Learning Journals I

A learning journal is a record of how your thinking has changed/evolved/developed in light of your reading of a text or texts. These texts might, for example, be on a list of readings assigned to you for a course. So they're united in their interest in a certain subject, though each takes a different viewpoint on that subject. But difference is good: after all, that's what academic writing's all about. Every article, report, essay, review takes a different angle on questions, and so adds to knowledge. Your learning journal is a commentary on your learning curve. It should reflect not just what you have learned but how you've learned it. What were the key turning points in your understanding of the subject area? Remember that a learning journal unfolds in time: it's not the same thought pattern at one stage as at the next. But you also need to show the continuities between one stage of development and the next. One strategy you can use is to reflect back on what you said earlier and let your reader know when and why you changed your mind. This is called "metacognition" or "recursion." It means you're thinking about your writing AS you write. In effect, you're drawing a map of your thought process in the midst of the process itself. Obviously, a learning journal is a dynamic entity, subject to alterations, changes in direction, etc. during the time it's being composed. Here's an example of a learning journal entry that tries to follow these principles:  

In my academic career so far (I'm a third-year student in Education), I haven't often been asked to write a personal narrative, especially this thing called a learning journal, or include in my writing references to myself, my experience, my memories. I mean as an official class assignment--for grading. Most of my "training" as a writer has focussed on the academic essay: expository/informative writing, sometimes persuasive writing. But definitely writing where you don't say "I," and focus on the "structure" of the argument, making sure points are clear, well supported by facts, etc. The kind of writing that's "detached" and "impersonal" as they say. If I thought about personal writing at all, I suppose I considered it a time-waster, touchy-feelie in a sixties hippie kind of way. More like creative writing, which could be fun I guess for some people. But it certainly didn't test your ability to analyse complex ideas, argue a strong position, which I assumed academic writing was supposed to do. 

But with this assignment we're being asked to "include ourselves" in the paper, record our reactions to assigned readings, present our different points of view--and we're allowed (in fact required) to say "I." As if our being "in" the writing process, tracing the evolution of our ideas as they happen, is important to the overall effect. The first article I read was an essay by the African-American educator, bell hooks. The essay is "Teaching to Transgress," and it's the introduction to a collection of her essays, also called Teaching to Transgress. Before I read the article I took a look at the Table of Contents, to get an idea of the kind of subjects she's interested in. I was slightly surprised to see the range of issues she explored: gender, race--the cultural politics of the classroom. But she explores these huge topics from a very first-person perspective, as events she has experienced up close. 

So I began to change my mind about the value of the "personal": the personal wasn't an excuse to hide from serious questions. The personal is a way of approaching them, getting "into" them, understanding them. The personal, I realized, had a knowledge value of its own, i.e., could lead to new knowledge. Here's how bell hooks starts her introductory essay:    

In the weeks before the English Department at Oberlin College was about to decide whether or not I would be granted tenure, I was haunted by dreams of running away-of disappearing-yes, even of dying. These dreams were not a response to fear that I would not be granted tenure. They were a response to the reality that I would be granted tenure. I was afraid I would be trapped in the academy forever. (p.1) 

She begins with a personal story (anecdote), a particular life-changing moment in her career, when she was coming up for tenure at her college. She doesn't present this moment as something fully revealing, understandable. If anything, the moment is a puzzle, a mystery, something she must explore. The problem is: something she's wanted for a long time-tenure (job security, etc.) is also something she's afraid of. 

In short, she both wants and doesn't want to spend her life in the "academy," because while it offers her security, and opportunities for development, it might also spoil her in some way: it may interfere with creative aspects of her personality. The academic life could, as she says, be a trap. 

This conflict is the starting point of her discussion and it's presented at the start as confusion and uncertainty, as something undecided, more a question than an answer. This tells us something about the learning journal as a form. It's more interested in the process of discovery, the way we learn as we go along, especially in light of concrete events. It puts a premium on our being conscious of ourselves as we write, and as we engage in others' experiences and language about those experiences. Like science, it proceeds from what we don't know to what we do know, or may know, or may find out. This doesn't mean we're concerned exclusively simply with our feelings or opinions. These embody responses to the world whose meaning we've already worked out. It means we're interested in ideas as they develop, lead to other ideas. We're also interested in showing how we arrived at these ideas. So, we're addressing not only the "what" question (what's being said? what happened?) but the "how" question (how were we changed?). 


Hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress. New York: Routledge.

Copyright (c) 2009 by Andrew Stubbs and Student Success Centre Writing Service.  All rights reserved.  This material may not be published, reproduced, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.