Defining Critical Reflection

    Posted: November 22, 2016

    Integrative and transformative learning are each goals of service-learning that are accomplished through a necessary component of reflection.

    As Jack Mezirow wrote in Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning, “through reflection we see through the habitual way that we have interpreted the experience of everyday life, in order to reassess rationally the implicit claim of validity made by a previously unquestioned meaning scheme or perspective.”

          Further Reading: 4 Outcomes of Transformative Learning and How to Achieve Them

    Critical reflection contributes to students becoming more conscious about their motivations for service, and the concept of ‘doing no harm’ to the communities and partners with which they serve.

    So how can we deconstruct this broad term to better fit within our methods of learning and teaching?

    Below are four key characteristics of reflection that can aid us both in better understanding and facilitating it.


    Reflection is personal

    It primarily relates to the self and is self-learning and self-growth. The process of engaging students in critical reflection is then a process of self-knowledge and questioning. As service-learning practitioners, we can use critical reflection to engage our students in a learning process that examines relations of culture, power, hegemony, ideology, and existing institutional or governmental arrangements.

    Reflection is active

    It is experiential learning at its best. As John Dewey has described, learning must be connected to activity and analysis if it is to truly be considered learning: “mere activity does not constitute experience…experience involves change, but change is a meaningless transition unless it is consciously connected with the return wave of consequences which flow from it.”

    The process of reflection can be practiced through an array of classroom activities that engage and challenge students to expand their own worldview.

          Further Reading: Charles Darwin and the Case for Experiential Education


    Reflection is intentional

    It is an integrated understanding and intentional analyses of complex processes that will better inform how students engage with life, other people, and other cultures. It is a method of gaining intercultural competence and an understanding of cultural diversity.

          Further Reading: 5 Actions You Can Take to Gain Intercultural Competence

    Reflection is a process

    It is a cycle whereby we look at an experience, frame it, and derive meaning from it. Critical thinking is integral to this process and demonstrates student ability to evaluate relevant information and opinions gathered in a systematic, purposeful, and efficient manner.

          Further Reading: How to Promote Global Leadership in the Classroom

    Critical analysis, problem-solving, and deep interpretation of this kind will provide students with greater access to leadership capacities as well as transformative knowledge.

    Reflection, when practiced through a critical lens, is a tool that will create more engaged students and more meaningful experiences.


    Want to read more? Please see:

    Brookfield, S. (2009). The concept of critical reflection: Promises and contradictionsEuropean Journal of Social Work12(3), 293-304.

    Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company.

    Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass.

    Think a service learning course might be a good fit for you? GVI is a multi-award winning International Service Learning organization. Find out more about our international programs and see how students from around the world are making a difference.