Learning journals: A bench along the path.

Well designed gardens include pathways that are both inviting and offer places for rest and reflection. When designing a pathway through the garden we might add a bench in a tucked away corner or a reflection ball to pull the visitor deeper in.

The design of a learning pathway is really no different if we hope to invite and nurture reflection for learners. A year ago I was not an overly reflective learner myself. A year later however, I crave blogging, as I would a run or a good book. Reflection provides time and opportunity to clear out brain debris, reorganize, synthesize and seek inspiration. The real appeal of blogging for me has been the chance to step out of my practice and view it from the outside. I am not sure if this makes sense to you, but when I explained this to fellow Biology teacher Amy Nickel she agreed (and if Amy agrees it must be true!). For me (and probably you) teaching is a personal activity and most of the time I am too immersed in the act of doing it to see clearly what it is I am doing.

Deep meaningful reflection has become one of my most favoured and used tools in my personal learning tool box. I wanted to offer learners the same opportunities as they make their journey.

When first offering students opportunities for reflection I considered the following:

1. Private or public?

2. Digital or paper?

3. Audience?

4. Format?

I decided on inexpensive (35 cents), portable, paper learning journals that are written during class time, and are read only by me. I provided general prompts at the start, later in semester I encouraged them to write holistically in a stream of consciousness. Early in the semester I prompted everyone to take part in journal writing to get the habit going and to provide some quiet reflective time within the day. As the semester progressed I let students decide for themselves if it was meaningful for them to continue (last year I insisted, but last semester I wondered why insist?). Some students seemed to take to it immediately, some seemed to just enjoy the chance to take time out of their day to be quiet (which I think is valid) and some were frustrated by the process.

Simple, inexpensive and portable. Personalized with a $ Store nameplate sticker!


1. Convenient – Journals in class made it hassle free.

2. Inexpensive.

3. Private – Students shared personal information that they might not have otherwise.

4. Low tech – Not dependent on tech or internet connection.

5. Personal – I enjoy reading and responding to students in writing (feels personal for me).

6. Timely feedback – Provided insight as to what was going well and where students were struggling.

7. Evidence for me to change – Provided me with concrete evidence that students can very accurately self access and can make concrete plans to remediate.

8. Connection – Students love to read my comments.

9. Stress free – No strings attached (ie not for marks) so enjoyable for all.


1. Lack of authenticity for some – Not authentic and/or meaningful for all students.

2. Limited audience – Read by me alone.

3. Limited creativity – Paper not digital.

4. Negative reactions – “Why do we have to do this in Biology class?” Difficult to get to the deeper power of reflection in such a short time.

5. Limited function – Found that by mid-semester that we had tapped out on the big insights (personal and class related).

Next semester I am planning/hoping to change things up. I am thinking about going digital; expanding the audience and function of the reflection.

What have you tried in your classroom? What worked well for you and your students?

Would love to hear!

8 thoughts on “Learning journals: A bench along the path.

  1. I started keeping a journal with me at about the same time I started blogging. It’s my version of an interactive student notebook like I use with my students. I keep a table of contents. I keep all kinds of stuff: quotes, notes on books, faculty meeting notes, ideas for blog posts, etc.

    I also use a modified Cornell Notes format. Anything that’s not my intellectual property goes on the right hand page. All of my thoughts, reflections and summaries go on the left hand page. It works for me.

    Even with a public blog, I like the personal notebook. You might encourage the students to think of the paper notebook as a “1st draft” and publish their thoughts after reflection. I truly believe that writing promotes and requires critical thinking.

    Good luck!

    • Thanks for the insight Gary and the support on what I am drawn to. I too keep a a paper/pen notebook for all “my stuff”, I love it and could not live without it and completely agree; I feel a different connection with writing, it pulls on a different part of my brain. Do you think it is the same for our students? Will have to ask them. I really like the idea of the rough draft, perhaps get feedback, share what needs to be private before going to the public digital version.
      Appreciate the insight and feedback!


  2. I think the self reflection process is incredibly important step in learning. It’s a step that, until recently, I haven’t taken very seriously. I’ve heard about it many times and people have expressed its importance to me but I didn’t “buy-in” until actually doing it myself. My first impression after reading your blog (which was awesome!!) was about the format of self reflection. My format may not be the same as yours but the value in self reflecting, I believe, is the still the same. Maybe for our students, we need to find a way for them to “buy-in” to the process of self reflecting by offering multiple formats. In my experience students don’t like to initially write something down and would rather express their ideas in a different way (as we’ve seen so many times with white-boarding). The format for self-reflecting isn’t just written; it could be a drawing, a discussion, a mindmap…but, more importantly, the self reflection process is still the same. We all need a way to step back from our work and reflect on it…how we do that is unique as each of us and asking each person to only write about it is going to automatically turn some people away.
    Also, in regards to asking students to take their reflections public….I think that may be a very daunting task for some students. When I first decided to write a public blog it was incredibly scary and it still freaks me out to write publicly about my work – I couldn’t imagine how I would have felt if you had asked me to do that as a teenager. I agree that it does ramp up the importance and maximize the audience but it the fear of writing publicly may hold some students back. Maybe make it optional or a graduated process??

    • Hey Amy,
      Why I am so lucky to work with you is you take my thinking and polish it up all nice and spiffy 🙂 So what I am hearing is 1) Buy in first by way of offering choice of format (not just written, which a solid point that I had not really considered) and 2) Make audience level optional and have a way to graduate the process over a period of time.
      What if students had one learning journal for all their courses, wouldn’t that be nice hey? Then it would become normalized a lot faster and become something they do on a regular basis. The learning journal could be a jumping off point, idea collector (and maybe their phones could be part of this?) for their portfolios. Hmmmm, it has got me thinking. But I am sure, as it sounds you are as well, on the value of this reflective process as a key part of the learning cycle.

      See you soon!

  3. I’ve been using blogs for my student’s learning journals. They were semi-private, so that they could see each other’s reflections, but no one outside our class could read them. However, I like your low-tech approach which also means that students can access them at any time, and the increased privacy.

    I suppose the problem with requiring the journals, or making them public is that they can end up writing for others not for themselves – writing what they think you want them to write.

    However, when I consider my own reflective practice I’ve discovered I am much more reflective when I blog than when I privately journal. I do both, but I prefer to blog for reflection because it forces me to make more sense of my thoughts. When I journal, I tend to ramble, but because of the public nature of the blog, I’m forced to read back through and determine what exactly it is I’m trying to say. This ends up clarifying things for me and helps me learn and move out of whatever rut I’ve gotten myself into.

    That said, I don’t know that I should impose this preference on my students.

    Thanks for this great post! You’ve really started me thinking. Oh, and I love the analogy of the garden seat.

    • Hi Corinne, Hurrah more useful insight into reflection and into blogging. I completely agree, my own private journals are messy, unfinished ramblings, whereas a blog post stretches the reflection to a polish, I make the extra effort to make sense, to be clear, to say what I is most important at the time. Maybe both types of reflection, are vital and key to deep reflection? Then at the end of that day I have started to think that although my student journals were low tech and easy to use that perhaps they were designed to serve more of my agenda than to let students explore reflection in their own way. Then finally it comes down to the limited time we have together, to establish meaningful patterns that students develop consistently over the years.
      Great considerations and it has got me thinking more about how I would like to grow this with my students,
      thanks for sharing with me,

  4. Back in my high school physics class my teacher had us do a weekly journal. Original purpose: write about our ‘physics’ experiences. Quickly it turned into a place where I was able to journal about anything. He would reply, and most of us truly valued the experience. I don’t remember too much about the day to day if the class, but I still have my journals … 20 years later. My point: I LOVE that you are doing this! I’m hoping to incorporate more reflection into my classes – feeling like that is the missing piece. Good luck next semester on the journey! 🙂

    • See hearing is a story like that is exactly what inspires me! In never, ever got a chance to express my voice anywhere at school (besides all the 100’s of notes I wrote) and when I look back I wish I had. How nice that you have the journals still, what a gift that teacher gave to you. Which pulls me back to my original instinct, which is that I like paper journals… humph!! I guess at the end of the day there is no ONE right way to reflect.
      Thanks for sharing Lindsay this journey with me both here and out there too 🙂

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