Reflection Resources

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.
Check out this resource titled “Volunteering and Psychological Health” published by Professor Yasmeen Aleem of Purdue University Global.

Reflection is the process by which participants mentally and emotionally synthesize direct service and their experiences.

  • 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

This structure is a commonly used discussion starter that forms an overview of the experience using the three questions: What? So What? Now What?

  • 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?
  • So What?
    • Shifts from descriptive to interpretive
    • Meaning of experience for each participant
    • Feelings involved, lessons learned
    • Why?
    • Examples of “so what” questions:
      • What has this meant to me?
      • What impact does this have on me?  On the community?  Nation?
      • How will this change me?
  • Now What?
    • Contextual-seeing this situation’s place in the big picture
    • 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 light.

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 going…” etc.
  • People speak their answers in turn, around the Strong Circle.
  • 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.

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 later.

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 discussion.

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 comfortable.

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.

  1. Why did you choose to participate in this service opportunity?
  2. What are some of your expectation of this service project?
  3. What are you expecting the site to look like?
  4. What are you most looking forward to?
  5. What do think will be the hardest aspect of the service project?
  6. Do you have any personal goals for the service project?
  7. Is there anything that you are afraid of or concerned about?
  1. Did any of your expectations change once you arrive at the site?
  2. Were you pushed outside of your comfort zone?  If so, what was the hardest part about it?
  3. Is there anything discouraging about the people you served?
  4. Where have you noticed diversity or differences within the team and/or service site?
  5. What was most surprising?
  6. If you could change one thing about the reality of the area you are serving, what would it be?
  7. What is the impact of your actions?
  8. What more still needs to be done?
  9. What have you learned about the service site?  About the community?
  10. What do you see as the immediate and long-term needs of this community/agency?
  11. How would your social status change if you were to become part of the culture that you served?
  12. Where did you feel challenged?
  13. Has there been a situation that has made you more aware of your own cultural upbringing?
  14. Has this experience challenged any stereotypes you have?
  15. What have you learned by observing and/or listening?
  16. How will this experience change the way you act in the future?
  17. What lesson would you like to take with you into your classes or future career?
  18. 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 frustrating experience.
  • 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 experience.
  • 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 overhear.
  • 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