Journaling for ideas and insights
Education professor Dannelle Stevens is never far from her black bound journal.Her students, early-career teachers and academics, adopt this practice of reflective journal writing as a way to capture observations and insights that lead to self-improvement and learning. She studies reflective journal writing because for students and faculty alike, it unlocks the door to hidden potentials and new ideas.
Students of Dannelle Stevens find that their required materials include a nicely bound journal—no spiral notebooks—worthy of what Stevens calls “their first book.”
Stevens teaches in PSU’s Graduate School of Education’s Curriculum & Instruction program, where her students include early-career teachers and faculty members from other disciplines. Often these students are well versed in their own fields of study, but have yet how regular, deep reflective writing enhances their teaching practice. Stevens also supports faculty members across the disciplines in negotiating the challenges of academic writing.
“My goal is to demystify the research and teaching processes,” Stevens says.
That begins with the journal that accompanies students throughout the course and travels along with her work with faculty as well. It becomes a means to track teaching, research, and observations from the classroom and from life at large. As it fills, it will include discussions, project notes, paper outlines and desired outcomes.
Studies have shown that journaling helps adults in a whole host of ways. Journal keeping gives students the confidence to be more active in class discussions and gives faculty a way to be more organized and to store and generate more research ideas and insights.
The practice also helps bring clarity to all aspects of teaching and professional life. “Journal-keeping is reflective writing. It supports adult development,” Stevens says. “It allows students to review, reassess, and rethink their learning, their experiences.”
The notion of “reflection” as a fundamental component of human development is at the core of Stevens’ teaching. The concept stems from the Socratic notion that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and has since evolved into a cornerstone of the philosophy of learning, according to 20th century theorists like John Dewey, David Kolb, and Donald Schön.
“I believe in the inner knowledge of people,” she says.
Practicing what she preaches, Stevens journals right alongside her students. In fact, she is co-author of Journal Keeping: How to Use Reflective Writing for Learning, Teaching, Professional Insight, and Positive Change, which isfilled with excerpts and examples from journals that illustrate its utility as a “sketchpad for ideas.”
Stevens also works with her teachers to develop “rubrics”: a system of effective and transparent grading criteria understood by both instructor and student. Her four steps for creating a rubric, start with reflection on what has worked in the past, what future goals the teacher has and what she wants students to learn with this assignment. (Her book Introduction to Rubrics, is soon to be in an updated second edition and has sold 24,000 copies.)
To illustrate the process of creating a rubric, Stevens asks her students to consider what might go into an ideal Thanksgiving, putting each idea on a Post-It note. The result is a Best Thanksgiving Rubric with a set of categories—food, guests, ambiance—that can be used to assess a holiday gathering.
This active learning exercise illustrates that students have the grading criteria in their heads already, even if they did not realize they had them. Through reflection, they can uproot what they already know and care about and that will become part of this assessment tool. It is an easy leap, then, for students to make a rubric for a class assignment. They know that they need to reflect and list what is important to them and put that on their scoring tool, the rubric.
Tools like journals and rubrics are different approaches to the same end: making sense of the assumptions and ideas that come bubbling up from within ourselves.
“Reflective writing is a key strategy that unlocks the door of adult hidden potentials and assets,” Stevens says.
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