Information Sheet # 41

April 12, 1990


by Terry Heller

You walk into class, confident that today your students will have carefully read the assigned materials. You ask a question, based on these materials, to develop their reasoning skills or to build a foundation for the next lesson, and much to your surprise, you discover that many have not achieved an adequate understanding of the assignment.

I am of the perpetually innocent; I never cease to be surprised. I am currently under the illusion--but it could be true--that my courses contain about half as much material as six years ago and that most of my classroom work consists of developing students' skills of attentive and thoughtful reading. More and more rarely do we get to talk about the really important issues; so much of our time goes into gaining a basic understanding.

For several terms I have suspected that today's Coe students are significantly lazier or less intelligent than were those I taught as recently as three years ago. But now I believe that at least one of their main problems is that most students come to my courses with little notion how to study a text. Furthermore, this happens even after they have succeeded in a number of courses, even literature courses. This does not mean that they are lazy or even that they have been badly taught. In fact, I suspect the causes of this weakness are probably very complicated.

I am more interested in solutions. And I am finding that the student journal is a highly effective tool for directing student study and, thereby, for teaching effective study and reading skills.

Many students seem to need more directed study of information and practice of the techniques we present in our courses than they are able to provide for themselves. Journals can help provide this direction.

Here is a description of what I have done with journals and how I have managed these assignments.

What can be included in a journal:

1. Preparation for lecture/discussion.

A. Reading Notes.

Students prepare a set of notes covering the main points of the reading.

B. Response to Reading.

Students write 1 or 2 pages of response to a reading assignment. The purposes of this writing include: sorting out main ideas, self testing to see if ideas have been understood, and formulating questions about material not understood. This can be combined easily with the SQ3R reading method.

C. Focus on Key Concepts.

Students may be required to give special attention to a key concept by following it through the text or by studying the passage where it is defined. They will write a summary of what they learn or a paraphrase of the passage.

2. Reinforcement of Class Presentations.

A. Class notes.

I ask students to keep their class notes in the journal and to write a one paragraph summary of what they learned in each class. Summaries are especially helpful in discussion courses, because class notes tend to be disorderly and sketchy.

B. Re-examination of reading materials in the light of class presentations.

I often ask students to study a portion of a text again after we have discussed it, to see what new things they can see in it. In this way, they immediately use the methods and ideas presented in class on familiar material.

C. Reflection on learning process.

I periodically ask students to consider what they have been learning in the course and to think about how the material we are currently studying relates to the overall direction of the course.

3. Preparation for Formal Writing and Tests.

I often assign specific topics for reflection that are potential essay topics. And I sometimes give students questions to write about that I intend to use as essay questions on exams. This tends to insure that most students will have thought about the kinds of things I want them to remember and that their essays will not be "raw" first drafts.


Rules for Writing (and Reading) Journals

I think the main purpose of a journal is to allow the student guided, virtually risk free practice with exercises that will aid memory and provide practice at skill development. For these reasons, I use the following rules.

1. Journals are graded ONLY on completeness. If all the required work is present, the student receives full credit for a certain quantity of work. I have handled this credit in several ways. One is to say a certain percent of the final grade depends on the journal; that grade is determined by the percent of the journal that is completed. Another approach is to use a form of contract that grants credit toward a grade goal based on the quantity of journal work completed.

2. If the journal is graded ONLY on completeness, then I pay almost no attention to its content as long as it is clear that the student is completing the assignments correctly and in good faith.

3. I also pay no attention to the journal's grammar and organization. However, I do insist that the journal be orderly enough so I can tell where each entry is when I evaluate it. There are, alas, students who will create disorderly journals in order to disguise their incompleteness. To counter this, I simply insist that each entry begin on a new page and be clearly labeled. Otherwise, it isn't there.

4. Sometimes I want students to think about materials in relation to their personal lives: this is useful for memory and synthesis and for raising questions about values. This obligates me to promise NOT to read parts they wish to remain private. This is easily arranged, because I make it clear that I do not intend to read much of the journals anyway.

5. Students will generally benefit most if they are instructed to complete each journal entry in a single writing period. This teaches them to set aside times for concentration on learning.


Managing Journals

In my classes, it is not unusual for a student to produce a journal of more than 200 pages. A class might easily write 4000 pages. That sounds like a management problem that could discourage most teachers. Yet, I now use journals in 2 out of 3 classes each term, and next year I will probably use them in all my classes, since my current students seem desperately to need such work. How do I manage?

A. Inspecting the Journals

1. I absolutely do not read all this material. I keep in mind that the important thing is that the students do the writing, not that I do the reading.

2. I usually spot read. Often this means choosing a key assignment that seems likely to show me how well the students are progressing.

3. Going through the journals typically means shuffling through to be sure all the entries are present and reading one of the entries in each journal. Some students like to address their journals to the teacher. This is probably a good thing, but then they are upset if you don't notice special messages they send you. You may ask them to mark such messages or to mark passages they especially want you to read. This and other strategies for having students review their journals can be very useful. I also fairly often ask students to write me letters expressing their concerns about the progress of the course.

B. When to Collect Journals

1. I have been collecting journals about every 3 weeks, though I usually check them in the second week of the term to be sure everyone understands and is following instructions.

2. In the last few semesters, it has come to seem that larger numbers of my students write their entire journals the day before I collect them. In some cases, this is fine, though a little silly. However, in my classes, being up to date on assignments is crucial to useful class discussions. Therefore, I believe that next year I will collect journals every week. The more often I collect them, the more time it takes to check them, but the benefits of having students usually well prepared for class should make that time worthwhile.


Journals Still Take Time But the Benefits are Great

There is no getting around the fact that students will spend time writing journals and I will spend time inspecting them. To some extent this is not very troublesome. We want our students to study regularly anyway. This method forces them to do so and, in the process, teaches them good study methods within our disciplines. In most of my courses, I require one less essay when I assign a journal. Though I probably spend more time with the journals than I would grading another set of essays, I may come out about even because the essays students produce tend to be better and to require less revision.

The benefits of the journal are many and, to my mind, compensate for a fair amount of work.

1. A fairly immediate means of evaluating the effectiveness of my teaching. It can be very instructive to see what the class gained from one of my lectures.

2. A useful diagnostic check on what the class is understanding.

3. Directed study and teaching of study skills.

4. Each student has a usable record of his/her learning and thinking during the course.

5. I have used journals as the basis for examinations as well as essays. I have asked students to write examinations in which they simply tell me what they have learned as demonstrated by their journals, using illustrative entries from their journals. And I have asked them to choose entries that might be developed into formal essays as ways of beginning thinking about an essay.

At this stage in my teaching and given the kinds of students I currently find in my courses, journals are very useful tools. I would be happy to share ideas with anyone who is using journals and has suggestions for me or who would like to use journals and has questions.

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