Journaling: How to Improve Student Outcomes & Evaluations

Journaling: How to Improve Student Outcomes & Evaluations

There’s a simple tool you can use to potentially improve your student evaluations while simultaneously…
Improving student outcomes.

Jay Markiewicz, Executive Director of Entrepreneurship Programs at Virginia Commonwealth University, shared the tool he’s using to do just that:

Reflective student journaling.

Jay uses journaling not only to help students process the experiences he leads them through, he uses it to model customer interviewing and understand his effectiveness as an instructor, “I’m teaching entrepreneurship, so I might as well act like one. So I do customer interviews through journaling.”

Introducing Journaling

Jay requires students to purchase a journal of their choosing. He requires the journal to be paper-based – no electronic versions on a phone, iPad, computer, etc. Jay urges students to find a journal they like, that speaks to them because they need to have a relationship with it.

On the 1st or 2nd day of class, Jay spends 15 minutes explaining the concept of journaling and talking about why journaling (reflective thinking & learning) is important. He recommends sharing the following:

  • Students will journal 3 times each week outside of class for 15 minutes each time.
  • Students will journal during class time with 2-3 minutes at the beginning of class, and if time allows also a couple minutes at the end of class.
  • Jay will never, ever look at a journal; whatever the students write in it is a private relationship between them and their journal.
  • Jay will never ask students what is in their journals. Instead, he will ask students to volunteer what they are journaling about.
  • When journaling, if instead of class materials, students want to journal about something that’s really on their mind (an argument with a friend, an exam they performed poorly on, something happening in the world, etc.) they should feel free to journal about that.

Integrating Journaling into Class

Jay starts each class session by asking one or two students to share something that happened over the weekend. This quick minute allows students to feel ownership over the classroom.

Jay then integrates journaling into the class with a 2 or 3-minute reflection session. During this time, Jay asks questions that are good for students to process the information they’ve learned recently (and are good customer interviewing questions for him).

At the beginning of his course, Jay will often ask students to journal their answers to a question like:

  • “In your own words, what are some key points you learned in last class / last week.” It is critical to stress the “in your own words” part of that prompt. What you don’t want students to do is to grab their notes and regurgitate what you told them in previous classes. Jay recommends using this question early in the semester to get students feeling comfortable with journaling.

After a month of classes, Jay recommends asking more reflective questions about applied learning, such as:

  • “How has [specific content] showed up for you outside the classroom?” This allows Jay to understand how students are thinking about the content when outside the class. He hears things from students like “I noticed this commercial the other day, and noticed the framework of how they created the commercial and told the story” or “I read this article about this startup and was curious what kind of experiments they were running.”

Hearing this feedback shows Jay the knowledge is sinking in for students because they are applying it beyond the classroom.

  • Another great question to ask is “What is an insight you have about recent classes that you don’t think anyone else in the room has thought of.” Instead of Jay revisiting key insights or past content, students illustrate for each other how they’re understanding the content.

This peer sharing is a way for students to set aspirations for one another as they aspire to think of novel applications of the class concepts.

  • Another great question to ask is “How have you acted differently recently because of what we are learning in this class?” This question gets Jay’s students thinking about turning the content from the class into action during their daily life.

After the quick journaling session, Jay debriefs by asking “Who wants to tell me what they journaled about?” Ask for volunteers instead of calling on students, and guide the ensuing discussion around how students can apply what they are learning.

Journaling on Quizzes

Another way Jay uses journaling is as part of an exam, or you could use it as a stand-alone pop quiz. Jay asks students “what are four things you’ve learned in this class about anything” on an exam, and urges students “please raise the bar of your insights. In other words, what have been four insights you have had. Don’t answer this question with some basic facts like ‘I learned the steps of design thinking’.”

All students get full credit on that particular question. Jay told us:

This is a great way to understand what is resonating with my students and what are those impactful “SQUIRREL!” moments (i.e. tangents) that are happening that I want to repeat in subsequent semesters.

What Happens When Students Resist?

Jay has not had any verbal pushback from his students on journaling. In fact, his student feedback is that they find it a refreshing way to begin each class.

Some students will be resistant to journaling. Jay reported that sometimes on a “what are 4 things you learned” type question, he gets some version of “I can’t believe it, but the journaling has been really valuable.”

Journaling might be jarring to a student because it can be a very different classroom experience for them. Students are not just sitting there passively taking notes and texting friends, but are being invited to engage, participate, and be present in the experience.

Adapting Your Course Based On Journaling Learning

Jay uses the information he hears from students sharing their journaling to make real-time adjustments during the semester. If critical content isn’t sinking in with students, Jay takes the time to revisit it, but with a new spin to avoid sharing the same information, with the same examples.

If a student shares something after journaling that is a misunderstanding of critical material, that is a great outcome, because you can have a conversation right on the spot. Jay recommends inviting other students to respond if they have the same misunderstanding, and for those who do not, asking them to share their differing opinion so that the students are teaching one another and he’s their facilitator.

Your job is to guide the conversation as a peer-peer conversation so they are teaching each other and learning together. As Jay shared:

“Yes it takes class time, yes it can disrupt the timing of the day, but it is valuable to validate what students are learning and to correct misunderstandings.”

On the other end of the feedback spectrum, Jay reported that sometimes students will say something in journaling report-out that is absolutely brilliant. When that happens, Jay will grab the quote from the student and, when applicable, add it to his slides. Jay pulls up the actual slide and gets the student’s permission to type the quote in live, so students see it, and says to the student “Thank you for allowing me to use that, you are now part of this course going forward!” In that way, again…

Jay’s students (i.e. customers) shape his course.

Finally, Jay recommends keeping a document titled “Changes to make next semester.” Based on journaling & exam journaling questions, he adds notes to this document so when he is planning his course next semester, he can tweak where there are gaps in understanding.

The Results

The benefits of journaling have become clear to Jay, with students frequently writing in their course evaluations notes like:

  • “I would always get excited when we were asked to pull out our journals.”
  • “My favorite resource required was that I needed a journal for this class.”
  • “[I value] the act of journaling…it gives us the opportunity to reflect and share our personal thoughts in a private way that we only have to share about if we feel comfortable.”
  • “I really appreciated how you opened the course so that we all were the teachers and leaders in the course.”

In addition, Jay’s course evaluations have been 12% above norms due at least in part to his use of journaling.

Should you Try Journaling?

That depends on your goals. If student feedback isn’t valued by your institution or you don’t have the bandwidth to iterate your course, journaling won’t have much impact.

If, however, you:

  • Practice what you preach and always want to improve your course
  • Want to model customer-centric behavior for your students
  • Want to improve your student evaluations

Journaling is a simple, low-cost way to accomplish the above that can be applied in virtually any class.

If you give it a shot, please let us, and Jay, know!


What’s Next?

In an upcoming post, we will share new lesson plans from our Summer Summit!

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