Journal Keeping in Practice

Diaries, journals, daybooks, and record books have been kept as long as man has existed. Man has a desire to record his passing, to tell his story. Journals have been used by everyone from pre-adolescents to authors who fit into the various canons of literature. Some of the better known diarists are Samuel Pepys and Anne Frank. But journals are not just meant for recording daily events or adolescent dreams. Theory shows that journal keeping is not only an effective part of the recursive process, but it is also an artifact of personal and professional growth. While theory tells us this is good, practice shows that people struggle with journal keeping. To take advantage of the positive effects of journaling, instructors must analyze why it is effective, integrate it into their personal and professional lives, and demonstrate its accessibility and usefulness to students.

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Journal writing in some form or fashion has been around since cave men first etched on their walls. The Chinese kept journals as forms for documenting history as far back as 56 CE (Brady & Sky, 2003, p. 151). In Japan, records show that women of court kept private diaries called “pillow books” in the 10th century, consisting of lists, factual accounts, dreams and poetry (Stevens & Cooper, 2009, p. 7; Brady & Sky, 2003, p. 152). Travel diaries have existed from 10th century Japan through the Renaissance in Europe and the Westward Expansion in America (Brady & Sky, 2003, p. 152). Diaries and journals have long been part of many people’s personal lives. Samuel Pepys’ diary, chronicling his life in London in the 1600s is a well-known early example of an extensive personal diary.   Anne Frank’s famous diary has been the impetus for many young writers to get started recording their lives, both eventful, such as Zlata’s Diary (Filipovic, 1995), written by a young girl growing up in war torn Sarajevo, and less eventful, representing typical teenage angst. In addition to personal diaries or journals, journal writing has also long been one of the tools used by educators, from elementary school to post graduate school. Theory shows that journal keeping is not only an effective part of the recursive process, but it is also an artifact of personal and professional growth. While theory tells us that journal writing is good practice, the reality is that many professionals struggle when trying to maintain a journal, as well as have difficulty smoothly integrating journal writing into their classes. To take advantage of the positive effects of journaling, instructors must analyze why it is effective, integrate it into their personal and professional lives, and demonstrate its accessibility and usefulness to students.

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Whether they are called diaries, journals, daybooks, or record books, there are certain basics that apply. They must be written, dated, informal, flexible, private, and archival (Stevens & Cooper, 2009). In the research various words have been used to describe journals: response journals, dialectic journals, research journals, side-by-side journals, reflection journals, diaries, logs, log books, scientific journals, discovery journals, observation journals, day books, and many combinations thereof. For the purpose of this paper, the term journal or diary will be used interchangeably, and the definition used will be that of Stevens & Cooper (2009), who “define a journal as a sequential, dated chronicle of events and ideas, which includes the personal responses and reflections of the writer (or writers) on those events and ideas” (p. 5).


The rationale for journal writing differs somewhat depending on its use. According to Absalom & Leger (2011), “Diaries have been used in a wide range of higher education settings in arts and humanities as well as nursing, teacher training, engineering, science, and the creative arts” (p. 190). They identify four primary purposes for journal use in higher education: “to reflect on one’s own experience as a learner or as a practitioner in an ongoing fashion; to develop analytical, critical or problem solving skills in a particular field; to enhance creativity and/or improve written communication skills; and to support planning and progress in a project” (p. 190). Some instructors use journals as a way to conduct a private dialogue with students to informally assess knowledge, others assign journals which are either never assessed, or assessed based on a “did or didn’t do” process. Some journal assignments are specific as to what content should be included, for other students are simply instructed to reflect over what they have learned that day, week, or term (p. 194). How journals are used in the classroom varies greatly depending on the instructor.


Theoretical Support

The theoretical support for using journals in the classroom can be found in the works of Dewey and Bandura, among others. Dewey (1916/2007) defines education as “that reconstruction or reorganization of experience which adds to the meaning of experience, and which increases ability to direct the course of subsequent experience” (p. 61). Journals provide the opportunity for students to reflect over what the lessons and connect them to past learning, as well as predict the lessons’ application in the future. Dewey (1910/2010) differentiated “thinking” from “reflection” by explaining that while thinking is merely considering events as they happen, reflective thought involves making connections, “not simply a sequence of ideas, but a consequence—a consecutive ordering in such a way that each determines the next as its proper outcome, while each in turn leans back on its predecessors” (pp. 2-3). He further stated that “active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends, constitutes reflective thought” (p. 6). Dewey (1910/2010) further believed that it is necessary to use language to think and to communicate thoughts, and he pointed out that “language includes much more than oral and written speech. Gestures, pictures, monuments, visual images, finger movements—anything consciously employed as a sign is, logically, language” (pp. 170-171, italics in original). In this he provided support for journals that include more than just words, such as artists’ journals, scientific journals, dream journals, etc. Dewey (1910/2010) believed in the importance of making connections between what is to be learned and previous knowledge. It is necessary for students to be encouraged to search for those connections because “only deduction brings out and emphasizes consecutive relationships, and only when relationships are held in view does learning become more than a miscellaneous scrap-bag” (p. 97). Journal writing provides the opportunity to reflect on what is known and connect it to new learning, therefore encouraging the growth of knowledge.

Educators need to do more than present the information to students and expect them to learn it. According to Bandura (1997) “effective intellectual functioning requires much more than simply understanding the factual knowledge and reasoning operations for given realms of activities. It also requires metacognitive skills for how to organize, monitor, evaluate, and regulate one’s thinking processes” (223). Bandura points out that “although much learning is socially situated after people develop self-regulatory capabilities, they learn a lot on their own” (p. 227). It is necessary for students to be provided the opportunities and encouragement to think about what they are learning, to connect it to life, and to foresee its usefulness in their future. Bandura believed that “the capacity to represent future consequences in thought provides one cognitively based source of motivation” (1976, p. 161). By asking students to reflect on their learning, educators are responding to “the fact that people respond evaluatively to their own behavior” (p. 161). By encouraging students to connect classroom activities to their futures, educators are accessing that motivation. Bandura stated that “it is a common finding that people who learn rules in the abstract do a poor job of applying them to particular situations” (1997, p. 230). In order for students to make these connections, “to promote transferability of cognitive skills,” it is necessary to provide numerous examples and opportunities (p. 230). Regular journal writing provides these experiences.

Using Journals in the Classroom

Reflective journals have successfully been used in English, French, art, architecture, social science, math, science, nursing, teacher education, business classes, health and more. The types of journals used vary as to the class, instructor, subject area, and students. An important component that the research identified is that ideally the learner should know from the beginning the purpose of the journaling, how the journals should be formatted, how they will be evaluated, and how they will be responded to.

Methods and formats used for journals in the classroom vary from educator to educator. Stevens & Cooper (2009) identify eight basic journal-writing techniques: freewriting, focused freewriting, listing, log, dialogue, concept mapping, metaphor, and metareflection (p. 77). With adult learners, journals can be used as “a tool to aid learners in terms of personal growth, synthesis, and reflection on new information that they acquire” (p. 20). Cisero (2006) explained the use of journal writing as “meaningfully interacting with the reading material by applying information to personal experiences, analyzing and critiquing information, synthesizing information or creating a product based on information (p. 231).   Journal writing provides students the opportunity to explore their learning, ask for clarification, “make connections and grow ideologically” (p. 231). Journals can be used to reflect on how the new knowledge will apply in future careers (Hiemstra, 2001, p. 20). Pavlovich (2007) identified that the purpose of having students write regular journal entries linked to classroom activities was “to deepen students’ understanding of experiences and to foster thinking skills that actively engage them in learning” (p. 283).

There are various kinds of journals that can be used in the classroom. According to Hiemstra (2001), learning journals are used “during an educational experience,” and personal journals can be used “to capture in words growing understanding of the field, a particular subject, and their own professional development” (pp. 20-21). Journals are “systematic observations of insights, events, and changes in personal perspectives during the course” (p. 21). According to Hiemstra, the process of keeping the journal also “helps them become more organized and focused on the areas they are studying…personal clarification…elucidation of opinions, beliefs, and feelings” (p. 21). Pavlovich (2007) stated that “the act of writing facilitates deeper analysis of the experience through assessing and articulating it” (p. 284). Additionally, Hiemstra suggested that having students keep professional journals would provide them with evidence of learning to include in portfolios, prepare for interviews, and share with other students (p. 22). It is ideal to provide examples or samples of journal writing along with clear grading criteria at the introduction of the reflective journal writing.

As noted by several researchers, feedback and grading of journals is a sensitive topic. As stated by Pavlovich (2007), the sensitive nature of some journals “makes grading and evaluation difficult, as their subjective nature defies the standardized criteria that more technical assessment entails” (p. 286).   The knowledge that the journal will be graded often inhibits genuine responses for some, while for others “grading can encourage classroom preparation and participation, which can motivate deep approaches to learning” (p. 286). In fact, some research has shown “that when journals don’t count toward grades, students don’t put in the work” (p. 286). Pavlovich recommended grading journals because it demonstrates to students that the educator feels the journals are important (p. 286). Fenwick (2001) identified various criteria that might be used for grading journals such as “overall fluency (thoroughness and variety of topics addressed), evidence of thoughtful reflection exploring various required issues or readings in the course, evidence of connection making, evidence of critical thinking and questioning” (p. 44). Another way to grade reflective journals is to identify whether or not the responses “demonstrate close listening or deep reading and that extend beyond description and report to interpretation, analyses, and connection” (p. 44). There are numerous criteria that can be used to grade journals, depending on the nature and level of the course and the expectations established for the journaling practice.

Some educators who used journal writing in their classrooms reflected that responding and grading journals can be sensitive and time consuming (Pavlovich, 2006, p. 291). In addition to giving students a grade for their reflective journals, it is also necessary for the educator to provide some feedback or recognition of the content submitted. Responding to journals is a necessary part of the facilitating and learning process when using reflective journals in the classroom. While some students need more feedback than others, the need for an audience that acknowledges what they have written is common to most (Fenwick, 2001, p. 39). Some of the key components of a good responder are the ability to motivate the students to write in their journals, to help students see what they may have overlooked in the learning reflected upon and provide clarification as needed, to “enter conversation with the journal writer by probing, extending, and connecting,” (p. 39). Fenwick emphasized the importance that the focus in the dialogue between journal writer and responder remains on the student (p. 39).   Fenwick pointed out that the responder does not have to be the educator. Bandura believed that sometimes “when experiential verification is either difficult or impossible, people evaluate the soundness of their views by comparing them against the judgments of others” (1976, p. 181). A fellow student, a colleague, a small group journal exchange, or even the student might be encouraged to self-respond.

Student Outcomes

Some of the benefits of journal writing identified by Hiemstra (2001) are personal growth and development, intuition and self-expression, problem solving, stress reduction and health benefits, and reflection and critical thinking (p. 24). One point that Hiemstra made is that for some students, the private nature of journal writing allows them “a freedom of expression that may be inhibited in a group setting, stimulation mental development, enhancing breakthroughs in terms of new insights, and even planting seeds of ambition in terms of future study or research” (p. 24). On the other hand, some “research shows that many students see reflective journaling as merely busy work and, consequently, fail to receive any learning enhancement from the activity (Mills, 2008, p. 690). Mills suggested that the key is to make sure that the journal writing is seen as relevant and important by the students. Cisero (2006) identified a long term goal, that journal writing might encourage students “to see learning as a never-ending journey that does not necessarily stop outside of the classroom or after they have graduated (p. 231). An additional benefit of using writing journals is that “in understanding reflection, one is able to develop an ability to relate to others and form strong interpersonal relationships” (Pavlovich, 2006, p. 294). She further pointed out that the reflective process will “encourage students to learn how to learn and to thoughtfully engage in reflective practice as a daily activity” (p. 294). To make sure that students get the most out of reflective journal writing, there must be clear purpose, models, evaluation, and feedback provided.

Keeping Professional Journals

There are many reasons why educators should keep professional journals.   Stevens and Cooper (2009) pointed out that “faculty and administrators in academic setting lead multifaceted lives” (p. 11). To manage the various commitments, an educator typically uses a number of different methods to keep track of it all, paper and electronic. A professional journal can keep all of the information in one place. It can be used as a calendar, to reflect over how a lesson went, to explore research ideas, to take notes from a meeting, to make lists, to dream, to write, to record. As discussed earlier, journals are chronological and dated, so if one needs to find the notes from a meeting, if one uses a journal, one can flip to the date and access them. According to Stevens and Cooper, “a growing body of research has shown that keeping a journal in professional life addresses all of the issues” that an educator has to take care of (p. 12). Using a professional journal will help keep information organized and improve productivity and time management. The process of “keeping a journal organizes, simplifies clarifies, and develops the kind of skills, thinking, and spontaneous creativity expected in academic work” (p. 13). Some additional benefits of journal writing are that it “decreases stress and improves health….[and] thinking and writing skills” (pp. 15-16). Some of the main reasons to keep a professional journal are to manage day-to-day and long-term work expectations and to develop skills and insight (pp. 131-133). A professional journal can be used “to keep a dated log of professional activities for promotion and peer review… to develop and organize research activities to manage the day-to-day and long-term expectations of their research lives…to reflect on and address problems and issues in the work setting…” (p. 132).

As with student journals, professional journals are as varied as the journalists. Professionals in all walks of life keep journals: business executives, educators, artists, clergy, etc. Some educators keep teaching journals, where they can “reflect critically on teaching and professional expertise…evaluate roles and responsibilities…examine who they are as teachers and to work to become more engaged in the classroom…recording responses to classroom lessons, reflecting on their significance in relation to past events…become more insightful…” (p. 135).   Others keep professional journals for notes, research ideas, meeting notes, and professional commentary. Some professionals keep several journals, one related to teaching, one related to research, and one related to introspection. According to Stevens and Cooper, “keeping a journal in your professional life furthers two major goals: to increase your organization and to enhance your ability to reflect on the meaning of your work and work-life events” (pp. 161-162). One method for increasing organization is to use one professional journal for multiple aspects of an educator’s life. By entering everything chronologically in one journal, notes from meetings are easy to locate; reflections on lessons are on the dated page; ideas for research are accessible. Organizational details such as page numbering, color coding, sticky note flagging, etc. are easily added to a bound journal. Reflection in journals can be done in preparation for upcoming meetings, classes, or research; in the middle of the processes, conferences, or studies; and after the events as summary, reflection, and follow-up (Boud, 2001). Additionally, by keeping a journal themselves, educators are more able to explain the process of journal keeping to their students, and to authentically insist on the importance of journal keeping in the classroom. Writing journals are an accessible way to organize the complexities of a professional educator’s life.

The unexamined life is not worth living. Socrates

Research shows that the use of journals in and out of the classroom facilitates student learning and professional growth. Through clear structure and consistent use, journals can increase student engagement in class, understanding of subject matter, and retention of learning. Steadfast use of a professional journal will increase educators’ productivity, reflection, and organization. In today’s world of information overload, maintaining a journal encourages the writer to take time to analyze, reflect, and remember.


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Brady, E.M. & Sky, H. (2003). Journal writing among older learners. Educational Gerontology, 29, 151-163. Doi: 10.1080/03601270390157006

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Mills, R. (2008). “It’s just a nuisance”: Improving college student reflective journal writing. College Student Journal 42(2), 684-690. Retreived from EBSCOhost.

Pavlovich, K. (2007). The development of reflective practice through student journals. Higher Education Research & Development 26(3), 281-295. doi: 10.1080/07294360701494302

Stevens, D. D. & Cooper, J.E. (2009). Journal keeping: How to use reflective writing for learning, teaching, professional insight, and positive change. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.



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