Learning journals and reflective writing - what I've learned so far...

I'm a few months into the process of thinking further about the way that we use learning journals and reflective writing in HE, so I thought that I might try to capture some of my key thoughts so far here.  This is the first in a series of three blog posts.

Learning journals and what are often called 'critical-reflective commentaries' have always been central to my practice in teaching creative writing; but it's only relatively recently that I began to think about the ways that approaches and tools that are regularly used and developed in my own discipline might be useful to staff and students working across other fields. 


This next step on my journey began when a wonderful colleague at Teesside, Jo Irving-Walton, asked me to share some ideas with staff working on our PGCE training programmes, where learning journals are a key part of assessment. You can download some of the handouts to these sessions in the Resources area.

It was very inspiring to work with such an enthusiastic and keen bunch of people - and I started to talk with Jo about how learning journals are used across the HE sector and how we might identify and disseminate best practice. It seems that learning journals have become a trend. They have popped up all over the place across a range of courses and modules. But how exactly are they being used? Do we really understand enough about how, when and with which groups of learners they are most effective - and also about when and how not to use them?

At Teesside, Jo and I have now begun an informal information gathering and sharing exercise with colleagues, as part of a Grand Challenge Learning for the 21st Century research project. A group of staff have met a couple of times now to talk about our practices and to do some reflective writing together. We also have a Level 5 student working with us this semester as part of our Students as Researchers scheme. He will design and carry out five in-depth interviews with staff across the University who are currently using learning journals in varied ways, whilst also keeping a learning journal himself. I'm looking forward to finding out more about what this yields.

This is the first key observation that I've made so far: 


Observation 1: It's essential to distinguish between private, process-based writing and shared, assessed writing. 

Asking students to keep a learning journal and then submit it - or a part of it - for assessment will probably result in one of two outcomes. They will either feel too intimidated to keep the journal at all - and then complete it retrospectively, just to meet the requirements of the assessment, producing a sort of 'fake' journal in which they tell the tutor what they think s/he wants to hear. 

Or they will studiously write in their journal but will not feel sufficiently free to truly interrogate and reflect on their own learning experiences. As they will already be crafting something that is designed to be read and assessed, their 'reflections' will inevitably be shaped by that and they will miss out on some valuable opportunities for private learning and insight. 

Therefore, the first and perhaps most important stage in working with learning journals is to make a very clear distinction for students between process and final assessed product

  • We need to let students know that their learning journal is a private space, just for them.
  • We need to give students the tools, techniques and creative approaches to get the most out of this private space, as a place of real experimentation with no required outcome. Some handouts for this are available under Resources on this site.
  • We need to explain to students that, at the end of this first stage of private experimentation and reflection, we will give them guidance about how to select, shape and write on or about this private writing, in ways that feel safe - and that only this final piece of work will be assessed.

Blogs and learning journals
We have found that, in some assessments, learning journals seem to have become synonymous with blogs. For example, students may be asked to keep a blog about their experiences on a module. But blogs are not necessarily learning journals. Or rather, blogs have some key features that are important to consider when using them in assessment. Blogs can be wonderful ways to practice writing-as-thinking and, when comments are active, perhaps even to work out what we feel about a subject in dialogue with a readership or 'audience.'

But the very nature of a blog - or vlog - means that it isn't private. There's a strong sense of writing to and for someone, of being read - which urges us to edit as we think. (I am most certainly editing this post as I go along, in a way that feels very different from private writing in my notebook.)

Although it is possible to argue that the implied reader - the person we write to or for -  is always present, even in a private journal, private journal writing is not writing 'out loud' and therefore does not involve the same anxieties about being read. Indeed, if we keep the learning journal an essentially private space, much creative work can be done to encourage students to experiment with developing this sense of themselves as a supportive reader of their own learning experiences. Celia Hunt has a fantastic guided visualisation for creating an 'ideal reader' in her chapter on 'The Reader' in Writing: Self and reflexivity, Hunt and Sampson. 2006. 

So the more that we can encourage students to embrace a safe, private space for their own unmediated writing, the more we are encouraging them to immerse themselves in a learning process that is primarily for and about them. We're encouraging them to set up a space for themselves in which they can write reflexively about what their learning really feels like.

When they are ready - and only then - they can edit, craft and share, discuss with their peers and perhaps write about this process of sharing too.  By the time they shape something for assessment, they are much more likely to have  engaged in a very rich process of reflective and reflexive learning.

Sophie Nicholls

Sophie Nicholls is an author, poet and University Teaching Fellow at Teesside University where she teaches creative writing and leads on online, hybrid and digital learning and teaching projects.