Online Journaling for Better Learning — and Teaching

Community Contributor


nline journaling is a tool I’ve just begun to use that brings together the best of instructional methods and technology into one easy-to-implement classroom practice. The emphasis here is on the word easy.  In this activity, I've incorporated Google Docs, Canvas Assignments, Rubrics, and Speedgrader for maximum efficiency, rapid feedback, and an ongoing influence on my decisions as a teacher.

Both students and teachers gain multiple benefits from online journaling. For one, journaling provides an excellent activity for student self-reflection. It compels learners to stop and look around — to see the forest rather than just the next few trees in front of them — such an important habit to encourage in their busy lives.

Second, online journaling is a great way for teachers to keep a finger on the pulse of their students. Reading student journals can reveal what learners understand — or don’t — what they’re feeling, and their thinking about a particular topic or aspect of their work. The practice of consistent journaling yields significant understanding and consistent connections between teacher and student with relatively little effort. And the benefits are enormous.

This year, for example, I asked my high school seniors to keep a weekly course journal in “Sustainable Futures” an interdisciplinary natural science-social science elective. The specific content requirements vary from week to week, depending on our work, but I often ask them to discuss what they learned, what went well, what could have gone better, and what they’re interested in doing next. These questions provoke thoughtfulness; and the scoring criteria (evaluated with a Canvas rubric!), encourages clear, thoughtful writing.

In a recent week, students reflected upon a peer-reviewed presentation activity. I was curious if they found it stressful to be evaluated, and/or to evaluate others. (And by the way, Canvas's Peer Review function is a great tool for this purpose!) For the student, journaling about this experience allowed them to reflect —and thus think — about their own strengths and weaknesses as presenters. This resulted in students discussing what they would work on next to improve their own presentations. That, in turn, gave me the opportunity to commend students’ for their insights in my comments underscoring their thinking and resolve to do better.

“So glad the peer review process worked for YOU as well as the group you reviewed,” I commented to one student. “That evaluating others helped you realize how to improve your presentation is a benefit I didn’t anticipate; wonderful that you made that connection!”

Aside from the pleasure of receiving a compliment, feedback like this reveals to students my thinking about my work, just as their writing reveals theirs. There's no wizard behind the curtain; it's our collective efforts that make the magic happen! It has been heart warming to see this mutual sharing of thoughts and feelings chip away at the wall between learner and teacher, and makes each of us more human as a result. Student journaling combined with personalized teacher feedback builds relationships, the oft-neglected key to learning for so many of our struggling students.

In this instance of journaling about the peer review process, students also gained more familiarity with the presentation scoring rubric, and the expectations it represents. Those jumbles of text cells make sense only when we apply them, or see them applied to our own work. In fact, several students commented that they planned to revise their own work after noting the same deficiencies or strengths in others’ work.

Other students shared thoughts and feelings about which I might have never known. One student noted that practicing in front of others “was a challenge … this week, since I get very nervous about public speaking, and because of that tend to speak too fast, fidget, stumble over my words.”  He went on to say, however, that because the rehearsal went well, he “felt much more confident going into the official presentation next week.”  That feedback convinced me that the extra class day dedicated to rehearsal is a practice well worth continuing in the future.

Of course, one difficulty with journals is, well, reading them! Fortunately, there are some simple tech tools that make it easier for students to write and submit, and teachers to “collect” and score — without a physical back and forth exchange of notebooks. Google Docs provides one part of the solution. My students share one “Journal” Google doc with me at the start of the course. Once shared, that Google Doc can be reexamined each week for new entries.

I direct students to type each week’s entry at the top of the Google document. That way I don’t have to scroll down to find the most recent entry. A clear and accurate date heading is key too.

There are several Canvas tools that make it easier to locate, assess, score, and comment on these journals. I have students submit their work as a file upload to a Canvas Assignment. No more searching through "shared" Google Docs. It's right there in my course. To make assessment easier, I post this weekly 10-point "journal entry" Assignment with a scoring rubric that assesses content breadth and depth; thoughtfulness; and writing quality. I click through each student’s work, reading, scoring it using the Canvas rubric, and typing a comment or two. In no time, I’ve read, commented, and scored every student’s entry. Done!

There are many other benefits to this system:

  1. All work is typed (no handwriting to decipher!)
  2. No need to collect, carry home, or return bulky notebooks.
  3. Score and record grades using a Canvas rubric.
  4. Comment directly on students’ work using the Crocodoc comment feature, or on the rubric, or easiest of all: on the assignment submission.

Most importantly, I get an insight into each student’s thinking, feedback on our course, and ideas about next steps, every week.  The ongoing nature of online journaling provides a rich, ongoing feedback loop between teacher and learner. The informal nature of journal-style writing makes it seem a "low-stakes" and "easy" task for students, while the technology provides rapid, ongoing, two-way feedback: an essential key to improved student learning.

Have you assigned student journals in Canvas? Please share your thoughts, tips, and ideas!