Translating creative assessment styles online: Blackboard learning journals

Traditional exams often inhibit students, while more creative assessments provide a forum where their talent and knowledge can shine. Madeleine Davies discusses one technique she has used to offer such creative assessments online

Madeleine Davies's avatar
University of Reading
23 Sep 2020
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Key Details

This video will cover: 

00:21 Why it is worth considering a more creative form of assessment  

01:23 Blackboard learning journals and how they work 

03:13 The advantages and disadvantages of introducing this form of assessment 


Hello, I’m Madeleine Davies from the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading. 

I’ve been asked to talk about translating more creative styles online, so I’m going to outline my experience of using Blackboard learning journals for assessment.  

I turned to journals on my modules because exams were tending to produce from students over-cautious work. Fizzing with excellent ideas in seminars, they just weren’t willing to risk going out on a limb in exams, so I felt they were inhibiting their marks.  

So, I replaced the exams on both of my final-year modules with the Blackboard learning journal worth 50 per cent of the overall module mark. A formal critical essay remained in place, worth the other 50 per cent of the mark, to showcase students’ formal critical writing. 

If you’re thinking of introducing some more creative assessment elements into the package or the module, I would suggest retaining an assessed essay of this kind, so that students with more traditional critical skills can still be fully rewarded.  

The Blackboard learning journal requires students to write and upload 500 words every week reflecting on the text discussed in that week’s seminar. Students must stick to real-time uploads, and they can write on any aspect of that week’s learning that they want to.  

They can also submit the entries in whatever format they choose – so you might find 500-word pieces of close analysis or conversation with a critical argument, but you’ll find several creative pieces as well. I’ve had poems, parodies, recipes, artworks with critical commentaries and so on. Variety is key, and the best journals really exploit the versatility and the relative freedom of this format.  

The set-up is very straightforward: just make sure that individual student journals can only be seen by the student who wrote them and by the marker. Once the link is set up, the student simply taps on it, types in their entry and submits it. The marker picks up the entry using the same link. 

It’s a good idea to scaffold the journal with a comprehensive guidance document, outlining the marking criteria, the reasons for using the journal, and also suggesting the kind of work that students may want to consider writing.  

Because of initial student nervousness – and this is a new format for many – early feedback is important. Once students know they are doing the right kind of thing, they relax and they fly.  

The advantages of the format are huge: students produce sparkling work. I am routinely stunned by the wit, the ingenuity, the creativity of the work I read in the journals and stunned also by the amount of work that students put into this. 

Secondly, seminar attendance is very significantly boosted – students don’t want to miss a seminar because they have the weekly entry to upload. 

Thirdly, students from a variety of educational backgrounds, whose skills might not lie in the formal strictures of assessed essays and exams, can really show what they can do in this format. It’s a very inclusive assessment method. 

Disadvantages, though – firstly, feedback.  

The journal is a personal engagement with learning, and students put hearts and souls into their work in the journal, so markers can feel a heightened responsibility to comment even more extensively on every single assessed entry.  

Feedback can take a rather long time and it’s something to bear in mind if you teach very large groups, as I do.  

Secondly, much hand-holding is required in the early stages of the journal. So, make sure that guidance document is in place, make sure you provide early formative feedback, but also reserve a few minutes seminar time every week to answer students’ questions about the journal.  

Finally, a very few students dislike this format because they prefer to stick with what they know, which is generally exams. Also, some students with disability issues can feel overly pressurised by the weekly uploads.  

Now that said, the vast majority of students report very high approval for the journal format, just a couple of outliers every time. 

So that’s my summary of using Blackboard learning journals for assessment. If you’re trying to encourage enhanced engagement with learning, if you’re trying to encourage less formulaic, more creative student work, I’d really recommend trying this online assessment format. 


This video was produced by Dr Madeleine Davies, an associate professor of women’s writing in the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading

Read the contribution from Madeleine Davies, associate professor in the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading, to our feature article “Teaching intelligence: the benefits of diversifying assessment”.  


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