Critical Reflection and Experiential Learning

Critical Reflection 

Critical Reflection is a rigorous and necessary component of any experiential learning activity and an effective tool for use in assessment.  Students who take the time to reflect on their experiences tend to gain more from those experiences as they have been taking active steps to monitor their involvement, and record their observations.  Critical Reflection assists students in thoughtfully processing their work within the community and helps them to critically assess and understand what they are achieving in combination with their course-work and previous learnings.  Some of the most effective experiences are those that provided structured opportunities for learners to critically reflect upon their research and service to the community and how that experience unfolded as a whole.

Why Reflect?

According to John Dewey, "truly educative" experiences generate interest, are intrinsically worthwhile, present problems that awaken new curiosity and create a demand for new information, and take sufficient time to foster development.  Reflection is an essential process for transforming experiences– gained from undergraduate research, their community-based activities and the course materials–into genuine learning.  It is crucial for integrating the experience with the classroom topics.  It fosters learning about larger social issues, and civic responsibilities such as the political, economic, and sociological characteristics of our communities.  It enhances students’ critical understanding of the course topics and their ability to assess their own values, goals, and progress.

What is Critical Reflection?

Reflection is a process designed to promote the examination and interpretation of experience and the promotion of cognitive learning.  It is "a process by which learners think critically about their experiences."  It is the process of looking back on the implications of actions taken - good and bad - and determining what has been gained, lost, or achieved and connecting these conclusions to future actions and larger societal contexts.  Through reflection students analyze concepts, evaluate experiences, and postulate theory.  Critical reflection provides students with the opportunity to examine and question their beliefs, opinions, and values.  It involves observation, asking questions, and putting facts, ideas, and experiences together to derive new meaning.

What are the Benefits?

Reflection improves basic academic skills and promotes a deeper understanding of course subject matter and its relations to the non-academic world.  It improves higher level thinking, problem solving, and students’ ability to learn from their experience.  Critical reflection promotes personal development by enhancing students’ self-awareness, their sense of community, and their sense of their own capacities and capabilities.

How can this be facilitated in the Classroom?

Effective reflection depends on appropriate contexts and real problems and issues.   The culture of the class-community must be one in which students feel included, respected, and safe.  The dialogue between instructor and students must be meaningful to the students.  Students are helped to feel respected and included in the class-community in which they can exchange concerns, experiences, and expectations about the service and the class either through small groups or individually during discussions.  By involving students in real community problems or projects through research, service and experience, they are provided with a need to know, a desire to enhance their skills and a commitment to solving problems of importance to them.

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