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Author: Deborah L. Starczewski

Encouraging Students to Think Beyond the Course Material
Research has documented the value of reflective journaling in both face-to-face and online courses. It is especially beneficial for beginning students in first-year seminar courses. But I hear you asking, “What professor has the time read a whole stack of journals?” And I would have to tell you that in my experience as a professor teaching an early childhood development course at our community college, one of the most valuable and least time-consuming assignments that I give my students are these journals. Although I often hear a collective sigh from students on the first day of class, an epiphany generally occurs by mid-semester, with students commenting on how much they enjoyed responding to the journal questions. Could this change result from the fact that journal reflections are not mandatory in the course, but an optional way to earn points? Possibly. But I have to believe that students choose to write reflective responses because it gives them the chance to freely express their thoughts. My students complete their journal responses on biweekly due dates and submit them via Blackboard. My goal is to provide a way for students to think and respond more personally to issues, theories, and classroom activities. I don't want them to just regurgitate course information, but to look beyond course content to their own experiences and to use those experiences to question the content and challenge their own thinking.? The assignment structure is simple. I propose a question drawn from the content we are discussing in class; students write a two- to three-paragraph response. I tell students that I don't correct grammar, and there is no right or wrong answer—but because they are college students, I expect responses in complete, coherent sentences. What they write is private. I only respond to journal reflections if I think there is a strong reason to do so. However, if the student wants feedback, he or she can note that in the reflection and I will respond. Each journal reflection adds five points to the student's final grade, but the overall benefits far outweigh any points earned. Journaling can be beneficial in any college course, not just for those who are starting college or taking education courses. So often we think of journaling as only being used in writing courses, but there are opportunities to use it in many courses. It provides a forum via which students can personally respond without fear of being challenged or ridiculed for their ideas. It's a way of communicating that works for those students who are reluctant to participate in class discussions, but still feel strongly about the issues and topics of the course. Journaling isn't just for students, either; I journal weekly. It provides a catharsis that allows me to introspectively explore my classroom practices and teaching style. It was especially beneficial for me during my first years as a new teacher. What do I want students to learn from journaling? I start with what they tell me they've learned from the assignment. Not surprisingly, most students say they weren't crazy about the idea when I introduced it—but once they completed their first response, they began to look forward to the next one. They report that journaling gives them the freedom to express their own thoughts and opinions without judgments and with a points benefit for doing so. One student, commented that “journaling was a nice change” and allowed him to respond to the content in more meaningful ways. If we tell students we are interested in their ideas, thoughts, and viewpoints, then we need to not only listen to those who express them in class but also read the responses of those who write. If they voluntarily take time to respond, then we owe them the time it takes to read what they've written. Besides that, I have found that reading their responses gives me a personal insight into how each student understands material and responds to it. I learn about them and from them. It's an educational experience for them, and for me. Deborah L. Starczewski is an academic coach at Onondaga Community College, NY. She can be reached at d.starczewski@sunyocc.edu.