Facilitating Reflection through Interactive Journal Writing in an Online Graduate Course:
Mary-Anne Andrusyszyn Lynn Davie
VOL. 12, No. 1/2, 103-126
The purpose of this qualitative study was to examine the reflections of students who engaged in interactive reflective journal writing with a course instructor. This strategy was purposefully integrated into the design of a graduate level computer-mediated course. Five students and one instructor volunteered to participate. This study was part of a larger project on facilitating reflection in computer-mediated learning environments. The data set consisted of electronic transcripts of online journal interactions and online interviews with participants upon completion of their courses. Three themes were evident in the interactive journals: reflection as a personal process, as synthesis, and as a dialogical process. Data analysis, using elements of Glaser and Strauss's (1967) grounded theory approach, was supported with the use of a qualitative software program called Q.S.R. NUD.IST.
The findings suggest that the process of reflection may be actively facilitated through interactive journal writing. The personal learning process stimulated through dialogue with oneself or with one's instructor over time arises from the cognitive and affective synthesis of shared thoughts and the meanings ascribed to these thoughts. Journal strategies have successfully been applied in traditional learning environments and should be carefully considered in computer-mediated arenas.
Le but de cette étude qualitative était d'examiner les réflexions exprimées par des étudiants inscrits à un cours interactif d'écriture réflexive de journal avec un instructeur. Cette stratégie fut intentionnellement intégrée au design d'un cours offert par ordinateur au niveau de la maîtrise. Cinq étudiants et un instructeur ont volontairement accepté de participer. Cette étude faisait partie d'un projet plus grand qui portait sur la facilitation de la réflexion dans des environnements d'apprentissage par ordinateur. L'ensemble des données recueillies a consisté en des transcriptions électroniques d'interactions en-ligne inscrites au journal de même qu'en des entrevues en-ligne avec les participants une fois leurs cours complétés. Trois thèmes sont clairement ressortis des journaux interactifs: la réflexion comme processus personnel, comme synthèse ainsi que comme processus dialogique. L'analyse de données, empruntant des éléments à la théorie des assises (grounded theory) de Glaser and Strauss (1967), fut appuyée du logiciel d'analyse qualitative Q.S.R. NUD.IST.
Les résultats indiquent que le processus de réflexion peut être activement facilité par l'écriture interactive de journal. Le processus d'apprentissage personnel stimulé par le dialogue avec soi-même ou avec son instructeur, émerge de la synthèse cognitive et affective d'idées partagées de même que des significations qui sont associées à ces pensées. Des stratégies de journal ont été appliquées avec succès dans des environnements d'apprentissage traditionnels et devraient être soigneusement prises en considération dans des contextes où l'ordinateur est utilisé comme intermédiaire.
In this paper, the researchers describe the way in which interactive journal-writing, integrated into the design of graduate level computer-conferenced (CC) courses, may be used to facilitate reflection.
Reflection in the context of learning is a generic term for those intellectual and affective activities in which individuals engage to explore their experiences in order to lead to new understandings and appreciations. (Boud, Keogh, & Walker, 1985, p. 19)
Through this deliberate cognitive activity, learners have the potential to intentionally connect thoughts, feelings, and experiences related to the learning activity in which they are engaged. This connection is particularly important in a CC environment, where sifting through the volume of information generated may preclude meaningful reflection and construction of knowledge.
Educational computer conferencing is an electronic means of connecting geographically dispersed learners using computers so that they may collectively participate in a learning experience with the guidance of a facilitator. Developed by Turoff, this delivery medium has been available since the early 1970s (Harasim, 1990).
With asynchronous CC, delayed-time messaging form of computer-mediated communication, learners may contribute their understandings on issues from any place and at any time that is personally convenient, and multiple discussions often take place simultaneously. These factors sometimes preclude the orderly development of discussion. Thus, the volume of dialogue generated and the asynchronous medium, can make it difficult to link disconnected threads of a discussion conceptually (Harasim, 1990). Access to and periodic review of the permanent electronic transcript generated in this medium encourages reflection and promotes the synthesis of ideas (Davie & Palmer, 1984; Davie & Wells, 1991; Grabowski, 1990; Harasim, 1990). Whether learners intentionally and independently make an effort to review transcripts in an attempt to reflect upon the shared knowledge and draw personal relevance and meaning rather than simply for responding remains unanswered. Although reflection may take place in the online environment as an outcome of the time learners take to construct responses, encouraging learners to shift beyond perception to deeper, more insightful meaning-making may be more challenging.
Journal-writing is an intentional reflective design strategy that has been used in traditional (face-to-face) learning environments to facilitate the integration of new dimensions to what can often be purely academic work, enhance the development of insight, and promote cognitive awareness and critical thinking. In nontraditional learning environments, such as CC courses, the process and outcome of deliberately planned reflective design strategies is virtually unexplored. Strategies that may promote meaningful insightful learning through reflection, such as through journal writing, and that may further the advancement of knowledge in this learning environment warrant investigation.
Dewey (1933) defined reflective thought as “active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends” (p. 9). He believed that associating ideas was integral to thinking and that one had to search for deeper meanings through reflective thinking to capture and understand the core essence of something, to transform doubt into understanding and understanding into further action.
“Meaning making, according to constructivists, is the goal of learning processes; it requires articulation and reflection on what we know” (Jonassen, Davidson, Collins, Campbell,. & Haag, 1995, p. 11). Individual reflection is an important strategy that may enhance the development of insight, heighten cognitive awareness, promote critical thinking, and engender personal transformation (Andrusyszyn & Davie, 1995).
Reflection is often overlooked by educators, who assume it is taking place (Boud et al., 1985). Yet, the opposite is often true (Candy, Harri-Augstein, & Thomas,1985). Many learners are not aware of the way(s) in which they reflect and the way(s) in which they may actively engage in the process. “Most students are almost totally unaware of how they attribute meaning to the things they encounter in lectures, laboratories, libraries, seminars, work placements, and elsewhere” (Candy et al., 1985, p. 101).
They suggest that many processes normally associated with learning, such as talking, listening, judging and feeling, become ingrained. Thus, the periodic, active, and conscious reexamination of the processes which facilitate meaning-making, such as with reflection, does not occur. (Andrusyszyn & Davie, 1995, p. 3)
Learner-centred collaborative learning environments that enhance reflexive awareness facilitate knowledge construction (Bednar, Cunningham, Duffy, & Perry, 1992; Jonassen, 1994; Jonassen et al., 1995). “Students and instructors can then build meaning, understanding, and relevant practice together and go beyond the mere movement of information from instructors’ minds to students’ notebooks” (Jonassen et al., 1995, p. 8). Boud et al. (1985) proposed that educators can facilitate this internal process and that it need not be a solitary activity. They “believe that the more teachers and learners understand this reflective aspect of learning and organize learning activities which are consistent with it, the more effective learning can be” (p. 20). Offering support, access to resources, time, space, and encouragement stimulated reflection. They added that reflection may be fostered through debriefing periods with colleagues, or by keeping a personal journal, diary, or portfolio.
Reflection “can occur quite passively by simply allowing things to surface in the course of daily life or it can be structured using discussions with others, journals, self-assessment exercises or reading, or a combination of these things to trigger one’s thoughts” (Maclean, 1987, p. 141). A form of dialogical learning, journal writing has been espoused as a means of facilitating reflection, promote personal growth, and precipitate change since “simply to record our behaviour is to interfere with it” (Simons, 1978, p. 18). As a reflective method, the journal can promote growth, help reconcile the personal with the professional self, and document the writer’s growth, development, and transformation (Diamond, 1991). It helps the writer draw linkages between thoughts, actions, behaviours, beliefs, and values (Berthoff, 1987) and offers opportunities to make meaning from experiences by reflecting upon them in writing.
Writing to reflect involves a cyclical pattern of reflection: first, reflecting on experiences as you write; and then reflecting on the journal entries themselves at some later stage, which may provide material for further reflection, and so on. (Holly, 1984, p. 7)
The analysis of the pattern of movement over time can be instrumental in facilitating awareness, developing insights, and promoting transformation (Holly, 1984).
Progoff’s (1975) work with the “Intensive Journal” “brought journal writing as a form of growth to public attention” (cited in Rainer, 1978, p. 24). He used a format called “Journal Feedback” as a means for self-guidance and the development of personal meaning. The Intensive Journal was perceived to be neutral, open-ended, flexible, and capable of being used by anyone. He stressed the need to make connections with different aspects of one’s life. “When a person is shown how to reconnect himself with the contents and the continuity of his life, the inner thread of movement by which his life has been unfolding reveals itself to him by himself” (p. 10).
Summerfield (1987) supported journal writing that is shared with another. He stated that “we talk to ourselves primarily to talk more effectively to others; the alternative is to end up talking only to ourselves” (p. 34). He suggested that a journal that is overseen is “in fact, something better-a displaced serial conversation; the drafting of a possible meeting of minds; the premeditation or blueprint of a social act” (p. 34).
“Traditionally, journals have been used in English and language arts classes . . . to help writers experiment with language and document their progress” (Fulwiler, 1987, p. 1). He noted that they are commonplace in professional fieldwork, for example, in sociology, biology, and anthropology, and that their use is increasing. Mezirow (1990) suggested that journal writing can be used in educational settings to promote personal growth. They can be used in both traditional and nontraditional educational programs since the process is not discipline specific (Grennan, 1989). Journal writing has also been used in practice settings with nursing students (Heinrich, 1992), for guidance and therapy by counsellors, and in numerous educational applications (Lukinsky, 1990).
Baker (1996) described how reflective journals were used within a baccalaureate nursing program to link the complex threads of clinical practice and stimulate critical thinking. The approach in this program was modelled after Boyd and Fales’s (1983) perspectives on reflection. Baker noted that reflective journal writing is a means to develop non-linear, divergent thinking and can “promote mindful and thoughtful nursing practice” (p. 22). Roderick (1986) viewed journal writing as a form of dialogue “that enables participants to reflect on themselves and to share these reflections with a significant other” (p. 308). In his study, 22 pre-service teachers were engaged in non-evaluative conversation through dialogue journals with the instructor. Students benefited from sharing ideas, feelings, and self-perceptions, and the instructor also gained valuable insights.
Graybeal (1987) proposed a unique approach to journal writing by having students contribute weekly to a common “team journal.” Graybeal observed that the process had many of the benefits of traditional journal writing, such as integration of course material, independent wondering, and connecting thoughts. She also perceived additional benefits, “which result from writing for an audience of peers. Team journals make possible an ’exchange’ of energy and ideas that is virtually impossible in a journal written ostensibly for the student herself or himself, but actually handed in to and evaluated by the instructor” (p. 307). Graybeal observed that students begin to make sense of themselves and the world around them through a co-operative shared venture.
Grennan (1989) used journals with adult learners in graduate and undergraduate settings. In his discussion describing journal writing with adult learners returning to undergraduate studies, he reported that journals showed evidence that students were moving through stages similar to those described by Kolb (1984). Journal writing encouraged the use of personal voice and increased the warmth of an academic environment. Journals shared between student and teacher were perceived to narrow the distance between them, providing a form of security valued by the adult learner returning to school. Three hundred prospective elementary and secondary teachers taking English/language arts and reading courses in three universities in Canada also engaged in journal writing (Anderson, 1993). The journals were reviewed several times throughout the term and graded. Students found journal writing to be a useful means to reflect on their own behaviour; however, because of its pervasiveness in teacher education, some disliked the process while others used it as an opportunity to “express blatant bigotry and prejudice” (p. 306). Some students showed limited insight into their own behaviour by writing to please the teacher; others tired of the routine of writing.
Students in a graduate level course on literacy were required to write response and dialogue journals as elements that contributed to their grade (Roe & Stallman, 1994). Journals provided opportunities for students to explore specific issues in greater depth, link theory to practice, further develop their writing skills, and read and think more critically. Students preferred the dialogue journal since the student could have a voice with the instructor, who had a commitment in the development of knowledge. Roe and Stallman emphasized that when educators select journal writing as a strategy to enhance learning, they should make a commitment to invest the time that is needed to be engaged in the process with the learner.
Several authors suggest that reflection is enhanced in the CC medium because of the accessibility of transcripts and the freedom to take the time to read and reread transcripts and to compose thoughtful messages (Burge, 1993; Davie & Wells, 1991). Yet, empirical studies focusing on facilitating reflection in an electronic learning environment such as CC are limited. Scardamalia, Bereiter, McLean, Swallow, and Woodruff (1989) described a form of hypermedia called CSILE (Computer-Supported Intentional Learning Environments) designed to support active learning processes such as reflection, problem solving, and learning “by providing a means for a group of students to build a collective database (knowledge-base) of their thoughts, in the form of pictures and written notes” (p. 52). They discussed 11 principles to support intentional learning in a computer environment. Among others, Scardamalia et al. suggested that knowledge-construction software activities be overt, provide process-relevant feedback, encourage recursive learning strategies, emphasize comprehension, provide opportunities for reflective thinking, and encourage co-operative learning. Although the authors described CSILE’s application with students in grades 5 and 6, they predicted future use at all educational levels. The principles Scardamalia et al. suggested may readily be applied to the CC medium.
Burge (1993) reported that 18 of 21 graduate students “thought they did more reflective thinking in the CC environment than they had done in their face-to-face classrooms” (p. 93). The act of responding and crafting responses to online discussions, the increased depth of constructed responses, and taking the time to respond were indicators of increased reflection. Although 66% of interviewees felt they were “out of sync” with the discussion, 85% felt they had engaged in more reflective thought. Whereas reflection was perceived as a strength, issues of time, fragmentation of discussion, and volume of information were simultaneously reported as weaknesses.
Limited literature is available on the use of journal writing in the CC medium. Kelly (1989) used electronic journals to teaching language arts and keyboarding to adult learners. The journals were not graded and were used as a means to gain insight into growth and change over time. A. Lauzon (personal communication, January 30, 1994) used electronic journal writing in third and fourth year undergraduate courses. Weekly journals were submitted to a private online conference, and Lauzon offered immediate feedback on the entries. His aim was to help students begin to explore connections between course content and their communication skills. Lauzon stated that “the journal is . . . cathartic and gives people a forum to deal with their own personal issues as they relate to interpersonal communication . . . it allows students to reflect and connect.” This method of learning was effective and overall student feedback on journal writing was favourable. As with any method, some students never developed comfort with the strategy. Lauzon found that journal writing allowed him to establish a closer relationship with students.
Journal writing has been used extensively to enhance reflection. The process has a long history and has taken many forms, especially in educational contexts. The overwhelming theme in the literature is that journal writing can engage an individual in conversation with the self, promoting the development of introspective awareness. Individually written personal journals and dialogical journals are described. The most common partnership described in the literature for dialogic or interactive journals is between learner and instructor. Authors who are proponents of shared journals make it abundantly clear that the sharing must be done in a spirit of trust and caring, leaving the choice of what is shared with the learner. Graybeal’s study (1987) was unique in proposing that journal writing be shared among a team of peers; yet, the collective journal was still shared with the instructor. Despite the extensive literature on the way in which journal writing has been implemented, documented use of journal writing in the CC medium is virtually non-existent. Journal writing may help bring the process of reflection in an electronic environment into conscious awareness and enhance the meaningfulness of the learning experience by promoting critical self-reflection and meta-cognitive awareness. Activities designed to facilitate reflection electronically may help learners make meaning and develop personal insights from what they are learning.
The following research questions were addressed in this part of the study:
This was a qualitative study that focused on interactive journal writing with the course instructor in a CC learning environment. The portion reported here was investigated as part of the larger qualitative study on online reflective design strategies.
One instructor and five graduate students from a Canadian university participated in writing online interactive journals. They were contacted by electronic mail. The institution required signed consents for participation in the study. In order to maintain anonymity, participants were asked to provide a pseudonym. Some chose to use their real names.
Most of the student participants were new to the computer environment as an educational medium. The instructor was experienced in interactive journal writing.
Data collection was completely electronic. The data set consisted of 161 separate journal entries written by the students to the instructor and 42 responses back from the instructor. Participants were also engaged in asynchronous online interviews.
Upon completion of courses, online interviews were conducted with instructor and learner participants. They took the form of an extended conversation and were guided by a series of open-ended questions and probes on the concept of reflection from a broad perspective as well as the particular design strategy. The questions were individualized and shaped by the ideas the respondents’ chose to share. This aspect was particularly challenging as several interviews were usually being conducted concurrently. In most cases, the dialogue had a rapid turnaround time. The following is an example of a question:
I am looking at how reflection/metacognitive awareness can be facilitated in CMC courses. You have indicated that this process should be a part of the learning process. One of my other participants said that “ongoing discussion is based, of course, on reflection.” Do you have any comments on this? I guess I am still struggling with whether learners will engage in reflection and benefit from the deeper learning and insights regardless of whether a reflective activity is built into the course design. Conducting multiple online interviews with participants was challenging because participants were generally at different points in the interview process at a given time. It was important not to confuse one interview with another and to engage in each interview in a thoughtful way.
The turnaround time for sending and receiving messages in an electronic environment can be virtually immediate. It can influence the amount of time dedicated to reflection between points in a conversation, as it does in a face-to-face interview. Participant or researcher may equally feel an urge to respond immediately. Yet, it is important to consider that the medium also allows time to construct, edit, and re-edit responses to interview questions. In other words, it is possible that the nature of responses online may have been qualitatively different from those that would have been generated face to face.
The content of the transcripts was analyzed using elements inherent to Glaser and Strauss’s (1967) grounded theory technique. This methodology was particularly well suited to this study because it offered a qualitative means to discover and conceptualize the phenomenon of reflection as it was perceived by those who were engaged in it (Hutchison, 1988). Data analysis was facilitated with the use of Qualitative Data Analysis Software for Research Professionals (Q.S.R.) NUD.IST (Non-numerical Unstructured Data-Indexing, Searching and Theorising). Excerpts from online data were unchanged except for typographical errors that were corrected because they were not errors of substance.
Coding began early in the data collection phase and guided future interviews. The phenomena were labelled and categorized using open coding. Discrete parts of the data (concepts) were examined, comparisons between and among the data made, and concepts were grouped into categories that had not been generated a priori. The data were then put “back together in new ways by making connections between a category and its subcategories” (Strauss & Corbin, 1990, p. 97). Patterns of reflection, themes among different participants’ perceptions, and a description of the phenomenon itself in the CC context were sought.
There are important limitations. The instructor was an exemplary instructor and volunteer who valued the concept of reflection and recognized the importance of meaningful learning when designing courses. He had previously integrated reflective activities into his course designs. Similarly, students who volunteered their participation were a special self-selected group of learners interested in exploring new dimensions in their learning. In other words, participants may have already possessed a value system towards teaching and learning that embraced elements inherent and important to reflection and the development of meaningful under-standings. It is possible that those participants who did not volunteer possessed a value system that did not embody reflection.
Three themes emerged from the data. The first theme, “personal process,” captured individual participants’ approaches to reflection. “Synthesis” described the way in which participants engaged in the construction of knowledge. The third theme, “dialogue,” focused on the nature of the communication in which participants engaged in an effort to promote the social construction of knowledge. Data obtained from learners will be presented first and then the data from the interviews with the instructor.
In this study, interactive journal writing provided a means of communication and conversation with the personal, professional, and academic self and with the instructor.
The first category, interactive journal writing as a personal process, captured the individual variations in style and approach that participants used to record their thoughts. Entries ranged from being very chronological or technical, much like a diary or log, to being very expressive and fluid. The journal most like a diary came from a learner who did not perceive herself as reflective by nature. She recognized merit in the process but found that decreased exposure to the professional practice area that semester made writing difficult as the context from which to write the journals was limited. Despite the perceived limitation, she wrote the greatest number of entries. Several journals were spontaneous and free-flowing, full of energy and emotion, integrating academic, professional, and personal life experiences. These were written primarily by individuals who stated that they perceived themselves as being reflective by nature. Of this group, only one person (Sam) normally kept a personal journal. Sam’s journals were the most fluid, powerful, and passionate. She valued recording her thoughts and subsequently seeing the patterns peek through.
The interactive journals were charged with emotion. There were expressions of feelings about the technology, the medium, situations encountered in practice, and other aspects of the work experience as well as personal issues. Metaphors and poetry were frequently used to capture and express the affective components of the discourse. Figure 1 portrays an example of a response that Robin, the instructor, wrote to Diane when she shared that her cat had passed away. He expressed his feelings through poetry, capturing a deep sense of caring, respect, and compassion.
Figure 1.A poem that offers an example of the way an instructor chose to convey his thoughts and feelings to a student when she experienced a loss.
Comments on the journal writing process were also integrated into the journals. Consistent with the literature on journal writing, students wrote that it was a useful means of learning about oneself, especially when they looked at the patterns that became evident with the passage of time.
Journals-great way to see what’s being digested, used, discarded or thought about. Scary stuff when you read it. . . . I can hardly wait to look at these journal reflections in a couple of years. Now that I’ve been at it, I find myself going back through the journals and rereading. The journey of reflection. I haven’t been writing as much as reading and reflecting, digesting and exploring. The heat and passion seem to have passed much like a love affair and now have settled down into that comfortable knowing love that comes from a good relationship, much like the maturing of a good wine. (Bligh)
This observation was also supported by participants in the interviews. The journals offered an open window on the “self.” “Time provides perspective and momentum, and enables deeper level of insight to take place” (Holly, 1984, p. 4).
Three of the five participants who engaged in interactive journal writing kept interactive journals in previous courses but did not continue the practice once the courses were over. Bligh, who had never maintained a journal, found the experience gratifying. His entries were uninhibited and passionate. He was delighted that someone was taking the time to show interest in what had been going on inside his head but had for so long gone unrecorded. He felt the distance between the instructor and himself close with the use of the journal. This feeling may be a function of the transactional distance that was created by the nature of the dialogue and the degree of structure afforded by journal writing. With this design strategy, the structure is primarily centred on and initiated by the learner, and he or she has the freedom to explore different avenues of thought through dialogue with and support and guidance from the instructor (Gunawardena, 1992).
Saba and Shearer (1994) suggest that “transactional distance (a function of the variance in dialogue and structure as they relate to each other [p. 43]) decreases when dialogue increases and structure decreases (p. 54).” They explained that “if distance is truly a function of the responsiveness of an educational program to its students, then the quality and amount of transaction between the learners and the instructor, regardless of their proximity, becomes of utmost importance” (pp. 54-55). This effect is particularly relevant with respect to CC or other distance media. Although the “geographic” distance between instructor and learner may be great, the “transactional” distance may indeed be close. The following excerpt captures the tone of the feelings generated as an outcome of the closeness inspired by the interactive journal.
I have never been involved in a course before where I have kept a journal like this . . . this is a first time for me. The process however was just a reflection of what has been going on in my mind over the years anyway. This time however . . . someone (Robin) was interested enough in me to see inside my head. I really liked the process . . . it brought me closer to Robin. . . . I wasn’t held at arms length and lectured to . . . he wanted to know how I thought. . . . I felt human in this course . . . valued . . cared about . . . for the first time since I started taking courses. . . . To me this was the first learning experience that I have had in the grad program . . . very stimulating. . . . I was amazed that anyone would care about what went on inside my head . . . instead of APA on paper . . . hand it in get the A or B . . . whatever. I was reassured by the process that other people feel similar thoughts and that I wasn’t an anomaly of the universe. (Bligh)
Journal writing as synthesis portrays the nature of the content inherent in the journals. Analysis of the link between theory and praxis were evident and given the greatest degree of emphasis in all the interactive journals. This finding is not entirely surprising because it was one of the criteria for writing journals provided in the course syllabus. Application of theoretical constructs to learners’ personal and professional selves was also evident. Journals were laden with questions. Asking questions appeared to be a way of brainstorming, manipulating the content, turning it on its side, and reframing it in order to gain a deeper level of understanding. Although there were questions directed specifically to the course instructor, most questions in the journals were rhetorical, as is shown in the following example:
Is the hidden curriculum based on Natural Laws? Laws of understanding, human behaviour? Is the essence of curriculum Human thought . . . human perception . . . this would change every second with every individual. Variables ad infinitum. Then how does the intended curriculum in Robinson’s article differ from Natural Law? What values make the intended curriculum different from the hidden curriculum? Is the intended curriculum an attempt to change social values? or fundamental principles? or what? Then is Curriculum Potential both positive and negative as Ben-Peretz describes it? or can it be described as chance random fluke? Time to think and read again (Bligh).
Insights into the participants’ personal and professional past and present were also reflected in the journals.
The article by Brown on first year teacher planning brought back a lot of memories of my bumbling and stumbling along in those first couple of years. I really felt my teachers’ training did not adequately prepare me for the classroom experience and I would have to say that the biggest subconscious guide to my performance was the emulation of two teachers I admired, one in primary and one in high school. (Donna)
Journals were also used to capture prospects for the future. “This is an experience I hope never to repeat, but having been through it, I now know I would be able to help others who may have to go through the same experience. Perhaps there is a message in this for planning” (Donna). Interactive journals served as a vehicle for travelling along the core and side-streets of knowledge and experiences coupled with the opportunity to question the route and meanings found along the way. They offered a means of making theoretical links with learning in an effort to construct knowledge in collaboration with an experienced guide.
The nature of the communication processes evident in the journals is described in the third category, journal writing as dialogue. Dialogue with the instructor appeared to be on three levels: academic, professional, and personal. All participants viewed him as a role model and mentor and appreciated the learning and growth that came as an outcome of sharing their thoughts with him. They valued the freedom to express their ideas and feelings without the fear of reprisal or judgement. Robin frequently advised students to take the opportunity to “suspend disbelief” in an effort to help open them to receiving new understandings. They valued and looked forward to his responses. Tagg (1994) confirms that “students may need assurance that their contributions are valid and valued” (p.47). The interest, respect, sensitivity, and challenge shown were factors that influenced participants’ perceptions of the interactive journal writing process. The following excerpt from Sam captures the power of the dialogue.
He said something about the place where two thoughts occupy the same space. It seemed like a very profound thing to say, and it stopped me cold . . . not only had I never heard anyone say something like that, I had never thought about it . . . and I had to spend a long time thinking before I was even sure I understood what he meant. It really made me think in many directions . . . eventually I sent him a small poem connected to the thinking he’d generated.
As role model, the instructor offered positive reinforcement, thoughts for consideration, questions and probes, and poetry as expressions of his thoughts and feelings. There seemed to be a partnership, a mutual respect, a balanced, reciprocal, collegial relationship evident in the interactions between the instructor and students. The process of learning shifted from simply being an interaction to becoming a relationship, the latter requiring a more personal connection, respect, and sharing of experiences (Thorpe, 1995). Sam expressed her gratefulness in this way:
Some minds travel in the space between the shadows of our thoughts where light fractures into hues as incandescent as the moon And when they’ve touched the Universe and sensed the space beyond. They know now that there’s an emptiness that only *silence* fills . . . thanks for pushing the parameters of my mind.
Trust played a part in the nature of the communication between learner and instructor. All students stated in the interviews that trust influenced the degree to which they were prepared to reveal their personal selves. The need for trust is a conceptual thread that is tightly woven into the literature on journal writing. Expressing inner thoughts to another can make one feel vulnerable. The instructor is often viewed by learners as a person in authority, in a position of power. The risk of revealing ideas and feelings that are outside the expected norm or of expressing a lack of understanding, the fear that one’s thinking will be manipulated, and not knowing if one’s personal thoughts will be disclosed to others can increase feelings of vulnerability. These fears are normal, and it takes great skill and energy on the instructor’s behalf to allay them and normalize the process. Trust, care, acceptance, and legitimacy of understandings were all characteristics that participants acknowledged as being critical to effective dialogue with the instructor. Not every instructor will wish to or be able to make this kind of investment. However, if interactive journal writing is the desired design strategy, energy, sensitivity, and commitment are indispensable. These elements minimize the distance between the students and the instructor as shown in the next excerpt. Sam found that what originally began as a “course” journal began to blur with what she viewed to be a more personal journal. She wrote,
The separation between “course” journal vs personal journal was clear at first, and then became rather blurred. Sometimes I decided I would keep my heart at home and send my thoughts, then the interactive part of the exchange would touch me and I’d send a little heart-sort of testing to see what reaction I would get-the safer I felt the more heart I sent. It was more of a judgment call I guess.
Written communication through journal writing was hindered by the time element. Time was identified as the most common barrier to reflection. There was a feeling that there was not enough time in a day to record reflections, meet the multiple obligations one has as an adult learner, and learn the technology. It also took time to develop a trusting relationship with the instructor.
Another barrier was the writing process itself. It was explained from two perspectives: writing as a roadblock and writing as a protective device. Recording reflections slowed the process of reflecting. The time needed to write things down interfered with the thoughts that had already been transformed from those recorded.
As the process continued it became more and more mental as I began to leave the writing. The writing became a road block at times to the process. The writing became a snapshot in time sort of like a picture of a teenager with acne . . . you look at it and tear it up and try to forget that stage of life . . . as I look back through the journals they indicate a process and a commitment to myself. When you take the time to write it down and you look at your work your thought process becomes a reality . . . a marker on the thought trail . . . you can find your way back or you can retrace your steps if you run across a marker. But for me the reflective process became more and more a mental process. When I reviewed notes I made in books even hours earlier, I found that growth had occurred and so had the thinking . . . the notes and the journals no longer had a resemblance to what I was currently thinking . . . it wasn’t me anymore. The writing at times looks like a cowtrail through the bush . . . and does not indicate where I am (at least to me). (Bligh)
Words can also be used as a means of concealing true feelings, a means of hiding when you do not want someone to really know what you are thinking or feeling or you do not want to face something yourself.
[I] was just thinking here inside my mind if writing doesn’t also allow us to mask a lot of what we don’t want others to see, or what we don’t want to see ourselves. . . . I love writing and find it fun to express myself this way, but I also know that I have built tremendous walls using words . . . and found it hard to reach through them to really connect with my own feelings and with other people’s feelings . . . just something I always try to keep in mind when I’m writing . . . have you ever had that feeling that just one look into a person’s eyes tied to a certain smile, or a light touch on someone’s arm can convey more than volumes of writing can ever hope to? (Sam)
During the online interviews, participants reported that journal writing was an effective strategy to facilitate reflection in CC courses. Bligh could not imagine how his learning would have been as rich without the interactive journals: “Without the journal writing experience this course would have been a void for me. Empty and without meaning. I would suggest that 80% of the learning would have been missed and the self knowledge would still be a lost treasure.”
Participants did offer some recommendations in respect to implementing interactive journal writing as a reflective strategy. They suggested that clear guidelines be established on expectations as well as on how the journals would be used. The CC medium was well suited to the depth or quality of reflections evident in the interactive journals, but it was not perceived as a critical factor.
I don’t think the difference is due to using CC or face-to-face courses. The difference is that Robin asked us to reflect and journal and respected our own knowledge as legitimate. I think the legitimizing of my own personal knowledge was the major influence on how I reflected. (Diane)
Interactive journal writing was seen as a useful way to encourage deeper, more critical analysis of a variety of issues; however, it was clear that the effectiveness of the strategy was linked to the perceived trust that developed between the instructor and learner, the instructor’s expertise with the design strategy, and whether journal writing was a required component of the course.
Instructors have to be able to handle what they read in the journals before they implement it in their courses. There are some very intense feelings in the journals and some very personal thoughts after a while. It doesn’t take much for a student that is afraid of the experience to shut down if a prof makes the wrong comment on a sensitive statement . . . thus the trust has to be built and the instructor has to be a very sensitive caring individual. (Bligh)
As a final point, participants cautioned that reflection through interactive journal writing be encouraged and facilitated in CC courses, but they felt that it should not be graded. The concept of grading/evaluating journals is one that is raised in the literature (Anderson, 1993; D’Arcy, 1987; Fulwiler, 1987; Gipe & Richards, 1992; Graybeal, 1987; Heinrich, 1992; Kelly, 1989; Richardson & Maltby, 1995). It is generally accepted that journals themselves should not be subject to grading, although participation or nonparticipation in the process may be evaluated. In addition, students explained that facilitating reflection through interactive journals may not be a strategy that fits the facilitative style of the instructor or the learning style of the individual learner. Despite her support for the design strategy, Sam expressed concern
about the bandwagon approach that so often plagues education-I think using reflective interactive journals takes tremendous sensitivity and skill . . . I do think there is a potential here for hurting people (the other side of learning and growing) . . . so this approach may not be well suited to every instructor or every learner.
The instructor enjoyed interactive journal writing and used it as a reflective strategy in his face-to-face and online courses. Developing a safe learning space was critical to this instructor in order to push students beyond traditional learning boundaries. He embraced the idea that reflective learning should be integrated into the design of courses and that integration would promote a holistic approach to the learning experience.
[Reflection] should clearly, in my view, be integrated. We are talking about the root of the word “integrated”-integrity-wholeness. To help the student to be whole, I want there to be spinoffs from the course content to the student’s personal experience. We teach what we are. The “areness” of my students is at the centre of their learning and applying that learning. (Robin)
From this study, it seems that reflection is a personal process that evolves from the cognitive and affective synthesis of ideas and that it may be strengthened through dialogue. The goal of reflection is the construction of meaningful understandings.
Participants described reflection as thinking, pondering, mulling over, and musing. They made it clear that just because thoughts were not recorded did not imply that they were not engaging in the reflective process. Most of the participants noted that their usual way of reflecting was by thinking things over or talking things through with others. The reality is that conversations and thoughts go unrecorded. Sam describes a conversation she had with a colleague: “there is no record of this, words gone, dissolved, spoken then lost, can only reflect what i *think* it was, not what it *was*” (Sam). According to Holly (1984), writing serves a useful purpose with respect to reflection because it may lead to further reconstruction of understandings. Reflective strategies that are integrated into the course design can offer the needed opportunity, space, and time for the development of insights as well as offer value and legitimacy to the process (Thorpe, 1995).
The design strategy provided a means of communication and conversation. The interactive journal offered two-way (learner’s inner/personal self and learner’s academic/professional self) and three-way (learner’s inner/personal and academic/professional selves and instructor) dialogue to occur. Dialogue with the instructor on a regular basis provided reinforcement, validation, and support as well as prompting and probing. The instructor served as an audience to receive and respond to the students’ thoughts and impressions.
The academic/professional self was very evident in the interactive journals. A large proportion of entries was oriented to analysing course material and synthesizing it in relation to professional practice and experience. The inner/personal self, however, was very distinct in the more fluid journals, especially in one belonging to a journal writer and one of a participant who was exhilarated by the process.
Participants supported the value of and need for reflection. The key elements appeared to be the expertise of the instructor with the strategy, the degree of trust and rapport that existed between instructor and students, and the importance of having the process not the substance of the entries, graded.
Although conversation is a useful way of sharing and legitimizing experiences, thoughts remain unrecorded. They can also change form and lose intensity and detail when they are left to memory. The reality in academia, one that has been reinforced in the literature, is that if opportunities are not dedicated to promoting the reflective process, learners may not make the effort to engage in it. Multiple legitimate demands take precedence. This factor is of particular significance to the quality of the learning experience in an electronic learning environment where the current state of technology supports interaction that is primarily text-based. This environment will change as technology advances. Taking the time to reread transcripts and make conceptual links by weaving the multiple strands of conversation together in a meaningful way takes effort. The data from this study indicate that reflection in a computer-mediated learning environment through interactive journal-writing is indeed possible, valuable, and effective in helping learners develop meta-cognitive awareness. The journals captured cognitive as well as affective perspectives at different points in time and provided a baseline from which to see patterns of understandings change and develop personal and professional meaning. The process moved learning to deeper cognitive and affective levels.
Journals provided space for describing experiences, expressing feelings, and making theoretical connections. Participants who had not previously engaged in ongoing dialogue with the instructor through an interactive journal discovered new dimensions to their learning. They shared their thoughts and impressions with an audience, namely themselves and the instructor, an audience that did not judge what was written, that only made observations, prompted, and encouraged them to move one step further, beyond the margin, as Robin would say. They had a voice. In turn, the instructor assumed a different voice, one of colleague and more advanced learner. The reciprocity was mutually rewarding. Although journal writing was not a strategy many students chose to adopt into their personal lives, they understood and appreciated its value.
The process inherent in the interactive journals, in effect, became the content of what participants were learning. Connections between the personal and professional self and practice became evident. Participants had time to look at themselves, look at what they were learning, look at their practice as professionals, and construct meaning from the myriad dimensions. These elements constitute the dimensions of critical thought. This was one goal the instructor hoped to achieve. It was a means whereby he could remain in the margins of the learning experience, and still encourage risk taking and promote growth through personal and professional enrichment. Participants, students and instructor, cautioned, however, that major ingredients in a successful experience with interactive journal writing were the trust and respect between student and instructor.
The second dimension that enabled the process of reflection in the computer-mediated environment was synthesis. This concept embraced the notion that each learner was drawing together learnings from internal and external sources of knowledge and experience and subsequently reconstructing new understandings. This notion is consistent with activities inherent in reflective thinking. Synthesis of theoretical constructs through critical thinking, a process that fused the analysis and evaluation of understandings, was extensive in the interactive journals.
It commences when we begin to inquire into the reliability, the worth, of any particular indication; when we try to test its value and see what guarantee there is that the existing data really point to the ideas that is suggested in such a way as to justify acceptance of the latter. (Dewey, 1933, p. 11)
Reflective journal writing encouraged learners to process what they were learning and make sense of it by sharing it with an audience. Diamond suggests that
if people can understand their own perspectives, as well as those of others, they can not only understand their past but they can also make predictions about their likely behaviour in a given situation, such as the classroom, because they know something about what that series of events is likely to mean to themselves and others. (Diamond, 1991, p. 22)
The instructor became a participant in the student learning experience by assuming the role of audience along with the student. “We need to develop procedures and approaches which generate learning and develop self-aware learners and which also avoid either giving learners all the responsibility and no power, or leaving them to sink or swim” (Thorpe, 1995, p. 176). Interactive journal writing provided a means of integrating the learner’s identity into the learning process. For example, through reflection, the question “what are the points of this theory?,” was reframed to “what does this theory mean to me and my professional practice?” The journal had merit in helping learners transform knowledge to a more personal level of understanding. It legitimized the time spent on constructing new meanings according to a personal knowledge frame. This finding is consistent with Thorpe’s recommendation that instructional designers consider the creation of time and space opportunities for students to reflect on their learning.
Students will not reflect on the outcomes and the processes of their own learning if they are overwhelmed by course material they perceive must take priority . . . study time must be calculated to include time for reflection; space must be also be created in the sense of creating areas of the course where reflection is required and is discussed and legitimated (p.182).
Learner identity, the social context of the learning experience, and the degree of personal awareness were elements that contributed to the quality of the learning experience (Thorpe, 1995). Some participants made discoveries that they would not have likely made had the reflective tool not been a part of the course design; others would have preferred to carve out their own path to meaningful learning. Bligh summarized the tone of the feelings towards the need for reflection.
The reflective component must be understood by all learners as the most important aspect of the learning. Learners MUST be given permission to GIVE themselves permission to reflect and learn. That is the teacher’s job, then get the hell out of the way and let them have at it.
It would be important to study the phenomenon of reflection and the way(s) in which it is supported by a broader range of online instructors at different academic levels. Some of the questions that may be considered are: Is there a need to instruct the online instructor in ways meta-cognitive awareness can best be enhanced? What methods are most effective in reducing “transactional” distance between learner and instructor? What methods are most effective in helping learners shift from surface/cursory to deeper more insightful levels of reflection and understanding? Further study of the way in which instructors may support learners in the reflective process in an online environment is also warranted.
Reflection and learning share a symbiotic relationship. If the depth and breadth of reflection expands, so too will the depth and breadth of learning and understanding. Information is not knowledge. In order to be transformed into knowledge, information needs to shift to higher levels of cognitive and affective understanding. Reflection through interactive journal writing offers a valuable means for this transformation to occur. Educators should reflect on this and other strategies that they could integrate into the design of their courses.
The authors gratefully acknowledge the contributions of the graduate faculty and students who participated in this study.
Mary-Anne Andrusyszyn, RN, EdD
Faculty of Nursing and
Faculty of Communications and Open Learning
The University of Western Ontario
Health Science Addition #31
London, Ontario N6A 5C1
Phone: 519-679-2111, extension 6577
Lynn Davie, PhD
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education
University of Toronto
252 Bloor St. West
Toronto, Ontario M5S 1V6
Phone: 416-923-6641, extension 2355
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Dr. Mary-Anne Andrusyszyn is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Health Science and Faculty of Communications and Open Learning at The University of Western Ontario, London, Canada. She has been involved in computer-mediated learning since 1991 and is interested in design strategies to facilitate reflection.
Dr. Lynn Davie is a professor of computer applications and adult education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Canada. He has been designing, delivering, and researching the delivery of distance education courses through computer-mediated communications methods since 1986.