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There is no happiness if the things we believe in are different than the things we do.
-- Albert Camus, Philosopher, Writer

[Albert Camus Photograph]

Although the Reflection Circle is a basic structure for reflection, not all groups or group members are comfortable or interested in speaking up in this environment right away. Being creative and using a variety of activities helps to gain the participants' interest and can foster comfort and familiarity in the group. A mixture of approaches can also address a range of learning and communication styles. Some activities break the group into smaller units, allowing participants to become comfortable speaking in a less intimidating environment. Others spark discussion through the use of quotes, visualization and role plays. Group activities thus offer a framework for reflection, and encourage participants to begin thinking critically about their experiences. Through exposure to a variety of viewpoints, participants develop their understanding of the issues and improve their ability to reflect without relying on structured exercises. A selection of group activities follows.

Reflection Starters: Basic Discussions

A single question is often the simplest way to start a group talking. The questions listed in the previous "Reflection Circle" section are basic to reflection and address a range of aspects of the service experience. Facilitators should review that list and consider incorporating some of these or similar questions into the group's reflection sessions. A well-known structure for reflection questions is described below, as well additional basic reflection starters. Alternative discussion activities can be derived from the role plays, quotes, and group exercises in this manual.

What?/So What?/Now What?

This structure for reflection questions is perhaps the most widely known and used. It is a basic way to promote discussion that begins with reviewing the details of the experience and moves toward critical thinking, problem solving, and creating and action plan.


So what?:

Now what?:

Concentric Circles (from David Sawyer)

The group is divided in two, with half of them forming a tight circle in the center of the room. The remaining people then pair up with someone in the circle. The facilitator then poses a question for each pair to answer in a few minutes. Then, either the inner or outer circle is asked to rotate "x" spaces to the right or left. Another question is asked for the new pair to discuss. This activity can go on for as long as desired, giving people the chance to have one on one discussions with many different people in the group. The following are examples of questions that the facilitator may ask:

Open-Ended Questions (from "Students Trained in Advocacy and Community Service" (STACS))

Although not a formal training technique, it is important that facilitators be proactively by using open-ended questions that allow for creativity to surface. Open-ended questions may sound like "How might this look different?" and "What would our program look like if a bomb were dropped and we had to start from scratch?"

Sentence Stems (from University of Maryland, Community Service Programs)

Sentence Stems can be useful in helping participants begin to think about their expectations for the experience [or their perceptions after concluding the experience].


How Do You Define Service? (from Koln & Hamilton)

People define service in many different ways. Discussion about these different definitions can be very interesting and eye-opening. This exercise is also important to reveal the diversity of ideas within the group, and to underscore the importance of recognizing differing perspectives. The sample definitions that follow can be presented one at a time through the course of the discussion or can be offered all at once and then ranked by each participant, according to their personal philosophy of service (for example, assigning a "1" to "voting" because the participant believes it best represents service).

Free Associations (from STACS )

The best facilitators are those who do not consider themselves to possess the "expertise" but work cooperatively with the expertise and experiences of the participants. A Free Association is a simple technique that quickly draws on, and captures, the true expertise of the group. This method of facilitating simply asks the participants to freely associate answers to certain questions. For example: "Generate twenty solutions to apathy on campus;" "List/brainstorm what is empowerment;" and "what do we know about Marxism?" All of these questions used in a Free Association will enable the facilitator to quickly chart responses from the group and gain a sense of the levels of sophistication and the "teachers" hidden with the group. (see also Hoshim Brainstorming.)

Hoshim Brainstorming (from STACS )

This techniques is a variation of the Free Association technique. However, the Hoshim Technique asks participants to list answers, solutions, ideas, or opinions on "Post-it notes" or other stickies. For example, a facilitator that is leading a conflict resolution workshop may ask for participants to generate ten responses to low conflict, medium conflict, and high conflict issues on Post-It notes. Similar to a free association, the Post-It notes are then placed on the wall. The entire group then has a large gallery exhibit walk-through of all the notes in which they can review the responses to conflict. The Hoshim ,Technique tends to be an effective tool for assisting groups that are not open to discussion or are stuck on a particular issue.

Note: additional topics for discussion can be obtained by contacting the Georgetown University Volunteer and Public Service Center.
(202)687-3703; vps@guvax.georgetown.edu

Role Plays

Using role plays with groups can be an active and interesting way to get students involved in reflection. Role plays involve students identifying a problem situation and assuming the identities of those persons affected by the problem in order to act out potential solutions. A major benefit to this kind of activity is that it asks participants to try to understand the experiences of others. For example, a role play about a parent who does not want her child disciplined by a volunteer tutor requires that a participant assume the role of the parent and try to understand the reasons for her feelings.

Role plays are also beneficial in that they actively engage participants in a problem-solving. Participants are challenged to develop potential solutions to the identified problem and then try out their comfort level in implementing the solution. In the process participants can realize the strengths and weaknesses of the proposed solutions, and may discover new facets of the problem. Equally important , participants learn more about their own strengths and weaknesses in handling such situations and can receive feedback from other group members in order to improve their knowledge and skills.

Role plays can involve as many or as few people as the situation warrants but should allow several participants to observe so that they may offer additional ideas and insights from the seemingly neutral point-of-view of an "outside."

The facilitator should consider starting the exercise with a simplified version of the problem and can then add complexity as the role play progresses. Complexity can be achieved by offering more background information (for example, the tutored child has a history of aggression), or adding facts (for example, the parent will stop bringing his/her child for tutoring unless the tutor agrees not to discipline the child). Participants should be encouraged to contribute to this problem generation as well as to the development of the solutions. Whenever possible, scenarios should come from real events encountered in particpants' service experiences.

The set up:
Sometimes role playing exercises are implemented at the spur of the moment, suggested by the facilitator or someone else in the group as a creative means of exploring a particular problem or issue. In other instances, the facilitator will think about a role play ahead of time. A scenario might be written down and distributed to all group members. Certain roles may be defined ahead of time and shared with only a few members who will be acting the role play out. In any case, encourage creativity and spontaneity. There is no right or wrong way to perform a role play, as long as mutual respect is maintained.

Who starts:
Generally, each group will have a few extroverts who can be called upon to begin a role play. Another possibility is inviting people who are most familiar with a given situation to begin the exercise.

How long should the role play last?
Enough time should be given for the actors to explore the various intricacies of the situation. If it feels as if the role play has degraded into something or silly or irrelevant to the discussion, the facilitator can the step in and call the role play off. If it appears as though the actors are stuck in a given situation, a more interactive approach is suggested,--see the next paragraph.

Tapping the should technique:
One technique to involve observers is to instruct them to intervene in the role play to off their ideas by tapping the should of the person whose role they wish to play. For example, if a participant has a different idea for how a tutor might respond, s/he should tap the should of the person playing the tutor, replace them in that role, and then act out their idea.

Follow-up debriefing:
The facilitator must make sure that the entire group is aware that the role play has ended. The rules of reflection that we have already touched on should be maintained. Sometimes, in the spirit of the moment, the participants can cross boundaries of acceptability. In some situations, one person may be playing the heavy or devil's advocate, much to the disdain of the group. It should be stressed that the actors have left their roles and are now themselves. Sometimes as the debriefing unfolds, and other dilemma is encountered. The facilitator can suggest another scenario to role play to explore the issues.

Quotes Exercise

Quotes can be a useful way to initiate reflection because there is an ample supply of them, they are often brief yet inspiring, and they can sometimes be interpreted in multiple ways. Facilitators need not limit quotes to those that represent the popular view or the view supported by the group, but can offer a mixture of quotes that represent several viewpoints, or one that has multiple interpretations. Participants should be challenged to consider the other meanings the quotes may have to different individuals. Participants can also be invited to share personal quotes, taken from their own journal entries or their other written work.

Facilitators may want to make the reading of quotes a group activity by filling a hat with strips of paper containing different quotes. Each participant draws a strip of paper and reads the quote to him/herself. Participants take turns reading their quote out loud, explaining what they think it means, and discussing how it might pertain to the service project at hand.

The following quotes can be used in this manner.

Group Exercises

The following exercises range in style and substance, with some being more serious and complex than others, and some geared toward issues, while other focus on group dynamics. Facilitators are encouraged to transform simple icebreakers to more reflective activities by adding substance to the questions being asked. For example, instead of having participants state their hometown and favorite color, ask them to explain why they serve and to identify a pressing concern in the community. Additional activities that are appropriate as "ice breakers" have been identified as such in italicized text.

"Gotcha" (from Chesborough & Hill)

The facilitator or participant starts to tell the story of the day. When the speaker omits a detail, someone else in the group says "gotcha" and continues. There are no "right" or "wrong" answers, rather it is a way to promote sharing of details and feelings, and to point out differences in experiences and interpretations.

The Landing (from Jennifer Sawyer)

This exercise takes 45 minutes - 1 hour for a group of 25. The Landing [can be used as] the first group activity of a session and helps folks feel solidly grounded for the upcoming experience. It includes a visualization of people bringing their full energy and attention from wherever they have come from. People are then asked to think of what it is they are carrying with them. It can be a gift or a burden, something they would like to share with the group to help them feel more present. The setting should be quiet (maybe some relaxing music) and softly lit. Sitting on the floor in a circle around a couple of lighted candles gives the ambiance of being around a campfire.

Stand and Declare (from David Sawyer)

The facilitator makes a statement to the group, to which members can strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree. Groups form around each of the four responses to the statement, showing the group's "differences." Members from each opinion group are asked to explain their stance, fleshing out the many facets of the issue. People must listen carefully, and can change positions if they change perspectives. This activity helps everyone learn to disagree without being disagreeable, but must be carefully facilitated. Questions are intentionally stated to allow for personal interpretation and to limit responses to one of the four categories. Several group members will want to take some sort of an intermediate stance, but should be encouraged to choose the stance about which they feel the strongest, or which is their instinctive response. Part of processing this activity can then be discussion how it felt to be so limited, to be categorized.

Questions should proceed from lower risk statements to higher risk, more controversial statements. Sample statements include:

Alternative to Stand and Declare (from Students Trained in Advocacy and Community Service)

Different groups are asked to stand in front of the rest of the participants. For example, all Latino/a individuals stand in front of the room. The group then answers four questions:

After the group in front of the other participants answers the questions, another, group is selected to gather together and answer the questions. This exercise is affirming and provides an opportunity for individuals to draw on their own experiences, their own stories, etc. This tends to be a good exercise for building common ground and bonding groups.

Pair and Share (from David Sawyer)

Good as an introductory exercise or as a reflection tool to help students "think out loud" about some aspect of their service or classroom experience. Participants pair with one or two others to share ideas on a specified topic. Helpful way to encourage participation from individuals who are not comfortable addressing the larger group.

Affinity Groups (from David Sawyer)

This is a good example of a traditional icebreaker activity that can incorporate substantive service issues and lead in to full reflection.

The facilitator announces a topic and instructs participants to form a group with those individuals with a similar response to the topic. This activity helps to get a visual picture of who makes up a group, and to accentuate similarities and differences within one group. Topics can begin with "low risk" issues and proceed to higher risk. For example:

Fish Bowls (from STACS)

Fish Bowls provide an opportunity for a select group of participants to openly discuss an issue, video, problem, or strategy in an open manner. Simply select volunteers to sit in a tight circle in the middle of the room. The facilitator may choose to have only men, only people of color, etc. in the Fish Bowl. Provide two or three questions for Fish Bowl participants to discuss. The goal is for those observing to keep quiet and notice, comment, or observe different perspectives. The value of a Fish Bowl is that certain groups relate in different ways when uninterrupted. Men sometimes approach conversations in a different manner than women. Much awareness can be raised by simply hearing what other groups have to say on particular topics. As a general rule, the facilitator should allow equal time for each Fish Bowl group. For example, if African-Americans are given ten minutes in the Fish Bowl, then Asian-Americans should also be given ten minutes. If the facilitator allows one group more time than others, conflict may arise. In order to process the Fish Bowls, simply allow for all to discuss openly, at the end of all Fish Bowls, any group's observation (also see Frierian Fish Bowl).

Frierian Fish Bowl (from STACS)

Often, for many reasons, certain individuals will feel uncomfortable voicing their opinion in a group environment. One mechanism for gaining full-group participation is to have all participants write their respective responses to issues on a piece of paper (do not include names). The issues, or pieces of paper, are then placed in a hat in the middle of a circle. For example, the facilitator asks that everyone explain (on paper) "why are there so many homeless people in this city?" Answers may range from, "people do not want work because they are lazy" to "there exists a government conspiracy and homeless funding is often misused." These are typical statements that are controversial but tend to not be voiced openly. Thus, the Frierian method gets all opinions down on paper.

Once opinions have been recorded on paper and placed in a hat, pass the hat among the group. Everyone must respond with their interpretation of the written response and then voice their personal reaction to the paper.

Dark/Light (from Chesbrough & Hill)

After the event, have all the participants sit in a circle with lit candles. The facilitator shares a dark part (or feeling) of (about) the experience and blows out his/her candle. The next person shares until the room is dark. The facilitator lights his/her candle and shares a happy moment of the experience (or something that they would like to improve over a period of time). S/he lights the candle of the person sitting next to him/her with his/her candle. Slowly the room becomes light. (An intense sharing--lots of analogies can be made with dark and light.) Questions to promote discussion: Are you the candle, which emits light, or the mirror, which reflects the light of others?)

Three Minute Speeches (from David Sawyer)

Wonderful opening exercise that helps people find their inner motivations for the work they do and learn to express them to others. This exercise is an even more in depth way to build a sense of community and shared vision in service programs, retreats, or trainings. Allowing four minutes per person will give you a fairly realistic time frame. It is best not to tell people about this exercise too far in advance. This adds somewhat to the drama and risk involved. Sometime between an hour and thirty minutes before Three Minute Speeches folks are told about the exercise and asked to ponder upon a specific question. One very good question is "What is the deep core reason you do the work you do?" Tell folks they can tell a story from some part of their lives, about a particular person whose influence figures greatly, or any other reasons that they are involved in the service field. You may want to craft to other appropriate questions. People should be encouraged to extend themselves and to let others know some of the deeper reasons for their dedication to helping others. The setting that works best is somewhat solemn and formal with a table for people to stand behind while they speak. Good lighting is essential, a table lamp off to one side works well. (Specific instructions follow.)

Guided Imagery (from University of Maryland Community Service Programs)

This exercise can help participants get in touch with their expectations, assumptions, and even fears about the service experience. It can also be used to help participants imagine the lives of those with whom they serve. Participants get comfortable, close their eyes if they wish, and listen to a narration. Get creative and write a narrative leading participants through the day.

Example: "Today you are going to serve meals to people who are homeless. Picture yourself arriving at the shelter. What do you see? What do you smell? What do you hear?"

Building Solutions (from Chesbrough & Hill)

In a small group, form a circle. Ask one member of the group to identify a problem that s/he feels needs action and resolution. The next member in the group is then to pose a solution through action. Each subsequent member is then asked to build on this solution until the group feels it has reached a consensus on how the problem can be solved. This can be altered in a number of ways using the same process of group reflection and sharing. Consensus may or may not be a part of the process.

The facilitator can also pose questions such as "If these solutions exists, why have thy not been implemented? Would the people affected by this problem agree with these solutions? Who might not agree?," etc.

The Strong Circle (from City Year, cited by David Sawyer)

This exercise is a relatively quick way to check in with a group at the beginning or end of a meeting and gives a sense of connectedness. It resembles the huddle in team sports and creates a feeling of solidarity and team effort.

Lifestories (from Dorothy Stoneman, cited by David Sawyer)

This exercise is designed to help a small group of individuals get to know something significant about each other in a very short time. People rarely get a change to talk about themselves without interruption, (and without advice or judgement) since in normal conversation we tend to go back and forth. It is a true gift when someone gives you a piece of their life story, and a gift to the speaker for others to hear that story with interest and attention. This is an effective ongoing exercise for an organization when the small groups are changed each time.

Block Arrangement Exercise (from Wilmes, Scott, & Rice)

Two participants sit back to back. One participant creates a design with a set of blocks. They are then asked to describe their design to the other participants so that s/he can draw a picture of it. The drawer cannot ask any questions. Process what assumptions the designer/describer made about what the drawer would understand. What assumptions did the drawer make about what the describer meant? How did it feel to have communication limited? How does this relate to the assumptions we make each day about people or situations?

Who Am I? (from Wilmes, Scott & Rice, created by Juan Moreno)

Tell participants you would like them to respond in writing to 10 questions. Then ask them 10 consecutive times to respond to the question "Who am I?" At the end of the "quiz", ask them to cross off 3 of the items, then 3 more. Process what types of responses they wrote for their identity (acknowledging that some may have hidden identities that they may not wish to share). How did it feel to cross items off? What types of responses were crossed off first/last (e.g. most negative, less important, etc.)? What did you learn about how you see yourself?

The Ball Game (from Wilmes, Scott & Rice, created by Juan Moreno)

Participants are asked to form a circle. The facilitator has a ball and a stop watch. Participants are told the rules to this game: the game begins and ends with the facilitator; each person must touch the ball only once; you must remember the order of who has the ball before you and who you give the ball to; these are the only rules of the game. The facilitator throws the ball to someone in the group who then throws it to someone else, etc., until the last person throws it back to you, the facilitator. The facilitator or timer tells the group how long the process took. (Participants were not previously informed it would be timed.) Instruct the group to cut their time in half. Repeat the process until the group cuts their time down to 3 seconds. Typically it will take the group several tries to refine their strategies (e.g., standing next to people who pass them the ball, asking the facilitator to play an active role in moving the ball). The facilitator should not answer questions except to say there are only the four rules that s/he gave at the beginning of the game. Process how the group could complete the task in 3 seconds when it took ____ minutes the first time. What helped you reach the goal? What hindered you? How did you look at the problem in new ways? What does this tell us about human nature? Did anyone suggest you do it in less time than the facilitator suggested? Who or why not? This activity takes approximately 20 minutes for group of about 25 people.

Describe, Interpret, Evaluate (from Wilmes, Scott & Rice created by Lillian Roybal Rose)

Select pictures from magazines (helpful to select on that may draw stereotypes with captions that would counteract stereotypes) to hand around the room. Captions should be removed or concealed. Ask participants to individually examine the pictures and "describe what they see." As a group, ask participants to describe what they saw. The facilitator should tabulate responses in three columns at the front (as a description, interpretation, or evaluation) without explanation to the participants. Process the exercise by describing what the facilitator was recording, distinguishing between description, interpretation and evaluation. Discuss the role of assumptions and stereotyping in the exercise. How did the group description exaggerate or modify individual perceptions? End by sharing the caption from the picture. Variation: ask several participants to be blindfolded and paired with partners who describe the pictures to them. Ask for descriptions from the blindfolded participants first in the processing. Did getting the information second hand contribute to distortion? Why or why not?

Force Field Analysis (from STACS)

In every organization, work environment, family, or community, there exists a natural tendency (a force field) which acts to keep the situation from changing. A force field represent posers that are proposing change and those that are working towards change. In essence, those forces want to keep the issue at an equilibrium.

A simple Force Field Analysis lists pros and cons on a chart. For example, forces that are keeping children in poverty may be: lack of education, inadequate health care, poor nutrition, violence in homes. On the other side of the Force Field are forces that are helping to get people out of poverty: social workers, loving fathers, school nutrition programs, etc. Chart both on the wall and discuss what issues the group is capable of changing. How can the group break the forces that are working towards equilibrium?

A Force Field Analysis (pro and con chart) can be used for any problem. Examples included: What forces are keeping you interested in this training? What forces are keeping our service program from expanding? What forces are preventing women from being leaders in our program? Once the pros and cons are charted, the dynamics and tension in groups often begin to dissipate. This is an excellent tool for getting groups to think about strategies for making small and large commitments to change (also see Web Charts).

Web Charts (from STACS)

This brainstorming tool can be used by facilitators when groups are "stuck" and see no options. Simply place the "issue" or "problem" in the center of the chart and all of the obstacles in "bubbles" outside of the central issue. This is a different strategy for looking at pros and cons and force fields (see Force Field Analysis).


Providing participants with readings about the issues they will be addressing can stimulate thinking and discussion, much like Quotes. Readings can include a mixture of viewpoints, including some that may be controversial or challenge participants to consider alternative ideas. Participants should be encouraged to connect the content of the readings to their service experiences, and to bring in other reading that they believe to be relevant. Such material includes relevant literature (philosophy, fiction, policies), newspaper articles, service provider pamphlets, poems, and student reflection essays. Samples of some of these can be obtained from the Georgetown University Volunteer and Public Service Center.

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