Journaling was a huge part of the Experiential Education program when I started leading experiential education courses in the Sierra Nevada mountains. However, I recall asking the more senior instructors why we did this and didn’t get any solid reasons as to why this was part of the course. The best explanation I got was that “well, it gives the student something to take home to help them remember the course, later down the road.”. This only brought up more questions.
Does journalling actually work?
What was it I was trying to get them to remember?
What were the best techniques for using journaling in these settings?
We’ve seen a steady decline in journaling with the programs I have worked with in recent years. I think this is because journaling has unanswered questions for staff and administrators. Some of these questions could be;
Who provides the journals?
How do we build in time for our already busy programs?
Do we train instructors to utilize these?
Provide standardized journals?
How do we keep them from coming instructional manuals like many of us carry in the field?
All these questions are essential to grapple with. However, we need only look at the research and other fields to see if we can find solutions to these questions. All signs suggest that it is probably well worth our time and can provide profound benefits for our students.
The mental health literature is ripe with the benefits of journaling. Some examples include;
Connecting students to their emotions
Lengthen learning durability
Helps people find their feelings
Disrupts negative thought patterns
Helps students clarify their values
So, by now, if you’re still reading this, I commend you for your interest in journaling. Your reward is more info about how you might use journaling in your course. Some considerations…
Have an extensive program that serves a variety of students? Anybody at any age can benefit from journaling. This is crystal clear in the research about journaling.
When should you have your students journal? Well, that largely depends on your program. Generally, having students journal first thing in the morning provides more mental health benefits. However, journaling any time of the day is excellent.
How much time should you give students to journal? There’s no need to build in hour-long journaling marathon sessions! Most literature on journaling for mental and behavioral health promotion suggests you should journal for 8-10 minutes.
Where should you have students journal? Pretty much anywhere. They will probably find it very easy to journal in the natural environment. You’ll also want to ensure they have some privacy, so they feel comfortable writing something more profound than just the previous day's events. You should also make sure their journal is for their eyes only and that they don’t have to turn it in like they might at school.
"8-10 Minutes is Plenty of time for Meaningful Journaling"
So, how do we move beyond just using a journal to capture events and start to use it as a tool to promote mental health and wellness? As you can imagine, there are many theories and strategies for this. A google search will bring up thousands of techniques you could implore. At Alpenglow, we tend to focus on the technique rooted in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It’s simple and safe, even if you’re not a trained therapist. It goes something like this:
Ensure the students have pen and paper and a safe place to write. Tell them how long they have to journal. Again about 10 minutes should be plenty of time. Next, provide these four simple prompts.
What happened? (single event or whole day)
What did I think about it?
How did I feel about it?
What did I do?
This technique teaches students to think through their life in a sequence: Events, thoughts, feelings, and Actions. It’s really useful for understanding the events of a course, how they felt about it, and then the actions they took. This is huge for enhancing lifelong learning and reinforcing the lessons they might be gleaning on our courses.
Journaling isn’t a silver bullet that provides educators with a sure-fire tool that students can use to learn from our experiences. In fact, the first question you should ask is, “is journaling going to be productive and possible for the student with which I’m working?”. Students with mental and behavioral considerations may have difficulty. Students may also feel embarrassed by their writing ability. Some accommodations you could consider;
Voice Recording Logs
Providing Guided Prompts
Fill in the Blank
However, it can provide many benefits, as we discussed in this article. It can also help prevent mental and behavioral health episodes from our students by giving them time, space, and a structure to process their experiences. Start using a journaling system on your course, and you’re likely to see a decrease in mental and behavioral health incidents. There's no right or wrong way to journal. Doing anything is likely better than doing nothing.
We’d love to hear some of your journaling tips, tricks, and techniques in the comments below.
Crawford, A., Sellman, E., & Joseph, S. (2021). Journaling: A more mindful approach to researching a mindfulness-based intervention in a junior school. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 20, 16094069211014771.
Hubbs, D. L., & Brand, C. F. (2005). The paper mirror: Understanding reflective journaling. Journal of Experiential Education, 28(1), 60-71.
Sutton, M. J., & Jorge, C. F. B. Phenomenological approach to applying reflective journaling to experiential learning. Journal of Applied Learning and Teaching, 4(Sp. Iss. 1), 31-49.