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Helping Service-Learning Students Make Connections through Reflection

TS Eliot writes in Four Quartets (1943),

“We had the experience but missed the meaning,
And approach to the meaning restores the experience.”

Sometimes students fail to connect their service experience with significant learning about themselves, the course materials and their civic responsibility.  They miss the meaning of the experience.  Reflective exercises help students to make appropriate connections between the service and significant areas of learning.  John Dewey (1910) says, “Reflection is turning a topic over in various aspects and in various lights so that nothing significant is overlooked – almost as one might turn a stone over to see what its hidden side is like or what is covered by it.”  To help students uncover the meaning of their service learning and to make significant learning connections, teach your students to use the DEAL Model of Reflection developed by Ash and Clayton (2004).

1. What is the DEAL model?

According to Jameson, Clayton and Bringle (2008), “The DEAL model . . . is an adaptable, three step structure for guiding reflection . . . The model moves students from Description through Examination of those experiences in accordance with specific learning objectives (generally, in the case of service-learning, in the categories of academic enhancement, civic engagement, and personal growth) to Articulation of Learning outcomes.”

2. What does the DEAL model look like?

Deal Model Diagram

Adapted from Ash and Clayton (2004) and http://fpdc.kent.edu/programs/c_conversations/pdf/schematic_overview.pdf


3. How can the DEAL model be adapted?

Whether students are writing reflective essays, journals or blogs, require students to move beyond merely describing the service experience.  Give them prompts that help them to connect the experience to personal growth, academic content and a sense of social responsibility.

Robert Grossman (2009) prompts his students to reflect on the experience using rich sensory details (“what they see, hear, touch, taste, and smell”) and to relate the experience to the course materials.  He says, “Students who describe their experience in rich detail were ready to engage in useful dialogue on course concepts.”  Grossman also requires students to relate their richly described experience to quotations from texts or lecture and to make “point-for-point comparisons between the experience and the concepts.”

Grossman shows the process by giving examples from a student’s service experience of tutoring:

A. Describe the Experience in Rich Sensory Language

The teacher pointed to John and said, “Go with this volunteer to work on your reading and spelling homework. You can show him the way to the tutoring room.”  We went down the hall to a tutoring room.

When I opened the book to the assigned page, I said, “John, would you read this sentence to me?” John just sat there and kind of shyly hid his face in his hands. I then asked him, “What if I start out reading this sentence and you try to finish it? If you do that I will do the next one.” I read the first half of a sentence, “Sally said. . . .”

To my surprise, John immediately read, “come here Spot.” I then said, “Good Job! You can really do this stuff, can’t you!?” Alternating sentences, we got through the whole assignment so quickly that we also had time to practice his spelling words.

B. Quoted Definitions

My introductory text would define positive reinforcement as “A response is strengthened by the subsequent presentation of a stimulus” (Passer and Smith 2001, 242). The other definition; “A response is strengthened by the subsequent removal or avoidance of a stimulus . . . called a negative reinforcement.”

C. Point for Point Comparison

My saying, “Good Job! You can really do this stuff can’t you!?” was an example of positive reinforcement. He continued to be willing to read the next line after I read. I’m not sure there is anything I did after his response that removed a stimulus, so there isn’t really an example of negative reinforcement. If after he stumbled on a hard word I pronounced the word and said, “If you have any trouble I’ll help with the hard words,” that would have removed the pressure and would have been a good example of using negative reinforcement.  Is there any term for putting pressure on before the response? That was what my first question seemed to have done.”



Ash, S. & Clayton, P. (2004). The articulated learning: An approach to guided reflection and assessment.  Innovative Higher Education 29 (2): 137-154.

Dewey, J.  (1910).  How we think.  Boston: D.C. Heath.

Eliot, T.S.  (1943). Four Quartets.  Orlando: Harcourt.

Grossman, R.  (2009). Structures for facilitating student reflection.  College Teaching 57, no. 1: 15-22.

Jameson, J., Clayton, P. & Bringle, R. (2008).  Investigating student learning within and across S-L courses.  In M.A. Bowdon, S.H. Billig & B.A. Holland (Eds), Scholarship for sustaining service-learning and civic engagement.  Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.