Online Learning Journals

Dr Nicola Abram, School of Literature and Languages
n.l.abram@reading.ac.uk

Overview

This entry describes the use of online Learning Journals on a Part Three English Literature module. This method of assessment supports students to carry out independent research and to reflect on their personal learning journey, and rewards students’ sustained engagement and progress.

Objectives

  • To encourage reflective learning.
  • To promote independent learning.
  • To facilitate weekly cumulative contributions to summative assessment.
  • To reward development rather than final attainment.

Context

The Part Three optional module Black British Fiction (EN3BBF) is characterised by a large number of set texts that are read at a fast pace. During a single term it covers the period from 1950 to the present day, and asks students to engage with novels, short stories, poetry, a play, and a film, as well as critical theory, history, autobiography, documentary, blogs, political speeches, and press reviews. The module is also characterised by its relevance to historical and contemporary issues of social justice. The quantity and complexity of this material requires students to exercise their independence, taking responsibility for their learning beyond the weekly three hours of tutor-led seminars.

Learning Journals had been in use for this and other modules in the Department of English Literature for several years, in the format of paper workbooks pre-printed with set questions. This effectively served the purpose of structuring students’ weekly studies and directing discussion in seminars. Students worked extremely hard to record their learning in this format, often going beyond the standard material to include additional reading and research of relevance to the module.

However, the paper workbook sometimes resulted in an excess of material that was diluted in focus and difficult to evaluate. Another problem was that the handwritten Journal was retained by the University after submission, meaning students lost this rich record of their learning.

To improve this situation, consultations were held with colleagues in the Department of English Literature and an alternative online Learning Journal was initiated in 2015/16.

Implementation

Experimentation with the Blackboard Journals tool helped to clarify its privacy controls, to ensure that tutors could see the work of all participating students but that students could not see each other’s entries. A discussion with the University of Reading TEL team clarified marking procedures, including making the Journal entries available to view by external examiners.

A discussion was held with colleagues who use paper or online Learning Journals, to establish generic assessment criteria and ensure parity of expectations.

In discussion with another module convenor it was decided that students would be required to submit ten weekly entries, each consisting of 400-500 written words or 4-5 minutes of audio or film recording. The choice of media was a proactive effort to make the Journal more accessible to students with dyslexia and those for whom English is an additional language. The subject of each entry could be determined by the student, prompted by questions on the reading list, discussion in seminars, personal reading, or other activities such as attendance at an exhibition or event.

In the first term of implementation (Autumn 2015) the full ten entries were assessed. In later iterations it was decided that students should instead select five entries to put forward for summative assessment. The selection process facilitates further self-reflection, and the option to discard some entries allows for experimentation without the threat of penalty.

The Learning Journal incorporates a vital formative function: students are invited to a 30-minute feedback tutorial to discuss their first five entries. This conversation refers to the module-specific and task-specific assessment criteria, supporting students to reflect on their work so far and to make plans to fill any gaps. The Learning Journal functions as a mode of assessment for learning, replacing the traditional task of the formative essay.

In terms of summative assessment, the five submitted Learning Journal entries account for 50% of the module mark. An essay constitutes the other 50%. These two forms of assessment are equivalent in scale, with each carrying a guideline of 2,500 words total.

Impact

The fact that students could nominate a selection of entries for summative assessment seemed to encourage risk-taking. Students were more willing to experiment with their critical responses to texts – by testing speculative interpretations, asking questions, or articulating uncertainty – and to express their ideas using creative practices. They became actively engaged in directing both the form and content of their learning.

The move to a restricted length per entry was designed to encourage students to distil their ideas, and to direct attention to the aspects of that week’s learning that most mattered to the student. This was successfully achieved, and feedback shows that they could see their own progress as the weeks passed.

Feedback also showed that students appreciated the opportunity to choose their own topic for each weekly entry, without the constraints of set questions. As a result, entries were remarkably varied. Some students took the opportunity to reflect on their personal circumstances or current political contexts (such as the construction of ‘Britain’ in the discourse around the EU referendum in 2016) using the technical vocabulary learned on the course; others explored creative media such as spoken word poetry. All students gained skills in a genre of writing different from the traditional essay format, which may prove useful for careers in the communication industries.

One unexpected benefit was that the online journal made it possible for the module convenor to track the students’ learning in real-time rather than waiting for summative assessments and end-of-term evaluations. This immediate insight enabled corrective action to be taken during the course of the module where necessary.

Reflections

Students were initially nervous about this unfamiliar method of assessment. Providing detailed module-specific and task-specific marking criteria, as well as example entries, helped to allay these fears. The decision to count only a selection of entries towards summative assessment significantly helped, allowing students to acclimatise to the task with more confidence. As the term progressed, students visibly transitioned towards autonomous learning.

The Learning Journal format proved particularly effective for this module as it created a ‘safe space’ in which students could reflect on the ways in which they have personally experienced, witnessed, or practised racism. Students’ self-reflection extended beyond the subject of skills, strengths and weaknesses to consider their embodied knowledge, ignorance, or privilege. They became more critical in their thinking and more alert and responsible as citizens. Articulating the potency of this real-world engagement, one student commented that “the consistency of the learning journal […] allowed my thinking to naturally mature and changed my outlook on society”.

Marking the Journals became much more efficient using the online format, as entries were typewritten and significantly condensed. Additionally, marking and moderating could be done remotely, without the need to exchange cumbersome documents in person.

It is striking that some students achieving high marks in their Learning Journals did not always achieve equivalent marks in their essays or other modules. I do not consider this to indicate an artificial inflation of grades; rather, I would argue that the Journal recognises and rewards skills that are overlooked in traditional assessment formats and undervalued elsewhere on our programmes. Some students used the Journal to record their personal contribution to seminar discussions and be rewarded for this, while for other students less likely to speak in class (perhaps due to EAL status, gender, disability, or personality) the private entries provided an important opportunity for their insights to be heard.

Follow up

Informal spoken feedback on the general use of Learning Journals was given to the group during seminars, and one-to-one feedback was given halfway through the module. However, several students sought additional reassurance about their entries. In 2017/18 I intend therefore to incorporate a peer-review exercise into the early weeks of the term, to allow students to benchmark their work against others’ and to promote the take-up of alternative media and approaches. This activity will help students to see themselves as a community of learners. Rather than presume that students have access to technology I will supply iPads belonging to the School of Literature and Languages for use in the classroom.

I also intend to circulate example entries in audio and video formats, to show that the Journal validates skills other than traditional essay-writing and to encourage students to experiment with alternative ways of demonstrating their learning.

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