Journal writing in experiential education:
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
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
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
Evolution of journal writing
The recording of daily events, personal reflections, questions about the
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
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,
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
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 (1) the overuse of journals, which results in students feeling
“journaled to death” (Anderson, 1993, p. 306) and that journals are “a pointless
ritual wrapped in meaningless words” (Shor, 1992, p. 83); (2) students writing
“whatever pleases the instructor” (Anderson, 1993, p. 305) in order to get a
good grade; (3) students writing purely descriptive entries, with limited
reflection (Kerka, 1996); (4) misuse of journals, in which students attack other
students or make inappropriate comments about other students (Anderson, 1993);
(5) limited training opportunities for students to learn more about journal
writing (Dyment & O’Connell, in press-b); (6) the overreliance on journals as a
reflective tool; as well as (7) the challenges associated with evaluating
journals (Chandler, 1997; Moutoux, 2002).
Recommendations for journalling
The literature about journal writing offers several recommendations.
“Offer thorough and detailed feedback.”
Educators who want to capitalize on the
potential of journal writing must be willing to spend the time and effort to
offer students feedback on the substance of their journal entries (Anderson,
1993). Feedback will also help students identify their own areas of
strengths and weaknesses in journal writing (e.g., writing technique, making
connections to theory).
“Improve students’ journal writing skills
by offering workshops.” Educators who include journals in the curriculum
would be wise to offer students formal and informal training in journal
writing (Dyment & O’Connell, 2003). Educators may also consider giving
students loose guidelines to help focus their writing. For example, students
may be asked to write a poem or draw a concept map that explains their
understanding of the subject of study, or write from the perspective of
another person or object involved in an experience.
“Recognize that students will have varying
interests in journal writing.” While many
students will be generally supportive of journal writing, it is important to
remember that some students may dislike journal writing (Shor, 1992).
Educators should consider offering alternative means of facilitating
reflection (e.g., video journals, focus group debriefing sessions, Web
“Recognize the different ways that males
and females perceive journal writing.” It
appears that males and females have different perceptions of journal
writing. Females often are more open and receptive to the journal writing
process (Burt, 1994; Dyment & O’Connell, in press-a). Some males may need
additional training to feel comfortable with journal writing as a reflective
technique. Positive, constructive feedback from educators may influence how
males perceive their journals and may lead to a more powerful reflective
experience (Dyment & O’Connell, in press-a).
“Set aside semi-structured time for journal
writing.” If educators truly value journals, they must remember to provide
adequate time for reflection and writing (Dyment & O’Connell, in press-b).
“Model good journal writing behavior.” In
addition to providing time for journal writing, educators should model good
journal writing behaviors. If an educator is supportive of the journal
writing process, keeps a daily journal, and helps to facilitate reflective
activities, then students may have more positive experiences with journal
writing (Dyment & O’Connell, in press-b).
“Consider alternative models for evaluating
journals.” Educators should explore
multiple ways of evaluating journal writing, including self-evaluation, peer
and coevaluation (i.e., student and teacher) as alternative methods
Moutoux, 2002). Educators also might consider allowing students to choose
percentage of the final grade that their journal is worth.
“Establish a trusting relationship between
the journal writer and the journal reader.” It appears that trust is a
critical factor that influences student perceptions and behaviors of journal
writing. Educators must work hard to develop trusting relationships with
their students to maximize the potential of journal writing (Dyment &
O’Connell, in press-b).
“Avoid journal writing students to death.”
Educators must coordinate journal writing assignments with other instructors
who ask students to write journals to ensure they are not overused.
Instructors within the same department or institution may consider allowing
students to keep a single journal for a number of classes, or ask students
to reflect in other ways (Anderson, 1993).
While journal writing holds great potential for
enhancing learning in experiential
education, for this potential to be fully realized, educators must recognize
pitfalls and develop effective strategies for avoiding them.
Anderson, J. (1993). Journal writing: The promise and the reality.
Journal of Reading, 36(4), 304-309.
Bennion, J., & Olsen, B. (2002). Wilderness writing: Using personal narrative to
enhance outdoor experience. Journal of Experiential Education, 25(1),
Burt, C. D. B. (1994). An analysis of self-initiated coping behavior:
Diary-keeping. Child Study Journal, 24(3), 171-189.
Chandler, A. (1997). Is this for a grade? A personal look at journals.
English Journal, 86(1), 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), 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
Schole: A Journal of Leisure Studies and Recreation Education.
Hammond, W. F. (2002). The creative journal: A power tool for learning. Green
Teacher, 69, 34-38.
Hettich, P. (1990). Journal writing: Old fare or nouvelle cuisine? Teaching
Psychology, 17(1), 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.
Johnson, I. W., & Barker, R. T. (1995). Using journals to improve listening
behavior: An exploratory study. Journal of Business and Technical
Communication, 9(4), 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, 59-60.
Moutoux, M. (2002). Evaluating nature journals. Green Teacher, 69, 39-40.
Priest, S., & Gass, M. A. (1997). Effective leadership in adventure
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), 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.
Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 65, 13-20.
This feature: Dyment, J. E.
and O’Connell, T. S. (2003) Journal Writing in Experiential Education:
Possibilities, Problems, and Recommendations. Eric