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Trouble Remembering Last Night’s Reading? Reflective Journaling Can Help

This article by guest author Phoebe Prinz ’24 won a Spring 2021 First Year Writing Award in the blog post category.

Have you ever felt like you thoroughly read a book chapter, but the next day in class you realize you haven’t retained anything? Reflective journaling is an effective way to increase your comprehension in your classes. This post will help you understand reflective journaling and how to implement it in your academic life so that you can start experiencing its benefits. 

What is reflective journaling?

Reflective journaling is a learning method that involves writing a response to one or several readings. This response goes beyond merely summarizing or jotting down key ideas. It involves critically analyzing the material, drawing out themes, making connections to broader and surrounding conversations, and relating the reading to yourself.

What can reflective journaling do for you?

Increase comprehension

Researchers at the University of Nebraska studied the influence of reflective journaling on students’ comprehension of their class material. The researchers compared the effectiveness of journaling to online quizzes. The journaling was shown to be far more effective in preparing students for an exam.

Generate ideas

A photo of a journal open to a page reading "Thought Catalog" with a brush pen and a micron pen lying on the page
Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Dr. Alison Gibson, Senior Lecturer of English and Director of the Writing Center at Wheaton, has incorporated journaling into her courses, including Studies in Western Literature: Comedy and Tragedy. In one syllabus, Dr. Gibson describes the purpose for journaling. She says that “writing is a way of thinking.” In other words, writing is not only for ideas already formulated—the process of writing can actually help you formulate ideas.

Sam, a sophomore in Comedy and Tragedy, remarked that the practice of journaling on the reading assignments has propelled his creativity. Journaling functions as “an idea pad” for how he can contribute to class discussions and essay writing, and it encourages him to think imaginatively about the material.

Foster active learning

Reflective journaling also helps students engage actively with the reading, rather than just consuming it passively. Zachary Nowak, a Harvard professor who tried out reflective journaling assignments, quotes one of his students: “[reflective journaling] made me more accountable for my own learning.” Sam echoed this sentiment, observing that it is a “very individual process” in which you are able “to come to your own conclusions.” These students’ comments reveal how reflective journaling encourages you to take ownership of your own learning through thinking critically and relating the material to your own experiences. 

Getting started

Choosing a journal

A photo of stacked blue notebooks
Photo by John-Mark Smith on Unsplash

You can choose any folder, notebook or journal to use for your reflective journaling practice. Professor Nowak recommended his students “get a sketchbook with thick, unlined pages rather than the typical spiral-bound notebook” but added that really anything “separate from your ‘diary’” will work well. You could even keep a folder in your phone’s notes app. It will be helpful to keep all the entries for a particular class in one place so that when you begin writing an essay you can look back at your entries as a resource. 

Gathering your thoughts

Reflective journaling is not simply taking notes or summarizing what you have read. There are several different types of reflective journaling that you can incorporate into your learning even if your professor does not assign journaling.

A photo of a woman writing in a journal lying on a bed
Photo by Ava Sol from Unsplash

You can start a reflective journaling session by writing down a few prompting questions. 

  • What is the writer conveying?
  • How did this reading impact me?
  • Why did I have the reaction that I did?
  • What experiences in my life have influenced my reaction? 
  • How does it compare and contrast to other material I have read?

If you need more ideas, here are more prompting questions and other reflective journaling techniques for you to try.

Still not sure?

These questions may seem daunting to you, but don’t worry! Reflective journaling is not for polished writing and filtered ideas. To a certain extent, this practice has freed me from the hypercritical self-talk that keeps me from creating. My journal is a place where I can write without hindrances or interruptions. The freedom of this method helps me feel more satisfied with my writing.

Not enough time?

Most of you are probably in classes in which the professor does not assign reflective journaling, so journaling would be on top of your other classwork. 

But reflective journaling may save time in the long run. Through reflective journaling, you may not need to spend as much time reviewing for exams because you understand the material better from the start. Journaling could also catalyze your writing process for future essays since you’ll already have started gathering your thoughts on the assignment. 

In summary, reflective journaling is a tried-and-true method that has proved to have tangible effects on comprehension, creativity, and overall academic performance. 

Reflective Journaling for the Christian Liberal Arts Student

In many ways, reflective journaling epitomizes the ideals of a Christian liberal arts education. Reflective journaling reinforces the idea that the purpose of learning transcends getting good grades, winning favor with a professor or parent, or any other motive we confuse with the purpose of academics. Instead, reflective journaling renews our focus on the reality that we are created to learn for the sake of love—that in growing in our understanding of the world, our Creator, ourselves, and our neighbor, we are freed to love and serve. 

A photo of book pages arranged in a heart
Photo by Aung Soe Min on Unsplash

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