A review of “The Structure Trap”

By: Brook Sattler, PhD and Lauren Thomas, PhD
CPREE multi-campus coordinators

Using a qualitative methods approach, Boswell explored students negative reactions to structured reflections on a service-learning trip. In the background chapter, Boswell provides an extensive review of the reflection literature, generally and then more specific with respect to service-learning. In the empirical part of her dissertation, Boswell focuses on students’ reactions to structured reflection activities. After a day of service, students engaged in conversation around a campfire. During these conversations, there was a purposeful stop and reflect time with activities. Her findings suggested that these structured reflection activities detracted from students’ organic engagement with reflection.

Tips for educators presented in this work:

  • Think about stakeholder’s roles. In the literature review chapter, Boswell provides an interesting discussion of the role educators and students play in reflection activities. She notes that the educator role shifts from one of authority figure to one of coaching, facilitating, and advising. Students should take more control of the situation and depend less on educators. The relationship between the educator and students is defined by mutual interdependence; students must shift from being “passive recipient[s] of knowledge to active creator[s] of learning” (p. 23). Such changes have significant pedagogical implications for the ways in which educators configure a class and how educators interact with students.
  • Understand the difference between reflective thinking and reflection activities. She notes in her literature review (and returns to this idea through the dissertation), that a significant confusion related to reflection is between the action and a structured learning activity– “Because reflection is both a cognitive process and a structured learning activity there is a certain amount of ambiguity about the term (Hatcher and Bringle, 1997)” (p. 24).
  • Be aware of things that contribute to reflection structure traps. Based on her findings, she suggests that there are four things that contribute to making reflection feel forced– “the structure trap”: “too narrow or too general; when transitions feel abrupt and interrupt informal reflection already occurring; when students feel put on the spot; and when they are not individually prepared and/or motivated to reflect” (p. 118).

Questions or challenges presented in this work:

  • Be aware of how scholars talk about reflection. When writing about reflection, most scholars first talk about Dewey, Kolb, and

    Schön. While scholars introduce these theorists, the language of these theorists doesn’t map to what scholars use. For example, Dewey uses the language of making meaning of experiences (e.g., fragmentation and continuity of experiences). In the end, it’s important to note that there are some assumptions (or discourse community assumptions) that are connected to using these foundational theorists.

  • Think about the disconnect of her findings to realities in teaching. From her account, reflection is a profound component of learning. However, if reflection is such a profound component of learning, we can question why reflection is silenced is most other learning experiences?


Boswell, L. (2010). The Structure Trap. Students’ Perceptions of Reflection on a Co-curricular Immersion Service-Learning Trip.   (Doctoral dissertation). Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA.