Student Learning and Critical Reflection

The Experiential Learning Cycle

CBL courses are built upon the model of experiential learning as a cycle. This "recursive circle or spiral" is "opposed to the linear, traditional information transmission model of learning used in most education where information is transferred from the teacher to the learner" (Kolb & Kolb, 2018).

Most classes are organized as "a series of learning cycles to form a deepening spiral of learning that expands in complexity and application" (9). As they go through the course, students will "discover more about the practical limits and the wider applications of their new knowledge by taking what they have learned in one situation and using it in another" (9).

Critical Reflection

Student reflection is the cornerstone of community-based learning. Within specific disciplines, this practice might go by another name: analysis, meaning-making, learning integration. We define critical reflection as the "intentional consideration of an experience in light of particular learning objectives" (Hatcher & Bringle, 1997). To be successful, this practice must be intentionally structured and systematic. Reflection is most effective when it embraces the "4C's"*:


Reflection is ongoing -- taking place before, during, and after a CBL experience.


The timing and form of reflection is tailored to the course, the context of the specific CBL experience, and the skill and knowledge of the students. The reflection places the CBL experience within a larger context (community, society, social responsibility).


Reflection links the CBL experience to the intellectual and academic content of the course, couches the experience in conceptual frameworks, and incorporates perspectives different than the student's own.


Reflection requires students to grapple with ideas, experiences, and issues that are unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and/or clash with their worldview and assumptions. Reflection requires ongoing constructive feedback from a facilitator, who probes for deeper responses. Reflection without feedback can have the unintended consequence of affirming biases instead of challenging assumptions.

*From Eyler, Giles, and Shmeide (1996)

Frameworks for critical reflection

The DEAL Model

Created by Ash and Clayton, DEAL is an acronym for Describe, Examine, and Articulate Learning. The DEAL Model is a flexible approach to critical reflection that can be applied in any number of learning contexts.

Rolfe et al.'s Reflective Framework

This framework asks three simple questions:

  1. What Happened? Describe the experience.
  2. So What? Describe why this experience was significant.
  3. Now what? Describe the next steps.
Reflection Rubrics

For those looking for further standards for assessing levels of reflection, we recommend Bradley’s criteria and Cornell’s Recommended Critical Reflection Framework.

Reflection Articles

Access curated scholarly articles about reflection in the field of service learning and community engagement.