Reflection as Preparation for Service-Learning Abroad
by Amanda Sturgill
I had the opportunity to take a group of graduate students to Costa Rica in January for a project. Our Interactive Project for the Public Good course is the centerpiece of our master’s program and combines project-based learning with very short-term study abroad, as we visit other countries to build websites for NGOs.
This year was unusual for these projects in that the community partners were very small physically, such that only half my students could actually fit in their space at a time. So my students are actually doing two projects and were split up into groups of 3 for our entire time in country. The larger group works together on the sites, so it was important that everyone have the same idea of the community partners’ story that we were going to try to tell. I’ve learned over the years that including quite a bit of deliberate preparation is important in getting the most out of these very short-term experiences (nothing new here). I’ve also found that because our projects involve collecting media, it’s easy for students to put a camera or microphone in between themselves and the cultural lessons they need to learn to represent the community partners accurately. I’ve experimented with restricting camera use on the first day (usually part of a day, with travel restrictions) to help get past this.
Lots of research (Trilokekar and Kukar, 2011; Pedersen, 2009; Sturgill and Motley, 2014 and many more) speaks to the importance of reflection in any kind of applied learning. It’s with good reason. I’ve found that reflection is the thing that encourages the students to integrate their learning off campus with their studies. This year presented a new opportunity for me to consider the crossovers between reflection and preparation. Our first 3 days (out of an 8 day trip) onsite were technology free. It was important for each student to understand the community partner’s story and situation prior to attempting to gather content, and we didn’t all get through initial visits to the client sites until that fourth day.
There were some notable effects. The students were quite uncomfortable, mostly because the onus was on them to get the best pictures, videos, quotations etc. the first time, because all of this getting acquainted and building understanding took up our do-over time. In the end, it didn’t matter. We used evening team meetings and reflection journal assignments to talk about what we saw (not what we recorded) and what it meant and how to put it in the perspective of the information we got from preparation and the preconceived notions we brought with us. When we came prepared to record, we had a solid understanding of with whom we were working and what we were trying to do, and it turned out we really didn’t need the extra time after all.
Questions at the boundaries of the practices for study abroad and domestic off-campus study are plentiful, and anecdotal experiences like these aren’t a great path to transferrable answers on what the high-impact practices are. Our research seminar facilitating multi-institutional research on study abroad and off-campus domestic study as integrated global learning practices will help solidify what is known.
- Pederson, Paula J. (2009) Teaching towards an ethnorelative worldview through psychology study abroad. Intercultural Education, 20(supplement 1), 73-86.
- Sturgill, Amanda, & Motley, Phillip. (2014). Methods of reflection about service learning: Guided vs. free, dialogic vs. expressive and public vs. private. Teaching and Learning Inquiry, 2(1), 81-93.
- Trilokekar, Roopa Desai & Kukar, Polina. (2011) Disorienting experiences during study abroad: Reflections of pre-service teacher candidates. Teaching & Teacher Education, 27 (7), 1141-1150.
Amanda Sturgill (@) is Associate Professor of Communications at Elon University. She has professional experience in newspaper journalism and marketing communications, and her research focuses on the intersection of education and community-based work, the relationship of region and media, and on new technologies and the news. Amanda routinely teaches study abroad courses and has published on methods of reflection in service-learning abroad.