Essay About Journal Writing Tips

The Research Shows Series: Journal Writing in the Classroom

You may want to skip right down to the “Possible Benefits”, “Problems”, and “Recommendations” section of this article. The first section provides background on journal writing and experiential education, and you won’t find any tips that you can put into action TODAY. However, if you have a few moments…

Note: Experiential education centers around problem, plan, test and reflect. John Dewey was an active proponent. David A. Kolb is another big name associated with it. Experiential education has introduced a few very familiar educational terms such as “active learning” and “cooperative learning” to the educator’s vocabulary.

I can’t say for sure if journals were popular in education before experiential education, and it would be my guess that they were not. In a highly skilled writing teacher’s hands, journals can be a valuable tool. The flipside is that quite a bit of valuable time has been wasted over the years believing that journal writing by itself teaches writing. The “Recommendations” section below is a great source for helping make sure your time is well spent!

Many teachers today are looking to get amazing results fast. If you are looking to improve student writing fast, for any reason, be sure to check out our Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay writing program!

Now let’s find out what some of the most important names in teaching writing research have to say about journal writing!

Journal Writing in Experiential Education: Possibilities, Problems, and Recommendations

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 facilitating 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 experiential education.

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 their teaching.


The recording of daily events, personal reflections, questions about the environment, 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 Powell.

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, 1990).

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 helps 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).


The literature about journal writing offers several recommendations.

1. “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).

2. “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.

3. “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 pages).

4. “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).

5. “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).

6. “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).

7. “Consider alternative models for evaluating journals.” Educators should explore multiple ways of evaluating journal writing, including self-evaluation, peer evaluation, and coevaluation (i.e., student and teacher) as alternative methods (Chandler, 1997; Moutoux, 2002). Educators also might consider allowing students to choose the percentage of the final grade that their journal is worth.

8. “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).

9. “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 potential 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), 239-246.

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 recreation students. 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 of 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. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 420 702)

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 programming. 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. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 65, 13-20.

Author: Dyment, Janet E.; O’Connell, Timothy S.

Source: ERIC Clearinghouse

One of the most commonly used and therapeutic ways to utilize your journal is to reflect upon experiences you deem profound or that had an impact on your life. Getting it all down on paper can really give you a completely different perspective on things. Writing in your journal can be an incredibly useful tool to help you better understand yourself and the world you operate in. Reflective learning journals are also a great way to find creative solutions to difficult problems.

So, what exactly is a Reflective Journal?

A reflective journal (aka a reflective diary) is the perfect place to jot down some of life's biggest thoughts. In a reflective journal, you can write about a positive or negative event that you experienced, what it means or meant to you, and what you may have learned from that experience.

A well-written journal can be an important tool. As with any tool, to get the most benefits, you need practice. This could mean forcing yourself to write, at first, but after a while, it will become like second nature. Write down your entry as soon as possible after the event. This way, the details will still be fresh in your mind, which will help later in your analysis.

5 Reasons To Write a Reflective Journal

Reflective journals are most often used to record detailed descriptions of certain aspects of an event or thought. For example, who was there, what was the purpose of the event, what do you think about it, how does it make you feel, etc. Write down everything, even if you don't have a clear idea of how this information will be helpful. 

Here are some of the most common reasons why people find reflective journals so useful:

  1. To make sense of things that happened. What you write should sound as if you are describing the details to someone who wasn't there. Be as descriptive as possible. Just the act of writing down the details of what happened may give you perspective that you may not have otherwise considered had you just continued to think about it.
  2. To speculate as to why something is the way it is. Your views can come from your own common sense, or from something you have heard at a lecture or read in a book. Either way, speculating why something is the way it is can be a very useful exercise in reasoning.
  3. To align future actions with your reflected values and experiences. After positing your interpretation, continue to observe the subject of your speculation to decide whether you want to stick to your original views, or make changes. That is one of the great things about an online journal--you can make changes to your entries at any time.
  4. To get thoughts and ideas out of your head. Writing down your thoughts can help relieve pressure or help resolve problems. It will also help you focus the task at hand.
  5. To share your thoughts and ideas with others. Getting opinions from others about what you wrote can help you clarify your feelings for a deeper understanding of yourself.

The Reflective Journal Thought Process

When writing a reflective journal, you are simply documenting something that has happened in your life that requires you to make a change or consider the impact of your decision. Your journal, in many ways, is a dialogue that you are having with yourself. You are forcing your brain to think critically about something and to produce written words accordingly.

The worst thing you can do to a creative flow is to start inputting criticism before your thought is complete. Allow yourself the time to make a mistake and keep going. Who cares if you didn't phrase that exactly how you should have or you didn't spell that word right? Those things just aren't important here. Find whatever works for you.

4 Tips To Get Your Reflective Journaling Started

Writing a reflective journal requires not only that you describe a learning experience, but also that you analyze the topics covered and articulate your feelings and opinions about the subject matter. There is no set structure for writing a reflective journal, as the diary is meant for your own use. The writing process is entirely free-form. However, there are certain guidelines to follow that will make you more successful at this. Here are some basic tips at how to write a reflective journal. 

1. Always Keep the Journal Nearby

The first step in learning how to write a reflective journal is as simple as being prepared to jot down your thoughts and opinions on something you are learning anytime the mood strikes. For example, if you have an insightful observation about a book you're reading while on the bus, it pays to have your journal with you. Penzu's free diary software come in handy in such a situation, as online and mobile entries can be made in your Penzu journal from any location.

2. Make Regular Entries

While you can write in whatever form and style you please, it's important to write regular entries, even if a moment of inspiration doesn't arise. This ensures you are reviewing content and actively thinking about what you have learned. This will develop your writing and critical thinking skills while keeping you organized. In the end, this should enable you to better understand specific topics you are studying.

3. Participate, Observe, Summarize and Contemplate

While reflecting is the main part of keeping a reflective diary, it's also vital that you first participate in a learning activity, make observations and summarize facts and experiences. For example, if you are writing a lab for science class, be sure to first cover what you did and what the goal and outcome of the experiment was prior to elaborating on your ideas and opinions of what was discovered. Reflective journaling is first about participating and observing before writing.

4. Review Regularly

Take time to read over previous journal entries and see how new experiences, additional knowledge and time have altered how you think and feel about the material you've been analyzing and contemplating. This will make the journal more valuable to you personally, as it will shed light on how you've grown. 

Reflective Journal Topic Examples

To create a reflective journal that really provides detail on your overall perspective on a variety of different situations, consider using one of the prompts below to help with your thought process.

  • Write about which relationships have the most meaning to you and why. Include ways you can grow to help maintain these close relationships and get rid of the toxic relationships currently in your life.
  • Write about what you are learning at school or in college.
  • Write about someone in your life who has experienced a positive change and how you can learn from their situation.
  • Write about what you want out of the next five years of your life and what you can do to achieve these goals.

If you’re looking for more topic examples, check out these great reflective journal prompts

Reflective Journal Example

The passage below is a sample reflective diary entry about losing a job:

“This week I lost my job because my employer thought I was not consistent in my work. At first I was a little upset, because I'm always on time, and I complete what I can by the end of the day. I couldn't figure out what she meant by stating that I wasn't consistent in my work. After thinking about the situation, I realized that I can only complete the work assigned to the best of my ability. What she doesn't realize is that the problem started because I constantly received incomplete reports. Whoever ends up with my former job will have the same issues if that problem isn't addressed first. However, knowing that I did what I could will allow me to continue to move forward with a positive outlook for the future.

A reflective journal is a personal account of an educational experience that offers a variety of benefits, from enhancing your writing skills and helping you retain information to allowing you to express your thoughts on new ideas and theories.

When keeping a reflective journal, it's important that you have privacy and convenience. Penzu's online account and mobile platform offer secure access and the ability to write entries from anywhere, and your diary will never get lost or stolen.

There's no time like the present - start your free online journal today!

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