Reflect on the inner 'I'

October 15, 1999

WHAT. Keeping study notebooks or diaries helps students and staff deepen understanding and think critically, writes Jennifer Moon. WHAT. Students can reflect on their studies. Lecturers can use them to show the Institute for Learning and Teaching how they are faring

HOW. Learning journals come in many shapes and sizes. They may be called logs, diaries, notebooks or even descriptive names such as "think-book". More important, they can have many purposes.

So what are the distinguishing features? A learning journal is a piece of sustained work - writing that is not compiled in one go but over time. Much of the content is likely to be reflective but the intention is to learn from it.

Writing a journal calls on students - and staff - to relearn a lost language. We are trained to favour academic over expressive language, which includes the use and valuing of the first person singular. Ironically, it seems that the very requirement to write in the first person singular may be an important reason why journals contribute to improved learning.

Learning journals need not be written on paper. They may be in some electronic format, graphic or recorded on audio tape. Beyond being aware that we probably write differently on a keyboard than on paper, what follows is relevant to any format.

Improved learning can come through either the process of or outcome of writing. This is an important distinction. For example, novice tutors may start to reflect on their practice through writing a journal. This will become more commonplace as lecturers seek to gain membership of the Institute for Learning and Teaching. A learning journal can enhance the portfolio of teaching expertise they offer.

In contrast, English literature students might use journals to track their perceptions of a novel. This distinction is crucial when it comes to assessing a journal, as you will need to decide whether to consider the process of the writing or the product of the learning.

As well as learning how to be more reflective, learning journals are also useful in the development of deep or critical thinking. They can be invaluable in project work or experiential learning (such as work placements) and as a means of improving writing. Most journals fulfil many purposes and can be relevant to different subjects.

It is important to consider at the outset how the purpose of a journal will influence its structure. Some journals are solely vehicles for free writing. Others are more highly structured, for example through a set of questions that direct the attention of the learner. You could also opt for the double-entry format, in which initial thoughts on a topic, text or event are written on one page of an open book, and later reflection, or learning from the event, is recorded on the other.

There are many creative journal exercises that can stir up memories, jog thinking or extend consideration of a particular topic. You could ask learners to write an explanation of a concept for a lay person or to write an imaginary dialogue with an expert on an area of their learning.

Such structures or exercises lead to a deepening of the quality of learning and it is important to decide if there will be a format for the writing and whether adherence to the format is voluntary or compulsory.

The decision about structure might need to be governed by experience in the use of journals, both for staff and for students. It does, however, need to take into account the purpose for which the journal work is set. A structure, such as a set of questions, may be abandoned once the learner has found "her own voice".

Setting the task Presenting a learning journal to a class can be as much a learning process for the teacher as for the learners. The use of learning journals by staff alongside new teaching initiatives or programmes is an effective means of improving teaching skills.

One of the basic problems in presenting the idea of a learning journal to students is that many, even high academic performers, find writing in this way an alien concept. Be aware that this may be a problem not only for students but also for other tutors involved in the task of managing journals.

The key to setting journals for learners is to think ahead. What is the purpose of the journal and how does it fit in with the other teaching strategies and design of the programme? Will it be assessed, and how will it be assessed. In these days of strategic learners, non-assessed work is in danger of not being completed. Students need to feel that the journal is an integral part of their learning. If it is presented as an add-on, many will not put the effort into it to make it worth while.

Practical issues about the task also need to be discussed even if much choice is left to the learners. The development of a sense of ownership is important and you might consider a loose-leaf format that allows the removal of private writing at assessment time. If the writing is to be done in class, consider how portable the journal is.

Then there is the question of how much is written, where it is written and when is it written - after a class, at home, within class time. Privacy, confidentiality and sharing are all considerations. Reflection is often deepened when learners share and comment supportively on each other's writing. This might be in stable pairs or in group situations and may be voluntary or a part of the design of the work. Such sharing may need to be organised rather than left to happen. Journal work may play a role in classes. It can certainly enhance stale seminars.

Start up and get writing Presenting a journal task to students is not the same as getting the journals started. Some learners will have no problem. Others will fail to understand the point of it, saying they do not know what they are expected to do. Give thought to the use of structures.

Sometimes it is helpful if journal exercises are used before the notion of the journal is formally introduced. As an initial practice exercise, students might be asked to reflect on their performance in a seminar or in giving a presentation, or on their feelings about a relevant video or television programme. This can lead into reflective writing.

While there is not a formula that guides learners to write reflectively, most effective reflective writing will begin with some form of statement of the subject of the reflection. It will include some notion of the direction or purpose for the reflection plus some additional ideas about theory and observations.

There needs to be evidence of a thinking-through of the process of reflection. There may be a draft conclusion, a rethink and finally some sort of conclusion that is represented either by new learning or by the recognition that more reflection is required. There is, however, a sense that the ideas have progressed.

Jennifer Moon is staff development officer at Exeter University. This article is based on her Learning Journals: A Handbook for Academics, Students and Professional Development, to be published by Kogan Page in November.

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