Using Journals to Promote Reflective Thought

A journal is a student's ongoing record of ideas, thoughts, experiences and reflections on a given topic.  Journals go beyond the demands of typical written assignments as they promote the integration of personal thoughts and expressions with course material.  As such, journals provide a systematic means of documenting learning and collecting evidence for self-evaluation and reflection.  The specific form of the journal depends upon the goals and purpose of the assignment, but journals are generally categorized as either structured or free-form.  In a structured journal, students are given a specific question, target, or set of guidelines to base their writing, while free-form journals require students to record thoughts and feelings with minimal direction.  Regardless of the form, journals are a valuable assessment tool for monitoring a student's ability to observe, challenge, speculate, doubt, question, self-reflect, problem solve, and explore. In addition, journals provide a safe outlet for students to express their ideas; often encouraging active participation by students who would generally not speak in class.

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Guidelines for the Effective Use of Journals:

  • Design journal assignments to reflect specific learning objectives or course goals.  In addition, be sure to explain to students the purpose and benefits of the journal.

  • Provide adequate instructions to ensure that students are aware of expectations and requirements.  To promote effective writing, give students specific exercises or a set of guiding questions.  Research has indicated that adult learners find journal assignments more productive, informative, and fulfilling when they are given structured issues to address.

  • Explicitly discuss policies concerning privacy and confidentiality of information.  Highlight if journals will be read and/or shared with others.  Be sure to inform students that as an educator, you are required to disclose and report information that indicates potential harm or danger.

  • Review journals periodically and provide feedback.  Feedback may include suggestions, constructive remarks, questions, and/or encouragement.  To facilitate the feedback process, journals may either be collected all at once at predetermined time intervals, or instructors may choose to collect a few journals each day and maintain an ongoing feedback process.

Ideas for Journal Assignments:

Depending on the course, topic, learning objectives, student population, and instructor's preference, journals can take on many forms.  The following journal ideas are provided to stimulate instructors to develop their own journal assignments to reflect the individualized needs of their course.

Observational Journal

The goal of observational journal writing is to enhance students' awareness of the relationship between course material and events in the real world.  Instructors may want to assign students to observe a target location for a specified amount of time, then record observations and reflections of the experience.

Personal Experience Journal

A personal experience journal allows students to reflect on their own experiences in the context of a specific idea or theory.  Personal experience journals promote active encoding and critical processing of course material by encouraging students to draw personal connections between their lives and theoretical concepts.

Reading Journal

The purpose of a reading journal is to encourage active processing of reading assignments.  A reading journal may target the relationship between readings and students' experiences, connections between various reading selections, or insightful thoughts provoked by the reading assignment.  In addition, instructors can pose questions to be answered via the reading journal; these questions serve to guide reading and target students' attention on key information.

Minute Reflection Journal

Minute reflection journals can be used in the classroom to promote critical thinking in relation to a particular activity, discussion, or presentation.  Instructors may pose a question, then require students to write for two to three minutes to record their initial thoughts and reactions.  Minute reflections are generally short reactions that can be used as the basis for further investigation or class discussion.

Listening Journal

The goal of listening journal writing is to reflect on a lecture or presentation to clarify confusion or misconceptions.  Listening journals are particularly effective when covering difficult and challenging topics.  After presenting relevant information, listening journals require students to paraphrase and explain what they just heard.  These paraphrased reflections can then be used to monitor understanding and clarify conceptual confusion.

Expansion Journals

Expansion journals are used to encourage in-depth analysis of a particular topic, concept, or idea.  Following an instructional sequence, students are required to select a single topic and expand on the information provided to demonstrate the concept in a novel context or to pose follow-up questions and investigations.  The benefit of expansion journals is that they allow students to tailor course material to subjects of particular personal interest.

Daily Reflections Journal

The purpose of a daily reflections journal is to encourage habitual expression of thoughts, ideas, and insights in writing.  In contrast to many types of academic journals, a daily reflections journal focuses on emotions and personal thoughts.  Daily reflection writing may either be structured (dealing with a particular topic or issue) or unstructured (topics individually selected by each student).  This type of journal enhances personal insight and promotes effective writing strategies.

Learning Log Journal

Learning logs promote active reflection on the learning process.  The goal of a learning log is to enhance students' metacognitive awareness of their own study strategies, misconceptions, and intellectual strengths or weaknesses.

Exchange Journal

An exchange journal differs from most journals in that it is completed via interactions between two or more peers.  In an exchange journal, students divide each page into two columns.  In the first column, one student poses a series of questions related to course material.  Journals are then exchanged and each peer responds to the questions in the second column.  An exchange journal promotes thoughtful interaction and communication in relation to course-specific topics.

Academic Journals

Academic journals are curriculum-oriented writings designed to promote active reflection on course material both before and after instruction.  An academic journal typically requires students to summarize readings and highlight unanswered questions prior to instruction.  Then, at the conclusion of instructional activities, students return to the journal to answer questions, organize thoughts, or list points of confusion.  Academic journals are frequently turned in so that instructors may target and focus instruction on issues relevant to students' concerns or questions.

Tips for Grading Journals:

The personal, individualized nature of journals makes assessment very subjective.  In order to ensure fair, consistent grading that reflects the objectives of the journal assignment, it is important to have a pre-established set of evaluation criteria.  In addition to facilitating the grading process, evaluation criteria provide guidance to assist students in preparing effective, educational journals.  The grading system should be designed to reflect the learning objectives and goals of the assignment.  As such, the weight of various components should match the importance of each objective.

Grading rubrics can be designed as either holistic or analytical scoring systems.  In a holistic rubric, students are given overall criteria for assigning a general grade based on the complete journal.  For example:

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In an analytical scoring system, grading components are divided according to the learning objectives and relative weights are assigned to each criterion based on journal quality.  For example:

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Review Checklist:

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Resource Links:

Journals in the Classroom

Journal Assessment


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