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Students' beliefs about summary/reaction journals.


The last four authors wrote summary/reaction journals to fulfill a course requirement. Based on their experiences, they report in this paper three virtues of summary/reaction journals. Namely, journals (a) provided an impetus for improving their own reading skills, (b) caused them to learn more course content, and (c) allowed them to learn about themselves and their own beliefs. In spite of these benefits, there are drawbacks to summary/reaction journal writing. The authors mention a few of these drawbacks at the end of the paper. The authors conclude the paper by offering advice to both professors who might consider assigning journals and students who may consider using summary/reaction journals as a learning tool.


Four of the authors of this paper were graduate students in the first-author's "Major Principles of Instructional Design and Learning Technologies" course--a course that included seminal readings about the history of Instructional Technology (e.g., Reiser, 2001), learning theory (e.g., Perkins, 1999), educational philosophy (e.g., Jonassen, 1991), and the relationship between media as tool and technology as process (e.g., Clark, 1983; Kozma, 1991).

As students in this course, we were required to write summary/reaction journals for each seminal course reading--eighteen journals across the eight-week span of the course. As the name suggests, summary/reaction journals are student writings that consist of a summary of a reading and a reaction to that reading. Throughout this course, we developed strong opinions about the relative virtues of summarizing and reacting to course readings. Because the educational use of informal writing is on the rise, especially in adult education (Hiemstra, 2001), we want to share our opinions and beliefs about the educational use of summary/reaction journals. Our opinions of summary/reaction journals should be considered in light of already-existing literature about journaling in the higher education classroom (e.g., Blackmore, 2002; Connor-Greene, 2000; Garmon, 2001; Kerka, 1996). Space limitations prevent a full review of this literature; in short, though, these articles tend to agree that journaling provides an impetus for students to read more carefully. Journaling also provides professors with a better understanding of how students are interpreting course content.

Summarizing and reacting also have a solid foundation in the literature as being educationally viable. Summarizing, for example, provides students with opportunity to impose an organization on a reading and put the ideas from the reading in their own words (e.g., Falk-Ross, 2002; Friend, 2000/2001; Wittrock, 1991, 2001). Reacting allows students to connect ideas in one text with ideas in other texts and with their own experiences (e.g., Baylor, 2002; Spalding, 2002; Swartzendruber-Putnam, 2000). Such connections can promote more substantive learning (cf., Costa, 2000; Knowlton, 1995).

Three Virtues of Summary Reaction Journals

In our course, summary/reaction journals were highly informal. For example, the assignment guidelines offered the advice of not editing journals, having them instead serve as rough drafts of ideas that could be developed during in-class activities. The guidelines also urged us not to think of a journal's length, but of offering genuine ideas within the reaction. Journals were not graded in traditional ways; instead, the professor used minus signs (for unsatisfactory), check marks (to note a good journal), and plus signs (to note superior journals). We found this informality to be liberating. This informality freed us from worrying about conventions of formal academic writing, such as adherence to style manuals. To scaffold our abilities to produce a reaction, the assignment guidelines included a list of potential prompts that might serve useful to us (e.g., discuss why the ideas in a reading could or could not serve as a basis for planning your own professional practice; explain how the ideas in the reading support or contradict ideas in other readings). Such prompts were not meant to limit the ways that we were allowed to react; they were only a source of security if we needed a starting point to produce a strong reaction.

Throughout the course, we regularly discussed our opinions of journaling as an educational process, and we even wrote metajournals in which we each journaled about our own journaling processes and the impact that journals had on us as graduate students. The course professor facilitated our discussions, provided feedback on both our journals and our metajournals, and coordinated our efforts as we synthesized our opinions and beliefs in order to write this paper. In the remainder of this paper, we discuss three recurring themes that emerged during our discussions and from analysis of our own metajournals. We present these themes linearly, but they closely are interconnected.

Writing Summary/Reaction Journals Lead to Stronger Reading Strategies

We became better readers as a result of writing summary/reaction journals. Some of the assigned readings were very dense and written in heavy-handed academic jargon. In the past when some of us were required to read academic articles, we became overwhelmed by academic jargon. One of us noted in a metajournal writing that not understanding readings from past courses lead to feelings of being "stupid" and an outsider--as if she didn't "belong in the course." All of us agree that when our past graduate courses included assigned readings but no written assignments to accompany those readings, we may have read the article or chapter; but we seldom struggled to understand confusing points. We assumed that confusing points would be addressed during class lecture. Therefore, we sometimes neglected the opportunities to apply various reading comprehension strategies.

Journaling, however, forced us to set aside feelings of inadequacy and opportunities to wait for clarification from "experts" through lecture. Only after close reading could we summarize ideas in our own words and write strong reactions. This need for close reading lead us to use strategies to monitor our own reading comprehension. In particularly difficult readings, we would have to resort to reading single sentences and then paraphrase that sentence in our own words. In summarizing less complex articles, the process may not have been quite so cumbersome. Underlining, highlighting, boxing key points, and other marking of the text became commonplace, and these strategic markings later served as a guide for our summary writing. Regardless of the specifics of how we read the articles, we agree that the need to write summaries and reactions made us read more closely and monitor our own comprehension through active reading strategies.

Summary/Reaction Journals Helped Us Learn More Content

To a large extent, we agree that writing journals added value to this theoretical class, and because of journals we walked away at the end of the semester having a deeper knowledge of course content. During the semester in which we took this course, we regularly discussed how writing summary/reaction journals changed our views of our past educational experiences. Within these discussions, expressions like "cheated ourselves" out of past opportunities to learn and "accepting ourselves as passive" in the learning process were common. Journaling provided us with an opportunity to put content in our own words--to explain content to ourselves. This opportunity, in our opinion, lead to more substantive learning about course content. Much content made more sense when it was available to us in our own words. Without summaries, we would have glossed over major issues in our field of study.

Reactions, too, proved to be helpful in fostering our own learning of the course content. Because reactions required us to connect abstract theory to our own professional activities--all of us are full-time teachers in K-12 school settings--we came to see strong relevance in the content. In other words, we didn't just learn theory for the sake of learning theory; rather, we learned how the content within readings could have an impact on our own efforts to educate students. Without these connections between the readings and our own classrooms, we would have seen content as distant to our immediate needs, and we would not have learned as much.

Summary/Reaction Journals Revealed to Us Our own Beliefs

We think that our two previous points--that we read more closely and we learned more content--lead to us becoming more responsible for our own learning. As we became more responsible, we became more interested in our own learning. Greater responsibility and greater interest resulted in a third virtue of summary/reaction journals: We learned about our own beliefs and ourselves. We guess that we have probably always naturally learned about ourselves as we have read assigned texts; but without journals, learning about ourselves was often a passing notion, a flicker of thought that disappeared as quickly as it appeared. The exercise of putting reactions into written words gave us chances to explore our thoughts and opinions and to think further about our own relationship to the ideas presented within the text. The process of writing down these relationships made them more concrete than just thinking about those relationships. Our own teaching and learning practices were revealed to us through our written responses.

For one of us, this revelation came as she wrote about standardized testing. In two different journals, this one of us analyzed the purpose of standardized testing, which might be to "show student growth," "hold teachers and school districts accountable for student learning," or even to "identify schools and teachers who are in need of remediation." As a result of this analysis of student testing, the author of this reaction noted that she felt "accountable" to the outcomes of standardized testing. In a metajournal written for this course, this same one of us retrospectively considered the above two reactions and wrote, "A fear of low student performance on standardized tests is one reason why I do not include a broader array of teaching strategies in my classroom." Our point in the above example is not to initiate a discussion about the merits of standardized testing in public schools. Our point is to show how the process of journaling and reflecting on the journals (in our case through metajournals) revealed beliefs to the author of the journal. The example above represents a common experience for each of us. Namely, we each made our reactions concrete in our journals; and by reconsidering those reactions, our own teaching and learning practices were revealed to us. We learned about the "whys" of our own professional activities.

Reacting did more than reveal our beliefs. In some cases, reacting changed our beliefs. Through reacting to a series of articles dealing with whether or not media influences learning, for example, at least two of us experienced changes in our beliefs. One of us recorded her initial view in one journal: "I have always assumed that media had a direct effect on learning. After reading Clark (1983), I question my opinion. However, I still feel that certain media are more effective and efficient for certain tasks and learners." Just a week later, after reading more literature on this topic, this same person saw a shift in her own thinking: "[I]nstructional strateg[ies] have the greatest influence on learning." The one of us who wrote these journal entries notes that summarizing and reacting to these articles created a discussion with herself--an internal argument about which views were more true for her. It was not, then, the reading of the articles that created change. It was the actual writing about the articles that created a change in beliefs.

Considering how another one of us struggled with this same issue in a journal provides even more clear evidence of how reacting changed our beliefs: "After reading and rereading ... I don't have a really firm stand, just the understanding that there are divergent views about whether or not media influences learning." After summarizing some of these divergent views, this same one of us concluded, "At this point, I would probably say that instructional method (rather than media alone) is what influences learning." The point of these specific examples is that standpoints sometimes change through reacting to readings. In fact, in the example just cited, one of our views changed within a single journal reaction--from not having a "firm stand" to concluding the importance of a teaching strategy over media selection.


Our experiences suggest that summarizing is a useful tool for simplifying complex content, and reacting makes complex content more relevant as students learn about their own beliefs. To illustrate this point concretely, we have used specific examples from our own experiences as writers of summary/reaction journals in a "Principles of Instructional Design and Learning Technologies" course; but we suggest that the process of summarizing and reacting can hold a similar benefit for all students, regardless of the discipline from which they come. In fact, as a result of our experiences, at least two of us will begin requiring our own students to write summaries and reactions. As we consider our own experiences as reported in this paper, though, we realize that we offer an overly positive picture of summary/reaction journals. Summary/reaction journals do have problems. They are very time-consuming, for example. Also, when used often--as they were in our course--they can become monotonous and routine. While the content of readings varied, our task--to write a thoughtful journal--did not. This can be frustrating. We must honestly say that the idea of time consuming and monotonous written assignments is a bit unappealing, regardless of how beneficial those assignments might be.

Will we use summary/reaction journals in the future even if they are not required? If we are assigned a reading that is especially long or highly theoretical, we might use summary to organize the ideas in that reading. We might use reactions, too, because we know that reacting would help us make new connections and thus increase our comprehension of a reading. We also think that summary/reaction journals could be useful to us in the future as an organizational tool to prepare for exams or write research papers. In these cases, we would probably consider categorizing our summaries and reactions by themes rather than by articles. Thematic categorization would help us keep an ongoing log of our own learning about specific topics.

In this paper, we have discussed our experiences writing summary/reaction journals in a graduate-level course. We reported three specific virtues of journals, and we noted some potential drawbacks of using journals. Researchers should investigate the use of journals empirically as it relates to learning; professors and students, though, can benefit from this article immediately by considering our experiences with journals. Perhaps, for example, professors can determine the frequency of journal assignments in light of our view that journals are time consuming and, when overused, monotonous. Students who are in courses that require journal writing can maximize their own educational benefit from journals by being aware of the potential benefits as we have described them.


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Dave S. Knowlton, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Beth Heffren, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Natalie Fish, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Amy Eschmann, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Holle Voss, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

Dr. Knowlton is assistant professor of Instructional Design and Learning Technologies <>. Heffren, Fish, Eschmann, and Voss are graduate students in the Instructional Technology program.
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Author:Voss, Holle
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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