Creating Meaningful Connections: E-journaling and Self-assessment for Online Courses

College student looks at computer and smiles

There are challenges in finding meaningful ways to engage with students in asynchronous online courses. Some students find learning new concepts difficult when taking a course with an asynchronous format. It can lack personalization and a clear path for self-directed learning. Additionally, instructors often look for options to engage with online learners beyond a synchronous virtual meeting format. Providing self-directed learning opportunities can feel overwhelming to instructors given that it is an additional step instructors need to grade. However, utilizing e-journaling as a tool for online instruction can establish connections and lighten the assessment load by utilizing student self-assessment strategies.

Journaling is a self-reflective writing process (Pavlovich, 2007). It provides learners the opportunity to express opinions on course material that would not be shared otherwise. The use of journaling involves tapping into an intra-personal process as a means to create a connection to the material (Armstrong, 2009; Gardner & Hatch 1989). Journaling also provides connections to assist with the storage and retrieval of learning objectives. It creates connections to background knowledge and new vocabulary. Conventional journaling has been a method used in traditional classrooms (face-to-face format) and can be amended to online learning.

Much like a conventional journaling practice, e-journaling consists of the same reflective process. E-journaling, with a learning management system (LMS) such as Blackboard, is a private entry that is shared only with the instructor. It differs from a blog or discussion board format in that it is not shared with other students. It is not meant for community building and is an asynchronous tool. Live, synchronous instruction is not part of the experience. It is a way to build meaningful connections to the learning objectives and provide a personalized connection between the instructor and student.

An e-journal begins with a thread or overarching goal that incorporates one or more of the learning objectives of the course. The journal can examine the application of theory to practice, or it can support personal connections to facilitate understanding of a concept. In all instances, e-journaling is a reflective activity. The thread is a consistent format throughout the course. The learner synthesizes and analyzes information based upon the prompts that incorporate the learning objectives. The thread can relate course content to practice or can reflect personal philosophy in relation to the course material.

E-journal prompts

Typically, e-journal prompts are presented at the beginning of a learning module. In a semester there will be 15 or 16 journal prompts which either introduce a new concept or reflect on previously introduced material. Journal prompts are also two-tiered. The first part of the prompt incorporates the learning objective of a new or previous module. The second part requires that the student ties in personal or work experience. For example, a survey course on disabilities could focus on social justice issues relating to each disability category. An example prompt would be the following:

“Person first language is the act of placing the person before the disability (e.g. Children with autism rather than autistic children). How does using person first language for disabilities influence societal change? What personal experience have you had where you felt your attributes negatively overshadowed how other people saw you?”

The first part is a review of the concept associated with a previously learned objective. The second component provides a personal response or application to the learning objectives. The entire prompt supports a larger unifying theme or thread regarding social justice for disabilities.

E-journal prompts can be deliberative, technical, personal, or critical (Phipps, J. J. 2005). The prompt can be problem-based (deliberative). It can reflect technical practice. It can involve viewpoints in relation to theory or provide criticisms associated with practice. Regardless of the type, the prompt provides a self-directed learning opportunity, meaning that it is open-ended and relies on the learner’s personal experience for participation.

Rubric for e-journaling

For e-journaling, it is recommended that the student serve as the evaluator of the prompt rather than the instructor. By making the student the evaluator of the journal response, the assessment creates an additional layered component to an already reflective practice. In essence, it becomes a reflection within a reflection. To do so, the student is provided a rubric. Spelling, grammar, and written mechanics are not part of the evaluation process. Such practice provides equity for second language learners and students with disabilities by meeting the learner at their level while encouraging growth. An example of a rubric for the previously referenced prompt would include the following:

Point Value0
There is a unifying theme or ideaThe element is missing or incompleteThe response contains a unifying theme or main idea but it is difficult to determine or not stated clearlyThe response contains a clearly unified theme or main idea
The response contains connections to life, work, or contextThe element is missing or incompleteThe response contains connections to your life, work, or context that are briefly explainedThe response contains connections to your life, work, or show context that are thoroughly explained and show how you have reflected upon those connections
Figure 1.1 Rubric

The student evaluates their submission based on the two criteria that the submission has a unifying theme or connection with the prompt, and the response is a personal connection to the student’s experiences. Based upon the rubric example, the student has a clear understanding of the expectations of the prompt response and can grade accordingly.

Expectations regarding length, written mechanics, and formality should be explained in addition to the rubric. It is recommended that the journal be informal in tone and not be evaluated based upon spelling and grammatical errors. Proposed length can be as short as a few sentences or as long as a page. Either way, expectations regarding length should be communicated.

Where to start and benefits

When incorporating an e-journal into your course, the following steps are recommended: Align the journal theme or overarching goal to the learning objectives. Decide how the student will engage with the objectives using the e-journal. Create prompts that will act as a subset or an objective to the overarching goal. Create expectations for responses, and finally, create a rubric for evaluation.

By incorporating e-journaling into online courses, students will achieve a greater depth of understanding (Dyment & O’Connell, 2010). There is little output for grading, while also providing an opportunity for students to establish rapport with the instructor. E-journaling is sustainable and amendable to a variety of programs. It increases engagement and increases connection while developing critical thinking skills.

Lisa Thompson Sousa, PhD, is an assistant professor for Sul Ross State University (SRSU) and serves as program coordinator for the educational diagnostician graduate program. Sousa’s research interests include assistive technology and adult online learning, where Sousa has 25 years of experience in the field of psycho-educational assessment.

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Gardner, H., & Hatch, T. (1989). Educational implications of the theory of multiple intelligences. Educational researcher, 18(8), 4-10.

Dyment, J. E., & O’Connell, T. S. (2010). The quality of reflection in student journals: A review of limiting and enabling factors. Innovative Higher Education, 35(4), 233-244.

Pavlovich, K. (2007). The development of reflective practice through student journals. Higher Education Research & Development, 26(3), 281 – 295.

Phipps, J. J. (2005). E-journaling: Achieving interactive education online. Educause Quarterly, 28(1), 62-65.