A Guide for Processing a Service Experience
Reflection is a key aspect of volunteering to get the most out
of the service. This page contains main valuable resources to
help with the reflection process.
Reflection is the process by which participants
mentally and emotionally synthesize direct service and their
Why is reflection
- Links direct service and education
- Aids in assessing your own priorities and values-deciding what
you stand for
- Helps evaluate the role that service plays in your life now and
in the future
- Is key to developing a long-term commitment to service
- Leads to thoughtful and thus more effective service
- Validates the feelings of individuals and allows them to
realize that they are not alone in their reactions
- Helps internalize the lessons learned and connects those
lessons to personal choices and behavior
A Basic Discussion: What? So
What? Now What?
This structure is a commonly used discussion starter that forms
an overview of the experience using the three questions: What? So
What? Now What?
- Is descriptive
- Deals with facts, what happened, with whom
- Substance of group interaction
Examples of "what" questions:
- What did I experience today?
- What did I see?
- What did I feel?
- Shifts from descriptive to interpretive
- Meaning of experience for each participant
- Feelings involved, lessons learned
Examples of "so what" questions:
- What has this meant to me?
- What impact does this have on me? On the community?
- How will this change me?
- Contextual-seeing this situation's place in the big
- Applying lessons learned/insights gained to new situations
- Setting future goals, creating an action plan
Examples of "now what" questions:
- What is the next step in dealing with this issue?
- What changes can I make in my life to make an impact?
- Is there something larger I can begin to do?
- Are there others that can help me in my efforts?
After the event, have all of the participants sit in a circle
with lit candles. The facilitator shares a dark part (of
feeling) of (about) the experience and blows his/her candle
out. The next person shares until the room is dark. The
facilitator lights his/her candle and shares a happy moment of the
experience. S/he lights the candle of the person sitting next
to him/her with his/her candle. Slowly the room becomes
The Strong Circle
This exercise is a relatively quick way to check in with a group
at the beginning or end of a meeting and gives a sense of
connectedness. It resembles the huddle in team sports and
creates a feeling of solidarity and team effort.
- A Strong Circle is announced.
- The group stands in a tight circle, shoulder to shoulder,
everyone in the circle and no one outside the circle.
- A pertinent question may be put to the group asking for a one
word answer: "Tell us in one word how your service project
went...what you thought of the retreat...how your semester is
- People speak their answers in turn, around the Strong
- Any appropriate closing comments are added.
Students use photographs to reflect on their service experience
and can weave a main theme or concept to actual photo
documents. These projects are also excellent ones to share
with the campus community, the service sites, for year-end
collaborations, or college and other local publications.
Use a team journal to promote interaction between team members
on project related issues and to introduce students to different
perspectives on the project. Students can take turns
recording shared and individual experiences, reactions, and
observations, and responses to each other's entries.
Participants are asked to show with a word, their body, or a
facial expression how they feel right at the moment. Let
people show their reaction, one at a time, and then have
participants explain their reaction. This activity can give
the facilitator a sense of the group mood and gives the
participants a chance to express how they feel at that moment.
Using large pieces of banner paper and markers, ask students to
get into pairs and depict their experiences using a combination of
words and pictures. Give them about 10-15 minutes. When
completed ask each pair to share their banner with the whole
group. Use their banners as a jumping off point for
processing the experience.
Letters to Self
Have participants write a letter to themselves right after they
complete their service project (you may provide some reflective
questions or a "form" for them to complete). Ask them to seal
their letters in envelopes and address them to themselves.
The facilitator can mail the letter to participants a few weeks
Use the backside of a child's puzzle (number of pieces will
vary). Hand out the pieces to the members of the group.
Individuals write on the pieces something that s/he has learned or
felt. Reassemble the puzzle having each participant share
something about what s/he wrote.
Have participants form a circle. Ask the group a question
such as "What was the most surprising thing that you learned
today?" Ask for a volunteer to begin. The person will be
given a ball of yarn. After they answer the question, they
toss the yarn to another person in the circle. The second
person answers the same question. This continues until
everyone has had a chance to answer. The result will be a
yarn web. The facilitator can then ask the question about the
connectedness of the day, bring up the idea of being a part of a
community, what happens if we don't contribute (ask someone to drop
their string...web slackens) and so on.
Have participants form two equal circles, one inside the
other. The inner circle turns to face the outer circle so
that everyone is facing a partner. The facilitator asks a
question or poses an unfinished statement to the group.
Partners introduce themselves and each person takes a minute to
answer the question or complete the statement and explain his or
her opinion about it. After the partners have responded, have
one circle rotate so that everyone has a new partner. The
facilitator can ask a new question, pose a new unfinished
statement, or use the original. After several partner
changes, the facilitator can gather the group for a larger general
Ask participants to write "a-ha" moments, challenges, strengths,
etc. on index cards and fold them in half. Form a circle and
have participants throw their cards into the center. Each
participant retrieves another's card, reads the info, and reflects
on it. Participants can share whose card is whose if they feel
A variation on "Fishbowl" is to have the facilitator have
pre-made index cards with reflection questions to put in the middle
of the circle. Each participant retrieves a card and answers
it, inviting others to share their responses as well.
Questions to Ask Before Service:
- Why did you choose to participate in this service
- What are some of your expectation of this service project?
- What are you expecting the site to look like?
- What are you most looking forward to?
- What do think will be the hardest aspect of the service
- Do you have any personal goals for the service project?
- Is there anything that you are afraid of or concerned
Questions to Ask After Service:
- Did any of your expectations change once you arrive at the
- Were you pushed outside of your comfort zone? If so, what
was the hardest part about it?
- Is there anything discouraging about the people you
- Where have you noticed diversity or differences within the team
and/or service site?
- What was most surprising?
- If you could change one thing about the reality of the area you
are serving, what would it be?
- What is the impact of your actions?
- What more still needs to be done?
- What have you learned about the service site? About the
- What do you see as the immediate and long-term needs of this
- How would your social status change if you were to become part
of the culture that you served?
- Where did you feel challenged?
- Has there been a situation that has made you more aware of your
own cultural upbringing?
- Has this experience challenged any stereotypes you have?
- What have you learned by observing and/or listening?
- How will this experience change the way you act in the
- What lesson would you like to take with you into your classes
or future career?
- What has been the best aspect of this experience?
- Take note during the service project of how people are
interacting with each other and mentally note attitudes, comments,
and situations (good or bad). If appropriate, include these
observations within your reflection.
- Think beforehand about who will be involved in the
service project and decide what it will look like. Will reflection
be in small groups, a large group, or individual?
- Have a plan. It's okay if you refer to questions or
activity instructions that you've brought along. Unless you've
facilitated reflection many times, "winging it" can lead to a
- Gently encourage everyone to contribute to the
reflection, but be respectful of those who choose to be quiet.
- Be sure to schedule time for reflection. Reflection is
often cut because time runs out, but this can leave volunteers
frustrated if they haven't had a chance to talk about their
- Silence is okay. If you pose a question to the group and no one
answers, don't worry. Often we don't give people enough time to
process their thoughts.
- Find a place away from the service site to do your
reflection. Your group should have some privacy where participants
can feel comfortable disclosing thoughts without having others
- Have a positive attitude about reflection. If you groan
every time the word "reflection" is mentioned, your group will soon
be groaning, too. Some people mistakenly associate reflection with
"touchy-feely" time, which is doesn't have to be if you don't want
it to be. Reflection can be a time of where people talk about what
surprised them, what they learned, how an issue impacts a
community, etc. Reflection is what you make it (and if you don't
end with a group hug, that's quite alright).
- If a member of your group seems particularly affected by
your experience, do some follow up. Assess the situation and decide
if a professional staff member needs to be included.
- Mix up your methods! Using different reflection activities
instead of sticking the same tried and true every time.
- Empower participants; do not force your own agenda on them. Go
with the flow and be flexible.
- Let participants know why they are reflecting. Talk about the
value of reflective practice.
A Practitioner's Guide to Reflection in Service-Learning:
Student Voices & Reflections-Janet Eyler, Dwight E. Giles
Jr., Angela Schmiede
Reflection in Service Learning: Making Meaning of
Experience-Robert Bringle & Julie Hatcher