Students Talk: Learning Journals (a PLanT Project)

In this post Hannah Ashraf, a graduate of BA (Hons) English Literature, and Dr Nicola Abram, Lecturer in Literatures in English, discuss their 2018/19 PLanT Project ‘Students Talk: Learning Journals’. 

Hannah AshrafHannah: I first came across the journal assessment method in my third year, studying the module ‘Black British Fiction’. As this was an exercise which pushed you to think about your own reflections each week, the first few weeks with the journal were difficult. It could not be compared to some of the more familiar assessment methods such as essays and presentations. I found that the confusion was to do with the journal’s objectives. We were asking ourselves “What are we supposed to write?” “How do we cover it all?”

AbramNicola: I inherited the learning journal as a method of assessment when I first started teaching the module ‘Black British Fiction’, back in 2013. At the time the journal was a spiral-bound paper document, which students filled in and added clippings to week by week – by the end of the term these journals were often rather unwieldy. Over the following years I worked with colleagues to reform the journal and move it online: I’ve shared my account of doing this here. The journal is now a neat way for students to capture their weekly learning in real time and be rewarded for their progress. I recognise it’s a new method of assessment for most students, and I spend the first seminar on the relevant modules explaining it in detail. But students still seem apprehensive, and there are lots of questions as they attempt their first few entries.

Hannah: As much as we were given information from our tutors about the assessment, it was still quite unclear as to how we tackle the journal. As the weeks went on, I realised that I wasn’t the only one having problems with the journal as many of my course-mates discussed in class their own struggles with it. It became clear that as a more free-hand assessment method, students didn’t know where to start! Nicola, my module convenor at the time, debunked the journal for us during one of our classes, showing previous students’ entries and talking through the criteria. Personally, being able to see some of the examples from previous students really helped to make clear the journal’s objective and how it can be used creatively. As we got used to the journal, many of my course-mates and I had informative discussions in and out of the classroom about how we used it and how it has allowed us to think and write differently from more familiar assessments.

Hannah Ashraf

An example learning journal entry, submitted by Hannah Ashraf for the module ‘Global Literatures: Translation as Theme and Theory’ (EN3GLT).

Nicola: I’m always pleased that by the end of a module most students become really attached to the learning journal. They find it a helpful prompt to consolidate their learning each week, and it seems to support them to prepare for and participate effectively in seminars. Even more importantly, it facilitates a very personal journey through the module content. I wanted to find a way to accelerate the shift between apprehensively starting the journal and coming to love it! During a one-to-one feedback session with one particular student – Hannah Ashraf – this problem came up in conversation, and I invited her to join me in applying to the PLanT (Partnerships in Learning and Teaching) Project scheme for funding. Completing the application form helped us to focus our ideas. Happily, we heard a few weeks after submitting it that the panel really liked our idea of students briefing other students on this mode of assessment. We were awarded £500.

Hannah: Being approached by Nicola to collaborate on a project about the journal was a great opportunity to share the ideas discussed with my course-mates, and we got working on ideas for the film soon after. Reaching out to student filmmaker Rhonda Cowell really brought the vision to life as we met to discuss the film’s objective and format. Rhonda’s creative input helped us really get to producing a fully realised film. I worked on a storyboard and some project notes to accommodate our ideas and reached out to fellow course-mates for an interview style film on the journal. Nicola organised a room for us to film in, and after curating some interview questions, I interviewed four participants for their views on the journal. Our aim with the film was to present the journal’s possibilities and focused tips/advice so that future students can approach it with confidence.

Nicola: Hannah was brilliant to work with: she made the project her own, recruiting peers to participate and ensuring the content of the film was comprehensive but accessible. Part 3 BA Film student Rhonda Cowell took care of everything technical, ably assisted by Part 3 BA Film student Ben Thornley, and produced a polished and concise film that captures the participants’ personalities as well as the best bits of their interviews. The final result, which we’ve uploaded to  our Department of English Literature You Tube channel, is a credit to these students’ creativity and hard work. I’ve just shared it with the next cohort, and I can’t wait to see how they engage with the journal as a result.

About English Literature at Reading

The Department of English Literature at Reading has been an internationally recognised centre for research and teaching in English Studies for over a hundred years. Our teaching system, with its emphasis on seminars and tutorial work, encourages our students to discuss ideas with tutors and other students in a relaxed and supportive atmosphere. All of our students have access to dedicated study advisors; our academic placement scheme and 'professional track' programme provide invaluable preparation for subsequent careers.
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