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Reflecting: journals and learning (b)logs

Using journals and learning (b)logs to assess learning
Introduction

‘It is not sufficient to have an experience in order to learn. Without reflecting on this experience it may quickly be forgotten, or its learning potential lost.’ (Gibbs, 1988, p9). Gibbs extended this thinking by creating a reflective learning cycle:

reflection

Note the essential components of: emotions [how it felt], evaluation [the good and the bad], analysis [what it meant] and action planning [for the future].

Schon (1983) promoted the idea of reflecting before, during and after in order to maximise the gain from any learning experience / situation, and coined terms that have endured:

  • reflection before action: predicting outcomes, seeing challenges, preparing for the experience
  • reflection in action: what is happening?, is this what I expected?, can I make this more successful?, what am I learning?
  • reflection on action: how did it go?, what was good?, how could I have done things differently?, what have I learned?

To make this ‘head-based’ process available to assessors we need to ask our learners to write it down and share it with us in some way: journals, diaries, logs, blogs.

Unfortunately the definitions of the various types of reflective writing [journal, diaries, (b)logs, etc.] are somewhat muddled / muddied. The Learning Centre at the University of New South Wales (2019) gives some clarity:

  • Journal: requires you to write weekly entries throughout a semester. May require you to base your reflection on course content.
  • Learning diary: similar to a journal, but may require group participation. The diary then becomes a place for you to communicate in writing with other group members.
  • Log book: often used in disciplines based on experimental work, such as science. You note down or 'log' what you have done. A log gives you an accurate record of a process and helps you reflect on past actions and make better decisions for future actions.

And we add:

  • A blog is an online log (web log) - you write short pieces ('posts'), and then post them online, usually in a restricted area in Moodle [other VLEs are available] where peers can read them and possibly respond to them.

Some make the distinction of in or after the event: logs are records of what the learner is doing at the time; Schon’s reflection in action. Whilst learning journals are more the Schon’s reflection on action [personal experience, reactions - hence after - and reflections].

Whether log, journal or diary the important components are emotions, evaluation, analysis and forward-planning that is linked to the concepts / knowledge /skills that students are learning as part of the course, so that it is grounded in the discipline. [A reflective journal is an account of your work in progress, but more essentially an opportunity for reflection on the learning experience. It should provide you with a means of engaging critically and analytically with module content; IATL (no date), my emphasis.]

Reflection and recording thinking will, of course, help learners to become more responsible for their own development as autonomous / independent learners.

What can reflection assess?

Reflective writing requires:

  • response to experiences, events or new information
  • recognition of thoughts and emotions
  • exploration and relating to what is already known / understood
  • gaining self-knowledge
  • clarity of communication
  • making meaning
  • action planning.

This means that we can measure the understanding that is represented within the writing as we would with any written account; the concepts used, the links to literature and theory etc. Also, we can measure that writing style itself; structure, clarity and presentation. Finally we can - a bit more contentiously - measure the degree of reflection. RVC (2014) describe the following ‘levels’ of reflective writing:

Descriptive reflection: the writer explains an event in relation to their personal belief, or possibly in relation to an identified authority. They might identify more than one point of view although little attempt is made to distinguish a superior approach based on underlying principles.

Dialogic reflection: the writer analyses and explains events in relation to their own views of the observations. They place the implications of the event in a wider context and explore these in relation to possible changes in their own practice. There is a discourse with self and the literature, exploring experiences, events, and actions using possible alternatives for explaining and hypothesizing.

Critical reflection: critical analysis of personal experiences, contextualised and informed by theory. An event is viewed from multiple perspectives, the evidence is analysed critically and either a choice or judgment is made between actions, or, what has been discovered is integrated into a better understanding of the issue. The writer clearly demonstrates the impact of the experience on their personal development and the resulting change in their own practice.

As with all assessment methods the key is constructive alignment to the learning outcomes; what are the expectations of the learner and how will the method enable them to demonstrate their achievement of these demands and to what level?

Design

Example designs are given to illustrate the types of information that we might need to give to learners

Your reflective journal on your group project

You will submit individual weekly journal entries [formative feedback will be given] and at the end of the semester you will also submit your full, aggregated collection of entries so that your final journal covers the entire semester. Your full collection may include some or all of your weekly entries, or you may choose to revise some or all of them based upon the feedback you have received. It is the final journal that will count for marks.

To get you started we list some of the things that you should be thinking about and could include in your journal.

In terms of the group work:

  • what did you learn during the group work
  • what did you contribute?
  • what did the others contribute?
  • how do you think that the group is getting along? how could things be improved?
  • how well is the group getting on with the project? how could things be improved?

In terms of your own work

  • how are you linking what you learn in the project to what you already know and understand?
    • what do you think you understand better?
    • what do you need to work on?
  • did you try something new?
    • did it work?
    • what did you learn from it?
  • did you change your thinking as a result of
    • what you learned in the project work this week?
    • what another member said?
  • did you have a light bulb moment?
  • have you gained any new approaches / views from the way others work?
    • how will this change you?
  • in terms of your groups skills:
    • what is working?
    • what is not working
    • what do you need to change?
      • how will you do this?
  • thinking of your academic skills:
    • which are helping you in this project?
    • what gaps are you noticing?
      • what will you do about the gaps?
  • how are you feeling about the project?

Impact beyond the project

  • what new research skills have you gained?
    • how will these help you?
    • which skills do you need to develop?
  • what new knowledge / understanding have you gained?
  • what new technological skills have you gained
    • what technology skills do you need to work on?
      • how will you gain them
  • what comes next?

Your reflective log

It is recommended you keep a reflective learning log and the entries will create your own progress report on what you are doing and learning. It should be written throughout the module and not all at once at the end of the module. It should be a mixture of log book [what you have done], diary [how you are feeling about what you are doing and learning] and should be directly linked to the content and learning outcomes for the module. It can be written any time, any place and will assist you in gaining a better understanding of yourself and how you learn.

Blogs

Your blog (weblog) is a web page where you can make regular additions [posts] over time, with the most recent displayed first. You can post hyperlinks, images, audio and video as well as text. Your blog will be shared with others in your group and they will be able comment on your posts [as you can on theirs].

The blog could run alongside another assessment task, such as a project or presentation. Blogs can help define individual contributions to group working and provide a record of the working process.

It is important to consider the fairness of the word count: 10 posts of 300 words each may well be harder to generate than a 3000 word essay, as each post requires specific reading and an original argument or point.

General guidance: keys to success on reflective writing

  • be critical: just saying what you did is not enough. So what? is the questions that should guide your writing
  • keep it formal-ish: you can take a less formal approach in your journal than your usual essays, but this is still a scholarly and critical piece of work
  • be specific: you need to select the pertinent and significant and relate these to the experience / learning
  • needs evidence: the journal / log will make claims about your learning - these need to be backed up with evidence, links to the theory, views of others, what you already know and understand
  • needs a structure: links to the formal-ish point above - a structure will help you to keep on track and cover all of the bases; this is critical and thoughtful writing not a mind-dump.
Diversity & inclusion

Some students struggle with the personal and emotional aspects. They usually spend their time writing impersonal, third-person stuff and then are expected to flip into a totally different mode and find it a problem.

Academic integrity

Given the personal nature of these sort of documents there should be less opportunity for academic misconduct. In addition, regular feedback on the building of the log or journal can assist in checking ownership. (Click here for further guidance on plagiarism.)

Student and staff experience

Benefits

Reflection and recording thinking will, of course, help learners to become more responsible for their own development as autonomous / independent learners.

They can be used to gain insight into individual contribution to group work.

Challenges

Writing a reflective account requires a different style of writing to essay-type assignments that students are more familiar with. One element students tend to struggle with is being critical and incorporating enough analysis and evaluation into their reflective report. Detailed guidance and, possibly, access to and discussion of good examples will assist with this.

Students often struggle with the balance of informality [writing a personal diary-type document] with the formality needed to maintain some degree of academic style / norm. Selecting the significant wheat from the superfluous chaff can be demanding. Providing a structure either through the assessment criteria or the sort of guidance questions included in the design [see example above] will assist.

Workload

It always helps to give guidance on how long should be spent on these records as diaries / journals can swallow time … for both writers [students] and readers / markers [you].

Useful resources

Reflection

Open University, Skills for OU Study.

Guidance on writing reflectively https://help.open.ac.uk/be-aware-of-your-habits

Plymouth University, Learning Development.

guide for learners plus examples of reflective writing

https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/uploads/production/document/path/1/1717/Reflective_Writing.pdf

Monash University

Reflective writing in Education: guidance and examples

https://www.monash.edu/rlo/assignment-samples/education/education-reflective-writing

Williams, K., Woolliams, M. and Spiro, J. (2012). Reflective Writing. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Moon, J. (2004). A Handbook of Reflective and Experiential Learning: Theory and Practice. London and NY: Routledge Falmer.

Case studies of use of journals

Havemann, L and Sherman, S. (20170. Assessment, Feedback and Technology: Contexts and Case Studies in Bloomsbury. Bloomsbury Learning Environment, London [Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–NoDerivatives 4.0 International License]

Welchman, L. in chapter 6: Using Journals in the SOAS International Human Rights Clinic .

Blogs

Caldwell, H. and Heaton, R. (2016). The interdisciplinary use of blogs and online communities in teacher education. International Journal of Information and Learning Technology, 33 (3) 2056­4880.

Davi, A., Frydenberg, M. and Gulati, G.J. (2007). Blogging across the disciplines: Integrating technology to enhance liberal learning. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 3(3). http://jolt.merlot.org/vol3no3/frydenberg.htm

Farmer, B., Yue, A. and Brooks, C. (2008). Using blogging for higher order learning in large cohort university teaching: A case study. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 24 (2) 123–136.

Farmer, B., Yue, A. and Brooks, C. (2008). Using blogging for higher order learning in large cohort university teaching: A case study. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology 24(2), 123-136.

Case studies of blogging

Havemann, L and Sherman, S. (20170. Assessment, Feedback and Technology: Contexts and Case Studies in Bloomsbury. Bloomsbury Learning Environment, London [Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–NoDerivatives 4.0 International License]

Grange, D. and Hein, W. in chapter 4: Blogging and Social Media for Formative Assessment in Marketing and PR Modules.

Neumann, T. in chapter 5: Blogging for Summative Assessment in Postgraduate Education.

Guetcherian, L. in chapter 14: Academic Blogging with Peer Feedback.