Teaching Theory and the use of the Reading Diary

Assessment, Literary & Critical theory, Student experience


Deborah Wynne
Senior lecturer
University of Chester


Many students find understanding and applying literary theory difficult. This Case Study draws upon my experience of teaching a module on women’s writing and feminist theory to undergraduates, indicating the ways in which the assessed reading diary can help motivate students to explore the work of theorists and apply their theories in their reading of literary texts. To illustrate the benefits of using the ‘theory’ reading diary as a formative piece of assessment I include the results of a student evaluation, extracts from two diaries, and a summary of the positive outcomes I noted, such as students’ enhanced skills and confidence in applying theory and improved grades.

Background / Context

Teaching literary theory to undergraduates is particularly challenging, not least because so many students find both understanding and applying theory difficult. This was the case with my level three module, ‘Women’s Writing and Feminist Theory,’ where I discovered that a number of students, despite appearing to understand the work of feminist theorists in seminars, shied away from using theory in their assessed essays. When asked why, they admitted that they felt unconfident and feared they would lose marks if they ‘got it wrong.’ I needed to find an assessment method that would allow students to explore feminist theory in a ‘non-threatening’ way in order to develop enough confidence to use theory in their final essays. I searched for a method of assessment designed to reward the research process itself and the reading diary offered a promising solution, and because it would be assessed, students were offered an incentive to read, explore and apply feminist theory as widely as possible.

Activities / Practice

In the second year of teaching the module I incorporated a reading diary as part of the assessment, whereby students recorded from week to week details of their reading and their research into feminist theory. This method of assessment offered students an opportunity to engage with feminist theory and formulate their own ideas before writing their final essays. The reading diary carried a 33% assessment weighting (while the essay formed a 67% weighting) and was submitted, then marked and returned to students well before the essay deadline at the end of the module. Students were encouraged to use their diaries to write about any problems they faced, indicate how they overcame any difficulties of comprehension, state which theorists they preferred and why, and how their understanding of theory was affecting their reading of the core fiction and poetry. In this way, I was able to diagnose any problems students were experiencing and offer further advice, both on a one-to-one basis and in seminars.

I realised that keeping a reading diary needed to be an enjoyable and rewarding experience, so I indicated that as long as the diaries displayed an intelligent engagement with the work of at least two feminist theorists, students were free to write and present their diaries in whichever way they felt appropriate. I made it clear that there would be rewards for noble failures, as well as success stories. For example, if a student had done a considerable amount of reading and research into the work of a particular theorist and, after thinking carefully about her ideas, still felt unconfident about using them in an essay, that student would be rewarded for the research she had done, even though she may have felt that the outcome was not wholly positive. Students were thus being assessed on the research process, aware that the more research they did, the more likely they were to gain marks. Students had complained that any research done which could not be incorporated into an assignment was ‘wasted’ effort (although this, of course, is a rather misguided view); thus there appeared few incentives to do more reading if any ‘wastage’ was likely. One advantage of the reading diary was that it encouraged students to read widely by rewarding them for it, even if that reading was not directly used in an essay.

I found that a number of positive features emerged from this particular exercise, some of them I had not foreseen. Students:

  • began their research early knowing that their reading counted towards their grades;
  • tended to keep in regular contact with me to check they were ‘on the right lines;’
  • were generally up-to-date with their reading for the module and well prepared for seminars;
  • experimented and took more risks, thinking beyond the ‘rules’ of traditional essay writing; this led to some interesting and original work;
  • frequently wrote about their growing sense of political engagement and how feminist theory was impinging on their reading for other modules and in other areas of their lives.

Students comments on the reading diary

In an anonymous evaluation of students’ experiences of keeping the reading diary, I found the feedback to be very positive, as the following typical extracts indicate:

  • ‘I found the reading diary a useful space in which to engage with feminist theory in my own way, without worrying if it was wrong or not. I really enjoyed it.’
  • ‘The reading diary was good – a different style of assessment making you think and evaluate throughout.’
  • ‘It kept me on top of my reading. I found it an exciting opportunity to respond to texts in a non-scholarly way! The limited word count was challenging.’
  • ‘By doing the reading diary I was able to more completely understand the material. I don’t think I would have gotten nearly as much out of the class had I not written on them in the diary. Very helpful indeed! Especially for my final essay.’
  • ‘I enjoyed the assessment because I could express my thoughts freely, thus giving them a chance to grow and develop. It also gave me a chance to connect the theories with the readings.’
  • ‘Interesting – it helped me to read into the theory and do a lot of research in advance. It allowed me to focus on the possible essay questions while looking at and researching the feminist theorists. I enjoyed compiling my research and findings.’

Extracts from Students’ Reading Diaries

The following extracts from two reading diaries are given with the students’ permission and indicate the ways in which the reading diary encouraged students to use theory to explore wider issues relevant to their own experiences. (Please note: I have omitted all of the references in the original diaries.)

 Student A

Week 1: Reading Showalter’s ‘Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness’
The Showalter extract was quite challenging to begin with, but once I had worked out the pattern – summation of the approaches of others followed by Showalter’s own proposal – it became easier. The essay facilitated my own position with regard to different feminist ideologies; being uncomfortable with the concept of a uniquely feminine experience, I found the section on women’s writing and women’s culture a clarified, academic expression of my own position: ‘a more complete and satisfying way to talk about the specificity and difference of women’s writing than theories based in biology, linguistics, or psychoanalysis’, as Showalter concisely phrases it. That the author expresses her own reservations about certain other approaches inspires confidence to express my own, which could be useful when wishing to problematise certain ideologies for my main essay’.

 Student B

Week 5: I wanted to establish the position of feminist academics working at the moment. I contacted [a well-known feminist theorist], whose ideas I found useful. She kindly answered my questions via e-mail. Her key points included arguing that feminism and gender theory will become one in future, saying, ‘we can join forces under the umbrella of gender studies’, but she was sceptical of the term ‘post-feminism’, arguing: ‘Post-feminism seems to imply that we’ve changed the world to our perfect satisfaction. We haven’t … though we’ve come a long way.’ [The student provided a transcript of the interview as an appendix.] I can now contrast these ideas with earlier feminist views from De Beauvoir and Wollstonecraft. […] I now feel ready to answer the essay question on women and money. The last two weeks have enabled me to locate key feminist arguments, discriminate over which of these is most useful to me, and to extract from my reading valid notes and ideas.


My reading into feminism has given me an understanding of some of the more complex feminist and gender issues that I can apply elsewhere; but the value of the research goes beyond this. Being male, I suppose I have always been a little confused by feminism and its objective; however, my reading made me realise that feminism is not a single ideal but a collection of different movements attempting to feminise wealth, the family, sexuality, patriarchy and culture. Additionally, I appreciate that feminism is related to a more general process of gender questioning, which aims to reassess the most basic assumptions we have about male and female identity. Personally, then, I think I will try to apply the feminist theories I’ve read, from the belief that social change for women acts in tandem with a liberation for men also.


The average grades for the reading diaries and subsequent essays were significantly higher than the averages for the assignments (a group presentation, essay and examination) in the previous year. This suggests that students are likely to benefit from the formative nature of the reading diary. It offers a useful way for students to study challenging theories, encouraging more extensive research and original thought. Not least of the benefits of this mode of assessment is that students feel able experiment and think beyond the ‘rules’ of the traditional essay. In my experience, this led to interesting work which was often a pleasure to read.

May 2006