The benefits of reflective journal writing

As a practicum student at McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services, I have been examining the role of reflective journals in post-secondary classrooms.  Throughout the course of my research, it has come to my attention that, while they are used frequently in the instruction of disciplines like English and Theatre, reflective journals can actually be a helpful learning tool for a much wider range of subjects (Fenwick & Parsons, 2000; Stevens & Cooper, 2009).  In fact, they are becoming more popular in law schools, and even in science classrooms (Fenwick & Parsons, 2000; Ogilvy, 1996).  Skeptics insist that journal writing is nothing more than busy work for students and a lot of unnecessary extra effort for instructors.  However, those who view journals as constructive have demonstrated that, when properly implemented, engaging students in the exercise of journal writing can be beneficial to both students and their instructors.         

Journal writing can allow students to reflect on new knowledge learned in class, solidify their learning experience by recording their evolving thought process as they progress further in the course, learn new material, and form new conclusions (Stevens & Cooper, 2009, p. 3).  It can also teach them to formulate new opinions and perspectives, and gives them a risk free venue to explore, think, and practice skills learned in class (Stevens & Cooper, 2009, p. 9; Fenwick & Parsons, 2000, p. 155).  Students who write regularly in a journal consistently see improvements in their writing skills, as well as their creative and reflective thinking (Stevens & Cooper, 2009, p. 15-16, 33).

When students write journals for class, it not only helps them, but their instructors as well.  Instructors who assign journal writing to their students often see an increase in participation from their students: having to respond to class material in writing encourages students to do the readings, as well as participate more in class discussions (Stevens & Cooper, 2009, p. 11).  In addition, from reading journal entries, instructors can see which concepts were understood by their students, and which ones may need revisiting (Mills, 2008).  Finally, through the use of assigned journal writing topics, instructors can guide and focus their students’ learning, emphasize important concepts from the lectures, and challenge students to employ their critical thinking skills (Mills, 2008).

notebook-1939358_1920While such potential benefits can be appealing, it is not always clear how to go about developing and implementing a reflective journal assignment. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind when introducing journal writing to a class:

  • Be clear about the journal’s purpose

Whether it be to voice personal feelings and responses, develop and apply critical thinking skills, or some combination of these, communication of the journal’s purpose to students is essential.  This purpose should also be reflected in the journal’s evaluation, as well as the type of writing involved (Fenwick & Parsons, 2000).

  • Offer personal examples to help students understand what is expected of them

One of the best ways to communicate to students what is expected of them is to provide an example.  Having a concrete idea of what their instructor is looking for gives students more confidence that they are capable of creating an acceptable product, and takes some of the ambiguity away from journal writing (Fenwick & Parsons, 2000).

  • Evaluate only journal content, not form, spelling, or grammar

Insisting that students revise, rewrite, or edit their journal entries may effectively defeat the purpose of writing them in the first place.  It could cause students to be afraid of making mistakes, thus restricting their creativity, curiosity, and honesty.  This could in turn have a negative effect on the development of reflective writing skills.  Errors made in a journal setting occur because the journal is doing its job of encouraging students to try new things (Fenwick & Parsons, 2000; Marsh, 1998).

Journal writing may be new to many instructors, while other instructors have been using it for years.

  • To those instructors who are interested in integrating reflective journals in their courses: what questions do you have? What interests you about this exercise?
  • To those instructors who have experience with the use of journal writing: Which aspects of this activity worked well, and which could use some fine-tuning? Why did you decide to incorporate reflective journals? What suggestions do you have for instructors who are considering this activity for the first time?

If this is a topic that interests you, stay tuned for our next blog post that will discuss common concerns regarding journal writing, and how to minimize them. For more information on best practices for journal writing:

Stevens, D., & Cooper, J. (2009). Journal keeping: how to use reflective writing for effective learning, teaching, professional insight, and positive change. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publications. WorldCat:


Fenwick, T., & Parsons, J. (2000). Toolbox 2: Assessing learner journals. From The Art of Evaluation: A handbook for educators and trainers. Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing, Inc. pp. 155-161. WorldCat:

Marsh, S. (1998). Widening the lens of diversity: Motivating reflective journal writing. Paper presented at the meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), San Diego, CA. Retrieved from

Mills, R. (2008). “It’s just a nuisance”: Improving college student reflective journal writing. College Student Journal, 42(2), 684-690. Retrieved from

Ogilvy, J. (1996). The use of journals in legal education: A tool for reflection. Clinical Law Review, 3, 55-107. Columbus School of Law. The Catholic University of America. Retrieved from

Stevens, D., & Cooper, J. (2009). Journal keeping: How to use reflective writing for effective learning, teaching, professional insight, and positive change. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publications. WorldCat:


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