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Personal Writing: Two Forms of Critical Thinking Journal

Personal Writing: Two Forms of Critical Thinking Journal


Reflective writing outside of class can help students internalize course content and see its connection to their own lives.

The activity

The kind of personal writing you might want your students to do will vary depending upon the nature of your course. Forms like the Observation Diary ask students to make explicit connections between course material and their own daily experience, whereas a Reflection Notebook can serve to integrate various parts of a course, as well as parts of the course to one's life. The role played by reflective writing will of course be different in a poetry class than it will in a physics class, but its powerful instructional value cuts across disciplines.


These journals must be an integral part of the class, being turned in, reviewed, and returned regularly. If the teacher does not pay attention to them, the student will quickly realize they are just busy work.

Example: The observation diary

The observation diary is a structured way to engage students in linking course material with their own experiences. For this assignment, students are asked to observe experiences, behavior, events, etc. and then identify a course theory or topic that supports or relates to this observation.

Specifically, instruct students to:

  1. describe the observation in the assignment
  2. provide a brief summary of the construct to be applied
  3. analyze how the theory fit with their observations.

Note: Keeping the diary entries short will promote student engagement in this activity. Five or less sentences for each section of the assignment should suffice.

Example: Reflection notebook

Reflection journals come in many forms and can be used in many ways. UT Professor of Geosciences Chris Bell describes his reflection notebook assignment in the following way:

The Notebook is an amalgam of a lab notebook, a field notebook, and a personal notebook of thoughts, questions, and comments pertaining to the readings, course discussions, and projects. As you work through the assigned readings, use the notebook to jot down discussion ideas, references to track down for further reading, questions to ask in class, or critiques of the article or chapter. For the University Lecture Series lectures, you can use the notebook to help you remember key points or questions for later discussion. For in-class labs and field projects, use the notebook for sketches or as a place to attach photographs, and to record your observations and experiences. Your notebook will be turned in twice for evaluation. Content and organization will necessarily be individuated, but we will be looking for evidence that you are regularly making a written record of your thoughts and questions pertaining to the course and the topics we explore.

Chris adds: "We talk to them more in class about our expectations: noting we want them to focus on comments and reflections on how course content is stimulating or exposing the students to new thoughts and perspectives, and whether/how they are discussing or using course content in other settings (e.g., dorm, social groups, over dinner with family, etc.)."