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The ‘Proper’ Use(s) of Journals

by Tory Thorkelson

Now that I have your attention, I would like to share some thoughts and my experience with using journals in my university EFL classes. In my experience, journals can be both a blessing and a curse but if managed and used effectively- they can be a great additional way to get some insights into what your students are capable of.

Let me explain how I try to minimize the pain and maximize the value of journals.

1) Control the length:

I limit the length of student journals to no more than one page to force them to get to the point and be concise. If I did not do this, I would get journals ranging from a short paragraph up to 5 pages – both of which would be a challenge to evaluate fairly when compared to each other.

2) Control the style/format:

Having limited the length to one page, I also require that journals be typed in Arial or Times New Roman font. They are also double-spaced and use 12 point font to make them easier to read. Otherwise, I would get students trying to fit more in (8 point font) or trying to trick me by making the font/spacing bigger (72 point font, anyone?) to make it look like they wrote more than they actually did.

3) Allow for some free topics and some controlled topics:

I want to give students the freedom to explore topics they are interested in, in a bit more detail than the class allows for. They do need to include copies of the source where they read the article, watched the video or whatever on the journal itself or on a separate page so that I can read or watch it before I read their journal, so I know it is based on something other than just their own opinions.

Assigned topics may be based on the topics covered in class or the textbook if we have one. Often, the last journal is about the best and worst things about the current class so that I can get some more feedback about the class. This might seem unfair on some levels, but Korean students are surprisingly honest or even blunt about their likes and dislikes – especially the freshmen and I do not read these final journals until after I have finalized their grades.

4) Focus on content rather than grammar, spelling, or punctuation:

It is easy to get lost in proofreading students’ journals for grammar or other errors but – while it may look impressive to hand back a journal covered in red ink – I avoid this. There are plenty of other places to offer this kind of feedback, so use the journals to let students explore their own ideas and interests as they relate to the current class/subject. Grade the content, not the above unless they are truly a problem for the reader.

5) Limit the number they have to write so they focus on quality, and are not worried about the quantity of writing they have to do:

As I mentioned above, students will either try to write a bunch of journals to get frequent feedback from your or write one journal per semester if you leave this open. I normally ask for one journal per week (up to 7 before the midterms, for example) at most and 3-4 during the same period as a minimum. However, as I explain below, I do not simply read them and hand them back with comments.

6) Use them as the basis for part (if not all) of your midterm speaking tests/interview:

Journals can be a way to get some extra points on their final grade (I am trying that this term with my freshmen class of 30+, where they can earn up to 3% in bonus points for 6 journals worth 0.5% each). However, in most cases, I read the journals they produce and write some comments/questions that form the basis of all or part of their interviews for my speaking classes. This way, they can talk about topics they are supposedly interested in and know something about rather than just talking about the topics we discussed in class or from the textbook.

I have been using student journals on and off for about 15 years in a variety of classes and – although reading through 120 pages of class journals can be a pain – it also offers a presumably private way for students to interact with you and also another avenue for you to get invaluable information about your students’ lives and opinions.

Further, the value of allowing them to explore topics and areas of interest to them means that they get more out of the class than otherwise might be the case.

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