Reflective Journals

Reflection is a critical 21st Century and social-emotional skill

Use our guidelines to teach Reflective Journals which are notebooks that students use when writing about their own thoughts. Our guidelines help students master this skill and encourage the development of metacognitive skills by helping students sort what they know from what they don't know. Includes suggestions to teach the process to your students.
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Reflective Journals

What Is It?

Reflective journals are notebooks or pieces of paper that students use when writing about and reflecting on their own thoughts. The act of reflecting on thoughts, ideas, feelings, and their own learning encourages the development of metacognitive skills by helping students self-evaluate and sort what they know from what they don't know. The process of examining one's own thoughts and feelings is particularly helpful for students who are learning new concepts or beginning to grapple with complex issues that go beyond right and wrong answers.

Examples of Reflective Journals:

History Alive Reflection (Fifth Grade)
"The character I chose for history alive was Sequoya. He was a Native American who invented the first Cherokee alphabet so his people could read and write a language.

"Sequoya had a lot of perserveracne because he never game up when he was making his Cherokee alphabet. No matter how hard it was to come up with all eighty-sox symbols and even when other Cherokee members burnt down this house for writing the alphabet, he never gave up. That is one of the best skills you can ever have.

"Sequoya also had a lot of confidence and organization. Confidence explains how Sequoya knew he could make an alphabet and how he knew he could prove to the Tribal Council that the alphabet was no fake. Organization explains how well organized he arranged his alphabet.

From learning about Sequoya, I learned that I need to be more confident in myself and by that I can achieve my goal and be successful in anything that I may want to do."
~Natalie R.

Reflection on Teamwork (Middle School)
Group Members: Brian, Kristin, and CJ
Responsiblities: Brian – Leader (Paper), Kristen – PowerPoint, CJ – Outline

General Feeling: If we can get to the computer to work on Power Point and get some more info, we should be fine.

Progress: Today we got any information that was left out of the books. Our paper is started, and our bibliography is all caught up.

Concerns: I am concerned about getting everything done, I think we can do it but CJ is going to have to help.

Why Is It Important?

John Dewey (1938) believed that education should serve not only as a means of acquiring information but also as a way to bring learning to our everyday actions and behaviors. Most successful learners know how to identify questions and problems as they reflect on what they already know, what they want and need to know, and how they will proceed to increase their understanding. Less successful learners need to develop the habits of mind that are the underlying strategies of the learning process.

Reflective practice can be supported in classrooms by creating opportunities that allow students to think about their learning, their own lives, and the world around them. The process often illuminates problems, misunderstandings, and confusions and helps determine new growth, independence, and responsibility for learning (Strong, Silver, and Perini 2001).

Reflective journals allow students to practice their writing skills in an open-ended format that encourages the same thought process that is used in analytical writing. Zemelman, Daniels, and Hyde (1993) believe that the most powerful learning happens when students self-monitor, or reflect. As learners continue to distinguish what they know from what they need to reevaluate or relearn, they begin to translate discoveries they have made about their own learning into plans for improvement. Just as reflective journals open the windows of a student's mind, they also allow teachers to look in. In this way, the journals become a useful assessment tool that gives teachers additional insight into how students value their own learning and progress.

How Can You Make It Happen?

Model the journaling process, especially with younger students, by thinking aloud, debating what and what not to write. The main idea is to show students how to transfer their thinking into writing, not necessarily how to produce a finely polished piece of writing. Students can take from 3-15 minutes to write reflective entries in their personal journals before, during, or after a learning activity. The entries may build on areas covered in the classroom or promote students' thoughts about their own lives or the world beyond the classroom.

The most important aspect of reflective journal writing is to encourage students to begin to think about their own thinking. The reflective process transfers the responsibilities of self-appraisal and understanding the elements of quality work from the teacher to the student. Reflective journals should encourage students to develop their own personal values, going beyond summary conclusions such as "I hate this class" or "I didn't learn anything." Students should consider what they personally think and feel, drawing their own conclusions instead of just parroting what the teacher thinks. Journal prompts and questions should not be superficial but should encourage students to explore their thoughts in depth. For example, consider the difference between the following questions.

What did you think of the class? What did you learn today?
What did you do in school today? What happened in school today that made you feel proud?
Do you think everyone else felt that way?
What would you like to be when you grow up? How could you use some of your strengths and accomplishments to help you in a career when you grow up?
What do you want to learn? How do you plan to learn this content?
How and when will you do the work?
How do you want to be evaluated?

The questions in the first column are vague and may lead children to respond with egocentric or superficial facts and feelings, while the questions in the second column ask them to explore assumptions and values. Good journaling questions will help students develop critical-thinking skills and expand, analyze, or defend ideas.

It is important that journaling become a regularly scheduled activity. As with any other writing form, reflective journaling takes time and practice. Creating a routine for journaling will give students an opportunity to anticipate and prepare for other writing activities.

Encourage students to reread and revise previous entries as well as any they have just written. Help them observe the progression of their thoughts and understanding by letting them rewrite or comment on earlier entries. This exercise will help students appreciate their own learning and the process they have gone through to arrive at an understanding of concepts and knowledge. When journals are not formally assessed, students are free to experiment without fear of outside evaluation. Open assignments, or having students choose topics to write about, can allow students to express ideas in new forms and contexts. Encourage students to extend, defend, debate, and question their own ideas.

If you do assess the journals, give students feedback on what they have written. It may not always be possible to comment on each entry, so try using stickers to recognize what students have written. A smiley face sticker can give positive feedback while a star can be used to signify good ideas or thinking.


Students should keep their reflective journals in a folder or spiral or bound notebook. This allows students to review what they have written and monitor their own reflective process and thoughts throughout the school year. Establish a system for identifying each entry in the journal, and create a shared understanding concerning the time frame allowed for journal writing. Some students will want to have time to reflect before they begin to write. Others will need to know when journal time is about to end. A timer may be used to warn and then signal the end of the reflection time.

Depending on the grade level of your students, you may want to keep the journals in a place that is easily accessible. Students should know where to find their journals and understand that they need to be returned to this area. You may want to establish a clear procedure for the distribution and collection of journals. Older students may want to keep their reflections between themselves and the teacher, and it may be more appropriate to have students keep track of the journals individually.

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