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Journal Assignment Syllabus


Written journals have been used in numerous academic disciplines because they are powerful teaching and learning tools that facilitate active learning and encourage reflection (Dart and others 1998; Moon 1999, 2003). Journals have also been described as both a place and a tool for thinking (Fulwiler 1987b). Writing in journals allows students to identify problems, establish opinions, organize ideas, define concepts, analyze arguments, compare and contrast points, give examples, apply theory to practice, test hypotheses, reflect on their learning, and sometimes recognize their natural thought processes (Moon 1999). Journals can personalize and deepen the quality of learning and also help integrate the subject matter content with previously learned material. When reflecting on their learning in journal writings, students are challenged to become increasingly self-aware. As students monitor their learning and progression, they inevitably become responsible for their own learning and skills development.

While journals have been extensively used in the arts and humanities, they are now becoming increasingly popular in mathematics and sciences as well as in professional development. Engineering students at Ohio State Univ. have used journals to develop their skills in creative and critical thinking, communication, and decision making as well as exploring learning styles and personality types (Fulwiler 1986; Zimmerman 1991). Journals can be used to acquire these skills and help students form a better understanding of the content of the course.

Agriculture and Natural Resource students at Michigan State Univ. use journals to not only enhance writing skills but also ultimately learn, apply, and communicate subject matter (Smith and others 1993). Iwaoka (1995), Iwaoka and Dong (1995), Iwaoka and others (1996), and the Univ. of Hawaii's Writing Program ( report on using journals in food science classes as a critical learning tool, as a means of reflection and cognition, and as a means of communicating with students. In their journals, students were asked to summarize and react to reading assignments and class activities, identify and articulate questions regarding material covered in class, provide feedback on the effectiveness of learning situations, and express feelings arising in the classroom. Dzurec and Dzurec (2005) report on using academic journal exercises to assess the influence of structured writing on student learning in a food science class. In all cases, writing journals appeared to increase students' understanding of the course content, help students become better critical thinkers and problem solvers, and develop their skills for more formal writing assignments. The instructor also appeared to quickly identify when students were having problems understanding concepts and new knowledge of the course.

Many internship courses also require students to keep journals to reflect on how their academic knowledge can be utilized in their field experiences (Alm 1996). With this documentation from the internship site, students are able to reflect on their learning and growth, and then use the insight gained from the experience and apply it to other situations. Journal writing not only increases the intern's or student's understanding of the subject but also enhances critical thinking and values clarification. Nursing interns are encouraged to think critically by making connections between these clinical practices and the content from the classroom (Hahnemann 1986; Callister 1993; Patton and others 1997). When using journals, nursing interns are able to explore meaningful clinical experiences while developing an ethical understanding with given situations, and thus clarifying their values (Porrier 1997).

Science-based classes are often taught by lecturing to students, a format that does not optimize the opportunity for students to discuss and practice problem solving and critical thinking skills among themselves (Barr and Tagg 1995; Iwaoka 1995; Spence 2001). Traditional lectures provide information in a way that limits student interaction with the instructor or other students because of the time factor (need to “cover the material”). If “knowledge” is to be learned, it must be used to solve a problem or provoke inquiry for it to become relevant to the learner. Creative assignments allow students to realize that there are multiple solutions to any given problem and by developing, analyzing, and justifying ideas in journal writing, they are able to challenge authority by explaining and defending their points of view. Allowing students to come to their own conclusions develops confidence in reasoning abilities that allows students to persevere and continue to critically think for themselves and to make logical decisions (Paul and Elder 2001). It is apparent that these skills do not need to be applied only to academic courses: they can also be used to work through decisions throughout life. The ability to collect, understand, and use information will prepare students for challenges faced in life and is an essential skill for becoming a lifelong learner.

Journals are “theory-based and student-owned” and develop students as thinkers, allowing them to look at knowledge in a different way. Rather than the professor being the “provider” of information, the instructor facilitates the development of critical reasoning skills by motivating students to become active, self-learners. While students are reflecting on the subject, the professor is also able to monitor the students' comprehension. Students are able to explain what led them to their conclusions and the reasoning they used to solve the problem through metacognition. Being active in their own education means that students are able to “personalize” their learning. In addition to students being able to recognize their own ideas and beliefs, they are also able to evaluate them and then decide whether or not to reconstruct these ideas. Students are able to use their own perceptions to connect theory and course content to indicate that learning has occurred (Dart and others 1998).

Since journal writing can be considered to be a skill rather than a knowledge component, then a similar format can be used in almost all food science classes. This article describes how an “experimental foods” class not only gave the students the opportunity to learn about the chemical and physical properties of foods, conduct experiments, and write reports, but also challenged them to develop cognitive skills through journal writing and reflect on personal values and visions. The personal values and visions sections were just introduced by the instructor within the last 4 y. This article also provides examples of the assignments and expectations of student journals, along with a fairly detailed rubric for grading. In addition, student feedback on the usage of journals is provided to show the impact it has had on their cognitive development, perceived learning, and reaction to personal values. The topics of these journal entries also cover several of the core competencies in the IFT Undergraduate Education Standards for Degrees in Food Science (Hartel 2001). These are basic principles of food science as well as several “Success Skills” (written communication, critical analysis, ethics, and so on).

Materials and Methods

Course description

“Experimental Foods” is offered by the Dept. of Human Nutrition, Food, and Animal Science (HNFAS) within the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) at the Univ. of Hawaii's main campus in Honolulu. Students in the class are usually majors in dietetics, human nutrition, or food science. The class meets for 1 h and 15 min twice a week and 3 h once a week for a laboratory session for 1 semester. Assignments revolve around working in groups, conducting experiments, writing up the results of experiments as a group, reading handouts on personal characteristics, and writing 2 journal entries per week. The class is designated “writing intensive” which means a minimum of 4000 words (or 16 pages) need to be written in order to meet the university's guideline for a writing intensive course ( Laboratory reports not only ensure this requirement is met but also give students experience writing up the experiment as a scientific paper, following the Journal of Food Science manuscript submission format. For this particular course, the final grade is based upon the cumulative grade from journals (15%), 2 midterm exams (20%), laboratory reports following JFS guidelines (30%), other written reports (15%), peer grades (10%), and oral presentations, attendance, and homework (10%). In other courses taught by one of the authors (WTI) where journals are required, the percent contribution of the journal grade to the final grade has been anywhere from 10% to 20%. Portions of the class syllabus (course objectives, requirements, and guidelines, expectations, and other pertinent information) are shown in Table 1.

A. Course objectives: By the end of the course, students will have
 1. learned and practiced problem-solving and critical thinking skills,
 2. learned and practiced facilitation skills while working on group projects,
 3. read and reacted to value and vision statements,
 4. practiced using the scientific method,
 5. read and analyzed scientific papers,
 6. studied the major food components and their functional properties and experimented with them in lab,
 7. modified formulations and determined effects on the quality and acceptability of the finished products,
 8. made oral presentations,
 9. wrote papers on food research data that were collected in the laboratory.
B. Course requirements
 1. Each student, as an individual or part of a group, will design and write experimental laboratory protocol, search library and scientific Internet literature for appropriate articles for each experiment, carry out food experiments, write reports, and make class presentations.
 2. Each student will (1) read and understand appropriate sections in the text and other reference materials, (2) come to class with written answers/proposals/suggestions on the assignments, (3) be prepared to share and discuss this information with group members, and (4) write journal entries and laboratory reports.
 3. Students are responsible for their own performance on take-home examinations and are responsible for all written and verbal assignments.
C. Information on attendance/participation/laboratory techniques/due dates
 1. Students are required to participate in class discussions and each scheduled laboratory. Because most of the laboratory experiments will involve group work, there will be no way for an individual to make up laboratory work. If you are not in class or the laboratory, you have not participated, and therefore you will be marked absent.
 2. Attendance will be taken 5 min after the beginning of class. If you arrive later than 5 min after the class or laboratory has started, you will be marked absent.
 3. No journals will be accepted after the due date (except under extenuating circumstances).
 4. Your laboratory work area must be clean after you have left for the day. Not doing so will result in 2% being taken off your final group report grade for each time you leave a dirty work area.
 5. All students are required to wear a lab coat, closed-toe shoes, and a hat or hairnet while in the food preparation laboratory—for health and safety reasons. No coat, shoes, or hat, no admittance to lab.
 6. All cellular phones and pagers must be turned off during class and laboratory periods. No exceptions.
D. Assignments, guidelines, expectations, and requirements
 1. Each group member must come to class prepared with type-written answers (with reference citations) to discuss the topic of the day (usually an experimental design, solution to the problem, the results of their experiment, or sensory evaluation form), and so on. Your contributions to the group will be collected at the beginning of the class period. If you need a copy for your group discussion, bring one to turn in and a copy for yourself (or your group). These will be graded as home-work assignments.
 2. There will be 2 take-home examinations during the course of the semester. There will be no final examination. Late examinations will not be accepted.
 3. Each student will be required to write two (2) journal entries per week on material relevant or related to FSHN 281. See Academic Journal Information sheet for more information.
 4. For written reports, each student will be responsible for writing 3 reports: analysis of a scientific article, sensory evaluation, and 1 detailed experimental report (with the assistance of group members). Reports must follow guidelines in Laboratory Report Guidelines.
   a. The format for the scientific paper should follow the guidelines for journal analysis.
   b. Short sensory evaluation report. Each student will write up the results of the group's sensory evaluation studies (guidelines are included with the experimental procedure).
   c. Group reports. Each student will be responsible for writing 1 group lab report and reading/critiquing 2 others.
     i. See due dates on lecture/laboratory schedule.
     ii. Each writer must make photocopies of his or her report and give a copy to each group member and to the TA.
     iii. Based on the feedback of peers and others, the student writer will then rewrite the report and submit it to the instructor for the final grade 1 wk after receiving feedback.
     iv. Comments provided by the group members and the TA along with references used must also be submitted at this time.
     v. To be certain that each team member is reading to understand the material and provide quality feedback, 35% of each student's lab report grade will be based specifically on the feedback he/she provides to the team writer (instructor will grade feedback when it is turned in by the writer).
     vi. Failure to meet the identified deadlines will result in a 10% reduction of the laboratory report grade. Final papers submitted over 1 wk past the identified deadline will not be accepted.

Requirements for and assessment of journal writing

Students are required to write 2 journal entries per week following the guidelines in the syllabus (Figure 1). One entry must report their reactions to food and food science-related activities, such as assigned readings or their group or class discussions. This entry allows students to select a significant activity, reading, experiment, or other event from the previous week and fully develop it according to the writing rubric. The 2nd journal entry must be a reaction to readings or handouts on personal characteristics, values, visions, or statements related to their education or learning. The handouts for the 2nd journal entry include topics that allow students to analyze, question, and argue about what they read. Many of the topics students wrote about on personal characteristics were selected from 2 booklets, Values and Visions and Be a Kid Again. These booklets were the required course material and were still available as of Summer 2006 from Karyn Sneath ( Some topics addressed in these booklets include the following.

  • • Caring (reaching out to others).
  • • It's time for balance (in other words, all your choices have consequences).
  • • Commitment (make the moves that matter: observe what you are doing and you will know your commitments).
  • • Fairness (hey, that's not fair).
  • • Generosity (what do you have to give?).
  • • Integrity (either you have it or you don't).
  • • Passion (we could hardly wait to get up in the morning).
  • • Trust (trust could be described as an anchor for effective relationships, as the glue that binds people together. Do you trust?).
  • • Ask why (what is holding you back from “asking why” about things that really matter in your life?).
  • • Keep trying (when were truly afraid to try something again?).
  • • Knowing when to say when (when was the last time you over-promised and under-delivered?).
  • • Keep your eye on the ball (have you tried to catch an object when you don't focus?).

Other topics dealing with a student's cognitive processes were also handed out for students to read and comment upon, such as Bloom's Taxonomy (Bloom 1956) and Perry's stages of intellectual development of students (Perry 1970). Students were asked to fully document their thoughts or opinions by agreeing, disagreeing, comparing, contrasting, questioning, or connecting this information to previously acquired information. The point was for the student to record their thought development and supporting material, and not summarize the reading assignment. The 2 journal entries were collected weekly at the 1st class meeting and returned with comments and insights from the teaching assistant (TA) and/or the faculty member within a week. If a portion of a student's journal was particularly insightful or presented a compelling case for another position, that portion of the journal was read to the rest of the class (anonymously). In this class, the journals provided a place for students to practice their writing and thinking skills without being penalized for grammatical errors. Students were able to work through concepts and ideas using their own values, judgments, and knowledge to find a solution or offer an opinion. A formative assessment was used in this class whereby students were provided feedback each week on the quality of their writing. A grading rubric (shown in Figure 2), was used for assessing the quality of the journal entries where a score of 1 to 4 was assigned to each piece of writing. A score of “4” indicated that the topic chosen was fully developed with facts, examples, reasons, opinions, feelings, statistics, and/or explanations. Students received this and other grading rubrics as part of the course syllabus. Since the 2 weekly journal entries were graded and the points tallied at the end of the semester for a final journal grade, no summative assessment was conducted. However, students were required to compile the journals, read what they wrote over the course of the semester, and write an evaluation of the journal's worth to them.

Results and Discussion

Assessment of journal writing

The assessment rubric (Figure 2) was introduced in the Fall 2003 class after a less descriptive rubric used the previous year did not provide students with sufficient criteria for fully developing their thoughts in journal entries. Prior to using assessment rubrics, there were no formal written criteria for students to use for writing entries and for the instructor to use in evaluating journals.

According to Moon (1999) assessment of journal writing can take a number of forms and “quality” journals usually contain several of the following:

  • • length,
  • • presentation and legibility,
  • • clarity and good observation in presentation of events or issues,
  • • evidence of speculation,
  • • evidence of a willingness to revise ideas,
  • • honesty and self-assessment,
  • • thoroughness of a reflection and self-awareness,
  • • depth and detail of reflective accounts,
  • • evidence of critical thinking,
  • • evidence of creative thinking,
  • • a deep approach to the subject matter of the journal,
  • • representation of different cognitive skills (synthesis, analysis, evaluation, and so on),
  • • relationship of the journal entries to any relevant coursework, theories, and so on,
  • • match of the content and outcomes of the journal work to course objectives, learning outcomes for the journal or purposes that the journal is intended to fulfill,
  • • questions that arise from the reflective processes and on which to reflect further.

While Moon (1999) also summarized assessment criteria reported by others, such as “Criteria based on Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives, Assessment based on the Structure of Learning Outcomes (SOLO) taxonomy, or a ‘framework for reflective thinking’ as an assessment tool,” many of the actual “measures” or levels for assessment in these tools were much narrower in scope. For example, in SOLO, only 5 levels were considered in describing outcomes of learning and were not as broad as those listed previously. We believe that the rubric in Figure 2 contained many of the items in the above-mentioned list and provided a good description for students to write quality journal entries such that many could obtain a score of “3” or “4.”

In the following sections, we have excerpted portions of the journal entries and attempted to sort some of them into the following categories: reaction to writing journals, comments on practicing writing and learning the course content, communication with the instructor, comments on critical thinking and problem solving, personal realizations, and unexpected learning. Granted, while some students may have written what they thought the instructor might want to hear in the evaluations, there are some comments that appear to accurately reflect the realizations/learning that occurred during the course of their writing. The last section contains some suggestions for assigning and assessing student journals. One of the unexpected consequences of journal writing was that some students began to reveal personal problems as they thought and wrote about personal growth and development. When they shared these issues in the journals, the instructor asked for a private conference with the students and referred them to the appropriate individuals (counselors at the Student Counseling Center, physician, and so on).

Student reaction to journal writing

For some students this was the 1st class in which they were required to write academic journals. Some students initially found journal writing to be either frustrating, tedious, or a waste of time. Naturally, these revelations were not expressed in journal entries at the beginning of the semester when the feelings were actually there, but in “confessions” at the middle or near the end of the semester when students began to realize the value of journals or when they evaluated the journal's “worth to them.” Many of the retrospective comments from students about writing 2 journals a week indicated 1 of 3 mindsets: optimistic but cautious, resigned but willing (because it is a requirement), or tedious and unappealing. For the optimistic but cautious, writing academic journals was something entirely new but they said they would give it a try and do the best they could. Many were used to writing diaries or journals that did not have assessment criteria. Initially, there were also some hesitation and concern about writing freely and expressing personal perspectives, and about their feelings on certain values and human behavior characteristics. Another concern that emerged was that some of the students “felt an obligation to write in a certain way; almost as if there was an unspoken pressure to write about how much they were learning and moving forward.” As one student summarized, “In short, I ended up utilizing a lot of euphemisms and writing in a very broad, generic way.”

For the resigned, students initially turned in a page without thinking too much about the writing, because 2 journals had to be turned in on Monday morning. Students said they did it just to get it done. Finally, the students who initially resented writing journals reported that they could not find any significance and merit in writing journals for an experimental foods class. However, this attitude among the latter 2 groups slowly began to change over the course of the 1st month when they continually received “1” and “2's” for their journal grades. Most students were not used to receiving consistently low scores and they were forced to make mid-semester changes in the way they were writing. Table 2 shows selected general comments by students on writing journals.

1. In the beginning of the semester, I hated turning in a journal each week; especially when I did not get a perfect score on the journal entry. When I first started to write the journals, I did not elaborate on one idea, but I made sure to talk about a lot of things and fill up at least 1 page.
2. In the 1st wk of class, I found journals to be tedious and very unappealing. To me, it was just one more thing that had to be done. However, as the weeks went by, I started to grow fonder of writing them, and on a few subjects actually looked forward to it. My attitude changed because of the feedback and positivity (sic) that I was receiving in the return comments. It began to be fun to see what the reactions would be to my writing.
3. I didn't like the idea of having to write 2 journal entries a week because I was so used to the typical college course where there was no assigned homework. How could you grade a journal entry? Journal entries are just your thoughts that are scribbled down on paper. I remember doing that most of the time. I would rush and scribble whatever came to mind just to get it done and out of the way. Of course, I got one's and two's on most of those. According to the syllabus, to score higher, you need to have substantial, specific, and/or illustrative content demonstrating strong development and fairly sophisticated ideas. I remember reading and saying, “Huh? What is that supposed to mean?” When I actually started writing them, they were not as bad as it seemed. It was actually enjoyable.
4. I must admit though that writing these journals was not easy at first. I can honestly say that I spent at least 1 h trying to organize my ideas to write a satisfactory journal that tuned out to be a journal that gave me a score of 3 or 2.5. At first, I had difficulty organizing my thoughts and supplying strong development and evidence for my thoughts. I dreaded doing these journals in the beginning of the semester because it was such a daunting task for me. However, the more and more I did it as well as the feedback I got from the instructors helped me to understand what I needed to work on and how to write a better journal entry. I am now able to write a good quality journal that supplies substantial content demonstrating strong development of my ideas and comprehension of topics.
5. As I look back now, my first journal entries were choppy. There was no voice, no personality, no beliefs, no feelings attached. The change occurred when I wrote “Keep your eye on the ball” on Sept. 15, 2003. This entry came from the heart. It reflected my philosophy of life. It shows an intellectual process. And the grade reflects the quality. Suddenly, I knew what these journal entries were about how I thought and felt about the academic process. From then the journal entries became a joy and a revelation. It was truly fun to sit down for an hour and contemplate something like whom I respected in life…It was fun writing what came from the heart.

Journal writing as a means of practicing writing, learning the course material, and communicating with the instructor/TA

Journals have not only allowed students to practice their writing skills and learn the course material to a much greater extent than without writing, but also provided students with an opportunity to communicate with the instructors (Fulwiler 1987a, 1987b; Moon 1999). Overall, it appeared that the students struggled with writing at the beginning of the semester, but as they continued to hand in 2 entries a week, writing became much easier and did not take as much time. Some commented that by having to read the handouts and assignments in greater depth because they had to write a reaction to it ultimately caused them to learn and understand the material in a different way from which they were doing it previously. Students reported that writing journal entries about different topics helped them understanding the topic to a greater degree, because, “you can't write clearly about concepts and topics that still remain fuzzy in your mind.” Through journals, the instructor was able to monitor the students' thinking processes and provide feedback so the students were made aware of their progress as well. It appeared that not grading on mechanics and grammar made a difference in what the students shared in their journal writings. It appeared easier and more comfortable for them to focus their thoughts on developing and supporting their statements with examples, facts, and ideas rather than worrying about the mechanics of writing (see comments in Table 3). Kirby (1997) also found this to be true and reported that students appeared to feel comfortable with the relaxed structure of the journals, which gave them a chance to creatively expand their thinking without the fear of being penalized for bad grammar. This was shown to be effective for students who do not speak English as their 1st language. One student writes, “…less attention on the mechanics of writing made me feel comfortable and rather expressive. At the end of the semester I found I needed less time to complete a journal … .”Elbow (1981) and Smith and others (1993) also reported that journals were shown to be effective in developing power behind student writing, allowing them to communicate their points and ideas more effectively. Other researchers (Grumet 1990; Holly 1991) have also reported that students can grow as both writers and thinkers, allowing them to record their own ideas and perceptions and then learn from their own formulated knowledge. The other factor that appeared to make a difference to students in what they wrote about was mostly positive feedback and nonjudgmental comments on the position they took, their ideas, and assumptions they made. When there was disagreement with a student's position, we always tried to acknowledge their position and then would state ours.

1. Writing journal entries was a good way for me to communicate to the professor any problems or concerns I had throughout the semester, such as feeling uneasy about my lab reports, or having difficulties with my group members. I actually enjoyed looking back at my journal entries written throughout the semester.
2. It was nice to have a place where I could write my feelings on different issues without being apprehensive for being judged and criticized. In these journals, it was actually encouraged to be open about differing opinions and views. That is not always the case when doing activities such as this for class. Oftentimes, I feel that I have to be careful and watch my words in such assignments. I was slightly hesitant in my first few entries, but as the class went on I felt more comfortable voicing my ideas. This can be seen especially in my openness about why I did not finish the 2nd midterm. That was actually a very hard journal for me to write, but not “hard” in the sense of “difficulty” but just hard for me to be open about to my teacher.
3. Sometimes, I would sit in front of the computer wondering what I should write. This was because I was not thinking and reflecting on what had happened in class and in lab. I would know that facts, what we did and what kind of outcomes we had, but I was not thinking in depth to find out the causes behind it. Therefore, writing the journals make me not only digest what I have been learning in class, but also my way of thinking and my ability of organizing ideas. I realized how important to stop a moment and reflect on the learning process that took place. I sometimes become too focused on completing the tasks. Therefore, taking some time to think and write my journals help me understand better of what I learned and what I need to prepare for the coming lab and class.
4. The most valuable lessons learned from writing these journals was my learning how to think about what I learned in class, from others, in books, and myself. I learned to not passively agree with everything, but must actively make decisions. These skills have been useful to me in my other classes and in everyday life. I now can see things differently instead of from only one angle. I try to be more open in what others think and feel and try to understand things before I make a decision or exert my thoughts and opinions.
5. I also found these journals helpful because they helped me understand class material a little more thoroughly. Rather than writing reactions on certain topics, I was writing about problems and confusion I encountered in this class. Also, theories and the basic concepts of food was becoming a lot more clear to me so I had a better understanding of the material. I could now give my own ideas and suggestions with evidence to support them.
6. All of the journals reflected my opinions of each of the subjects discussed in this class. By writing them (journals) after each class period, I learned to think more about what happened in class. Also, a lot of ideas and questions came to mind that you wouldn't have thought about if you hadn't written about the subject.

Journal writing as a process to develop and practice thinking about the content

Another purpose of using journals in this class was to have students practice thinking critically about the subject matter. By requiring students to provide “substantial, specific, or illustrative content demonstrating strong development and fairly sophisticated ideas,” they were literally forced to fully develop the content of their chosen topic to ascertain that their writing fit the description of a quality journal entry. Students claimed (see excerpts in Table 4) that they developed and improved their thinking skills over the course of the semester, yet it was difficult to substantiate whether this was true or not. However, the guidelines in the rubric were written in such a way that if students successfully fulfill the requirements, this would result in students thinking in a way that satisfied 2 common definitions of critical thinking (CT), as selected by food science faculty in survey conducted by Britten and Iwaoka (1999). The 2 definitions that received the majority of “votes” were “Critical thinking is an on-going process of seeking and analyzing an array of information to create a better understanding and more effective problem-solving and decision-making for complex issues” (Paul 1995) and “Critical thinking is the intentional application of rational, higher order thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis, problem recognition and problem solving, inference, and evaluation" (Angelo 1995).

1. Before taking this course, I never was so hung up on thing to consciously evaluate myself on the way I think about things. I feel that I have become a lot more critical on my critical thinking, if that makes any sense. It's like I have to think before I think, to make sure that my thinking is good enough in the first place. The big drawback to that is that I tend to get into a panic zone when I do that, which freezes up my brain. So, when I find myself being too critical on myself, I try to force myself to loosen up.
2. Believe it or not, I have gained critical thinking skills. I notice it in when I communicate. I do not always take things at face value anymore; rather I start thinking about the process and ask myself if what I just heard was clear. If not, I ask for a clarification; whereas, before I wouldn't have even bothered to do so. Yea! It does make me feel good that I am improving myself.
3. At the end of the journal writing, I was able to find discrepancies and ambiguities instead of simply recording my thought and feelings. I was able to think deeper about why things are not always so black and white, right or wrong.
4. One of the beneficial results of writing journals was that it forced me to slow down my thoughts so that I became very aware of what I was writing. This allowed me to think about how I felt, causing me to not jump to conclusions as fast as I usually do. I tend to form my opinion before I get all the facts or before looking at the situation from other perspectives. I hope that I will get into the habit of becoming a better listener and observer. My mind likes to work quickly in an effort for efficiency, but instead results are counter productive. Instead of truly listening to a point being made, I use that time to think about my own opinions. I miss the point of the person and my decisions fail to benefit from the other person's perspective. Writing may not be the same as having a conversation because I deal only with my thoughts, but it has helped me to stall my conclusions. Far from the end, but at least a start.
5. Reading through all of the entries starting from the beginning of the semester helped me see that I had really changed in the way I looked at things. I noticed that in the beginning of the semester, my writing was mostly summarizing events, class discussions, and laboratory experiments. However, as the semester progressed, it sees as though I started to look at things more critically. Instead of just looking at something and describing it, I looked at it, thought abut why it might be that way, and what might be done to fix or improve it., and what the result might be. In the last journal entry, I even started to look at my own life more critically.

The journals provided an opportunity for students to connect theory learned from course content with practical issues and their own ideas ( Practicing to connect theory with practical issues is an important learning tool that will help students advance in their fields and careers. Knowing how to function in a job setting by using information gained from the classroom is essential for success (Alm 1996). Knowing how to form ideas or values, and work through problems will prepare students for the challenges in life and help them learn from their experiences and become lifelong learners. One student writes,

“I was able to start with something known and analyze it to develop my own thoughts and then use these newly developed ideas in my own life and finally reflect on it and assess the growth that has occurred…Knowing that intellectual growth is an endless cycle that we constantly are finding ourselves reentering, reassures me that the unknown should not be feared but should drive me in to making it known.”

By analyzing the problems and applying their own set of values and skills for critical thinking, students were able to work through the given problems (Dart and others 1998). This form of writing created a sense of “individualization” among the students, allowing them to gain knowledge through their own learning.

Unexpected results from journal writing and personal growth

Through critical thinking, students appeared to have become more equipped to be problem solvers—by working through and reflecting on certain problems in their journals that pertained not only with the course content but also other personal issues that the students were faced with ( The various reading materials in Values and Visions (like minded people 1999) caused students to search what was in their subconscious minds and they often brought it to the conscious level and critically analyzed and personalized it. Like the nursing interns (Hahneman 1986; Callister 1993; Patton and others 1997), students were able to critically think about various issues that not only dealt with their studies but also personal beliefs and values. Through their experiences and the analysis of these events, students were able to form their own set of values. By clarifying these values, students now have a stronger sense of self and understanding of their learning and personality styles, which will aid in future decisions (Fulwiler 1986; Zimmerman 1991). One student commented, “This growth is important because it is individualized and personal. I don't believe a person can grow without doing anything on their own.” See Table 4 for more comments about personal growth and development.

Through the documentation of journal entries students were able to see their progression in thought development and hopefully, in cognitive growth. This can then be applied to other work and personal situations throughout life allowing for continuous development (Alm 1996). One student wrote, “…it was the reflection of those experiences in the journals that allowed me to grow…without journaling and developing my thinking I would have not ever learned from my experiences.” The student also wrote,

“The uncertainty that comes with entering any new situation also comes with an opportunity to advance from it. Through labs, group work, and other interesting situations a learning experience was always waiting. Catching it and learning from it, alleviates any uncertainty. Through subsequent journals, one can see the unknown being challenged and explored until it becomes known and inevitably functional. I was able to apply the lesson learned to other situations in my life…I was actually able to use something I had learned and developed on my own. Thankfully, with the documentation of the journals I am able to reflect on the growth and progress made.”

These documentations of experiences and reflections allowed students to understand the given event and also allowed them to witness their growth from what they have learned. Having this understanding allowed students to continue to reflect on situations, giving them the opportunity to continue to grow from each experience. Once realizing that they are able to solve their own problems and come to their conclusions, confidence is gained, as reported by Paul and Elder (2001). For example, one student wrote,

“Now that I have more confidence in my cognitive processes and abilities, I am able to face uncertainty without fear (or at least less fear). I trust myself to make thought-out decisions, and know that I can find a way to better the situation if I critically think it through and keep open to different possibilities. With my newfound confidence, I can now make a commitment to myself. I don't have to act on primal instinct, someone else's plan of action or any superficial idea. I know I have a solid background in thinking and understanding and my practices have proven it. I now know I have more power to control the outcomes in my life through keeping open to possibilities and critically accessing them and then determining the appropriate action. Knowing that with each situation is a chance to grow.”

With this confidence students appeared to feel comfortable thinking for themselves and, hopefully, be able to grow into competent individuals with logical decision-making skills. This confidence is the foundation needed for the development of students' critical thinking skills and values clarifications (Porrier 1997). Table 5 shows excerpts from various students commenting about their personal growth.

1. It is seldom that a class can teach you more than what is found in a textbook. It seems that textbooks today just presents the students with facts, and the class simply tests how well you are able to memorize material. After each class passes you by the only thing you “learn” is how to memorize things better… the minute the test is over, the content of the class slips out of memory and only a few bits of information hang around. FSHN 281 was a very different class for me. This class has allowed me to learn about myself. This is more than I could have ever expected from a class. I have documented this semester of learning through a compilation of journals. When I look back at all the journals, what enlightens me is the fact that I have learned something about myself in each and every journal. I think that the biggest lesson that I have learned through journals is the results are a product of the amount of effort you put in and that it is up to the individual to put in the effort required to produce the desired result. Throughout the semester I have learned about group dynamics. In the journal entitled “let's go to the bash,” I remarked on how our group may not be getting along. Eventually, I decided that I would have to make an effort to change myself (since I can't change other people) so that the desired result of group cohesion could take place. I think that all classes should require journals so that an individual stays in touch with himself or herself. It teaches people lessons that you can't learn in the classroom, it's the lesson of knowing yourself.
2. These journals were like therapy and forced you to take time out and think about yourself and how you're growing and changing. It's almost like an early midlife crisis just in time to make changes before the rest of your life passes you by. I'm appreciative of the chance to think about things other than academics. It's a nice break to reflect on things that will last longer than facts. The things you learn about yourself will stay with you forever and you can change yourself hopefully for the better.
3. At first, I admit I did not pay much attention to the handouts that were given. I skimmed over them, not thinking about how I could apply it to my own learning and progress. It was the handout on the General Learner Outcome that really got me to reflect on how an article written for any reader could have been so perfectly written for me personally. This article helped me make sense of the frustrations I felt at the time toward my parents. It makes me stop and think about where my anger should be directed and that I alone am responsible for my learning.
4. Similar to the course objectives where food was not always the topic at hand, my journals often strayed to topics closer to heart rather than discussing what went on in that week's lab. Looking back through my journals, I realize that it is not a collection of class events, but a reflection of my growth and insight of this past semester. I can see the changes that I made to become a better student, daughter, sister, girlfriend, friend, and employee as the semester progressed.
5. I want to end on a quote that is at the end of Hardwiring Guide. “When you blame others you give up the power to change.” By accepting my reactions as my personal responsibility I am given the power to learn, change, and grow. I can now, hopefully, overcome my emotionally driven reactions when faced with certain events, and think thoroughly through it, and come to a more pleasant conclusion.

Evaluation of journal worth to students

At the conclusion of the semester, the last requirement for the journal assignment was for the student to write an evaluation of the worth of writing journals. Because students were allowed to say whatever was on their minds throughout the semester (and substantiate the point with examples, and so on), we felt that what they wrote in the evaluation was what they actually believed, rather than what the instructor wanted to hear. Table 6 shows example excerpts about what the students felt compelled to write about the worth of writing 20 plus journal entries for the semester.

1. Now that all of the journals have been completed with comments from the instructors and TA's, I can now see that although the journals took some of my time every week (it is a writing intensive course), I only benefited from the thoughts, and reflections that it allowed me to express as well as the valuable and constructive feedback that was given. Reading through the journals again, I have realized that this class has taught me a lot about others as well as about myself and my personal growth. In my mind, I have always known myself to have certain characteristic traits that show or reflect my personality, but I do not always know how they are reflected to others. Through the journals and the class itself, it has made me become more aware of others (their feelings, ideas, creativity, knowledge, outlook) and how I am seen or perceived in other people's “eyes.”
2. As I had predicted these journal entries have been a major stressor in my life this semester. I realize that only one page per topic need be submitted by my writers block just won't subside. However, I found these papers to help open me up and realize some things about myself, even though I did not share these thoughts in writing. I am a rather private person and some things are just no one else's business. A reoccurring comment throughout my entries is that I need to elaborate, give examples, and more supporting sentences. I agree. I know this my problem. It always has been. It takes me hours to fill a whole page. I feel like I am saying the same thing over and over again.
3. Never in a thousand years would I have expected to appreciate and actually enjoy a writing assignment. These academic weekly journals have benefited my learning more than I could have imagined. It helps me reflect on the daily events in class and realize many facets to my work. From the initial difficulties to lessons learned from each class experience, these journals have brought to my attention many realizations.
4. Overall, I feel that the time that was put into creating this academic journal is worth a lot. At times I may have felt frustrated writing journal entries and forgot the purpose of the assignment, however, without realizing it, I have actually gained some experience from this. Writing journal entries on a weekly basis really challenged my level of critical thinking skills. It forced me to analyze the main topic of each journal entry and explore my ideas, thoughts, concepts, and so on. for that journal topic. It forced me to practice on improving my level of thinking to higher scale and work on problem solving techniques.
5. Of course, group work gave me endless opportunities for conflict resolution and problem solving. Writing about these situations helped me see them more clearly, since I was not in the “heat of combat” when writing. Simply putting the situation down on paper helped me see things I did not notice while it was occurring, such as the possibility that I was too impatient with [group member's name], taking myself way too seriously, and not having much fun in the beginning. Looking at what you have written makes you think more deeply about what it is you are trying to say, you cannot just rattle off some inanity off the top of your head.
6. “Near the end of the semester I began talking to a fellow classmate about FSHN 281 and the Fall, 2003 semester. Both of us mentioned how we had struggled, though our class loads seem to be lighter. For some reason the conversation progressed to journal entries. We each had an enlightening moment when we realized that the process of writing the journal had stirred the pot. Both of us were dealing with emotions caused by spending time thinking about values, visions, hopes, and dreams. While she spent the semester struggling with who she wants to be, my search was more about relationships and who I do not want to become. These are difficult questions. Contemplation of such makes one grow intellectually. As the semester closes I have been missing writing weekly entries. Maybe writing my thoughts will become a life long pursuit.”

Insights on obtaining quality journal assignments

Academic journal assignments have been required in all of my (Iwaoka's) food science classes for over the past 15 y (Iwaoka 1995; Iwaoka and Dong 1995; Iwaoka and others 1996). The guidelines have been continuously modified (for example, see simpler guidelines in an upper level food chemistry class in and grading rubrics were introduced in 2002. In communicating with other faculty who required academic journals in their classes in a number of different disciplines, many of them stated that their student journals were unreflective, hastily done, and were generally of poor quality. Faculty felt that journal writing was often a “waste of time” for them and their students. When inquiring further about the requirements for journal assignments, it appeared that most faculty required weekly journal entries but the entries were collected anywhere from 3 to 6 times during the semester. This meant that the instructor was inundated with several journal entries per student each time the assignment was collected. It is not difficult to see that the quality of the feedback on each journal would be limited because of sheer numbers, and any relevant comments might be too little and too late, especially if the student wrote about a concern that occurred 3 wk ago.

On the other hand, we found that students continually produce quality entries when journals were collected weekly, commented upon, graded, and returned within a week. Furthermore, when a grade was lower than what the student had expected, he or she could always be referred to the rubric to point out what was deficient in the writing. Although it seemed that journal assignments were tedious and time consuming for both faculty and students, it actually also turned out to be one of the most worthwhile learning activities for them. Depending on the nature of the journal assignment, it required that the student learn, use, and practice multiple cognitive skills. Students must reflect on classroom learning, read to understand reference and other material, clarify and understand what went on in the experiment, or take a stand or express an opinion on various value statements. The following are comments (from journal writers, TAs, and the instructor) that appear to keep students interested in writing quality journal entries.

Recommendations for grading journal entries

  • 1For the most part, but especially at the beginning, faculty and TA comments need to be positive and encouraging, even if the writing is not anywhere near where you think they should be at this stage in their education. Grades are given on the first 2 assignments (to show students what those entries were “worth”) but the grades were not recorded or counted in the final journal grade. Several students mentioned that they enjoyed and looked forward to reading comments made by the TA and the instructor.
  • 2Each journal entry needs to be graded according to criteria known to students, the TAs, and the instructor. If there is no grade, students will write anything that is halfway related to the topic just so that they have something to turn in. If there are no criteria, students are left to guess what quality level is expected of them, and accusations of unfairness or favoritism are likely to arise when a student's journal grade is lower than a peer's.
  • 3Journals should be collected and commented upon each week, while the material, complaint, opinion, substantiation, or question is still fresh in the mind of the student. Whereas making weekly comments on each journal entry is tedious work, it is what makes a difference in what the student gets out of journal writing. Collecting and commenting intermittently on weekly journal entries throughout the semester will not encourage quality journal entries because there is no regular feedback.
  • 4Assign reading material that will benefit students on a personal and professional level. Students noticed that less than satisfactory comments were received from the instructor on topics that the students either did not enjoy writing about or did not have any thoughts or ideas on the subject. We noted how many students felt “they gained a lot from the course” because the topics benefited them personally, and not how much they learned about the technical knowledge.
  • 5Journal assignments can be fairly rigorous and demanding, and students will usually meet expectations if the relative grade for journal entries is proportional to the work that they put in. For example, if the total journal grade contributed only to a small portion of the total course grade, then quality and commitment will be poor.
  • 6The instructor cannot give up early on or modify assignment if students are disgruntled or express dissatisfaction at the amount of writing. The instructor must put in time on providing feedback. At the beginning, there needs to be considerably more encouragement than criticism as they learn to express themselves and provide evidence of their statements or try to substantiate their statements.
Christopher Jackson, TRC Graduate Student Associate, Department of English

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[W]e seldom tell [students] what thinking means; we seldom tell them it is just putting this and that together; it is just saying one thing in terms of another. To tell them is to set their feet on the first rung of a ladder the top of which sticks through the sky.
— Robert Frost

Many teachers recognize the value of informal, reflective engagement with a topic. Such engagement can be a source of pleasure, insight, and authentic personal growth. Yet it has often seemed to me that our students receive little guidance in what it means to put “this and that together,” to think reflectively, independently—even playfully—about their course subjects. How can we foster this reflective engagement in our students, and help them become more personally invested in their education?

To address these challenges, I now ask my students to keep a course reading journal. What is a reading journal? More reflective than a lecture notebook, a journal is a place where students can record their efforts to engage and come to terms with a course, without worrying unduly about being evaluated (though I touch on the question of evaluation below). Calling for informal, expressive writing, journals allow students to explore ideas, pursue insights, tap undiscovered interests, and experiment with unfamiliar perspectives with a freedom rarely possible in papers and exams. Moreover, journals allow students to register subjective preferences and inherited assumptions, making them available for scrutiny and revision. Above all, journals can help students develop a regular practice of listening attentively to their own thinking in a course.

There are many ways to build a journal assignment into a course. Some teachers ask students to manage their journals independently; others prefer to monitor student journals very closely. Journals can be focused exclusively on the course subject, or they can incorporate students’ extracurricular experiences. I have found that some combination of these options works best. In my classes, I ask my students to write three full-page entries a week on any aspect of the week’s readings, discussions, or lectures that interests them—a character, passage, theme, and so on. In addition, to suggest the possibility of resonances between our course and other parts of their lives, I invite students to connect our course to other classes, current events, and experiences beyond academics. The guiding rule is only this-that each entry should be anchored in a serious consideration of the readings.

To complement this semester-long assignment, and to encourage students to stay actively engaged in their journal writing, I make the journals a platform for a variety of short reflective exercises. Here are some activities teachers might try:

  • Start a discussion by asking volunteers to read pertinent entries from their journals to the class.
  • Have students write for five minutes to start a class discussion. In-class writing on a specific question can focus students’ attention and give each student time to formulate substantive thoughts.
  • Have students write in-class entries to summarize a discussion or lecture, respond to a classroom activity (a film or presentation), or generate questions for further exploration.
  • Assign take-home journal topics designed to help students synthesize difficult material or grapple with the larger implications of an idea or text.
  • Have students exchange and respond to selected journal entries. Students will see that the same material can be approached in illuminatingly diverse ways.
  • Towards the end of a semester, ask students to read their journals and write entries reflecting on the development of their thinking and knowledge.

Assignments like these—they can be easily adapted to courses in many disciplines—can have valuable pedagogical benefits. By writing consistently (both in and out of class) to formulate responses to their course’s materials, students can discover what they think and learn to become invested in their own ideas. Students also come to class prepared to contribute richly and substantively to discussions. Equally important, consistent journal writing throughout a semester helps students immerse themselves in a course and equips them to make increasingly complex insights and connections. An additional benefit is that journals offer teachers a privileged view of their students’ interests, difficulties, and intellectual energies, which might otherwise remain hidden. Thus the journals can form the basis for meaningful intellectual exchange between student and teacher.

Because reading journals are documents of intellectual exploration, the notion of evaluating them can be daunting: to grade reflective writing can seem contradictory. But journals are more likely to succeed if students know their writing “counts” in some way, and there are ways to evaluate journals without compromising genuine student reflection. Teachers can grade journals on a pass/fail basis, passing all journals that meet basic requirements. Teachers can grade journals according to the quantity of writing they contain. Instructors inclined to evaluate the content of journals can reward exceptionally vital journals without penalizing merely adequate ones. In my classes, journals contribute to a student’s participation grade; but journals may also be allotted their own percentage of a final grade. I collect the journals three times a semester and read three or four entries, spot-checking the rest. I then write brief comments offering praise, responses to students’ ideas, and suggestions for how students can make their journal writing more rewarding. In order to be genuine vehicles of reflection, journals should not damage a student’s grade—as long as the student does his or her best and is conscientious in fulfilling the assignment. Teachers can be more critical of content when evaluating more formal work—such as papers and exams. My rule of thumb is that students who fulfill the basic requirements of the journal assignment earn high marks. But most students do much more than the basic minimum.

Indeed, I have found that students welcome the freedom of independent reflection and engagement that journals provide. In conversations and in course evaluations, my students express surprise and satisfaction that their journal writing gave them a firmer, more individual grasp of their experience of a course. A former comparative literature student wrote, “To explain how much [the] reading journals benefited me [. . .] I will say this: I still have and often read through my journal from last fall.” Students find that their journals aid them in claiming ownership of a course.

By encouraging students to explore and write about their class materials, a well organized journal assignment can enrich almost any course. It may also do more. Habits of attention, imagination, and reflection do not come naturally. They must be learned. In requiring regular, independent engagement with a course’s subject matter, reading journals can help students begin to acquire these habits.

NOTE: Teachers interested in using reading journals in their classes may find these resources helpful, as I have: Robert Boice, Advice for New Faculty Members: Nihil Nimus (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000) 103-202; Peter Elbow, Writing Without Teachers (New York: Oxford UP, 1973); Toby Fulwiler, Teaching with Writing (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1986) 15-34.