The purpose of journals is to develop fluency and promote critical thinking, Journals are also a positive way to encourage self-expression. They can help students explore course content and tie it into personal experience or observations of everyday life. Journals are distinguished by an informal nature, an intimate audience (often being addressed to the self and no one else), and regular entries. Since journals are intended to provide writing practice, encourage complete sentences rather than lists or fragments. While some journals are completely personal and can address any topic, other focus on course content and will include the instructor and peers as audience.

A caveat: don't ask students to be too personal in journals, or you may find yourself in some awkward situations. You do not want to have to comment on their most intimate thoughts or experiences, and you do not want to confuse teaching with counseling. Consider allowing students to mark some entries as "Private—Do not read."

Assigning Journals

  • Begin with journal assignments that develop skills you want practiced, and provide sample journal entries. Demonstrate what sorts of questions, insights, or criticisms a sample reading might elicit.
  • Define (operationally if possible) terms such as "close reading," "critical thinking," "insight," or "imagination." Ask students to respond to readings or class discussions in their journals or provide a short list of prompts.
  • Require that students give concrete evidence to support the opinions in their journals. This will help them learn to elaborate.

Responding to Journals

  • Collect journals at regular intervals, perhaps once early in the term, once at mid-term, and once toward the end, so you can see how students are using them and provide useful feedback.
  • Limit your responses to content.
  • Encourage thinking more deeply about the subject rather than focusing on errors. If students get the idea that correctness is paramount, they may begin to censor themselves. Fear of making a mistake can block creative and critical thinking and slow an inexperienced writer to a crawl.
  • Comments, suggestions, and questions in the margins made as you read gives students the sense of how a reader responds to their ideas.
  • If responding to each journal in writing is onerous, simply check that they are being done and respond randomly to a few, perhaps picking different ones each time.
  • Alternatively, you can have students read each other's entries, or you can read some especially good entries aloud as the basis for class discussion.
  • Evaluate the length, but don't read the entry. This allows more freedom of expression.
  • Dialogue journals take the level of response one step further. The student writes an entry, to which the instructor or peers respond. In turn, the student responds to the response.

Additional Resources

Fulwiler, Toby, ed. The Journal Book. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1987.

Reynolds, Julia, Writing to Learn in Undergraduate Science Education.

Double-entry journals are discussed at

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