Public institutions, social organizations, schools, and families may all contribute to the development of citizens who are more aware of the importance of working toward sustainable development goals. Among these, higher education institutions play a fundamental role in educating competent professionals who can work to achieve sustainability [1
]. Therefore, it is necessary to promote educational practices that help students become aware of the importance of exercising active and responsible citizenship that responds to the sustainability challenges of the 21st century [3
]. It may be that generating a paradigm shift that addresses the students’ sustainability needs, aspirations, and concerns becomes essential [4
In this process, it is important to promote both active participation and autonomous and self-regulated learning in order for students to develop their reflective capacities. Reflection enables students to become aware of their strengths and weaknesses, provide solutions to complex situations while avoiding working by trial and error, face situations of uncertainty, to reformulate knowledge, practice and, most importantly, develop critical thinking skills and transform life experiences into learning [5
In the field of curriculum development, researchers have shown an increased interest in analyzing the concept of reflection in higher education [9
] and in demonstrating the importance of reflective practice within the curriculum in order to develop attitudes that contribute to sustainable development [10
]. With regard to research into extracurricular activities, recent evidence suggests the relevance of these activities in the improvement and development of reflective skills [12
]. However, in-depth studies exploring students’ experiences of self-reflection related to extracurricular activities (ECA onwards) are much needed [14
In recent years, universities have aimed to integrate sustainability-related curricular and extracurricular reflective learning. Related to this, this research examines the emerging role of an extracurricular volunteer activity in Tangier, Morocco for the development of reflective skills. Specifically, the objectives of this study are:
To explore students’ primary reflections from their voluntary extracurricular experience.
To analyze students’ perception of the importance of participating in a voluntary extracurricular experience in order to develop reflective learning.
2. ECA (Extracurricular activities) to Promote Reflective Learning
Higher education is currently framed within a new conception of education geared toward sustainability. This requires the use of teaching and learning methods that motivate and make students aware of the importance of sustainable development. Such education needs to include key issues such as sustainable consumption, poverty reduction, and disaster risk [2
]. It is essential to design courses that not only focus on student learning, but also contain reflective learning content that invites students to reflect on their daily learning and take action from a responsible, holistic, and forward-looking perspective [15
In 1984, Kolb [8
] conceptualized learning as a process of creating knowledge through the transformation of experience using the experiential learning model. Kolb proposed a cyclical learning model that consisted of four stages: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. According to the model, a cyclical process has to be completed, where experience constitutes the basis of learning and reflection. According to Kolb, learning occurs when reflection allows the individual to meaningfully learn from their own experience [17
From this perspective, learning is less a process of knowledge acquisition, and more a process of knowledge construction in which reflective learning is paramount. This reflective practice is a dialog between thinking and doing [18
]. Students who integrate theory and practice develop certain skills that enable better understanding of situations and the creation of independent meaning.
The term reflection has been defined in many ways. Moon [21
] described it as a mental process applied in relatively complicated or unstructured situations where no obvious solution exists. Ryan and Ryan [22
] argued that reflection allows students to examine what they believe and who they believe they are. Dewey [23
] pointed out that reflection originates in a state of doubt or perplexity and, therefore, is an act of search and inquiry to find material to remove doubt and get rid of perplexity. For this reason, we defend that the reflective process usually begins in destabilizing and confusing situations. In these situations, instead of acting according to trial and error, a situation is interpreted and understood through questioning and research. In addition, reflection allows for the possibility of being aware of one’s own actions, and learning from and improving those actions [24
In relation to the moment of reflection, Schön [18
] pointed out that there are two important temporal aspects: reflection-in-action (within experience) and reflection-on-action (after experience). The first refers to the reflection carried out as the action occurs. The second gives meaning to an experience after it has occurred. Such reflection can occur in two stages of the experiential learning model: in the reflective observation stage, when an experience is given meaning, and in abstract conceptualization, when concepts or hypotheses are generated [25
Reflection, therefore, can be defined as engaging in a cognitive process in order to learn from experiences [6
] and can be conducted through individual inquiry or in collaboration with others. Regarding individual reflective learning, instruments such as portfolios [20
] or reflective journals [26
] are used, where levels of reflection can be evaluated through forms of narrative. In these instruments, the quality of reflection varies according to the learner’s ability to ask the relevant questions that will lead to learning [27
Regarding reflective learning in collaboration with others, this can involve either interaction with peers or with a specialized instructor who guides the process. Socio-cultural theory conceives learning as a process of joint construction that occurs in the course of interaction [28
]. In this regard, dialog is an essential moment of encounter, allowing for the construction of shared meanings from experience [29
]. Among other methods, it can be carried out through seminars [30
], online forums [31
], or focus groups [32
In this type of reflective learning, communication, cooperation, and feedback between instructors and peers play a fundamental role. Students, when interacting with others, promote reflective processes that help them to better understand themselves, their needs and problems as well as their personal strengths and limitations. In addition, these processes enable students to identify sources and means of coping with personal conflicts, challenges, and uncertainties [6
]. For this process to succeed, the creation of a climate, based on mutual trust and positive bonds, is essential in order to provide security to the participating students [27
Reflection is a process that requires stimulation, reinforcement, supervision, and training [23
]. Therefore, the role of the educational instructor is fundamental when generating reflective learning [10
]. The instructor, through dialog and the creation of a climate of mutual trust, should create a learning environment where students feel comfortable in expressing their thoughts [34
] and reflecting on their actions [18
]. The instructor is responsible for introducing, developing, and nurturing reflective learning [33
]. Peer interactions also play an important role in the learning process. Sharing reflections, feelings, ideas, and experiences with others is a fundamental step in giving meaning to the learning process and student experience [17
], and ultimately creating reflective processes where the points of view of others are assimilated, exchanged, and analyzed [36
In the past two decades, a large body of scholarly literature has been published dealing with the importance of reflective learning in curricular disciplines related to education [24
], health [26
], social work [35
], and business [34
These studies have mostly been limited to the curricular field. However, there is increasing interest in the potential for ECA to promote reflection. ECA are defined as voluntary activities that take place outside the class schedule [37
], which complement curricular training [38
] and contribute to the students’ personal [39
], professional [40
], and social [41
] development. These activities are classified into sporting, cultural, solidarity, spiritual and artistic activities, and student clubs [41
ECAs stand out for their ability to create spaces for the development of conflict resolution skills [44
] and critical thinking and reflection on ethical values [12
]. Indeed, Schripsema et al. [13
] concluded that students who participated in ECA had better reflective skills than those who were not involved in such activities. In addition, [14
] argued that participation in ECA facilitated reflection and allowed students to obtain the maximum out of that extracurricular experience.
5. Discussion and Conclusions
Returning to the objectives outlined at the beginning of this paper, the research involved a two-pronged approach:
The global range of reflections experienced by Spanish students participating in a voluntary activity in Tangier, Morocco with people with special needs and minors at risk of social exclusion.
The students’ perceptions of the value of this experience in developing their reflective skills.
Taking into consideration the findings of the descending hierarchical analysis, regarding students’ reflections on their participation in the project and their daily guided reflection, six distinct themes emerged. Four of these themes were found among the participants of both Group 1 and Group 2. These are: (1) reflections on different social realities; (2) the work carried out in social projects; (3) possible organizational, personal, and social changes that should be undertaken; and (4) the personal meaning of the experience. Two themes were found only among the participants of Group 1. These are: (1) the reflections on the voluntary work carried out; and (2) the lived experience on the border. The reason for this may be because the students of Group 1 visited the border between Morocco and Spain, while those in Group 2 did not. In their reflections, the students asked themselves why the social and economic reality in a place so close to Europe is so different. They wonder about the social, personal, and organizational changes that this type of societies requires. In their reflections, they showed how they had become truly aware of the lack of sustainable development on the ground. If sustainable development has most often been operationalized through a triangular vision of sustainability, which includes ecological, social, or socio-cultural and economic aspects, the socio-cultural and economic elements leave much to be desired, and the ecological element is far from being present. One of the participants pointed out “How is it possible for so much rubbish to be visible on the city streets?” (Participant 1, Group 1), another pointed out “…the number of unschooled children on the roads.” (Participant 13, Group 1), and another was impacted by “…the number of young people crowded on the border wishing to cross from Morocco to Spain in search of a new horizon of life.” (Participant 9, Group 1).
The voluntary extracurricular activity developed in Tangier allowed students to reflect on themes that help educate citizens to be aware of and committed to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals [2
]. What elements of the economic, socio-cultural, or ecological dimension come into play when witnessing so much inequality, poverty, and misuse of natural resources? To what extent are these societies compromising the well-being of future generations? Many of these ideas appeared in the reflection guided by the instructor who accompanied the group of students in their experience. This voluntary extracurricular activity gave both groups the opportunity to face situations of uncertainty, which made them aware of the different social realities faced by people with special needs and minors at risk of exclusion on the other side of the European border.
These results are consistent with other research [15
], as this experience invites students to reflect on changes they can make to their own attitudes and actions from a perspective of responsibility, which contributes to an effective and well-founded grounding in sustainability. Participant 14 of the second group claimed, “I have realized the importance of a society that cares for the elderly and the sick, which requires a degree of social justice awareness that I have not been able to see here.”. Other participants stated that the experience they had lived had made them change some beliefs “I have realized that schooling children is much more than preventing them from being idle in the streets and I wonder how much of the situation of this society is connected to the lack of education of children.” (Participant 14, Group 2). On the other hand, in line with [22
], students, placed in a destabilizing situation [21
], were able to examine their self-image. In particular, they were able to examine their beliefs about who they believed they were and how they could undertake or continue to build a reality that increased hope and opportunity for people around the world.
With regard to the second objective, there was a high consensus that the development of reflection was one of the main objectives of the experience. In order to develop their reflective skills, the students highlighted three elements: (1) the importance of participating in social projects (with 42.48% presence in the corpus); (2) the importance of living the experience in a group (with 37.94% presence in the corpus); and (3) the importance of the role of the instructor (with 19.56% in the corpus).
As mentioned in the literature review, several authors [26
] have indicated that the reflective process can be carried out individually or with external feedback. In this experience, the two groups pointed out the greater importance of reflecting with their peers than with the instructor. Thus, in line with [6
], the volunteers stressed that interaction with their peers allowed them to take new approaches and enrich both their reflection and their experience. However, in line with Colomer et al. [10
] and Peltier et al. [33
], the participants also stressed the importance of the role of the instructor in generating a safe space of support and trust that invited reflection. Thus, in both groups, the fundamental task of the instructor was to guide the reflective process so that students could better understand the situation they were living through, and identify methods to face certain situations.
In order for this extracurricular activity to have greater impact, we consider it interesting to have a better balance between women and men participating in the experience as well as a greater variety of student profiles. We considered that the inclusion of engineering or business administration students would be of great value for the group. Apparently the proposal of this extracurricular activity has more demand from students of education, law, psychology or languages, but we considered that other profiles such as engineering or business would be enriched by the experience, and could bring other perspectives to the group. Another interesting element would be to reinforce the previous preparation to the experience (in depth study of the projects that are going to be visited, deepening in the socioeconomic reality of Tangier, etc.). Finally, the subsequent accompaniment to the experience would also reinforce the change of beliefs detected, and would help to ensure that it does not remain an isolated experience, and that it is part of the process of developing the competencies of university students. The possibility of creating a learning community later on, with a monthly or bimonthly meeting, and continuing to collaborate with other types of extracurricular experiences in the country of residence also seems to us to be of interest. On the other hand, we would like to mention some obstacles that were encountered. First, due to the curricular load of the students, the experience was limited to one week and several students insisted on the appropriateness of lengthening the experience. Second, many of the participating students did not speak French, which prevented direct interaction with the people living in the centers visited. Third, and as we have already mentioned, the experience would have been richer with more varied student profiles (engineering or business students, etc.).
The primary conclusion of this research is that extracurricular activities that expose the student to real experiences of inequality and precariousness are an interesting element to contribute to deep and meaningful learning. In addition, the role of guided reflection in those experiences is very relevant, contributing to the integral human and professional formation of the participants.
In other words, the volunteer experience not only provides practical content that can contribute to the professional development of the individual [64
], it also helps to develop values and attitudes that can guide personal development when carrying out sustainable development.
The study did not seek to generalize results, as quantitative studies do, but rather explore the impact that participation in ECA has on the development of reflective abilities. The research provides a detailed vision of the reflections extracted by students from a volunteering experience in Tangier, Morocco, and their perceptions of the importance of this experience to the development of their reflective skills. In addition, it adds new perspectives to an area that is increasingly the subject of investigation.
In the study presented, in-depth interviews were conducted with all of the participants after the experience. We believe that it would have been interesting to ask the same questions before having lived the experience to see how the answers changed before and after the extracurricular activity. On the other hand, we consider that it would be very interesting to interview the students one year after the experience, to see to what extent the impact detected is maintained over time. It would also improve the design of the research if we conducted in-depth interviews with the people in charge of managing the projects in Tangier to find out their perception of the value of this experience. Their opinion about what they see, hear, and observe in the students would be of great interest for the improvement of the extracurricular program.
Further research might explore the content of the individual reflective diaries written by students each night during the extracurricular experience. However, it is feared that informing students of the subsequent analysis of their diaries could generate bias in their reflections. A possible hypothesis to be contrasted is whether the fact of having previously participated in extracurricular activities has any impact on the participant’s assessment of the new experience and of what nature. Likewise, in-depth interviews conducted both before and after the experience could provide interesting data, as would conducting identical interviews with students who have not participated in the experience, to compare their thoughts and perceptions. Finally, the development of a quantitative longitudinal study, based on a set of students who have the opportunity to live this experience each year, would prove very useful.
The findings imply that the supply of quality and structured ECAs [47
] in higher education needs to be expanded. This need lies in the importance of ECA in fostering lifelong learning and in promoting reflection that enables students to enhance their skills to become better people and better professionals [65
With regard to the future implications of this research, we would like to point out how structured and quality ECAs [47
] in higher education can be an adequate path for the integral development of students. ECAs contribute to promoting a kind of reflection that helps students become aware of realities and situations that can make them better people and better professionals [65
]. Therefore, public institutions must create laws with curriculum guidelines, university management teams, and faculty that encourage and support participation in ECA for the development of reflective skills, in order to produce citizens capable of facing the sustainability challenges of the 21st century.