Journaling with a Purpose

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Today's featured guest blogger is Shane Bradley, Administrative Dean, Writing Program Director, and Assistant Professor of English at Erskine College. 

The following dictum still bothers me: “Just write what comes to mind. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation. Write what you feel.”

This vague instruction does little for student writers who need to develop academic thinking and writing skills. In reality, what students need is less “do what you want” and more “here’s a specific set of guidelines.”

Instructors turn to the ubiquitous journal assignment for any number of reasons: to begin the class, to transition from one standard to the next, or to consume time. While students often meet this much-clichéd strategy with disapprobation because they’ve been “journaled to death,” by providing a few specific objectives, both students and teachers can benefit from an otherwise mundane activity.

Working with first- and second-year college writers clarified two (among others) distinct realities:


  1. Students need more instruction about how to organize body paragraphs.
  2. Students have been allowed too much time to write what they feel, not why they feel.


Many students leave high school having spent hours and hours expressing their opinions without having to justify (or support) those ideas.

“I believe this law should be changed.”


“Because I don’t like it.”

“Why don’t you like it?”

“It doesn’t work.”

“Can you provide examples of how and when that law doesn’t work?”

That’s usually where that dialogue ends, for asking students to justify their opinions with logic and fact also means not blindly validating what they think simply because they think it. While changing said law might be necessary, the student bears the responsibility of being able to think and write critically about those ideas.

Our blind assertion that students’ feelings must be spared in our efforts to give them voice discounts the reality that many are leaving high school without the foggiest notion what critical thinking is. Professor Digory Kirke in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe laments this fact when he asks, “Don’t they even teach logic in schools anymore?” Unfortunately for our students, life today depends heavily on emotion and feeling while routinely discounting logic.

In order to prompt students to understand an organizational structure that can help them begin to critically analyze, I use a specific template for in-class journal responses (which most often come in the form of body paragraph practice):

topic + support + analysis

The topic consists of the points that support the thesis. The support (evidence) comes from poems, plays, short stories, novels, movies, songs, National Geographic articles, etc. The analysis, the most difficult part, starts with students’ ability to think logically and critically about specific issues.

While the analysis component will take time to cultivate, the topic and support can begin immediately. The journaling assignment can be simple: How does Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool” exemplify a theme from the Harlem Renaissance?

Students’ responses will vary, and much of what they write may feel like simple summary; however, as the instructor exuberantly lends guidance - maybe walking from desk to desk, peering over shoulders – old habits begin to crumble, newer, effective writing strategies taking root: topic + support + analysis. Students begin to focus on why instead of what.

Instructors can add increasingly structured guidelines to the template:

  • the use of signal phrases to announce quotations (support);
  • weening students off their dependence on the second-person you;
  • employment of the third-person point of view when responding to literature;
  • more developed transitions (beyond the tired standbys like first, second, finally, for example, and in conclusion) that utilize diverse syntax and punctuation; and
  • more attention to spelling, punctuation, agreement, and usage.


Give it a try. Educators already know that students perform better when they know their boundaries. Provide some guidelines and watch students’ thinking and writing skills grow. At the very least, the final product of journaling with a purpose will be more palatable when you’re wading through that stack of papers next weekend.