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Journals: Field, Academic, Personal


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Experiential educators use three basic kinds of journals to help their students achieve learning objectives: personal journals or diaries that help students meditate on their lives,  learning journals that focus on a specific class or program, and field notebooks that record scientific or other data. Before reflecting, journal writers record details of experience as they tell stories about what happened and record observed details. Students record details of observation and experience and begin to reflect in the journal, making it an essential tool for most experiential programs. 

Theoretical Background

Mark Smith (2013) writes that journaling aids “creative, professional, personal and spiritual development” (para. 1). That development results in part from the perspective journaling provides, which Jennifer Moon (1999, pp. 14-15), a leading scholar of journal writing, describes this way:

A journal is a friend that is always there and is always a comfort. In bad moments I write, and usually end up feeling better. It reflects back to me things that I can learn about my world and myself. It represents a private space in my life, a beautiful solitude, the moments before I go to sleep just to stop and note what ‘there’ is about the day or about my life at the time. I think that it has enabled me to feel deeper and more established as a person, more in control and more trusting of life.

Mary Louise Holly (1989) writes that a journal is “a reconstruction of experience and . . . has both objective and subjective dimensions” (p. 20). The journal can record events, thoughts, and feelings, but it is primarily where the writer makes sense out of experience. Smith (2013) says a journal

  • Aids memory
  • Engages our brains in reflection
  • Shows us ourselves in a different manner (outside recording)  than just thinking (inward)
  • Gives freedom to move in new directions
  • Helps clear our minds
  • Forces self examination and greater self awareness. 

In contrast to personal journals which aid individual well-being, a learning journal can help students reflect on notes they make from readings, lectures, discussions, or activities, helping them integrate the elements of the class into cohesive understanding. This learning journal should help them achieve course objectives. A field notebook can record details, including day and time, GPS information, and the phenomenon observed, whether a plant, animal, or another entity that the class is studying.

Basics of Practice


Examine the learning objectives of the program before choosing which kind of journal will best serve students: a personal journal promotes self-expression and integrates new experience in a holistic manner; a learning journal contains notes, thoughts, and reflections related to the program, but generally excludes personal detail and rumination; a field notebook records data and is generally used by science courses.

Have students use journal entries as material for other genres of writing—such as details of experiences and reflections that evolve into a personal essay, or data from a field notebook that forms the basis of a scientific paper.

Guide students to use their learning journal to synthesize experiences, program goals, and participants’ inner lives.

Give beginning writers specific prompts. Handing students a journal and expecting them to write on their own will not work well because they are novices at description, narration, and reflection. They will write abbreviated entries that don’t mean much to them or the program.

Observe students, listen to them, engage them in conversation, and focus on their growth in order to create writing prompts that meet their specific needs.

On extended programs have the students write every day (half-hour blocks of time, 1-2 times per day).

Decide what kind of journal you want students to have, or give them freedom to choose their own. A journal can be a bound book with blank pages, a three ring binder, a spiral notebook, a collection of pages, computer files— whatever form best suits the learning objectives and environment of the program. Programs that get students to bind their own journals signal to the student that the journal is important and will be a locus of creativity. This activity can also build a sense of community, establishing that journaling will be central to the group.

Teach students to be creative with their journal, which doesn’t have to contain only writing; it can also include doodles, drawing, and diagrams. Some students like to paste pictures or other items into the journal. However, these must be secondary to written reflection—avoid the journal becoming a scrapbook.


  • Integrate reflective writing into an activity:
    • Focus or frame: before the activity, discuss the prompt and link it to program goals.
    • Engage in experience: students participate in a short or long activity, indoors or outside.
    • Write: give the prompt and a limited time for writing in journals.
    • Read: ask for volunteers to read their journal entries out loud. Prioritize writing by having them read the words they wrote instead of paraphrasing. 
    • Talk and reflect: Discuss each entry that was read to reemphasize program goals
  • Build writing time into the curriculum or itinerary.
    • With study abroad or other traveling programs, structure down time, possibly at the end of a tour or in the middle of a hike, so participants have time to wander and sketch or write. 
    • Establish the expectation that their journal will be graded and that periodically the teacher or leader will discuss the journal with them. With learning journals, the grade should be based on criteria drawn from the class objectives, whereas personal journal writing should be graded on length, not content. Grading personal writing on any criteria other than length makes it conform to a standard and restricts the student from wandering and describing personal feelings. The teacher can simply ask students to report on how many pages they’ve written. 
    • Expect students to keep their field journals up to date, but also remin to do this for every observation. Forgetting can mean the loss of contextual data that makes the observation meaningful. 
  • Establish an environment for writing..
    • With traveling or outdoor groups, provide a place conducive to writing that is without distractions—a park away from busy roads, a clearing off the main hiking trail, a room set up for meetings in a hotel or hostel.
    • When discussing and reading, seat the students in a circle.
    • Require students to read out loud from their journals, and have them post to social media.
    • Move students from guided exercises to less guided exercises.

Teaching Materials and Resources:

Quick Links
Bennion, J. Reflective Writing Prompts.

Burton, G. Writing Prompts for writing with style.

The following are recommended by Karna Converse,

  • Rainer (1978, 2004) The new diary. Penguin.
  • Adams, M.A. (1990). Journal to the self. Grand Central Publishing.
  • Bender, S. (2001) Keeping a journal you love. Walking Stick Press.
  • Johnson, A. (2001). Leaving a Trace. Little, Brown, and Company.
  • Dowrick, S. (2009) Creative journal writing. Jeremy Tarcher/Penguin.

De Tar, C. (2019, July 19). Basic journal exercises for Ira Progoff’s intensive journal process.

Ellis, A.D. 8-Minute Memoir.

University of Hull. (n.d.). Secondary Assignments: Reflective Journals.


Holly, M. L. (1989). Writing to grow: Keeping a personal-professional journal. Heinemann.

Smith, Mark. (2013). Keeping a learning journal: A guide for educators and social practitioners. The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education.

Writing and keeping journals. A guide for educators and social practitioners

Further reading:

Adams, K. (1990). Journal to the self: 22 paths to personal growth. Warner Books.

Asfeldt, M. (2012). Group journaling: A tool for reflection, fun and group development.

Pathways: The Ontario Journal of Outdoor Education, 24(4), 14.

Bain, J. D., Ballantyne, R., Packer, J., & Mills, C. (1999). Using journal writing to enhance student teachers' reflectivity during field experience placements. Teachers & Teaching, 5(1), 51-73.

Brinton, H. (1972). Quaker journals: Varieties of religious experience among friends. Pendle Hill Publications.

Casewit, C. W. (1982). The diary. A complete guide to journal writing. Argus.

Chay, F., Black, H., & Nevle, R. (2018). Quick capture and questions: A curriculum for introducing natural history through field journaling. Journal of Natural History Education and Experience, 12, 5-14.

Curtis, L. J. (2013). Literacy on the move: A journal for the journey. Reading Teacher, 66(5), 372-376.

Dirnberger, J. M., McCullagh, S., & Howick, T. (2005). Writing & drawing in the naturalist's journal: Reviving the tradition of the naturalist's journal as an effective learning tool. Science Teacher, 72(1), 38-42.

Dowrick, S. (2009). Creative journal writing: The art and heart of reflection. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.

Dyment, J. E., & O'Connell, T. S. (2003). Getting the most out of journaling: Strategies for

outdoor educators. Pathways: The Ontario Journal of Outdoor Education, 15(2), 31-34.

Dyment, J., & O'Connell, T. (2007). Journal writing on wilderness expeditions as a tool for sustainability education—reflections on the potential and the reality. Applied Environmental Education and Communication, 6(2), 139-148.

Farnsworth, J. S., Baldwin, L., and Bezanson, M. (2014). An invitation for engagement: Assigning and assessing field notes to promote deeper levels of observation. Journal of Natural History Education and Experience, 8, 12-20.

Frances, S. (2014). Increases in writing fluency through free-writing journals. Journal of the Faculty of Letters, 3, 63-73.

Gregg, A. (2009). Journal assignments for student reflections on outdoor programs. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, & Dance, 80(4), 30–38. education, community-building and change. (n.d.). Writing and keeping journals. A guide for educators and social practitioners.

John, D. (2017). Introducing free writing to college students to enhance their writing skills. Fortell, A Journal of Teaching English Language and Literature, 34, 25-32.

Klug, R. (2002). How to keep a spiritual journal: A guide to journal keeping for inner growth and personal discovery (rev. edn.). Minneapolis: Augsburg.

Lubold, S. L., Forbes, S., & Stevenson, I. (2016). The effect of topic selection on writing fluency among Japanese high school students. Indonesian Journal of Applied Linguistics, 5(2), 231-241.

Marcus, S. (1980). Any teacher a writing teacher? The value of “free writing.” Improving College and University Teaching, 28(1), 10-12.

Moon, J. A. (1999). Learning journals: A handbook for academics, students and professional development. Kogan.

O’Connell, T. S., & Dyment, J. E. (2003). Effects of a workshop on perceptions of journaling in university outdoor education field courses: An exploratory study. Journal of Experiential Education, 26(2), 75–87.

Progoff, I. (1992). At a journal workshop: Writing to access the power of the unconscious and evoke creative ability. G. P. Putnam's Sons.

Rainer, T. (1978, 2004). The new diary: How to use a journal for self-guidance and extended creativity. J. P. Tarcher Inc.

Wood, J. (2013). Transformation through journal writing: The art of self-reflection for the helping professions. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.