Journaling Online

Why Use Journaling Exercises With Your Students?

Maintaining a class journal prompts students to write on a consistent basis, and track thoughts as they evolve over the course of a project or a semester. This tracking can encourage students to think broadly about a subject, while still engaging with particulars along the way. It also encourages students to register personal reactions to reading or discussion, which can increase their investment in a class.

Proponents of this technique often talk about the way journaling allows students to mull over ideas, unleash creativity, and cure (or forestall) writer's block. Some say that the act of regularly committing thoughts to paper (or screen) flexes a student's writing muscles. Conducting this exercise in an environment restricted to an author and the instructor can build a student's confidence, encourage bolder experimentation, and allow for more critical and better targeted instructor evaluation.

Typically an instructor provides occasional comments about journal entries, which could address anything from writing style to idea generation. A busy instructor may be tempted to assign journaling over the course of a semester, but only check up on this activity at the end. But that can often lead to a dismaying and fairly pointless exercise: the pseudo-journal whipped up just before the last class session. An instructor's tracking of journal entries during the semester increases their utility and provides an opportunity for redirection early in the semester if problems do arise.

Journaling is likely to encourage an informality not appropriate to other writing assignments. It is usually best characterized as a capturing of process, not an end-product. Off-the-cuff, personal, and unstructured writing in journals can act as a scratch pad for more composed submissions -- offering students a comforting head start as they identify topics and approaches for more formal essays.

Why Journal Online?

Student journals can be developed on paper, of course, and handed into the instructor every so often. But there are plenty of drawbacks to paper-based journals, not least of which is the strain of collecting and tracking a mound of half-empty notebooks. Since journals are cumulative, the mysterious disappearance of one towards the end of a semester can spell disaster for teacher and student. Also, if you are writing context-dependent evaluations in students' notebooks over time, you are essentially relying on them to preserve your work, as well as their own.

Moving journals to the web increases your ability to see each student's work, comment on it, and keep track of it continuously (rather than only when the paper journal is handed in). Even if you are not reading student journals every day, the fact that you could is an incentive for steady effort: the Panopticon effect.

A digital journal environment also improves interactivity between instructors and students. A journal posted shortly after class about a discussion can provide quick feedback for the instructor about the effect of a lecture, discussion, or activity; preparation for future class sessions can incorporate this feedback. Similarly, journal entries trained on a given topic or reading can help an instructor gauge its effectiveness and incorporate student reactions directly into class discussion.

Setting Up Online Journaling

Student journaling can be done on a ''private'' thread in a discussion board, which only the instructor and author can see, or on a blog with similar restrictions. It can also be conducted on discussion boards, blogs, or wikis that are accessible to the whole class, so that students in the class can access their peers' developing thoughts.

The easiest way to set up an online journal is to use CourseWorks Discussion Board (see documentation). For private journals, the discussion board's "Portfolios" feature (which sets up a discussion board category that can be seen by each student and the instructor only) may be a useful tack to take. If a more public journal is appropriate, you might consider using a third-party solution like blogger.com.

Uses of Journaling at Columbia University and Barnard

  • In the Barnard course Poles Together, students used journals to role play an expedition through arduous polar climates over the course of the semester. These journals were kept privately, but occasionally shared during class.
  • Social Work classes that focus on clinical practice have asked students to maintain journals, tracking their assessment of the practitioners and clients that these students observe out in the field. To preserve privacy and encourage honest appraisal, these journals are kept privately.
  • An English professor teaching contemporary literature has experimented with journals accessible to all members of a class, published under pseudonyms known only to the professor. This technique preserves the freedoms of a privately-kept journal, while introducing peer evaluation and lively guesswork among students as to the true identities of authors.
  • A Barnard English professor used a wiki in which students maintained "commonplace books," a journal-like exercise where students excerpted snippets of text from their regular readings, emulating practice among women authors in colonial America.