Project 4: A Critical Reflection of Service

Note: This is a major writing assignment and portfolio piece for Professor McGuire’s Composition II course. It is asks the writer to reflect and write critically about a recent service-learning experience. It can easily be adapted for younger audiences.


Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happened to him.     — Alsous Huxley

Your Essential Task

In experiential learning you are both a participant and observer. As a participant you will be contributing to the organization in which you are placed and learning new skills. But this is not what makes the experience worthy of academic credit. The academic component of your service results from your ability to systematically observe what is going on around you. This requires a kind of mental gymnastics that does not come without training and tools. A well- written reflection is a tool, which helps you practice the quick movements back and forth from the environment in which you have experienced or are working in to the abstract generalizations you have read or heard in class.

Community service, in itself, can be meaningful, pointless, or harmful. Reflection is the key to getting meaning from your service experience. What is reflection? A process by which service-learners think critically about their experiences. Reflection can happen through writing, speaking, listening, and reading about the service experiences. Why is reflection important? Learning happens through a mix of theory and practice, thought and action, observation and interaction. It allows students to learn from themselves.

How to Write this Critical Reflection

As with any tool, beneficial use of a critical reflection takes practice. You must force yourself to just start writing. Try to write as soon as possible following your service-learning experience. At the risk of taking the spontaneity out of it, what follows are some tips on writing this critical reflection.

Detailed description as if to an outsider

Often you will use your reflective writing to record detailed descriptions of some aspect of the service setting, whether physical, behavioral, or organizational. When you write them, you will not necessarily have a clear idea of what you will make of these details, but you will sense that they might be important later. These descriptions should sound as if you were describing them to someone who was never there. This writing, in part, allows you to sound naïve.

Tentative explanations

At times you will want to speculate as to why something that you have observed firsthand is as it is. You might derive your explanation from something you have heard, a book you have read, or your own reservoir of “common sense”. Having posited an interpretation, you will want to continue with your detailed observations on the topic to see if you want to stick with your hypothesis or alter it. This critical reflection allows you to change your mind as you write.

Personal judgments

Less often you can use your critical reflection to make judgments about something in the service setting. There may be people’s actions that you find unpleasant, ways of doing things that are not as you would do them, work environments in which you would not want to remain. These judgments will help you learn about yourself, your values and your limits. This critical reflection allows you to speak your mind.

What to Write in this Critical Reflection

There are many ways you can go about writing this critical reflection, and many things you might include. You should keep in mind, though, some of the following basic ingredients and qualities as you write:

  • Include snapshots filled with sights, sounds, smells, concerns, insights, doubts, fears, and critical questions about issues, people, and, most importantly, yourself.
  • Be honest as you write and reflect; this is a most important ingredient.
  • Focus the reflection as thoughts, images, and overall perceptions coming together into a colorful verbal picture of the experience.
  • Use the reflection as an opportunity to meditate on what you’ve seen, felt, and experienced, and on aspects of the volunteer experience that continues to excite, trouble, impress, or unnerve you.
  • Use the “three levels of reflection” questions below as a diving board to leap from into a clear or murky pool of thought. Use the questions below to keep your writing/“swimming” focused.

The Three Levels of Reflection

Critical service-learning reflection can be best achieved by focusing your reflection on three discreet levels. As mentioned before, use the questions below at these three levels to keep your writing focused. Dig deep. Really think about these things and incorporate aspects of these questions at all three levels into your writing.

The Mirror (a clear reflection of the self)

  • Who are you?
  • What are your values?
  • What have you learned about yourself through this experience?
  • Do you have more/less understanding or empathy than you did before volunteering?
  • In what ways, if any, has your sense of self, your values, your sense of “community,” your willingness to serve others, and your self-confidence/self-esteem been impacted or altered through this experience?
  • Have your motivations for volunteering changed? In what ways?
  • How has this experience challenged stereotypes or prejudices you have/had? Any realizations, insights, or especially strong lessons learned or half-glimpsed?
  • Will these experiences change the way you act or think in the future? Have you given enough, opened up enough, cared enough?
  • How have you challenged yourself, your ideals, your philosophies, your concept of life or of the way you live?

The Microscope (makes the small experience large)

  • What happened?
  • Describe your experience.
  • What would you change about this situation if you were in charge? What have you learned about this agency, these people, or the community?
  • Was there a moment of failure, success, indecision, doubt, humor, frustration, happiness, sadness?
  • Do you feel your actions had any impact?
  • What more needs to be done? Does this experience compliment or contrast with what you’re learning in class? How?
  • Has learning through experience taught you more, less, or the same as the class? In what ways?

The Binoculars (makes what appears distant, appear closer)

  • From your service experience, are you able to identify any underlying or overarching issues that influence the problem?
  • What could be done to change the situation?
  • How will this alter your future behaviors/attitudes/and career?
  • How is the issue/agency you’ve served impacted by what is going on in the larger political/social sphere?
  • What does the future hold?
  • What can be done?

How this Assignment Will Be Assessed

First of all remember that this assignment will not be fully assessed until you include it as a part of your final portfolio project; however, as an initial draft that will be reviewed by members of the class, completing it on time is essential to stay on track toward at least a B in this course. Refer to the grading contract on the syllabus for more information about the importance of meeting all deadlines, and for general information on what makes for exemplary writing in this course.

The basic expectations that I have for average and acceptable work for this project are as follows. The work should:

  • be well-developed, well-crafted, revised, and edited writing logically organized
  • demonstrate critical reflection on all three levels (as described above) and offer thoughtful insights on the service experience and its effect on you
  • have a strong beginning and a resonating close
  • properly cite any and all sources using both in-text notes and an accurate MLA works cited page/area
  • have an effective title for the work
  • be well edited and free from careless mechanical errors
  • around 1250 to 1500 words long (absolutely no less than 1250 but it can be as long as you like)
  • be enjoyable to write and read

Due Dates

This work must be posted to the course “Commonplace” and categorized properly as “essay draft” by the scheduled due date. If you are having technical challenges with this, it is your responsibility to seek assistance from the instructor as soon as possible and resolve the issue before the due date. Be sure also to keep your own electronic copy of your draft, so that you can easily return to it for revision at a later time. Consult the course schedule for a complete list of due dates.