The Importance of Student Journals and How to Respond Efficiently

September 1, 2010

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.

Journal Coding

Assignment Introduction: The following questions will help you to deeply examine the thinking, interactions, exercises, and writing you have experienced over the course of the semester.

1. Reading and Marking: Read through your entire journal. Identify and star (*) 10 passages that seem most significant to you as a learner of the subject matter in this course. You might choose an entry that was written when you were thinking on all cylinders, discovering something revelatory, engaging in higher order thinking, struggling with an idea that was only partially formed, or experiencing confusion. Maybe you were able to transcend the classroom conversations and texts to come up with an original idea. These ten passages should be as varied as possible and make generalizations that provide a full portrait of you as a learner of this course's content. Next, double star (**) five of the passages most significant to you. Why did you choose these five sections? What generalizations can you make about you as a writer and learner?

2. Letter to Reader: Write a letter to your reader, describing the items you starred and explaining how and why you chose them. Also, reflect on the following:

  • a. What was the most persuasive or convincing argument introduced in this class?
  • b. What could you relate to the most in class or in the readings? Why?
  • c. Was there an argument or position taken in class or in the readings with which you strongly disagreed? Explain your reaction.
  • d. What do you think was the most important point or central concept communicated this semester?
  • e. If you could do this semester over again more successfully, what would you do differently? Why?

3. Final Check: Is your name, class, and date written on the cover?   Make sure your journal has a complete table of contents, page numbers on every page, and that each entry is dated. If you were absent on a day when we used journals in class, enter "absent" next to the date. 

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.

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