November 11th, 2014

Reporting, Reacting, and Reflecting: Guidelines for Journal Writing


Every October, members of the Canadian Forces College’s National Security Program—a master of public administration program for senior military personnel and senior public service professionals—have the opportunity (and privilege) to travel to Ottawa to meet with high-level policy practitioners. The intent of the trip is to allow our students to compare what their in-class readings have taught them about governance and executive leadership with what actually happens in the national capital on a daily basis.

In order to confirm the academic value of the experience (the field study counts toward their degree) and to stimulate thoughtful reflection and deep learning, we have introduced a journaling exercise.

Each morning, students spend 15 minutes thinking about and recording their expectations for the day. Specifically, they are encouraged to articulate their broad learning goals, the assumptions they have made about the people and institutions they are about to encounter that day, and questions that they hope to have answered. At the end of the day we facilitate a reflection period during which students talk about what they’ve learned and how that might influence their agenda for the next day. At the end of this session students write another brief reflective entry. Once we are back home, students prepare a graded reflective paper of at least 1,000 words on their experiences in the capital.

When I first read the journal entries this year, I discovered that only about one-third of the students reflected in the deep and critical ways I hoped that they would. I decided I would try to help by differentiating between three forms of journaling, what I call reporting, reacting, and reflecting. Specifically, here’s the explanation of each that I shared with our students.

Reporting describes a journal submission that summarizes what you heard (e.g., The National Security Advisor outlined the structure of his office within the Privy Council Office). The easiest way to identify such a comment or submission is to think about whether there is anything in the comment or submission that would allow the reader to figure out that you specifically were the author. If there isn’t, then you are more than likely reporting. While reporting serves a purpose—it provides a summary of what happened that will be helpful to you personally for a number of reasons—it is less helpful to a reader who is trying to determine how the trip affected you and your thinking.

Reacting describes a journal submission that summarizes your (typically visceral) response to what you heard. In other words, it might suggest that you found a presentation unclear or inconsistent. This is clearly a step up from reporting as the reader can now identify you as the author. The problem, however, is that such comments or submissions still do not explain how the presentation affected your more general thinking or assumptions.

Reflecting describes a journal submission that connects your prior assumptions to what you heard during the presentations and/or question-and-answer periods. The key here is that, through a reflection, you convey the impact of the presentations on you personally. Doing so effectively requires that you be aware of your own assumptions and expectations. This is why we have you start the day by writing about your assumptions and expectations.

I have differentiated these levels of journal writing to encourage your reflections of the Ottawa experience. In your papers you should be writing about your prior assumptions and how they were or were not challenged through this field study exercise.

I have now developed a rubric that captures the essential differences between reporting, reacting, and reflecting that I plan to use to guide formative, anecdotal assessment of the journal entries and then more rigorously to guide summative assessment of the final papers. I believe that making our expectations clear will make the experience better for students and improve the quality of the papers they write once we return home.

Adam Chapnick is the deputy director of education at the Canadian Forces College and an associate professor of defense studies at the Royal Military College of Canada.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 27.2 (2013): 5. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

  • Lesley Eicher

    Are you willing to share the rubric you developed?

  • Willena

    I, also, would like to see the rubric you developed? It could possible be helpful to adapt it for my service-learning classes next semester.

  • Hello Lesley and Willena,
    Dr. Chapnick is happy to share the rubric he developed for this assignment. I am sharing it on his behalf:

    Mary Bart
    Editor, Faculty Focus

    • Willena

      Thank you very much, Mary Bart and Dr. Adam Chapnick!