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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Importance of Student Journals and How to Respond Efficiently

Burdened by expanding curriculum and multiplying high-stakes assessment requirements, some of my respected colleagues might be forgiven for not integrating student journals into their courses. The most common objection: "Who has time?"

"What instructor doesn't have time for student journaling?" is my typical reply, a non-answer that halts further conversation by employing a rhetorical cul-de-sac familiar to high-school debaters. To atone, I'll summarize research on journaling, identify my favorite reflective writing formats, and describe a labor-saving method of teacher response.

Classroom Journaling Is Essential

The benefits of students integrating journal writing across the curriculum are amply documented. From a teacher's perspective, there are few activities that can trump journal writing for understanding and supporting the development of student thinking. Journaling turbo-charges curiosity. The legendary Toby Fulwiler, author of The Journal Book, writes, "Without an understanding of who we are, we are not likely to understand fully why we study biology rather than forestry, literature rather than philosophy. In the end, all knowledge is related; the journal helps clarify the relationship."

Vary Student Journal Formats to Enhance Content-Specific Thinking

Annette Lamb and Larry Johnson's 42explore presents implementation advice and describes different journal formats. Introducing a range of reflective genres can encourage students to generalize about their content attitudes. Every subject area "pot" has its own reflective "lid," allowing teachers a peak into the metacognitive soup of students' misconceptions and insight. For example, here is a format that supports scientific reflection: "Today I observed... I predict that... I also measured... I concluded that..."

One of my favorites, the microtheme, supports comprehension, extends thinking, improves confidence, and bolsters writing across the content areas. I've run into different versions. In one, students write a summary to a reading, lecture, demonstration, or experiment on the back of an index card. Teachers collect the note cards and write responses to the students on the other side. Microthemes quickly activate thinking before whole-class discussions.

But, while essentially all reflective writing formats yield benefits, there is a problem...

Who Has Time to Grade Journals?

For years, I've taken home crates of journals on the weekend and responded with a Theseusian intensity that has crushed classroom preparation time and personal leisure, and has exasperated friends and family. To lessen the time costs, I tried skimming journals. My token analysis, however, signaled students to submit journals that were equivalently weak ("If he doesn't care, why should we?").

So, how do you implement journals, make them a priority, and reduce responding time?

An Efficient Journal Response Strategy

Premised on the notion that students should assess their own writing, Terri Van Sickle, a virtuoso instructor and writer for Crystal Coast Parent Magazine, teaches her classes to use a rich and organic process of open-ended reflection that works well as a culminating journal activity.

Whether your students write in daybooks, two entry notebooks, or academic journals, you can use the following instruction sheet to help students self-reflect.

I allow a full class period or more for students to follow these instructions. Many adolescents wrestle with critical reflection and therefore may need more individual help or modeling.

By primarily focusing my commentary on students' starred passages and reflective letters, I acquire a snapshot of the students' understanding of course content and save 3-4 hours on every set of 30 semester-length journals. Even though I only collect journals one time per semester, I can meet students' eyes, knowing that I haven't neglected journal segments that they wanted me to read.

Coda: The three best albums to write reflections to:

1. "Kind of Blue" by Miles Davis
2. "The Last Temptation of Christ" (Soundtrack) by Peter Gabriel
3. "Unleft" by Helios

-- Todd Finley's Twitter address is @finleyt.

Comments (16)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

FIA SMITH's picture

I've always felt the importance of incorporating aesthetics such as music into the learning process, so I appreciate the little footnote of classic albums which can assist in this matter. Journal writing should definitely not be removed from the curriculum because it provides what may be the only time that students have to reflect deeply upon their actions and critically process their experiences. The idea of having students grade their own journals can be very positive as well, becaue it can help them develop objectivity and honesty in assessing their points of progress and those areas where they can surely improve. Journal writing is valuable in that it provides a means of monitoring the inner life over the course of a year and maintains an autobiographical account of one's life.

Jeremy's picture

This seems like a great idea. My school use to do this 3 days a week in P.E. and it was great. The kids were getting better writing and expanding their thinking.

Jon Brock's picture

Writing journals helps my students take ownership of the subject matter. I also grade based on the students ability to connect one or more historic themes or concepts when writing. The connecting multiple themes helps to turn the formal assessment into a summative activity. Honestly, one of the benefits that I didn't plan was that the journals have helped prep students for classroom discussion.

K. Lee's picture

I think that journals are very important within the classroom environment. It allows you to gain knowledge regarding your students academically and personally. Journals are also a great way to improve and enhance writing skills. I like the idea of having a rubric to assess journals. Grading journals are very time consuming and I having a rubric will eliminate some of that.

K. Lee's picture

Journal writing is very important and must be incorporated within the classroom setting. My students write in their journals daily. I am able to gain knowledge regarding each student on an academic and personal level. I find that assessing journals are quite time consuming. I like the idea of creating a rubric to assess journals. I will definitely create one. Great idea!

Deborah A. Goffigan's picture
Deborah A. Goffigan
Potential Business & Information Technology Teacher w/Licensure

As a potential Business Instructor, while pursuing a Master's in Education, I have found that the importance for students to journal helps in the overall scope of their learning.

The 3-2-1 Learning/Reflective Log or Journal is an excellent tool developed to promote student individual depth of knowledge not only to be aware of his/her own thought processes beyond just a basic knowing, but is a mehodology for students to acquire an in-depth knowledge about content/subject matter.

Most importantly, this Learning/Reflective Log/Journal method in it's content formation will also allow students thinking skills to be utilized on paper which provides a formative assessment for the instructor.

The 3-2-1 journal and assessment begins where students will individually write three key ideas they have learned from the lesson, two aspects of the lesson they want to know more about and one question they still have about the lesson.

The 3-2-1 Journaling helps teachers to review student differention and abilities to help organize their learning experiences through the Multiple Intelligences. It aides in having a more collaborative classroom, while engaging students in interactive teaching with Direct Instruction and assists students to master more complex materials no matter what grade level. The 3-2-1 journaling tool also doubles as an Exit Ticket.

In addition, this tool is effective in teaching basic skills to young and at risk students during direct instruction and in helping older and higher ability students to master more complex materials and aides to develop independent study skills.

If you are interested in a format of the 2-3-1 Learning/Reflective Log/Journal, Paula Rutherford's book has an excellent print. (Rutherford, P. (2002), Instruction for all students, Alexandria: Just ASK Publications, Inc.).

Deborah A. Goffigan's picture
Deborah A. Goffigan
Potential Business & Information Technology Teacher w/Licensure

I sincerely hope that the above blog has helped with the importance of student journaling. Also, I wanted to acknowledge that while pursuing a Master's in Education, I found by acquiring Paula Rutherford's book, "Instruction for all Students" and Wong and Wong's book, "The First Days of School" helped me to not only develop and utilize what I had learned right away as a Substitute teacher, but as a future potential teacher will further provide excellence for student acquisition.

MK Mueller's picture

As the author of an SEL curriculum entitled 8 to Great, I require (strongly suggest) weekly journaling for the Student-Teacher emotional connection. We have all heard that students don't care what we know until they know that we care. Our 1,000+ trainers ALL agree that once they got over their initial "more work?" resistance to reading student journals, it became one of their favorite times of the week. Our guidelines are simple: 2-3 minutes of journaling 1-2 times per week. This avoids the 5-page version of the Jesse and Josie breakup and simply helps the teacher know there was one. I had a student email me to say that he decided not to join the gang for two reasons: 8 to Great and his teacher's comments in his journal. Our entries are completely free form with no prompting, no grading and no advice. We often use a happy or sad face to let a student know we read the entry, but because we're empowering these 6-12 graders to deal with their own issues using our processes, we never give advice. Journaling has become a cornerstone of 8 to Great's success and I am very grateful for any teacher who uses it.

Alizabeth's picture

At the end of the school year, I have students complete an essay explaining things they loved doing in class and things they would like to have omitted from the curriculum. Almost all students commented how much they love to journal. In my junior high social studies course, students are required to make a journal entry each day pertaining to the daily objective (like a KWL chart). Students are to explain first what they already know about the objective and at the end of the lesson they are to write about what they learned and what they would like to learn more about. I use these not only to guide my instruction that day but to also mention what they learned. One of the biggest problems is the time it takes to "correct" or review these entries. It was nice to see that others struggle with this same issue. I like the ideas mentioned on how the students can star certain entries that they think are the most reflective. It is a great idea to have students take part in the process.

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Editorial Assistant and Blogger
Blogger 2014

I really like how you are using KWL charts, where students are focusing on your objectives. That students report "loving" these journals is a sign that you have made this task meaningful. Thank you so much for taking the time to write this. I'm going to share your post with me English Education students tomorrow!

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