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Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

Journal Writing – just another ‘worksheet’?

Writing has been known through the centuries as a tool for introspection (Britton, 1970). Forms of writing frequently used to enhance thinking include journal writing, autobiography, formal paper, or learning log (notes from class). However, I can not be so naive as to think that these techniques – or any techniques for that matter – will make a great deal of difference without the ‘cultural surround’ to support deep understanding. We don’t want journal writing to become just another worksheet!

But let’s look at writing for the moment.

Journal writing, the focus here, is a form of writing in which the individual usually free writes a running account of one’s work or task. And although there can be many variations on journal writing, or activities surrounding journal writing, it tends to be an informal style of writing. Fulwiler (1987) characterizes the students’ entries by both language features and cognitive activities. The language of journals tends to be personal and conversational. Many feelings are expressed. Punctuation and spelling are relaxed. The style is experimental. Here are several examples (Countryman, 1992).

“Algebra is math with a bunch of letters that stand for numbers. They are mystery letters. When you finish the problem the letters usually turn into numbers.” – James

“I think algebra is very hard and confusing. It builds on itself. What may seem easy grows till it becomes very hard.” – Lisa

Good journals also exhibit indicators of varied thinking skills and strategies that consist of speculation, doubt, confusion, questions, new problems and solutions. Countryman (1992, p. 33) provides these examples.

“I figured out the meaning of life. Life is a three dimensional picture show and what matters is the perspective you choose to observe it through. Sometimes you should look at ‘the big picture’; in fact, most of the time you should. Other times you can involve minute aspects of the movie in your everyday affairs. BUT!! Don’t take it too seriously because life is a comedy. 2 is a very simple number. √¯¯¯ is a very simple idea. But the two simple things, when mixed together, become excruciatingly complex (√2!!) Too many people think about √2 and forget about 2 or √. That’s a no-no. Like calculus, another important aspect of life is not A or B but the change (∆) from A to B (or vice versa). We change so much in life it is far better to accept its inevitability than to fight it. The hard part is accepting it when you are happy because the common assumption is that it can only be a change for the worse. If you are at the top of a mountain you can only go down, right? Wrong!! You can also jump to the top of a new and different mountain” – a twelfth grade calculus student

How Does Journal Writing Support Mindfulness?

Journal writing supports intentional or mindful behaviour in a variety of ways. Firstly, its very presence acts as a tool to predispose people to think – to plan, monitor, and reflect. This helps overcome the difficulties of not even thinking about performing these tasks.

  • Sometimes it is not that the student doesn’t know how to plan, it just isn’t a salient option. It does not come to mind to do so. The journal, therefore, reminds students to think.
  • In addition, it has been noted that students often jump at the first solution strategy that comes to mind. They often “are not allowed sufficient time to ponder a problem” in advance (Cappo & Osterman, 1991, p.35). The presence of a journal, not only reminds them to think ahead, but also affords them the opportunity to do so.
  • Novices also, by nature, don’t pause and reflect upon completion of a task, whereas experts do. The journal, therefore, can serve as a cognitive trigger both before and after a task.

Secondly, journal writing allows for the externalization of knowledge through language. Language plays an important role in making knowledge explicit by objectifying experience (Valtin, 1984; Vygotsky, 1962; in Dickinson, 1986, p. 358). So as students engage in writing about their knowledge they are indeed exploring, stating and questioning what they know (Britton, 1970). Journal writing is a form of self-assessment (Zuercher, 1989). As students communicate their ideas, “they learn to clarify, refine, and consolidate their thinking (Cappo & Osterman 1991, p.35). Journal writing allows students to state their ‘understanding’ of a topic or problem replete with all the associate ‘bugs’.  These buggy statements are then explicit and can act as a medium for mediating new understanding. This, I believe, is somewhat analogous to writing programs and as Psotka (1985, p. 4) says,

“In order to debug in such an environment (programming), the proper metaphor seems to be one of ‘tiptoeing’ through one’s knowledge structures, carefully trying not to destroy what one steps on…Given this metaphor, debugging is very closely allied to self-reflection, since being able to examine clearly what one knows (the existing code) is a precondition for further learning and restructuring.”

Journal writing encourages the consideration and expression of strategies, ideas and plans that one brings to the situation. Brown, Collins and Duguid (89, p. 36) suggest that school generally disregards the inventive heuristics that students bring to the classroom.  Journal writing allows for expression and social sharing of these.  On the other hand, Lave (1988c) tells how some students actually hide the strategies they use because they are not the ones of the predominant culture. Journal writing can serve to encourage expression of these strategies – perhaps through sentence starters.

Forms of Journal Writing

There are many forms of journal writing that may lead to very different experiences for the writer (Langer & Applebee, 1985). Many mediated and non-mediated journal activities benefit the students’ acquisition of cognitive and metacognitive skills.

  • The simplest form of journal writing would be a blank format where one documents freely and without particular focus or restriction.
  • Some journals are written in conjunction with prompts, metacognitive guides or questions simply to stimulate journal entries (Countryman, 1992). This may change the focus of the activity within the journal.
  • A dialectical journal is one in which the teacher carries on an asynchronous conversation with the student (Fulwiler, 1987).
  • Or consider an activity which requests that students pick some number of their favourite entries and create a table of contents, an introduction and a conclusion based on their journal writing over a certain period (Countryman, 1992).

Personal or Public?

Journal writing is usually a personal event.  It may, however, acknowledge both the personal and public nature of journal writing. It is expected that collaborative journal writing will lead to unique experiences that may have effects that are not just quantitatively different but different also in quality. For example, one may be able to speak more eloquently on a topic having previously written about it for communication to others.

Andrews (1990, p. 6) had students share their journals with their peers and herself, and found that her role was as “an active mirror for their voices, helping them to bring their tacit understandings of the process to conscious awareness to be discussed and applied”.

Cappo & Osterman (1991) believe that math publishing or writing:

  • enables students to take ideas from the specific to the general;
  • provides a means to share their thinking, and;
  • allows students to witness the growth of their mathematical thinking.

Does Journal Writing Lead to Engagement?

Is it to be assumed, then, that if students write in their journals on a regular basis that they will become intentional learners or that their success on academic tasks will improve? Certainly, as Fulwiler (1980) noted, journal writing cannot guarantee that the student will be actively engaged in learning, but it decreases the likelihood that the student will be passive. Much depends on the activities which are required of the students (Ruggles, 1985). The evidence in support of journal writing is overwhelming and is generally anecdotal and descriptive (Fulwiler, 1978; Moffett, 1984; Schlawin, 1980).

Written for LCSI's Journal Zone (no longer available) - a collaborative, scaffolded journal writing environment whose time hadn't come...

My own experience has been when journal writing becomes routinized – like yet another ‘worksheet’ – it becomes ‘something to get done’ and is, therefore, not done mindfully or intentionally and the intended benefits are lost.  Once again we need to understand that learning is strongly affected by the predominant culture of the classroom.  “Thinking” needs to be a highly valued activity and that should be explicitly and implicitly understood by all in the classroom. John Seely Brown has eloquently stated that learning is often a product of the ambient culture rather than of explicit teaching.

I believe this culture of deep & reflective thinking, and effective journal writing environments, can be encouraged and supported through collaboration and scaffolding. In addition, I think that various computer technologies can be brought to bear on these challenges.

We’ll examine the case for collaboration in a subsequent post! I wrote a little bit about it in a previous post on Project Based Learning, but wish to elaborate.

What are your observations or experiences?


Britton, J. (1970). Language and Learning, New York, Penguin Books.

Cappo, M. & Osterman, G. (1991) Teach students to communicate mathematically. The Computing Teacher, Feb. 1991 p.35.

Countryman, J. (1992). Writing to Learn Mathematics, Heinemann Educational Books, Inc., Portsmouth, NH.

Dickinson, D. K. (Dec., 1986), Cooperation, Collaboration, and a Computer: Integrating a Computer into a First-Second Grade Writing Program. Research in the Teaching of English, Vol. 20, No. 4 pp. 357-378

Fulwiler, T. (1978). Journal writing across the curriculum (Report No. CS 204 467).

Fulwiler, T. (1980). Journals across the disciplines. English Journal, 69, 14-19.

Fulwiler, T. (1987). The Journal Book, Portsmouth, N.H., Boynton/Cook Denver, CO: Conference on College Composition and Communication. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 161 073)

Langer, J., & Applebee, A. (1985). Learning to write; learning to think. Educational Horizons, 64 (1), 36-38.

Moffett, J. (1984). Reading and writing as mediation. In J.M. Jensen (Ed.), Composing and comprehending (pp. 57-65). Urbana, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse.

Ruggles, A. (Ed.) (1985). Roots in the sawdust: writing to learn across the disciplines. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Schlawin, S. (1980). Writing across the curriculum, K-12 (Report No. CS 206 154). Poughkeepsie, NY: Duchess County Board of Cooperative Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 199 700)

Zuercher, N. T. (1989). Students’ self-assessment. Paper presented at the Seventh Annual Conference on Writing Assessment. Montréal, Québec, Canada.

(My apologies for a few missing references – but this is a blog post, not an academic paper – so cut me some slack!  🙂 )

About Peter Skillen

Peter Skillen is an independent educator in Ontario, Canada. He has been involved in technology supported, inquiry-based learning since the mid 1970s–particularly as it relates to learner agency, passion, & cognitive intent. Peter blogs at The Construction Zone.


14 thoughts on “Journal Writing – just another ‘worksheet’?

  1. Does journaling have to be writing to be all you want it to be, Peter?

    What about curated multi-modal pieces like day books – even audio/visual ones like Evernote (should we be buying notebooks if we have that program?)? Does freeing up students from writing exclusively do anything to support the development of idiosyncratic writing styles?

    What else can do what you want journals to do, and how else can journals do it?

    I’m thinking and writing a lot lately about what the post-print language arts classroom might look like. What’s the right mix of writing, viewing, hearing, playing, designing, composing, producing and reflecting today to help kids engage at a metacognitive level with the world that awaits them? How do we journal richly in the future?

    Best regards,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | January 16, 2011, 2:31 pm
    • Hi Chad,

      Actually no it doesn’t. Most certainly doesn’t just have to be writing at all. Glad you mentioned that because it sure looks like a language focus for sure. 🙂

      In fact, back in ’86 when I was working with the original implementation of Knowledge Forum (called CSILE*) developed at OISE/UT, it was only text-based. I had real concerns at that time because I am all for ‘multiple representations of knowledge’. So I mocked up ‘ThinkingLand’ in HyperCard so that kids could do ‘write’ journals with drawings as well.

      So I agree wholeheartedly with you and look forward to thinking and chatting more about using other media forms to engage kids at this metacognitive and intentional level.

      I have dabbled with VoiceThread for more media-rich metacognitive, collaborative journaling. Worth more effort I think.

      Thanks Chad for making me reflect on this.


      *Computer Supported Intentional Learning Environment

      Posted by peter skillen | January 16, 2011, 5:54 pm
      • I look forward to all the conversations, Peter, and I’m eager to learn from you – I really appreciate the depth of your thinking and the breadth of your experience with technology and learning –

        Best regards,

        Posted by Chad Sansing | January 16, 2011, 6:06 pm
  2. Chad,

    Thank you so much for the kind words. Struggling with complex ideas about learning is what I love. To learn with you and our colleagues and others who have a voice on these issues is a treasure.

    Schoenfeld has said that, ‘Groups are not just a convenient way to accumulate the individual knowledge of their members. They give rise synergistically to insights and solutions that would not come about without them.’


    Posted by peter skillen | January 16, 2011, 8:35 pm
  3. Thanks for the reminder on being intentional with journals. Sometimes I slip into a more mechanized, habitual format for journals and kids see it as contrived or forced.

    I replaced physical journals with blogs, because students could edit them, I could write comments and they could embed media and links. Also, it helped that students could create multiple blogs with multiple tabs.

    However, I’m considering going to dual journals next year, because there is a level of intimacy lost in the physical paper of a journal. I know it sounds crazy, but I miss the side doodling that students would do or the sketches during science or the way they would change the size of lettering depending on mood. I still want to use blogs, but I’m seeing how the informal nature of a paper-bound journal is actually something I’m missing.

    Posted by johntspencer | January 17, 2011, 8:24 am
    • Hi John,

      Smiling here. Not crazy at all. I actually still do a lot of my own writing on paper for a pile of reasons:
      – it’s easier to spread out my ‘external memory’ across the table. It is said you can only hold 5-7 items in working memory. For me, I’m down to 2-3 I think! 🙂
      – doodles and diagrams and arrows
      – I like to scratch out and leave the ‘cognitive trace’ of where my head has been (I know I could do the strikethrough thing – but it’s not the same)
      – I also sense, perhaps incorrectly, that there is some sort of cognitive effect that different media exert when we use them. Pencil and paper rock.

      The most important piece I believe is that kids (and others) think deeply about issues such as these because then they are better able to make more informed choices and can pick the best tools for the task at hand.

      Electronic journals can be awesome. Blogs, wikis, Nings, Diigo, etc. replete with many media embedded combined with the ability to embed scaffolding in the form of sentence starters or other prompts have potential. One problem I have had is that the operation of the tools, and the clickability distraction of the net, often derailed the direction of mental effort away from planning, monitoring and reflecting on their learning. Have you noticed that?

      I keep a spiral bound paper mess with my computer at all times. It boots faster too. 🙂


      Posted by peter skillen | January 17, 2011, 8:51 am
  4. great post Peter. triggered so many things in my head.

    we are experimenting with the only standard “curriculum” being a logging/reflection/documentation of the learning process per whatever topic/project.
    since the basis of what we’re experimenting with is learning by doing, we have a lot of video footage. i think, perhaps, video capture spurs on rich, authentic, reflection/writing, because we often miss so much first time around. replay is a great way to notice more.
    i also think the fact that we are starting to see/experience more in a fractal sense, this overriding process of learning per whatever, that it’s caused this zoom out zoom in iteration, allowing for a deeper reflection.

    having seen Roger Schank’s recent post on demo of the next generation of Knowledge Management systems, managing video stories and not documents – i’m even more intrigued with the prospect.

    looking forward to learning more about what you’re doing.
    i love your come together poster..

    Posted by monika hardy | January 19, 2011, 11:53 am
    • Woohoo!!

      I am really excited by what you have pointed me to regarding the next generation of Knowledge Management systems. I haven’t gone to see it yet – but will! Knowing Schank’s work a bit, I assume he has also addressed a ‘distributed model’ for this. I am currently embroiled in discussions regarding a new Knowledge Management system in the organization which employs me – although it is not directly my responsibility. It falls under ‘Communications’ and IT. 🙂

      The other thing that is consonant with my thinking on this is the open course on ‘Connectivism’ which starts this week.

      And Monika, ‘zoom out zoom in’. Really!? Cool. A concept I have used a little differently – but then, it is connected. I have asked kids to imagine that a camera is observing them – and to think about what they would see and hear.

      Are you having kids do ‘think alouds’ as the video recordings are underway?

      Thank you SO much. Looking forward to hearing more.

      Are you going to Educon?


      Posted by peter skillen | January 19, 2011, 12:05 pm


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