliked, and what their teachers did to make the experience of physical education and sport meaningful. 


    Keyword journal

    Adding structure to reflective journals may help students integrate the academic/theoretical aspect of a CEL course into their reflections. Hatcher, Bringle and Muthiah (2004) suggest using key-word journals, in which a list of text- and lecture-based terms is provided and students must integrate a select number into their journal entries. 

    Minute papers

    Sometimes reflective writing does not need to be formal. Using minute papers at the beginning or end of a class can help students reflect on what has occurred since the last class or been discussed that day. The instructor may choose to assign a specific topic for students to reflect on that is germane to the lecture/discussion or leave it open for students to pick their own direction. A timer of one to five minutes is set, and students can write for the selected duration. This strategy may be useful for collecting completion marks rather than needing a formal assessment rubric and corresponding numeric grades. 

    Narrative storytelling

    Narrative storytelling is an exercise that can help students reflect on scenarios within CEL experiences that deal with sensitive topics. Students are asked to narrate stories based on their own CEL experiences, which act as the basis for reflection from the student whose experience it was originally, but also can be reflected on as a group with the class and instructor. Using students’ own experiences rather than topics introduced by the instructor ensures that the subject matter is relevant to all students. By identifying a moment in the community that may have been difficult, triumphant, problematic, or eye-opening, students can reflect on those pivotal moments in CEL; these narratives help provide triggers that cause students to critically reflect on their experiences. Narratives don’t have to be in written format only; they may be presented as a video, skit, or other creative means. 

    Online discussion boards

    Journaling is a common assignment in CEL courses due to the naturally reflective nature of this type of writing. However, Mills (2001) proposes using online discussion boards for journaling— rather than the traditional pen and paper style—due to its ability to be easily accessed and portable (for both students and instructors). Students are able to receive feedback on an ongoing basis rather than wait for a submission deadline, as instructors can access the discussion boards anytime. Students in Mills’ study also reported appreciating the ability to see and comment on other students’ posts, helping each other to reflect more deeply on their CEL experiences (without taking up valuable class time as group discussions would do). This component also facilitated students to get to know one another better, resulting in a sense of community being built within the cohort. Discussion boards can be grouped by service site, project, or topic, or else left more open for the students to take the reins. 

    Role play

    Using theatre exercises for reflection can help students to reflect with their peers. Eyler (2001) suggests that students pick critical moments from their CEL experience and recreate these using role play. Other students in the class can observe the scenario, “apply insights from their study, and suggest a resolution to the critical incident or draw lessons from it” (Eyler, 2001, p. 40). 

    Small moments

    “Small moments” are short vignettes of situations that happened whilst the student was in the community or working on their CEL project. These small moments are described in detail by the student, which then becomes the focus for reflection. This framework can be helpful to identify lessons within specific moments during their CEL experience. Small moments are initially completed individually, but are easily shared with the class for group discussion. Although Bleicher and Correia base their framework on written small moments, this activity lends itself well to other creative methods, such as role play, comic books, multimedia projects, etc. 

    The reflective practice writing bicycle

    As a tool for structuring reflective writing, the Reflective Practice Writing (RPW) Bicycle is a way to enhance the ‘learning’ or reflective journal exercise commonly found in CEL courses. The front wheel of the bicycle represents self-assessment via RPW, which includes eight ‘spokes’: observation, reaction, internal/personal reflection, external reflection, interpretive analysis, learning integration, personal transformation, and transformed/informed action (Pries, 2019, pp. 133-134). The bike’s rear wheel represents organization/placement analysis, which includes seven spokes: observation, three phases of interpretive observation and analysis, theoretical reflection, contra-doctrinal observations, and the goals-of-life harness (Pries, 2019, p. 135). The crankshaft and pedals of the RPW Bicycle include those ways in which students receive feedback on their reflections from the instructor and their peers. Both resources below offer more detail on what each component entails. 

    Reflection stations

    Not all students flex their reflection muscles in the same way, and what promotes effective reflection in one student may not trigger reflection in another. Indeed, some students may reflect ‘better’ through creative, multimedia methods, whereas others may find writing their thoughts out to be more effective. By setting up several reflection stations around the classroom, students can move from station to station and try different activities that promote reflection in different ways. Rice has several ideas of different activities that can be set up, including a creative assets station; a movie, book, music station; a metaphors of change station; a post card station; a learning flow chart station; and a graffiti wall station, among others. For descriptions of each of these stations and how to set them up, please see the link below (pp. 15-16). 


    1. Bleicher, R.E. & Correia, M.G. (2011). Using a “small moments” writing strategy to help undergraduate students reflect on their service-learning experiences. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 15(4), 27-56. 
    2. Brock University, Centre for Pedagogical Innovation. (2020). Role of reflection. Retrieved from reflection/#1547224200620-99f10c9e-fc06 
    3. Bursaw, J., Limber, M., Mercer, L. & Carrington, S. (2015). Teaching reflection for service- learning. In M. E. Ryan (Ed.), Teaching reflective learning in higher education, (pp. 153- 169). Switzerland: Springer International Publishing. 
    4. Chin, N.O. (2004). Teaching critical reflection through narrative storytelling. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 10(3), 57-63. 
    5. Correia, M.G. & Bleicher, R.E. (2008). Making connections to teach reflection. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 14(2), 41-49. 
    6. Eyler, J. (2001). Creating your reflection map. New Directions for Higher Education, 114, 35-45. 
    7. Eyler, J. (2010). What international service learning research can learn from research on service learning. In R.G. Bringle et al. (Eds.) International service learning: Conceptual frameworks and research (pp. 225-241).
    8. Eyler, J.,Giles, D.E. & Schmiede, A. (1996). A practitioner’s guide to reflection in service-learning: Student voices and reflections. Washington, D.C.: Corporation for National Service.
    9. Ferreira, S. (n.d.). Critical moments reflection methodology. Retrieved from f%20CoLab.pdf 
    10. Harris, M. (2005). Is journaling empowering? Students’ perceptions of their reflective writing experience. Health Sa Gesondheid, 10(2), 47-60. 
    11. Harrison, P.A. & Fopma-Loy, J.L. (2010). Reflective journal prompts: A vehicle for stimulating emotional competence in nursing. Journal of Nursing Education, 49(11), 644-652. doi: 10.3928/01484834-20100730-07 
    12. 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. 
    13. Kaighin, J. (2015). How does the use of a reflective journal enhance students’ critical thinking about complexity? In M. E. Ryan (Ed.), Teaching reflective learning in higher education, (pp. 139-151). Switzerland: Springer International Publishing. **Note: Kaighin uses minute papers for gathering feedback from students on a different approach to reflection. The idea here is inspired by her work.
    14. Loyola University. (n.d.) Reflection ideas. Retrieved from
    15. McDowell, C.L., Nagel, A., Williams, S.M. & Canepa, C. (2005). Building knowledge from the practice of local communities. Knowledge Management for Development Journal, 1(3), 30-40. Retrieved from 
    16. Mills, S.D. (2001). Electronic journaling: Using the web-based, group journal for service- learning reflection. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 8(1), 27-35. 
    17. Owen, S. M. & Stupans, I. (2009, p. 273). Experiential placements and scaffolding for reflection. Learning in Health and Social Care, 8(4), 272-281. Doi:10.1111/j.1473-6861.2009.00220.x
    18. Pries, E. (2019). The reflective practice writing bicycle: A reflective analysis tool for engaged learning. Religious Studies and Theology, 38(1-2), 125-140. [Corresponding reference: experience/sites/] 
    19. Rice, K. (n.d.). Engaging all partners in reflection: Designing and implementing integrative reflection opportunities. Retrieved from d17a-4c0f-b05d-0f8f223fd97a/ricereflectionpacket.pdf 

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    June 23, 2022

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