Why I Assign Journaling

Friend of Indisputably Kristen Blankely (Nebraska) was kind enough to jot down her thoughts about journaling while preparing her for her panel on integrating writing skills into ADR courses.  A personal note – I’ve cut way back on the journaling over the years, but I was crazy enough to require 9 journals the first time I taught negotiation at ASU.  Yikes !!  Nevertheless, journaling is important and Kristen has summed up the reasons why nicely.

On the first day of my Mediation and Advocacy in Mediation classes I tell my students that I require them to keep a journal throughout the semester.  If that was not bad enough (in their perspective), I tell them that the journal will count for a substantial portion of their grade (up to 40% of the total grade in the class).  Immediately, students eyes start to roll, and they wonder why I assign them such “busywork” that does not seem to require the appropriate amount of rigor compared to traditional law school assignments. 

Of course, assigning journaling is not without some downsides.  As I already mentioned, journaling comes with a decent amount of student resistance.  Students who do not journal on a regular basis frantically try to recall (or recreate?) lectures, activities, and readings from weeks prior.  A series of Zits cartoons once told the tale of the student who put off his daily reflections until the end of the school year.  The student pondered in the spring: “What was I not really thinking about on September First?”  Of course, none of our students would do such a thing.  Right?  

This begs the question – why do I believe so strongly in journaling to assign journals as part of half of my classes and give them such great weight in student grades?  At least five reasons support my assignment.    

1.  Reflective Practice.  Most importantly, I assign journaling so that students engage in reflective practice.  I teach reflective practice, and I practice it in my own teaching and in my mediation practice.  Learning from our own experiences as a mediator or an advocate should make us better neutrals and better attorneys.  So many of us do not have time for reflection in our busy lives.  Before our students’ lives get even busier in practice, having students reflect for even one semester will hopefully give students greater insight into their own practice for at least a short handful of months.

 2.  Difficult to Test on an Exam.  Mediation and Advocacy in Mediation (and most skills classes) are extraordinarily difficult classes in which to give exams.  Students could be graded based on a single end-of-the semester simulation.  This type of graded exercise, however, places undue weight on a single incident, rather than on a semester of learning.  Requiring weekly reflections should give the instructor a better sense of the students’ performance throughout the course of a semester, as opposed to a single activity.

 3.  Ability to Grade Students on “What is in Their Heads.”  When students perform poorly on an exam, they often say something like: “If only the Professor knew what was in my head, I would have gotten an A.”  I tell my students that journaling gives them a chance to tell me exactly what is in their heads regarding the subject matter.  Regular journal entries should keep the matter fresher in the students’ minds and the reflections should help with the reinforcement of key ideas. 

4Determine Growth Throughout Semester.  One of my favorite reasons to assign journals is to determine student growth throughout the semester.  Most student journals start in a very basic manner – usually highly descriptive of events occurring in class or in a role play.  While reading, I can tell that the students learned a wide range of concepts and theories as they wrestle with more sophisticated topics in their journal entries. 

5.  Gauge Student Learning.  Finally, reading journals helps me determine if the students learn what I intended to teach them.  Because I require my students to reflect on a number of different things, including my lectures, many of my students write about our class discusses in their journals.  These types of journal entries help me gauge whether the students’ assessment of the lessons taught coincide with my teaching goals for the class. 

The second natural question is – how do I grade student journals?  Generally, I seek a combination of the descriptive (i.e., what did the student do) and the analytic (what did students learn from the exercise).  I also grade them on their writing skills.  Although I expect the journals to be less formal than a court document, I do not think that the entries should be riddled with misspellings and bad grammar.  I also specifically grade the students on the diversity of topics discussed in their entries.  Too often, students can get into the habit of discussing the same issues week after week.  I want to challenge the students to examine different aspects of their experiences, the readings, and the lectures to engage in a fuller reflection of their experiences throughout the semester.

For these reasons, I consider journals to be a valuable tool in dispute resolution courses.  Please feel free to e-mail me (kblankley2@unl.edu) if you have any questions or if you would like to see some of my other materials on journaling.

4 thoughts on “Why I Assign Journaling”

  1. That’s interesting. I’m a family mediator located in the Seattle area and I remember hating journaling assignments, until I had a professor that encouraged those that hate journaling to create a journal that included visual aids. I’m not an artistic person by nature but I found the practice of creating something visual inspired me to write more thoughtful journal entries and actually gain something from the exercise.
    Ivy Roberts
    Seattle Based Mediator

    425.533.8322

  2. Have to agree with Ivy. Normal journaling can be quite bland for those who are more visually oriented. Some people need more visual aids to “aid” in the writing/recollection process.

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