Using Insights from Learning Journals to Rewrite Teaching and Learning Goals in Student-Friendly Language

Using Insights from Learning Journals to Rewrite Teaching and Learning Goals in Student-Friendly Language

M. Olguta Vilceanu (Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/IJSKD.2015010103
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Understanding the course mission and learning goals is an essential step for students in any learning environment. Reflective writing assignments may assist instructors in their quest to reformulate teaching and learning goals in a language accessible to students, while maintaining the mission and intent of the class relevant to their professional field and requirements. This study proposes using software-driven content analysis methods borrowed from media and communication research in an attempt to first identify the degree and manner in which students internalize the language of instruction; and second, rewrite course/training materials in a language that reflects student discourse. Because it can use either free-form or formal writing, this strategy can be adapted for a variety of interdisciplinary contexts.
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This study approaches the issue of knowledge as a social endeavor from the perspective of communication within the college classroom. Students and instructors approach and perceive teaching and learning based on a variety of expectations, as well as their diverse previous experience with the concepts, skills, and paradigms that are central to a given course. From this standpoint, the course syllabus is the document that initiates communication about and formalizes instructor’s understanding of the course mission and learning goals.

From the students’ perspective, the syllabus may facilitate communication and understanding if written in a language they can immediately comprehend and use; or trigger communication blockages, if the course description and learning goals fall outside students’ realm of relatability. Communication between faculty and students should be at an appropriate level, much like aligning appropriate texts with particular levels of reading comprehension. Having clear learning goals can improve students’ ability to monitor their own learning and performance. However instructors often do not consider their language as a barrier and maybe even blame students for not understanding what the class is meant to teach and accomplish.

The purpose of this project is to use data from student reflective writing assignments in order to suggest improvements for instructors’ description of teaching and learning goals. This study proposes using a content-analysis software tool that is well established in media and communication research, in order to bridge communication of teaching and learning goals between students and teachers, based on analysis of language patterns in students’ reflective writing assignments. It builds on issues that are central to the scholarship of social semiotics and reflective writing, which has long established that: (1) language constitutes a culture; and (2) shared language is an important factor in the development of discourse competence (reviewed in Ryan, 2011). While the typical course syllabus includes much more information about graded assignments and class structure, this study is concerned exclusively with the section outlining the course description (teaching goals) and learning goals.

In the first step of this study, students’ informal reflective writing assignments were subjected to computer-assisted content-analysis in order to identify the structure and relationships among themes and keywords related to their use of the course-specific language of instruction—and then the author conducted a comparative analysis between these patterns and the language in the syllabus section describing instructor’s understanding of the course mission and learning goals. The second step used these insights in order to suggest strategic changes in the instructor’s language and align it with the language students used in their reflective writing.

Reflective Writing as Data

Reflective writing and reflective practice are increasingly connected in higher education and professional education, as a means to promote students’ awareness of their personal/professional goals and development. Reflective assignments vary widely in terms of purpose and content: some instructors prefer highly focused prompts directing attention to a particular theme or issue (Weimer, 2002), while others provide little to no direction, simply building in time and the encouragement (e.g., graded assignments) to write (Elbow, 2006), with the expectation that the lived experience will provide insights and ideas worth writing about (Phelps, 1998).

Assignments framed as reflective writing may assume a variety of formats, from structured essays to learning journals, blogs, question-of-the-day and one-minute papers. Key characteristics may include variations in entry frequency (daily, weekly, monthly, or 1-2 per semester) and the complexity of requirements (follow a given structure vs. free-flow writing). The weight of grade-point value may be relatively high or relatively low compared to the rest of the course workload, and grading itself may be holistic or rubric-based. Communication might be intended for private/confidential purposes (such as the learning journals accessible only to the student/instructor) or open (for example, with reflections for inclusion into student portfolios or blogs accessible to other students/wider public). Reflective writing is meant to increase learners’ awareness of their progress during the course, but instructors may also use data insights to continuously improve the design and description of their class, teaching, and assignments (Hume, 2009; McGarr & Moody, 2010). In this study, however, reflective writing data is used to improve teaching and learning by focusing on the language of the course description and learning goals.

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