Educators who work in the field of experiential education often encourage or require their students to keep journals. Journals are a time-honored venue for facilitating reflection, an important component of experiential education (Bennion & Olsen, 2002; Priest & Gass, 1997). Despite their popularity, however, surprisingly little is published about the theory and practice of journal writing in experiential education.
The purpose of this Digest is to explore the literature related to journal writing from a variety of disciplines, including psychology, language studies, outdoor education, and experiential education. It begins with a discussion of the history of journal writing, and then explores the possibilities and potential problems of the journal writing process. This Digest concludes with several recommendations for educators who use journals in their teaching.
Evolution of journal writing
The recording of daily events, personal reflections, questions about the environment, and reactions to experiences has been an enduring human practice. Some of the earliest journal writers included the Greeks and Romans, women of 10th-century Japan, and “enlightened” individuals during the Renaissance. Among the greatest historical influences on contemporary journal writing in North America have been the recorded accounts of explorers such as Lewis and Clark and John Wesley Powell.
Writers such as Gilbert White, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Anne Frank, Margaret Mead, and Aldo Leopold have also impacted modern journal writing. It was not until the early 1960s that researchers recognized the value of journal writing in educational settings. Since then, the use of journal writing as a learning exercise has flourished (Janesick, 1998; Moutoux, 2002; Raffan & Barrett, 1989).
Instructors from a wide range of disciplines have used journal writing in various contexts. English and literature teachers often ask students to record their thoughts and feelings about stories or to deconstruct what the author is saying (Cole, 1994). Instructors in teacher education programs and psychology require students to write about how they connect course content to practice (Anderson, 1993; Hettich, 1990).
Researchers have examined how journal writing impacted business students' listening behaviors and related thoughts about how they could improve those skills (Johnson & Barker, 1995). Journal writing has been used with nontraditional students and women who have returned to school in adult degree programs (Walden, 1995). While many instructors ask “individual” students to keep journals, some teachers have found “group” journals to be an effective exercise as well (Kohut, 1998).
Outdoor and experiential educators also have used journal writing in a variety of ways. Natural science and environmental educators use journals to assist students in deepening their observations about their surroundings (Hammond, 2002). Perhaps one of the most popular uses of journals is to reflect on experiences that occur outside the traditional classroom, such as internships, student teaching, field trips, and expeditionary learning activities (Raffan & Barrett, 1989). Instructors also use journal writing to help students reflect on self-discovery, group dynamics, professional development, sense of place, and academic theory, as well as to record such factual information as weather conditions, activities of group members, flora, fauna, times, and locations.
It is not surprising that journals are used so often in experiential education, given their generally recognized benefits. One of the most recognized uses is to help facilitate reflection, a critical component of the experiential education cycle. Through journals, students can record a concrete experience, reflect on and record their observations about the experience, integrate the observation into abstract concepts or theories, and use the theories to make decisions or solve problems. Writing helps students to construct their own knowledge by allowing them to express connections between new information and knowledge they already have.
Journal writing also can improve students' writing, enhance critical thinking skills, encourage observational skills, and develop creative skills. Journal writing helps students develop their writing skills as they are encouraged to “experiment with writing, to experience, perhaps for the first time, writing that may be highly personal, relatively unstructured, speculative, uninhibited, tentative, in process, in flux” (Anderson, 1993, p. 305). As a result of this freedom and success, students often take pride in their journals. From an environmental perspective, journals can help students develop intimate connections with the more-than-human world as they learn to observe and record patterns and processes in the natural world.
Despite the numerous benefits associated with journal writing, several problems should be mentioned. Major concerns identified in the literature include:
Recommendations for educators who want to
The literature about journal writing offers several recommendations.
While journal writing holds great potential for
enhancing learning in experiential
education, for this potential to be fully realized, educators must
pitfalls and develop effective strategies for avoiding them.
Anderson, J. (1993). Journal writing: The promise and the reality. Journal of Reading, 36, 4. pp. 304-309.
Bennion, J., & Olsen, B. (2002). Wilderness writing: Using personal narrative to enhance outdoor experience. Journal of Experiential Education, 25, 1. pp. 239-246.
Burt, C. D. B. (1994). An analysis of self-initiated coping behavior: Diary-keeping. Child Study Journal, 24, 3. pp. 171-189.
Chandler, A. (1997). Is this for a grade? A personal look at journals. English Journal, 86, 1. pp. 45-49.
Cole, P. (1994). A cognitive model of journal writing. In M. R. Simonson et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Selected Research and Development Presentations at the 1994 National Convention of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology (16th, Nashville, TN, February 16-20). (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 373 709)
Dyment, J. E., & O’Connell, T. S. (2003). Getting the most out of journaling: Strategies for outdoor educators. Pathways: The Ontario Journal of Outdoor Education, 15,2. pp. 31-34.
Dyment, J. E., & O’Connell, T. S. (in press-a). Student perceptions of journaling as a reflective tool in experience-based learning. The Journal for the Art of Teaching.
Dyment, J. E., & O’Connell, T. S. (in press-b). Journal writing is something we have to learn on our own: The results of a focus group discussion with recreation students. Schole: A Journal of Leisure Studies and Recreation Education.
Hammond, W. F. (2002). The creative journal: A power tool for learning. Green Teacher, 69. pp. 34-38.
Hettich, P. (1990). Journal writing: Old fare or nouvelle cuisine? Teaching of Psychology, 17, 1. pp. 36-39.
Janesick, V. J. (1998, April). Journal writing as a qualitative research technique: History, issues, and reflections. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Diego, CA. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 420 702)
Johnson, I. W., & Barker, R. T. (1995). Using journals to improve listening behavior: An exploratory study. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 9, 4. pp. 475-483.
Kerka, S. (1996). Journal writing and adult learning. ERIC Digest. Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 339 413)
Kohut, A. (1998). Group journal, a high ropes course element. Zip Lines: The Voice for Adventure Education, 36. pp. 59-60.
Moutoux, M. (2002). Evaluating nature journals. Green Teacher, 69. pp. 39-40.
Priest, S., & Gass, M. A. (1997). Effective leadership in adventure programming. Champaign, IL. Human Kinetics.
Raffan, J., & Barrett, M. J. (1989). Sharing the path: Reflections on journals from an expedition. Journal of Experiential Education, 12, 2. pp. 29-36.
Shor, I. (1992). Empowering education: Critical teaching for social change. Chicago, IL. University of Chicago Press.
Walden, P. (1995). Journal writing: A tool for women developing as knowers. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 65. pp. 13-20.
This feature is an ERIC Digest and is in the public domain.