How can learning journals help you to learn

We have said that writing a learning journal is a good way of helping you to work through course material. Below we look at some of the ways that writing a journal can help you to learn, together with some written quotes from students on their experience.

Keep up with the course timetable

'It is a good discipline; it helped me to recall and clarify concerns.'

First of all, keeping a learning journal helps to ensure that you keep up with the course timetable of reading and other activities, by processing one section before you reach the next. When you write regularly about the ideas and information on a course, you are thinking about the material in your own words. This helps you to understand and remember.

Build up your own 'map' of the course

It opened up a space in which it was possible to make connections between topics and hence write coherently on the course as a whole.'

By writing your own version of the course, you are gradually building up a 'map' of it. At the beginning you won't know what the whole will look like. However, as you proceed you will notice connections and themes, and by the end you will have a whole picture. Of course, the learning journal may not in fact look very coherent; indeed, it might look quite messy and bitty. You may have to read it over carefully, and look for the main themes and connections; that is, use it as a basis for your course ' map'. All the same, you will have the material there if you need to reconstruct the course for yourself - for example, for an exam, a long essay or a future course.

Make connections with your own experience and thinking

'It made me realize the relevance of the course to my own life and it was good that the tutor was interested in this too.'

Another important feature of learning journals is that, because of the way they are conceived and written, they encourage you to make connections with your own experience and previous knowledge. You can also explore your own values and opinions in relation to the course topics. This can make a course more meaningful for you and therefore help you to feel more motivated and engaged in it.

Tackle difficulties in understanding course material

'Suddenly, from nothing, it all started to make sense.'

Writing a learning journal can help you to deal with course ideas. You might begin by simply stating, 'I don't understand this reading' but then write about the bits you do understand or what it is that you don't understand. Gradually it will make more sense. Here is what a student wrote about how her ideas were beginning to get clearer as she worked on readings and a lecture:

I felt that my responses to the texts, my understanding emerged as [the lecturer] talked out the key point of the texts. Excited. New ways of thinking about what power is, what it does, where it appears . . . and ways of describing these things.

A learning journal also encourages you to ask questions, which again helps you to slowly build up an understanding of your course. You can see in the three questions below that the student, by asking them of herself, is beginning to clarify ideas and issues.

• Is class still the same whether people act or think in terms of it or not?

• Is power defined by those observing or by those participating/experiencing?

• Do different kinds of power affect different kinds of society?

Make your own sense of the course

'It forced me to explore areas I would normally have shut away.'

The opportunity to make your own sense of a course is probably the most important purpose of a learning journal. It allows you to engage with the course material for yourself and to make your own interpretations. This gives you the opportunity to go more deeply into course ideas in your own way.

Express your own opinions

'It is good to have a section of work that takes a more relaxed and personal approach to the coursework.'

As we explored in Chapter 9, when you write essays it can be very difficult to know when and how to put in your own opinion. By contrast, a learning journal absolutely encourages you to do so. This can be empowering and can help you to be more confident about your own ideas. Be as bold or as tentative as you like. Here is an example, about the book Bartleby by Herman Melville (1991).

I really enjoyed reading this book, and I think it was more the style than the content. Melville has a way of drawing the reader into his world by describing those details which make the characters real. What does niggle me though is the lack' of detail given to Bartleby. I mean that by the end of the book I had no deep understanding of what motivated him to go for the job, begin work and then simply not do the tasks that were requested of him. I felt after reading this book that I had missed something really important . . . One thing it did highlight for me though was the variety of ways we can interpret the meaning of the word death'. It is not always a physical thing.

Rethink ideas

Looking back at the whole of the course shows a certain evolution, more confidence and a wider understanding of the general ideas.'

Having an opportunity to write a cumulative account of your learning on a course means that your ideas can shift and develop, especially if you keep revisiting parts of it. Writing down such changes also helps you to be self-aware about how your learning is working and evolving. Notice how, in the following passage, the writer shifts in her opinion of Bartleby after writing an essay, and as she revisits an earlier entry in her journal.

After writing my essay on Bartleby I have found a deeper meaning to the book. I found myself more and more interested in the narrator of the story. His reactions to Bartleby intrigue me. Why could he not take positive steps in dealing with him? I think the story is more about the narrator than I previously thought . . . My feeling is that the narrator almost felt Bartleby's despair but was too afraid to go the next step and address the issue.

Notice too how doing different types of writing gives the student different kinds of opportunities for developing her ideas. By this stage she is able to think about the book in a more complex way than previously.

Develop your own 'voice' and 'identity' as a writer

'I slowly realized that I could make my own structure.'

In Chapter 7 we explored how the university essay is a very particular kind of writing and we asked you to think about the difference between an essay and a learning journal in Activity Fifty-four. In an essay you usually have to ' make an argument' and come to a ' strong' conclusion. Some students find it relatively easy to adopt this stance but others do not. One of the reasons is a lack of confidence; as one student said: ' I'm just not the arguing type.' She may not have quite understood what presenting an argument' means but, all the same, it is true that the 'voice' of an essay, its 'I', presents itself as confident and sure of what is being said. We also pointed out that the 'I' of a university essay is often invisible.

Writing a learning journal gives you an opportunity to write in a different style and with a different stance. You are not required to come to a 'conclusion' and can explore in a thoughtful way, using the journal to clarify your ideas. Below is an example of a student using a journal in this way. The writer has already gone some way in sorting out the reading and here is expressing a sense of progress. The journal entry was written quite late in a course, and, although the first sentence indicates that the writer is understanding the material, he goes on to say that only now is he 'getting to grips with the subject'.

At first the everyday forms of resistance may not appear to be resisting, they are obviously not a revolution, small acts of resistance do not have the goal of total social change but are concerned with matters of local concern, but resistance can become part of a larger struggle . . . As the article by Scott has been interesting, clear and thorough, this seminar was useful and finally I feel as though I'm getting to grips with the subject.

Many students use a learning journal to experiment with writing, sometimes in a playful way. The writer of the following extract said that she used her journal to try out different kinds of writing, or different 'voices', as she put it. Notice how she uses quite 'poetic' language.

Nationhood

Reiterating a sense of belonging through everyone doing the same thing, feeling the same thing at the same time. Transcending our mortal selves and remembering ourselves as part of a big group that is like us, that somehow understands us - even if only, or indeed specifically, in the face of adversity. It's assumed that this nation thing is so natural as if it's always been there. Through identifying with this intangible yet tangible community we become part of something big, part of something that gives us an identity and significance that is greater than our little selves (or indeed the frustrating and contradictory lives we lead).

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