The Reflective Component

According to its perhaps best-known spokesperson, John Dewey, experiential learning involves the cyclical yet progressive movement from theory to practice back to theory and then again out to practice. Through a deliberately designed project, what one thinks—one’s ideas, assumptions, beliefs and hypotheses—is put into practice and tested in experience; what is learned from experience produces a reconsideration and possible reformation of what one thinks, and future practices are envisioned in line with new understanding. Well-designed Odyssey projects, regardless of category, will have this movement from theory to practice and back to theory with implications for future practice. In well-executed Odyssey projects, the student will be reflective about the process: what ideas am I designing this activity to test or examine?  What makes this activity appropriate for testing those ideas?  How did the test go; in light of this experience, are my previous ideas or theories more likely to be true than not?  What do I plan to do about that in the future?

In some Odyssey activities and categories, what is being tested most immediately are beliefs or theories about things external to the engaged learner, e.g. the various artifacts of the disciplines—chemicals, organisms, social organizations, mathematical objects, historical or literary documents and so on. But every Odyssey project also offers engaged learners the opportunity to put to the test what is internal to the learner: the ideas they have about themselves, the values they hold, the prejudices they keep, the talents they have, the challenges they are up to, and the things they want to accomplish. This self-reflection, this examination of the fundamental question of the liberal arts “Who am I, what do I believe, and how shall I live?” is rightly a part of every well-executed Odyssey project.

      In certain of the Odyssey categories this examination of self is so central that projects bearing credit in these categories must include a substantial, well-delineated, reflection component. These categories are: Global Awareness, Professional and Leadership Development, Service to the World, and Special Projects. Sponsors of projects in the Artistic Creativity and Undergraduate Research categories may also require specific reflection activities. The typical form of required reflection in these categories will be a writing assignment. For example your reflections may be entered in a journal that you keep as you progress through the experience, or it may take the form of a paper submitted at the end of the project. Other forms of reflection, such as group discussions, photo journals and blogs must be approved by your supervisor and the director of the Odyssey Program.

1. The Journal

What A Journal Is and Is Not

Keeping a journal may be different from what you might expect. First, a journal is NOT a daily log of things done. Second, it is NOT a private diary. A journal is not a daily log because in a journal, you should analyze, interpret, and explore the broader meaning of your experience, not simply record what has happened. A journal is not a private diary because the journal should be written to communicate to someone else what you have learned. Even so, in a journal you are encouraged to think in deeply personal ways about your experience.

Lastly, a journal is NOT a final reflection paper, although keeping one may be very helpful for preparing to write a reflection paper. Journal entries should be made throughout the relevant experience, not written retrospectively at the end of an experiential project. Thus, you must discipline yourself to a regular writing schedule. A journal entry for each day of involvement is a good aim, but you don’t have to be rigid about it. Some days, too much has happened to think coherently on paper!

 Keeping a Journal

Research indicates that unstructured journal writing, in which you have no guidelines, typically stays at the level of a daily log and never leads to analysis and integration of the experiences with your intellectual, moral, social, political, or religious life. On the other hand, too much structure makes it hard to write personally. To strike a balance, try one of the following two approaches (based on information presented at a Service-Learning Workshop led by Joe Favazza and Michael McLain of Rhodes College), or a combination of them both:

(1)  In your daily writing during the experience, think of yourself as writing a “What Journal.”  Structure your entries to answer:  What?  So What? Now What? 

What? In this section, describe the things done, things observed, or other aspects of the day’s experience that seem most important to remember or to tell about.

So What?  Examine these aspects of the day more fully, answering such questions as:  Why are these the events that mattered most to me today?  Why did I react the way I did in that situation?  Did these things teach me something surprising about myself, my society, or the world?  Did they confirm things I have always believed?  Am I left puzzled by the things that happened today, and if so, why?

Now What?   Reflect on whether the events described and analyzed should make a difference in your future conduct or beliefs. Questions to reflect upon in this section include:  Is this experience changing how I think about things?  Is it confirming what I have always believed? Do I want it to change how I act in the future? Do the things I have liked or not liked during this experience tell me anything about the sort of leader I want to grow into, the sort of life I want to lead, or the ways I want to be of service to others?  Has this experience been a spiritual journey for me?

(2)  Keep a Directed Journal. By yourself, or working with a faculty or administrative staff sponsor, identify key questions that you will answer over the course of your experience. These questions will generally have to do with applying your practical experience to key concepts, theories, or readings relevant to the purpose of your experience; or they may be more open-ended questions that require you to take stock of the broader issues raised by the experience.

Keeping the Journal Personal

It is certainly the aim of journal writing to invite deep personal exploration. Yet, for accountability purposes, a faculty or administrative staff sponsor will usually read your journal. Here are two approaches that can help you maintain your sense of privacy:

  •  you and your sponsor can agree that he or she will be the only person reading the journal and that personal details that you share will be kept confidential; or
  •  you and your mentor may agree that you will turn down any pages you do not want read, and he or she will not look at them.

With the spirit of trust that exists in a good student-mentor relationship, one of these approaches should provide you with the freedom you need to write your most intimate observations in your journal.

 

Prepared by:

Dr. Peg Falls-Corbitt, Professor of Philosophy

Associate Provost for Engaged Learning

Director, Hendrix-Miller Center for Vocation, Ethics and Calling

       

2. A Reflection Paper

If you decide to write a final reflection paper for an activity or project in one of the categories that require a reflective component, you may still wish to keep a personal journal (see above), or at least daily notes, while your Odyssey experience is in progress. Doing so will prepare you well to write the final document.

A reflection paper is very similar to a journal in many ways. It is NOT a simple enumeration of what you did for your project. Instead it must go beyond a straightforward description of the activity itself to delve into your personal reactions and the growth that you experience as a result of the project. Also, like a journal, the reflection paper must be written with the intent of communicating your insights to someone else.

Both of the approaches to journal writing suggested in the previous section also work well as means of structuring a reflection paper. Similar to a “What Journal,” a successful reflection paper could address the three questions: What? So What? and Now What? (See fuller explanations of these questions in the previous section.) The paper will differ from a journal in that you will be answering these questions at the end of a project rather than while it is in progress. This perspective will allow you the opportunity to ponder and synthesize your responses and reactions to the overall experience.

Alternatively, you might choose to write a Directed Reflection Paper. In this case, you and your sponsor must develop in advance specific questions that you will consider as you progress through your Odyssey experience. As in the case of a Directed Journal, these questions will generally have to do with applying the practical experience gained during your project to key concepts, theories, or readings relevant to the purpose of your experience. They may also be more open-ended questions that require you to take stock of the broader issues raised by the experience.

Whichever approach you take, journal or reflection paper, the purpose of writing about your Odyssey project is to help you reflect on your reactions and responses to it. The exercise should help you better understand yourself and how you have grown or changed during this Odyssey experience.