Online 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, as in the “who-has-time-for-more?” type easy!
Online journaling provides multiple benefits for students and teachers. Journaling provides an excellent activity for self-reflection. It compels learners and teachers to stop and look around — to see the forest rather than just the next few trees in front of us. SO important, and yet so difficult, in our busy days, nights, and weekends.
As a teacher, online journaling is a great way to keep one’s finger on the pulse of our students. Reading student journals can reveal what learners understand — or don’t — what they’re feeling, and they’re thinking about a particular topic or their work. I’ve found that 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 I’ve 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, 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 (yes, it’s evaluated with a simple 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. 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 gave me the opportunity to commend students’ insights with feedback 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 would help you realize how you might improve your own presentation is a benefit I hadn’t anticipated; 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. It has been heart warming to realize that this mutual sharing of our thoughts and feelings chips 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 — so mind numbing to understand — 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.
In this same project, some students shared thoughts and feelings of 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 it 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 was a practice well worth continuing in the future.
Of course, one difficulty with journals is, well, reading them! Fortunately, there are some simple tech solutions 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 with the teacher, that Google Doc can be reexamined each week for new entries.
Here’s a tip. Instruct students to type each week’s entry at the top of the Google document. That way you won’t have to scroll down to find the most recent entry. A clear and accurate date heading is key too. There are many other benefits to this system:
- All work is typed (no handwriting to decipher!)
- You won’t need to collect or return anything. “File it” in a dedicated folder in your Google Drive.
- Comment directly on your students’ work using the Google Doc Comment feature.
Here’s another tech tip that makes online journals easy for students and teachers. Have students submit their work to an LMS such as Canvas or Google Classroom. In Canvas, I post weekly 10-point journal entry assignments. Students submit the same Google doc each week with the new entry at the top. I click through each student’s work, reading, typing a comment or two and scoring it using a simple online rubric. In no time, I’ve read, commented, and scored every student’s entry.
I get an insight into each student’s head, feedback on our course, and ideas about next steps to boot. The ongoing nature and quick feedback of online journaling can provide a rich, ongoing feedback loop between teacher and learner. The frequency, the informal nature of journal-style writing, and the potentially rapid feedback provide a coaching tool that leverages the best of technology with a key aspect of student engagement and teacher as coach: our relationship.