12 Things You Can Do With Journals to Promote Reflection and Encourage Student Engagement

college teaching active learning how to use student journals

Here are 12 things you can do with journals to promote reflection and encourage student engagement.

Journaling can be an effective way to encourage students to reflect on their learning, engage with the course material, and make sense of the world around them. It’s a flexible strategy that can work with any course in any discipline.

Journals can be “low tech” (just grab a notebook and a pencil) or high tech (use an app on a tablet or a writing program on a laptop). Students can write about personal thoughts and feelings related to college life, the course material, their experiences, or how current events are impacting their lives.

Journals can be spaces where students wrestle with ideas, practice working with the course content, or make notes about their research project or career plans.

When aligned with your learning outcomes and supported throughout the design of your course, journals can be powerful tools to support learning, foster ideas, and process emotions.

If you are thinking about using journals in your course or program, here are 12 things you can do to promote reflection and encourage student engagement.

12 Things You Can Do With Journals to Promote Reflection and Encourage Student Engagement

  1. Ask students to react to a quote, a set of data, or the findings from a reading. After they write their thoughts, encourage discussion or do a write/pair/share activity to promote sharing and engagement.

  2. Give students a prompt to jumpstart their thinking and focus their attention on one specific part of the course material. This works great at the beginning of class to help students focus, connect the pre-class work to the in-class work, and prepare students for the next part of the lecture.

  3. Give students 5 minutes in class to summarize the course material from that day’s lecture. This is a great way for students to capture the main points and make note of anything that was confusing.

    And it gives them time to organize their thoughts and summarize their ideas before they head to their next course, go to work, or go home to take care of the kids. Life gets busy after class ends and they may forget to write their thoughts once they leave class.

  4. Encourage students to use their journals to generate questions prior to class, during a lecture, or after class and then post those questions to the course website for other students (or you) to answer.

  5. Give students 5 minutes during class to write in their journal. Then, ask students to share their journal entry with a peer. (Note: Be sure this journal entry assignment is appropriate for sharing and not something too personal that students would not want others to read.)

    After they read their peer’s journal entry, ask them to write a reaction or pose a question to the author to deepen or advance their thinking. Ask students to return the journal to the original author and give them time to review the comments/questions and write a response/additional notes.

  6. Collect journals (or randomly collect journals if you have a large class) and ask students to “tag” or highlight 3 entries they want you to read and review. This allows students to have some control over what is shared which is important if students are writing about personal experiences and/or emotional reactions.

  7. If students are going onsite/in the field/on the job, ask them to record their observations in their journals (what they observe will depend on your discipline and topic). Encourage them to collect data as they observe.

    Answer questions such as: What do they see? What is happening? Who is doing most of the talking? How are others reacting? When are specific events occurring? Is there a routine or schedule? Why is this observation important? How does this observation connect to the course material?

  8. Give students a controversial scenario, problem, or situation. It could be based on a current issue in the news, for example. Then, challenge students to choose a side of the issue and justify/defend their point of view, preferably using specific references from the course material (if applicable).

  9. Do #8, but this time, ask students to justify/defend the OPPOSITE side. Challenge them to examine this other point of view, again using information from the course material.

    This exercise helps students move beyond dualistic thinking (something always has to be “right” or “wrong,” “left” or “right,” “a” or “b,”) and encourages them to think critically about an issue without their personal bias or emotion leading their decision.

  10. Give students time to freewrite. Journal entries can be structured based on prompts and connected to your learning outcomes, but sometimes, it’s appropriate and acceptable to just give students the freedom, space, and time to choose their own topic and write about it.

    This could be a positive outlet when emotions are high (such as when there’s a national disaster or when it’s a stressful time of the semester or when they are worrying about career decisions/failing the course/etc.).

  11. Ask students to create a list in their journal. Entries don’t always have to be paragraphs and pages of text. They can create: a list of questions to ask to prepare for an interview; a list of things they need to do to prepare for the final exam; a list of or a list of books they have read (or would like to read) related to a specific topic; a list of people they’d like to meet (or have met); or a list of professional goals they’d like to achieve before they graduate. Be creative!

  12. Give students time to draw or outline a course concept in their journal. Maybe they can sketch a mind map (or concept map), draft an outline of their research project/paper, or outline the steps of a procedure or process to see how much they recall (and whether it’s in the correct order).

    Encourage students to share these with a peer or with small groups so they can see how other students interpret ideas in different ways.

Concluding Thoughts

Journaling is one way to help students share ideas, connect with the course material, and process their thoughts. Journals can be “safe spaces” for students to explore issues and self-reflect on their learning.

Or, they can be spaces for students to practice writing, self-test their knowledge, or consider connections between the course material and their experiences which they may not have thought about before.

Even if your students only write journal entries a few times a semester, the process of writing, reflecting, and organizing ideas can be valuable and transfer to other settings beyond the classroom.