Journal Keeping How To Use Reflective Writing Essays

Types of reflective writing assignments

Journal: requires you to write weekly entries throughout a semester. May require you to base your reflection on course content.

Learning diary: similar to a journal, but may require group participation. The diary then becomes a place for you to communicate in writing with other group members.

Log book: often used in disciplines based on experimental work, such as science. You note down or 'log' what you have done. A log gives you an accurate record of a process and helps you reflect on past actions and make better decisions for future actions.

Reflective note: often used in law. A reflective note encourages you to think about your personal reaction to a legal issue raised in a course.

Essay diary: can take the form of an annotated bibliography (where you examine sources of evidence you might include in your essay) and a critique (where you reflect on your own writing and research processes).

Peer review: usually involves students showing their work to their peers for feedback.

Self-assessment: requires you to to comment on your own work.

Some examples of reflective writing

Social Science fieldwork report (methods section)

The field notes were written by hand on lined paper. They consisted of jotted notes and mental triggers (personal notes that would remind me of specific things when it came to writing the notes up). I took some direct observational notes recording what I saw where this was relevant to the research questions and, as I was aiming to get a sense of the culture and working environment, I also made researcher inference notes  [1]  [2] .

 [3]  I found the notetaking process itself helpful, as it ensured that I listened carefully and decoded information. Not all the information I recorded was relevant, but noting what I found informative contributed to my ability to form an overview on re-reading. However, the reliability of jotted notes alone can be questionable. For example, the notes were not a direct transcription of what the subjects said but consisted of pertinent or interesting information.

Rarely did I have time to transcribe a direct quotation, so relied on my own fairly rapid paraphrasing, which risks changing the meaning. Some technical information was difficult to note down accurately  [3] . A tape recorder would have been a better, more accurate method. However, one student brought a tape recorder and was asked to switch it off by a participant who was uneasy about her comments being directly recorded. It seems that subjects feel differently about being recorded or photographed (as opposed to observers taking notes), so specific consent should be sought before using these technologies  [4] .

 1.  Description/ explanation of method.

 

 2.  Includes discipline-specific language

 

 3.  Critical evaluation of method

 

 4.  Conclusion and recommendation based on the writer's experience

Engineering Design Report

Question: Discuss at least two things you learnt or discovered – for example about design, or working in groups or the physical world – through participating in the Impromptu Design activities.

Firstly, the most obvious thing that I discovered was the advantage of working as part of a group  [1] . I learned that good teamwork is the key to success in design activities when time and resources are limited. As everyone had their own point of view, many different ideas could be produced and I found the energy of group participation made me feel more energetic about contributing something  [2] .

Secondly I discovered that even the simplest things on earth could be turned into something amazing if we put enough creativity and effort into working on them  [1] . With the Impromptu Design activities  [3]  we used some simple materials such as straws, string, and balloons, but were still able to create some 'cool stuff'  [4] . I learned that every design has its weaknesses and strengths and working with a group can help discover what they are. We challenged each other's preconceptions about what would and would not work. We could also see the reality of the way changing a design actually affected its performance.

 1.  Addresses the assignment question

 2.  Reflects on direct experiences

 3.  Direct reference to the course activity

 4.  The style is relatively informal, yet still uses full sentences.

 5.  Relating what was learnt.

Learning Journal (weekly reflection)

Last week's lecture presented the idea that science is the most powerful form of evidence  [1] . My position as a student studying both physics and law makes this an important issue for me  [2]  and one I was thinking about while watching the 'The New Inventors' television program last Tuesday  [3] . The two 'inventors' (an odd name considering that, as Smith (2002) says, nobody thinks of things in a vacuum) were accompanied by their marketing people. The conversations were quite contrived, but also funny and enlightening. I realised that the marketing people used a certain form of evidence to persuade the viewers (us?) of the value of the inventions  [4] . To them, this value was determined solely by whether something could be bought or sold—in other words, whether something was 'marketable'. In contrast, the inventors seemed quite shy and reluctant to use anything more than technical language, almost as if this was the only evidence required – as if no further explanation was needed.

 

This difference forced me to reflect on the aims of this course—how communication skills are not generic, but differ according to time and place. Like in the 'Research Methodology' textbook discussed in the first lecture, these communication skills are the result of a form of triangulation,  [5]  which I have made into the following diagram:

...

 1.  Description of topic encountered in the course

 2.  The author's voice is clear

 3.  Introduces 'everyday' life experience

 4.  The style is relatively informal, yet still uses full sentences

 5.  Makes an explicit link between 'everyday' life and the topic

References

Brookfield, S 1987, Developing critical thinkers: challenging adults to explore alternative ways of thinking and acting, Open University Press, Milton Keynes.

Mezirow, J 1990, Fostering critical reflection in adulthood: a guide to transformative and emancipatory learning, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Schön, DA 1987, Educating the reflective practitioner, Jossey-Bass. San Francisco.

The Learning Centre thanks the students who permitted us to feature examples of their writing.

Prepared by The Learning Centre, The University of New South Wales © 2008. This guide may be distributed or adapted for educational purposes. Full and proper acknowledgement is required. Email: learningcentre@unsw.edu.au

 

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As a practicum student at McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services, I have been examining the role of reflective journals in post-secondary classrooms.  Throughout the course of my research, it has come to my attention that, while they are used frequently in the instruction of disciplines like English and Theatre, reflective journals can actually be a helpful learning tool for a much wider range of subjects (Fenwick & Parsons, 2000; Stevens & Cooper, 2009).  In fact, they are becoming more popular in law schools, and even in science classrooms (Fenwick & Parsons, 2000; Ogilvy, 1996).  Skeptics insist that journal writing is nothing more than busy work for students and a lot of unnecessary extra effort for instructors.  However, those who view journals as constructive have demonstrated that, when properly implemented, engaging students in the exercise of journal writing can be beneficial to both students and their instructors.         

Journal writing can allow students to reflect on new knowledge learned in class, solidify their learning experience by recording their evolving thought process as they progress further in the course, learn new material, and form new conclusions (Stevens & Cooper, 2009, p. 3).  It can also teach them to formulate new opinions and perspectives, and gives them a risk free venue to explore, think, and practice skills learned in class (Stevens & Cooper, 2009, p. 9; Fenwick & Parsons, 2000, p. 155).  Students who write regularly in a journal consistently see improvements in their writing skills, as well as their creative and reflective thinking (Stevens & Cooper, 2009, p. 15-16, 33).

When students write journals for class, it not only helps them, but their instructors as well.  Instructors who assign journal writing to their students often see an increase in participation from their students: having to respond to class material in writing encourages students to do the readings, as well as participate more in class discussions (Stevens & Cooper, 2009, p. 11).  In addition, from reading journal entries, instructors can see which concepts were understood by their students, and which ones may need revisiting (Mills, 2008).  Finally, through the use of assigned journal writing topics, instructors can guide and focus their students’ learning, emphasize important concepts from the lectures, and challenge students to employ their critical thinking skills (Mills, 2008).

While such potential benefits can be appealing, it is not always clear how to go about developing and implementing a reflective journal assignment. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind when introducing journal writing to a class:

  • Be clear about the journal’s purpose

Whether it be to voice personal feelings and responses, develop and apply critical thinking skills, or some combination of these, communication of the journal’s purpose to students is essential.  This purpose should also be reflected in the journal’s evaluation, as well as the type of writing involved (Fenwick & Parsons, 2000).

  • Offer personal examples to help students understand what is expected of them

One of the best ways to communicate to students what is expected of them is to provide an example.  Having a concrete idea of what their instructor is looking for gives students more confidence that they are capable of creating an acceptable product, and takes some of the ambiguity away from journal writing (Fenwick & Parsons, 2000).

  • Evaluate only journal content, not form, spelling, or grammar

Insisting that students revise, rewrite, or edit their journal entries may effectively defeat the purpose of writing them in the first place.  It could cause students to be afraid of making mistakes, thus restricting their creativity, curiosity, and honesty.  This could in turn have a negative effect on the development of reflective writing skills.  Errors made in a journal setting occur because the journal is doing its job of encouraging students to try new things (Fenwick & Parsons, 2000; Marsh, 1998).

Journal writing may be new to many instructors, while other instructors have been using it for years.

  • To those instructors who are interested in integrating reflective journals in their courses: what questions do you have? What interests you about this exercise?
  • To those instructors who have experience with the use of journal writing: Which aspects of this activity worked well, and which could use some fine-tuning? Why did you decide to incorporate reflective journals? What suggestions do you have for instructors who are considering this activity for the first time?

If this is a topic that interests you, stay tuned for our next blog post that will discuss common concerns regarding journal writing, and how to minimize them. For more information on best practices for journal writing:

Stevens, D., & Cooper, J. (2009). Journal keeping: how to use reflective writing for effective learning, teaching, professional insight, and positive change. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publications. WorldCat: http://mcgill.worldcat.org/oclc/646821096

 References

Fenwick, T., & Parsons, J. (2000). Toolbox 2: Assessing learner journals. From The Art of Evaluation: A handbook for educators and trainers. Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing, Inc. pp. 155-161. WorldCat: http://mcgill.worldcat.org/oclc/243514524

Marsh, S. (1998). Widening the lens of diversity: Motivating reflective journal writing. Paper presented at the meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), San Diego, CA. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED418425.pdf

Mills, R. (2008). “It’s just a nuisance”: Improving college student reflective journal writing. College Student Journal, 42(2), 684-690. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/61951506?accountid=12339

Ogilvy, J. (1996). The use of journals in legal education: A tool for reflection. Clinical Law Review, 3, 55-107. Columbus School of Law. The Catholic University of America. Retrieved from http://scholarship.law.edu/scholar/264

Stevens, D., & Cooper, J. (2009). Journal keeping: How to use reflective writing for effective learning, teaching, professional insight, and positive change. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publications. WorldCat: http://mcgill.worldcat.org/oclc/646821096

 

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