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The Value of After-Class Journals

How a tool intended to help my students became a gauge for my own performance
The Value of After-Class Journals

I’m not sure why I hadn’t thought of assigning weekly journals in my class before. Despite preaching to my students every year that they should journal to bolster their learning capacity, I’d never formalized it as a learning tool within the course. This year, in an attempt to show them the value more formally, I decided to experiment by implementing a weekly reflection assignment that students have to fill out within a few days of class each week.

When the students submitted their first journal entry, I was eager to see whether or not the students were engaging deeply with reflection. After reading through a few of them, however, it quickly occurred to me that reflections were highly valuable feedback for me as an instructor. The students' reflections were a way for me to get honest opinions about my teaching style and course material that I could incorporate into future sessions.

This feedback also addressed another issue I’ve had with online teaching. When I ran my first virtual classroom in 2020, the thing I missed most was a tactile way to get a sense of student engagement and satisfaction. Scanning faces and hearing audible engagement during breakout groups is practically impossible with most video conferencing software.

Unfortunately, as with any large class, not everyone was committed to completing this assignment well. Although I originally intended to grade the journals simply based on submission, it immediately became clear that, without more of an incentive, enough of the class wasn’t going to put in any meaningful effort. Instead, they were resorting to platitudes like “Today I learned a lot,” which is useful neither to me nor them.

Given the limited tools at my disposal for such a large group, I have resorted to grading their journals using a simple three-point scale. Admittedly, this is far from perfect — not that any grading system hits the mark — but it immediately improved the depth of their reflections.

Of course, I’m conflicted about assigning grades based on content. One could argue that students should be able to express themselves however they want in a reflection. If they’re learning, why should I judge them based on my perception of depth in their writing? A realistic answer lies at the intersection of institutional grading requirements and class sizes. It would be incredibly difficult to motivate most students to do something weekly if it doesn’t contribute to their grade, and providing highly personalized feedback for more than 90 journals every week is unrealistic as an instructor.

While artificial intelligence might one day be able to help, as an instructor I don't have time to wait for technological breakthroughs. Instead, I run small experiments in my class, and this year I’ve uncovered an addition that’s likely here to stay.

P.S. Grading remains the single biggest challenge I face as an instructor of a class called “Creativity, Innovation, and Critical Thinking,” but I’ll dive into this subject more thoroughly in a future post.