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Using an academic learning diary

An academic learning diary can enhance your ideas and help you keep track of essential academic insights.

  • Student life
Elisabeth Sandler's avatar

Elisabeth Sandler

March 1 2016
Man writing in a diary with calculator


Have you ever found yourself racking your brains in order to remember a book title or to find a topic for the seminar paper you should have already started?

Have you ever stared at an empty Word document, waiting for flashes of genius to overcome you? All your curiosity, your usually well-working memory, desire for knowledge and intrinsic motivation to learn, all the brilliant questions and ideas you have borne in mind, carefully stored and kept for those idea-less and lean times, are now gone.

Does this sound familiar? If so, keep reading.

Why I started using an academic learning diary

It all started with a piece of advice in one of my first lectures as a freshman. The lecturer suggested keeping an academic learning diary: a record of what you have learned, what amazed, inspired or confused you; anything that has been on your mind. Moreover, references to books, chapters, theories, authors and scientists as well as research questions and topics of interests can be found in it.

At the beginning I was a bit sceptical: who has time enough to do that?

However, once started, I could not stop writing; my mind went wild. Hundreds of new ideas, connections and issues came to me, for which I am still grateful today.

Years later, when I found out that the subject for my bachelor’s thesis that I had been certain about for years was over-explored, I had to come up with a new topic – as fast as possible. I remembered the diary I had written once and found my current research interest in it.

It is beyond dispute that my academic life has been enriched by this tip, mentioned only in passing and unnoticed among those who were not listening, suggested by a young lecturer who has thus contributed to my becoming an academic.

How to write it

“Dear diary, today I learnt …” (just kidding).

There is no standard way to write an academic learning diary. You can organise it as you wish. Still, the following things are useful to include:

  • The background: describing what led to the idea or question.
  • The source of knowledge: where have you found the specific concept, sentence or discovery? Cite the book, book page, lecturer and title of lecture.
  • Further considerations: write everything that comes to your mind (thematic issues, questions, your point of view and connections to other approaches or literature).
  • Last and obviously: the date.

You can arrange it chronologically according to date or sort it by subject area. The latter could be more suitable when you are reading more than one subject at your university. What’s more, you can sort the priorities by colours and contents by symbols. As an example, I use the symbol of a light bulb for ideas and further considerations. You can find these symbols everywhere on my materials: on my lecture notes and in the learning diary and my books.

To sum up, an academic learning diary is more than a useful tool of reflection. It helps you to organise, extend and process thoughts, academic ideas and scientific information. Furthermore, it is a documentation of your development as a student, a scientist and a person.

The start of a new year often functions as an opportunity to rectify mistakes and to try out new approaches. So why not seize the chance and try keeping an academic learning diary this year?

Read more: You've started your degree, now please make sure you do the reading!

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