Reflective Learning through Journaling

A faculty member once told me that experience does not teach; only reflection on experience teaches. We become better teachers by reflecting on what went right or wrong after each class to learn what we should change in the future. This is why I try to schedule a block of time after each class to reflect on what I learned and should do differently in the next class, and I jot down those notes to use when preparing future classes.

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A faculty member once told me that experience does not teach; only reflection on experience teaches. We become better teachers by reflecting on what went right or wrong after each class to learn what we should change in the future. This is why I try to schedule a block of time after each class to reflect on what I learned and should do differently in the next class, and I jot down those notes to use when preparing future classes.

But this important lesson is often lost when we set up our courses. We ask students to write a paper on a course topic and give them feedback and a grade on it, but we often do not expect them to reflect on the actual experience of writing the paper and what they learned or could have done differently. A science teacher could ask students to produce not only a report of their lab results but what they learned about working in a lab itself. Maybe they made mistakes in handling equipment or did not keep accurate enough notes. 

Lynette Pretorius and Allie Ford of Monash University incorporated this lesson into their health care class by having students produce self-reflective journals in response to question prompts. The goal was to get students to focus on their experiences, rather than on producing academic content. The purpose was to improve both knowledge of the learned content and the students' own self-knowledge of how they learn best. This exercise could also teach students the value of self-reflection in general and good techniques for doing it, which they might apply to their work life in the future.

The students were required to make daily journal entries that answered the following questions:

At the beginning of each class, the instructors asked for volunteers to talk about their previous day's reflections. They were also put into groups of four or five members to discuss their reflections. This exercise helped students see struggles or parts of their experience that they had originally missed and understand that other students share their struggles, which can be valuable for gaining confidence and keeping up their motivation.

Although the exercise was conducted in a face-to-face course, it can just as easily be used in online courses. You can use your institution's learning management system to support student journaling if it has the necessary functionality. One question to ask yourself before making the choice is whether you want students to share their journaling with one another. You will likely want to see the actual journals yourself, but you also might want to allow students to share their journals rather than just talk about them in a discussion forum. If the journaling is done through the assignment feature, does this feature allow students to share assignments with one another? In this case, you would want to make the journals separate from the assignment itself so that students can share them without sharing the assignment. If they are not sharing their journals with one another, then it might be easier to make the journal a part of the assignment by having students attach answers to the questions at the end of each assignment.

There are also a variety of outside systems that can facilitate a journaling activity:

Google Docs. Google Docs provides all of the recording and sharing functions needed for a journaling activity. You can create a template for the journal that you share with your students. They make a copy of the template to fill out with each assignment and share it with you. They can then share journals for whatever assignments they choose with whomever they choose using the same sharing function. Plus, the people with whom the journals are shared can make comments on the journals when they have encountered the same issues, thus reinforcing the learning.

LiveJournal. LiveJournal (http://www.livejournal.com) is a very popular site that allows the user to create journal entries in a variety of formats, including text, audio, and video. This means that students can add outside content to their entries, such as YouTube videos that relate to their observations. That would facilitate students drawing connections between different types of content. For instance, students in a video editing class can note that they got the idea for using a certain type of element from a YouTube video they had seen and attach that video to their journal. Drawing connections is central to learning, and anything an instructor can do to facilitate this process will greatly improve student understanding and retention.

Try journaling to improve learning in your own classes.

Reference

Pretorius, L., and A. Ford. “Reflection for Learning: Teaching Reflective Practice at the Beginning of University Study.” International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 28, no. 2 (2016): 241–253.