Using Journals for Learners' Reflection and Self-AssessmentClaudia Marcela Arciniegas Trejos
Centro Colombo Americano, (Bogotá, Colombia)
Learning journals are powerful tools for learning. More than being mere collections of required tasks and assignments, they can be used to empower learners to take charge of their own learning process by reflecting upon it on a regular basis and by assessing their own progress over time.
IntroductionAs explained by J. Michael O’Malley and Lorraine Valdez Pierce in their book Authentic Assessment for English Language Learners –Practical approaches for teachers, “Student self-assessment is a key element in authentic assessment and in self-regulated learning… Self assessment promotes direct involvement in learning and the integration of cognitive abilities with motivation and attitude toward learning… Students who are self regulated learners collaborate with other students in exchanging ideas, eliciting assistance when needed, and providing support to their peers… they see the connection between their efforts and learning success. Finally, self-regulated learners monitor their own performance and evaluate their progress and accomplishments.” (Authors' italics)
This article aims at describing how the implementation of learning journals enabled students to achieve the above-mentioned goals in a high-beginner adult class throughout a three-month cycle at Centro Colombo Americano, a language institute located in Bogotá, Colombia.
First, an example of the types of learning tasks students completed in that particular class will be provided. Then, specific learning journal entry samples will be quoted to show how setting time aside for learners to think about which of the proposed goals they reached through the development of individual and group activities allowed them to identify their strengths, as well as make decisions about what they needed to do to improve in areas of greater difficulty. Next, some of their comments about how their learning journals were useful for them to improve their communicative ability throughout the three-month cycle will be included. Finally, the benefits of implementing learning journals to enhance students’ process of reflection and self-assessment will be summed up, and some suggestions will be made for their successful use.
Types of Tasks Learners CompletedThe types of tasks learners completed ranged from the ones in which they had to demonstrate their ability to apply the studied language to a closer-to-real or real situation that required its active use to the ones in which they reflected upon and assessed their performance in class activities.
An example of a task in which learners had to demonstrate their ability to apply the target language to a more realistic situation and reflect upon their performance in a class activity was the one in which they had to prepare some recommendations for their classmates to enjoy taking a walking tour around an area in the city (Bogotá) -they had previously studied the modal verb should to give advice and other expressions to make recommendations. This first part of the task was done in groups, and it involved both written work and oral interaction.
The following are some excerpts which show the kinds of recommendations students came up with in their groups, and which they recorded in their learning journals:
- “You should go on our walking tour because it is safe to walk at night in this zone.”
- “You should wear comfortable clothes because you have to walk.”
- “It is safe to take photos, and it’s good to know the history of Bogotá.”
- “It’s easy to buy handicrafts in the flea market.”
- “Don’t forget an umbrella to protect yourself if it rains.”
- “You have to have cash.”
Next, each group had to present a summary of the most common and relevant recommendations they had found. To summarize the recommendations from the different groups, the whole class decided on a list of important tips for tourists when they are taking walking tours in Bogotá.
Afterwards, learners reflected upon both their written work and their interaction with their classmates throughout the task based on guidelines that were provided, as follows:
- Did I contribute to my group’s work by participating actively in my group’s discussions? Give examples.
- Did I integrate the new language I learned in the unit orally and in writing? Give examples.
- Did I activate the expression "I guess" to respond to my partners’ suggestions?
- Did I identify similarities and differences among the recommendations presented by the different groups? Give examples.
- Did I help to summarize common recommendations provided by the different groups? Give examples.
Samples of Learners’ Reflections Upon and Assessment of the TaskThe following are some learners’ reflections on the extent to which they had reached the goals set for the above-described task, as well as on the areas they felt they needed to work harder on to enhance their learning:
- “I think that this activity was interesting because in class with my classmates I could practice different expressions to make suggestions and give advice… With my classmates I could respond to suggestions using different expressions but I think that I didn’t use a lot the expression 'I guess...'”
- “I responded to my classmates’ suggestions using expressions like, 'It’s a good idea to take…', … I didn’t activate a lot the expression 'I guess…' because I forgot it in the conversation with my classmates.”
- “In the activity, I used the expressions to respond to the suggestions of my classmates, like 'That’s a great idea!', or 'Maybe.' … It was a little difficult to practice the expression 'I guess…' because I’m not sure when to include it. However, I tried to use the expression in the conversation, but I think that I should practice more.”
Learners’ Comments about the Usefulness of Their Learning JournalsThese are comments learners made at the end of the three-month process in regards to the usefulness of their learning journals to enhance their learning experience:
- “My journal is an important tool to learn and practice more.”
- “I can use my journal to evaluate my progress as a learner at different moments.”
- “I think that the journal is the best way that you can use to evaluate your process. On the other hand, it’s easy to carry and you understand your errors.”
- “I think that it is a good exercise to learn so much. It is very convenient to discover my mistakes and to learn from them.”
Benefits of Implementing Journals for Learners and TeachersMany benefits can be derived from the implementation of learning journals in the language classroom. One of them is that they are tools learners can use to keep a record of tasks that involve the active use of the language they have most recently learned to describe and share personal experiences, points of view, etc. Therefore, they can be considered tangible sources of information for both learners and teachers to see learners’ progress over time because they facilitate the process of comparing their past ability to use language to communicate with their present communicative ability.
Another one is that learners can also use them to write reflections on their own learning process; they can note their strengths and weaknesses and how they can improve in their weak areas. In other words, through the implementation of learning journals they are encouraged to develop a sense of responsibility for their own learning process, which, in turn, makes them better learners because they become more aware of what they need to do to succeed in their language learning process.
Additionally, they are tools that teachers can use to focus their observations of discreet aspects of learners’ performance and to provide feedback and suggestions that can guide learners throughout the process as well as to identify aspects that learners may still have difficulty incorporating in their speech. Consequently, the comments learners make in their journals can help to focus teachers’ observations of learners’ performance and influence teachers’ perspectives of the effectiveness of their methodologies when dealing with various aspects of language in their classes, which can result in teachers’ reflections that will lead to the improvement of their teaching practices in the classroom.
Suggestions for Their Successful ImplementationIt’s worth mentioning some important things to bear in mind for the effective implementation of learning journals to achieve the goal of promoting reflection and self-assessment among learners. The first one is to explain to learners from the very beginning what a learning journal is, what kinds of tasks they will develop, and the key role it will play for them to reflect on their learning and to assess their own performance as a vital component of their language course. Doing this is essential for them to regard it as an important learning tool to fulfill specific goals.
The second one is to define what tasks students will develop and to let them know how they are expected to work each of them gradually. Also, teachers need to provide the guidelines learners will follow for reflection and self-assessment. It is of primary importance to do this, so learners can have a clear idea of what elements are involved in developing the tasks and assessing them.
A third suggestion is to allot time for learners to reflect on and self-assess their performance, if possible right after a task has been completed, so their comments will better describe their actual performance along with their strengths and weaknesses. Something that works really well is to tell students to provide examples for each of the items in the guidelines. Otherwise, they may just end up saying, but not demonstrating, that they manage all the aspects of language and learning the task dealt with.
Ideally, learners should also be given some time to share their reflections with their classmates in order to enrich the process of reflection and self-assessment. Through sharing their comments with their peers, they can develop a sense of solidarity for learning.
Last, but not least, the teacher ought to provide feedback based both on his students’ reflections and on his own observations of their performance in their learning journals. This will make learners feel that he is well aware of how they are doing in the course. Furthermore, they will understand that their reflections are taken into account all along their learning process.
Conclusions That Were Drawn from This ExperienceThe following conclusions were drawn from the experience of implementing the use of learning journals in this particular case:
- Although at the beginning some learners did not know exactly how to reflect upon their learning experience and performance in spite of the guidelines they had been provided with, with some help, they became aware little by little not only of the ways in which they could express their reflections, but also of the importance of doing it to assess their progress.
- The learners’ level of satisfaction with their own learning process increased because through the use of journals they developed a greater sense of commitment to the accomplishment of the goals set for the course. It became clear to them that it was vital to play an active role in all class activities since all of them dealt somehow with the task to be completed, which would serve as a basis for reflection and self-assessment.
- Learners’ reflections were fundamental for them to identify strengths and weaknesses in their class performance. Moreover, their reflections allowed them to decide what they needed to do to cope with difficult aspects of the language. It can, therefore, be said that the process became more learner-centered since it empowered them to make important decisions about their learning.
- At the end of the three-month process, students’ progress in their communicative ability could be evaluated more easily thanks to the learning journals, because in them learners expressed themselves about closer-to-real or real situations that involved the activation of previously learned language, about their views regarding their performance in class activities, and about what they needed to do to improve.
The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XIV, No. 10, October 2008