Center for Faculty Excellence

Tips for Teaching

Using Student Journals to Promote Learning

by Kenneth E. Eble, The Craft of Teaching (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1988)

We began with some background on the origin of student journals in higher education. I pointed out that they were an important part of the "revolution" of the 60s and were designed to bring relevance to the curriculum. The journal was assumed to be personal writing by the student that would serve to "connect" the student more with the course material.

I mentioned that my own most successful experience with student journals was in a general education (core) literature course that was organized by life-development stages (i.e., literature of adolescence, young adulthood, middle and old-age), principally fiction. I asked the students to write an entry for each selection we read (as little as three sentences or as much as they wished) identifying and explaining some personal association with the fiction--e.g., a character who reminded them of someone they knew, a situation that seemed close to one of their own experience, etc. What amazed me when I read these (I collected them twice during the term as well as just before the TEE) was how much more understanding of the fiction these journals showed than the standard "tests" by which I was used to assessing their learning.

Hence, student journals can often serve an assessment function, and that is one way that COL Lenox and LTC Steve Ressler reported that they're using student journals in the civil engineering program. They have a one-credit professional development course as mandated by their accreditors, ABET. Much of the course is devoted to presentations by professional civil engineers who speak about engineering practice. In addition, there are some case studies and other activities to give cadets a sense of the issues of concern to contemporary civil engineers. To provide coherence, the cadets keep a journal (entries are collected at each class, reviewed, and returned to insure that cadets keep current). LTC Ressler reported that he had found the journals offered cadets an opportunity to comment on their experience of the program, and these journals now provide one additional assessment measure. (He also offered to share his specific assignments and samples of cadet responses with any interested faculty members).

The civil engineering structured journals highlighted one thing we learned about this practice in higher education over the years; i.e., students will NOT be self-directed, and an instructor who assigns journals must be prepared to review them regularly to insure that the students keep up with their entries.

Twenty-five years ago when journals first became popular, they were a standard part of most composition courses. The theory was that writing improves writing; hence, keeping a journal would help students write better class papers. Unfortunately, the composition instructor who is regularly monitoring (reading, grading, providing feedback) student essay writing has little time to review journals as well. Without regular review, the journal was not done, and so the use of journals in composition classes decreased sharply. Many of us who still use journals for writing practice now have students do their entries during class time (5 minutes at most). And this type of "daily writing" might fit into many courses. In fact, LTC Ressler has observed that his students regularly either remain a few minutes after class to write their journal entry or come early to the next session to do it.

MAJ Prantl of D/SE described the use of the journal in senior design to document work attempted and completed, ideas generated, etc. Professional engineers use a journal throughout the development and implementation process as a record of everything connected with a specific project, and the use of the journal in senior design is to inculcate that practice.

Another valuable use for student journals is to promote metacognition--i.e., learning about learning. One of our USMA goals is to insure that cadets are "life-long learners," and one way to achieve that goal is to develop cadets' understanding of themselves as learners. What talents do I have for learning this material? What are my weaknesses? What do I like about MSE courses, and what does this tell me about my learning preferences? What do I prefer to do to learn--write? read? listen? create? What is it that helps me learn best? Such questions can be posed for cadet reflection as part of a course journal.

Another way that journals can be used to make course material relevant to the student's experience was discussed in one of the Air Force Academy's presentations at our conference last fall. In their required leadership course, cadets analyze case studies of actual Air Force situations. However, cadets are also required to keep a journal in which they select among the leadership theories discussed in class and apply that theory to an actual situation (current or past) in their cadet chain-of-command responsibilities. They are to show how this leadership theory worked or, if it was not used, how it would have changed the situation if it had been used.

I suggested that journals might be useful in Honor education (and other Comdt hour) classes as a way to get cadets to be reflective and achieve more affective learning--as well as gain some assessment information.

Since journals entered higher education, they have become useful in enhancing student learning in a variety of disciplines. The important lessons we've learned is that they should be structured to conform to the learning objective(s)--simply saying "keep a journal" is not useful--and must be reviewed periodically (or used in class) to keep students on task. They do not necessarily have to be graded, but the instructor should respond to them in some definite way. Students must see their writing as valuable and important for learning.