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Why Use Learning Reflective Journals as a Tool for Teaching ?

By Carlos Figueroa

Learning Reflective Journals (LRJ) are student entries used in upper level seminars that can take different forms – handwritten pencil/pen to composition notebook, or typed via an on-line forum, or Word doc, among others.  Journaling encourages students to bring their personal experiences, biographies, acquired knowledge, writing skills, critical/analytical abilities and most importantly intellectual curiosity to the teaching & learning process.  Students are expected to interrogate and interpret assigned primary and secondary source materials through their own perspectives.  This exercise often challenges students’ ethnocentrisms and ideological orientations; thus moving them away from preconceived notions about particular people, intellectual content, and policy areas. They are faced with the chance to confront seemingly familiar/unfamiliar ideas, and focus their attention on:  how they learn new materials, how they locate commonalities, and how they share their thoughts in writing.  They are asked to express themselves in classroom discussions & debates by bringing in discussion-starter questions generated from their personal journaling experiences.

The main objective for journaling via the LRJ is to encourage students to write more outside the classroom.  Yet a related objective is to get students thinking about what happens, or should occur inside the classroom in terms of levels and types of discussions and debates by bringing their private thoughts to the public classroom setting.  “Journals give students an additional writing opportunity in the curriculum; and writing has a ‘demonstrated connection’ to learning” (McAdoo 2012, p. 67; Ogilvy 1996, p. 103).  As the semester moves along, students eventually generate insightful questions that they then bring to the classroom in order to initiate discussion (semi-flipping the classroom).  And, professors can also get the opportunity to assess how each student is dealing with the readings, how they are learning the content materials on a particular unit/subsection, and how they break down complex arguments, and make the relevant connections to their own “lived” experiences over time.  In sum, if done well, journaling in this manner enhances students’ deeper and wider understanding of course content/substance because it opens students to taking seriously their own backgrounds, family history, ideological orientation, informal & formal educational training, learning styles & strategies, and other “lived experiences” – relational, communal to the metaphysical forms – throughout the semester-long writing process without fear of judgement.

There are a number of reasons why I require that students submit their journals, which I read, before class.

  • First, journal entries afford professors a way into the often private student learning process in preparation for the larger classroom discussions on a selected topic, and assigned thematic set of readings.
  • Second, they afford students a more private way to communicate their individual intellectual & personal interests, and/or any reading confusions/misunderstandings needing addressing before raising these in class for peer critical engagement.  In this context, McAdoo (2012, p. 66) observes, “Journals provide the means to individualize instruction and allow students to communicate [with] the teacher [more directly].”
  • Third, these entries provide ongoing formative feedback; professors have an opportunity to individually check for, and simultaneously document any common interests, ideas and student learning strategies for each individual student and collectively; while also paying close attention to what emerges in student writings beyond original expectations, or assignment requirements and goals.

These text-based observations and evaluations can lead to shifting topics, readings, and if necessary, the order of semester themes for the benefit of the entire class.  Again McAdoo referencing Katz (1997) makes the point that students in their writing process and outcomes show “how the course is proceeding [for them, which enables] a professor to refocus and revise her instruction to better meet student needs” (pp. 66 – 67).

  • Finally, journal entries give professors a chance to select the most appropriate, interesting and/or relevant statements, and/or questions to begin that day’s class discussion, with the consent of the student who generated the statement or question from the personal journaling experience.  In sum, “Journals promote timely and ongo­ing student-teacher interaction, supportive of the active learning process” (McAdoo 2016, .p 67; Nelken, McAdoo, and Manwaring 2009).


McAdoo, “Reflective Journal Assignments in Teaching Negotiation,” in Assessing Our Students, Assessing Ourselves, Volume 3 in the Rethinking Negotiation Teaching Series, edited by N. Ebner, J. Coben and C. Honeyman, (St. Paul, MN: DRI Press, 2012)

Katz, H. N. Personal journals in law school externship programs: Improving pedagogy. T.M. Cooley Journal of Practice and Clinical Law, (1997), 1: 7-58.

Nelken, M., B. McAdoo, and M. Manwaring. 2009. “Negotiating learning environments,” in Rethinking negotiation teaching: Innovations for context and culture, edited by C. Honeyman, J. Coben, and G. De Palo, (St. Paul, MN: DRI Press, 2009).

Ogilvy, J.P. 1996. The use of journals in legal education: A tool for reflection. Clinical Law Review, (1996), 3: 55-107.

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