What is Course-Focused Journal Writing? Writing_in_Journal.jpg

Course-focused journal writing refers to journal writing on topics relating to the course in which the journal is assigned. To best explain, consider what course-focused journal writing is not: It is not strictly “diary” writing on topics of personal interest or relevance, nor is it “prompted” journal writing in response to questions unrelated to course material. In short, course-focused journal writing is an activity that involves students participating in journal writing as a means of engaging with course lessons, assignments, or themes.
Regarding the overall purposes of course-focused journal writing, it is understood that journal writing has been recognized as a method designed to enhance reflection, facilitate critical thought, express feelings in writing about problems . . . , and practice writing summaries, objectives, and focused arguments”(Walker 216).
As evidence of the significance of course-focused journal writing, consider the study conducted by Wong, et al: it was found that grade 12 English students who participated in journal writing exercises relating to themes and main characters in a novel consistently achieved greater success on assessments of understanding than those who did not participate in the journal writing activities (Wong et al 180). Indeed, many teachers see journals as being about “thinking, learning, and communication – what school should be all about” (Greenwood 184).

How Can Teachers Use Journal Writing in the Classroom? school_clipart_boy_writting.gif

1. Reflection & Metacognition – Course-focused journal writing will provide students with the opportunity to reflect on course lessons, discussions, assignments, or themes. Reflection enables students to connect more deeply with course material, discover connections between different ideas or between course material and the “real world”, discover relevant questions, ideas, or opinions, and recognize what they have learned (Walker 216).
2. Preparing Assignments – Journal writing facilitates assignment preparation in three major ways. First, it will enable students to consider the assignment they are given and begin to effectively plan or organize both the work to be done and the overall presentation of the assignment. Second, it will allow students to assess strengths and weaknesses in their work while the assignments are still being completed in order to determine what changes or future work should be done. Third, it will enable students to engage with assignment material and develop a deeper understanding or new ideas that will facilitate successful assignment completion.
3. Learning & Studying – Using key terms and concepts in a journal writing exercise will help students to both memorize and gain a stronger understanding of course material, and this will help students with overall learning as well as studying for tests and exams.
4. Self-Assessment – Journal writing will help students to accurately evaluate their own work or overall participation in a course, which will serve to attune students to their rightful grades and also improve peer editing/marking skills (Gorman 434).

Connecting Journal Writing to the Curriculum

For a sample of relevant curriculum expectations (taken from the Grade 8 Writing strand), please follow the link below.
Relevant Curriculum Expectations.doc

What Teachers Should Considerteacher_clipart_1.gif

1. Introducing the Exercise – Although journal writing implies a degree of freedom as to how students approach the exercise, it is important for teachers to provide students with guiding instruction, so that students will be utilizing the journals in the ways, and for the purposes, intended by the teacher. See Table_1.jpg for a teacher instruction checklist before beginning the exercise.
2. Making Time – Students may find journal writing to be a time-consuming activity and, if given as a home work assignment, students may rush through journal writing and thereby the exercise will fail to fulfill any of its intended purposes (Walker 218). Teachers should, therefore, make time for in-class journal writing. However, if students wish to take journals home to complete entries that were started in class, teachers should welcome students to do so.
3. Building Bridges – Although course-focused journal writing is not diary writing, teachers should accept students’ choice to include more personal information in their journals as this may help students to make connections between the course material and their own lives – to effectively bridge the gap between experiences that occur in and outside of the classroom. However, as noted in Table 1, it is important to establish who will be reading the journals before beginning the exercise.
4. Grading – Journal writing is most useful when truly used as a “rough work” or “honesty” exercise. For this reason, teachers should avoid turning journal writing into a more traditional writing assignment by placing too many expectations or limits on what the journals can ultimately be used for. Although some guidelines are available, grading students’ reflection is a difficult task, and any unsatisfactory grades may be particularly harmful to students as they pass judgement on a more personal expression of information. For these reasons, journal writing is best graded in a “complete/incomplete” manner, rather than a grade level approach (Greenwood 185).

Free Writing: A Related Exercise no-stopping-on-pavement.png

A free writing exercise is similar to journal writing, with the single major difference being that, in free writing, when students pick up their pens and begin to write, they are not to stop, even momentarily, until the writing period is ended by the teacher. As such, free writing enables students to truly transfer all of their thoughts onto a page.
There are three primary purposes for including free writing exercises in the classroom (Redkey 431). First, writing down thoughts without pausing shows students who believe that they have little or nothing to say on a topic that, indeed, there is much in their minds to work with. Second, because free writing exercises are generally not graded, much of the pressure for grade achievement is lifted and, as a result, quality of work tends to be higher. Third, free writing gives students great practice to discover different writing strategies and determine which are most successful for them.
Including free writing in course-focused journal writing exercises will help students to learn to transfer thoughts, questions, and reflections into writing. However, not all journal writing should be free writing, as students will find it difficult to reflect and make connections if not given the time to think and the freedom to approach journal writing in the ways that suit them best. 

Examples to Work With

Course-Focused Journal Topics.doc
Course-Focused Journal Writing Entry.doc
Free Writing Entry.doc

Integrating Journal Writing into a Unit Plan

Here is a simple guide to integrating course-focused journal writing in a unit plan

1. After first introducing the unit topic and overview to the class, introduce the journals and inform the students as to how they will be used (see Table_1.jpg). Then ask the students to complete their first journal entries by reflecting on what the new unit entails – What do they think they will be learning? What interests them? What are they not looking forward to studying? What do they already know? What would they most like to learn or do during this unit?

2. At durations decided upon by the teacher (ranging from everyday to once a week), allow the students to write in their journals for the last 10 minutes of class. They can use this time to write about what they are learning and what they are having difficulty grasping. They can write about what they have and have not enjoyed so far in the unit.

3. Once a major assignment has been distributed, students can use their journals to discuss their initial thoughts for topics or approaches to the assignment and to begin to organize what information they will need to research, what structures and strategies will best suit the assignment expectations, and how they will complete the assignment by the due date. They can then write in the journals (perhaps more often, such as everyday, especially if the students are working on the assignment in class) as they progress through their assignments, as a means of tracking their work and noting what further research, etc. needs to be done.

4. After an assignment or other evaluated activity has been completed, students should complete a journal entry to reflect on the grades they received and why they believed they received these grades. They can also reflect on what they learned throughout the unit, and what they wish they had had an opportunity to learn or study further.

5. Teachers should use the journals as a way of evaluating their own work through the unit – What lessons of this unit seemed most/least to engage the students? What changes could be made to this unit to improve students' understanding and interests? (See the article by Gorman to learn of the benefits to teacher journals.)

References 1. Bernice, Y.L., et. al. “Effects of Guided Journal Writing on Students' Story Understanding.” The Journal of Educational Research 9(2002): 179- 91.
2. Gorman, David. “Self-Tuning Teachers: Using Reflective Journals in Writing Classes”. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 41 (1998): 434- 42.
3. Greenwood, Scott. “Journal Writing for Middle School Students”. The Clearing House 63 (1989): 184-87.
4. Redkey, Nancy. “Free Writing for Fluency”.
The Elementary School Journal 64 (1964): 430-33.
5. Walker, Stacy. “Journal Writing as a Teaching Technique to Promote Reflection”. J Athl Train (2006): 216-21.

Authored by Andrea Tatarski