Using online learning journals to enhance students’ engagement with literary theory

Assessment, Canadian literature, E-Learning, Literacy & Writing skills, Literary & Critical theory, Twentieth century literature


Dr Anouk Lang
School of English, Drama and American and Canadian Studies
University of Birmingham


In this case study I describe how online learning journals were used to help students to engage with literary theory on a module on contemporary Canadian fiction. The reflective journals enhanced seminar discussions and motivated students to complete the critical reading. They also brought about some unanticipated benefits, including improving students’ writing, and assisting me as the module leader in my preparation for each seminar. When students were asked to evaluate the usefulness of the journals, they were very positive about them, and their comments, along with the text of the journal entries, suggested that they were an effective tool for fostering deep learning.


I developed the reflective journals as part of a final-year module on contemporary Canadian writing, in which students explored the relationship between fiction and history through a series of Canadian novels and a selection of critical pieces. These texts introduced ideas from literary theory, narratology, historiography, postmodernism, postcolonialism, feminist theory and related areas. The first year I ran the module, I came up against the difficulty habitually faced by those who teach English literature seminars: getting students to do the required reading. Moreover, it seemed from students’ oral presentations and from general class discussion that where the theoretical material had been read, it had not prompted the kind of deep learning that is needed for denser critical pieces: students had applied tactics from surface or strategic learning. An additional factor was the composition of the class, which included students from two different degree streams. Those from the English Literature stream were likely to be unfamiliar with Canadian history and culture, and those from the American and Canadian Studies stream were on the whole less comfortable with the staples of literary study, close reading and engagement with literary theory.

Elbow and Sorcinelli suggest that reflective journals work best when they are used for the purpose of exploring and processing one’s reading (2006: 193). My aim, then, was to use the journals to motivate the students to do the required reading for each class, and also to give them a means of better absorbing its content, not only to enhance their own learning experience but also to prevent the discrepancy in the background knowledge of the two groups from being a barrier to good discussion. Because I was dissatisfied with the way students ‘name-checked’ various critical movements and theorists without displaying an understanding of them – for example dropping into their oral presentations terms such as ‘postmodernism’, ‘postcolonialism’ or ‘historiographic metafiction’ in superficial ways – I wanted to provide a nonpressurised environment in which they could work through these complex concepts without the fear of being penalised for erroneous thinking or imperfectly articulated prose, and to provoke, in Phyllis Creme’s words, ‘a kind of edgy nonchalance wherein the learner can be engaged and challenged but also feel free to play with ideas’ (2008: 50). As an undergraduate and a postgraduate student myself, I had found that difficult concepts from literary theory sprang to life when I was able to understand them in a wider context, usually in relation to a primary text or my own experience, so I sought in this activity to give students similar opportunities to ground abstract concepts in something more concrete. I was also keen for them to have some practice at developing their own critical voice, something which would assist them in carrying the cognitive tools of critical thinking beyond the context of their university course (Barnett 1999: 111). As the seminar classroom is a public space in which any utterance is part of a social performance, and in which there is some pressure to produce well-thought out analyses, it is not a particularly conducive place for such reflections. I decided, therefore, on the framework of a private reflective journal, seen only by the student and by me, in the hope of reducing the burden of analytical performance anxiety.


Over the course of a term, the students were asked to complete 9 journal entries of at least one paragraph in length. The instructions which appeared every time they logged into the VLE to complete an entry can be seen in the screenshot in Figure 1. Underpinning these instructions are the four aspects which Brockbank and McGill (1998: 102-103) identify as central to learning journals: they are confidential, they concern the student rather than others, they are a space for reflective reporting, and they function as a vehicle for learning. I also outlined my rationale to the students in class, explaining that the journals were designed to help them process complex ideas, and also to motivate (force!) them to do the preparatory reading so that our discussions in class would be productive rather than being carried by the few diligent students who had done their preparation.

Figure 1. Screenshot showing instructions for learning journals

Figure 1. Screenshot showing instructions for learning journals

Assessing learning journals is not straightforward. As Brockbank and McGill observe, the values promoted by critical reflection are collaborative rather than inspectorial (100), suggesting that conventional assessment techniques may not be appropriate. However, some assessment has to take place: if journals are not assessed then strategic learners may not undertake the work. Moreover, as Macrorie (quoted in Moon 93) points out, using a collaborative rather than a hierarchical approach can bring structure and discipline to the student’s journal that may not eventuate if the journal entries are not assessed. With these considerations in mind I devised a marking structure that would ensure that students did the task, and the reading, without penalising them for imperfectly developed thoughts. Any student who posted a paragraph prior to the start of class that showed evidence of having done the set reading and engaged with the ideas in it received full marks for the task (5 out of 5). Entries which suggested the critical engagement or reading had been less than fully sustained still received 4 out of 5, something I put in place on the basis that some reflection before class was better than none. These marks went down to 2 and 1 respectively if the date stamp indicated that the entry had been posted after the class began. The total number of marks available for the journals only accounted for 5% of a student’s overall mark, but this was enough to motivate the majority of students to complete most of their entries.

It emerged from the students’ evaluations that receiving an individual response from the module leader to what they had written was much appreciated. Moon (2002: 79) remarks on the subtlety that is required to balance the need to assess learning journals with the creation of an environment where learners feel sufficiently free to express themselves. In light of this, it seemed important to give feedback showing I had given serious thought to the students’ points, so they knew that they would not be able to get away with superficial or hastily-produced responses. In my comments – usually no more than a single paragraph – I tended to pick out substantive points and respond to them, to give clarification if the student had a question, or pose further questions for the student to think about. These tactics were similar to those which students in a study by Todd et. al found to be the most useful in journal feedback: suggesting, evaluating, offering added information and supporting (2001: 356).

I set up the feedback system so that students who wanted a response from me had to post their paragraph 24 hours in advance of the class, to give me sufficient time to respond. This system worked well, because the students who valued my comments got their entries done 24 hours in advance, which produced a manageable number of replies to compose (around eight, which took about 40 minutes to an hour). Those who wrote their entries after the 24-hour deadline received credit for them, provided they were done before class so as to have an optimal effect on the discussion and on their own learning. The other benefit of this system was that it meant students received feedback on their journal entries within seven days of writing them, usually within a day or a few hours. Showalter (2003: 59) is one of many who point to the importance of giving prompt feedback in order to enhance what students learn from assessments. ‘The most meticulously marked and carefully annotated paper, returned a month after it has been written, will make less impact on the student’s improvement than briefer comments returned immediately.’


From what I observed in class and in the students’ final essays for the module, I considered that the journals accomplished the two main aims I had wanted them to achieve. First, they helped the students to engage with the theoretical reading. The process of writing can act as a trigger to cognitive activity (Richards and Lockhart, quoted in Todd et al. 2001: 158), and the students recognised this: as one commented on her or his evaluation form, the journals “enabled me to consolidate what I’ve read – actually try to synthesize the articles and apply them to the other reading”. Second, they made class discussion much more lively and participative. I was particularly pleased with this as a learning activity because the main thing I had done had been quite simple: putting in place a structure on the VLE that caused students to take a more active role in their learning. There was some extra work involved in the initial set up, although not for subsequent years, as I simply rolled over the journal from one year to the next. There was also the time taken to read all the responses and respond to those which were written 24 hours in advance, but the rise in conceptual understanding was much greater than if I had expended the same amount of time and energy giving mini-lectures in class on the topics covered in my greated depth in the readings.

Sample journal entries include:

[Wyile’s article] made me think about how many layers of interpretation and filtration a specific phase in history goes through before it reaches the contemporary reader … There is also the question of who is accessing the ‘history’ and for what purpose. One could be researching for an essay, in which case searching for specific ‘quotable’ aspects of a text may take prominence. In the specific example [of the TV costume drama The Tudors], one could be accessing history for entertainment (as with the example), and thereby could simply accept the ‘history’ presented as fact.

I saw a movie this week that, like Green Grass Running Water used the same process of creation of a hybrid text (the text here being a TV show in the movie) and “re-forms/reforms the rules of recognition of the dominant discourse to create a new discourse”. That movie was “Bamboozled” by Spike Lee … In re-inventing that show, the director is trying to open the white audience’s eyes to how racist and shocking these [minstrel] shows were and how the pictured black people not so long ago. In the story, the black audience appreciates the criticism of the white colonizer mentality and the uneasy white audience comes to take distance and allow themselves to appreciate the critical show they can enjoy with black people.
Like in GGRR, the show is designed for two different crowds, both affected by the colonial past of their country and the jokes, puns and references are understood in different ways, creating links between the colonized and the colonizer.

Knelman’s article was particularly useful in understanding the more intricate details of the history of the case (and those that were not covered by Atwood’s afterword). It raises questions about the reliablity of the press, sensationalism and public discourse – ultimately in the novel Atwood is critical of their treatment of Grace Marks (for example the inconsistencies in the facts). Atwood fills in the gaps in the case – is this a better example of historigraphical metafiction than any other text we have read so far?
One issue that the novel raised for me that I found particularly thought-provoking is the nature of history. Knelman suggests that history is created by the people that record it: ‘…history is not “real” but mediated by texts that can be contradictory’ – Atwood pieces together the contradictory texts in order to make a unified whole, even if it is not the ‘truth’.

While these entries are not free from errors, and have some way to go before the nascent thoughts in them could coalesce into the points of an argument, what I like about them is that they show students translating the ideas in theoretical writing into their own language, into their own terms, and bringing them into dialogue with other cultural forms which can be used to make sense of the concepts. One student articulates the distortions implicit in the process of representation by reference to a television show which, because it misrepresented his own British cultural context, brought home to him how distorted historical representations could be even while laying claim to some kind of mimetic authenticity. A second finds a parallel in an American film to the textual strategies in Thomas King’s novel Green Grass, Running Water, using this resonance to American culture to understand how texts speak differently to different audiences. A third finds phrases from a critical essay on Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace to put into words her own grasp of the unreliability of textual evidence and of representation more generally. Although the language is not perfect, it does not stand in the way of understanding what is being said. It was satisfying to see students explicating texts and theorists in meaningful and straightforward language rather than the self-conscious jargon-heavy language with which they had attempted to explicate contested concepts like ‘postmodernism’ prior to the introduction of the journals.


Overall, the journals seemed to have been an effective tool for fostering skills of critical reflection. An important factor in their success, I believe, was the way they absolved students from having to produce the kind of polished prose that is expected in formal essays within the discipline. As Elbow and Sorcinelli (2006: 193-95) observe, this kind of ‘low-stakes writing’ – informal writing that is either unassessed or assessed informally – can help those who do it to arrive at new insights and understandings. Among its benefits are the ways that students are made to take an active role in processing the material – articulating theoretical ideas in their own words, relating them to their existing knowledge – rather than taking a more passive stance such as listening to a lecture. Students’ ‘high-stakes’ writing can also be improved, as low-stakes writing provides a place to practice and can help with writing fluency. One student submitted an unassessed practice essay mid-way through the term, which was written in very convoluted language. When she was unable to explain verbally the argument she was trying to make, I brought up her learning journal on the screen and pointed out to her that it was clear from the entries that she did have a grasp of much of the material and, moreover, had expressed herself much more clearly in the journal than in the essay. Being shown the distinction between wrought language behind which lurked a lack of understanding, and straightforward prose in which the ideas were clear, was something of a revelation for this student, who went on to produce a much clearer and less jargon-filled final essay.

When I evaluated the journals at the end of the course, and asked the students whether they should be retained on future iterations of the course, students were very positive about them. Comments included:

I found the journal useful because it really motivated me to get the reading done. It also made me reflect on what I’d read and not only treat each article/book separately, but try and see how they informed each other. It’s helpful to have something to look back on and use for my essay.

Yes, keep them on! they were a great way to really get to think about the different articles and link them to the books or other articles. Having written helped me clarify my thoughts and the ideas risen in class more. This led to more interesting/challenging conversations. If you do have time to put more comments that was also great to redirect or question some of our points.

I thought that the learning journals were very useful, mainly because they forced me to read everything & then go away & think about them. It is nice to have something structured to do every week. It also gives another point of reference, & the comments encouraged further thinking. It’s good to have feedback every week, you feel like you’re getting somewhere & improving.

These were really helpful to ensure I kept up with the reading. Having thought about the texts and what jumped out in our reading before the class, I think really benefitted in class discussions.
For the future, I would say definitely keep the relaxed nature of the journals as sometimes it brings out some great ideas when there is less pressure.

What emerged from the evaluations is that for most students, the journals did what I had hoped: motivated them to do the reading, helped them engage with the complex ideas in it and find connections across the various primary texts and secondary texts, acted as scaffolding for their essay writing, improved class discussion, and gave them the opportunity to ‘bring themselves into a relation with new knowledge’ (Creme 51) in a low-pressure writing environment. Some students mentioned the difficulty of finding time to do them, especially towards the more pressurised end of term (for example ‘it is difficult to keep up to date with them towards the end of term when we have loads of 3rd year assessment work to do’), but these students nonetheless recommended keeping them for future classes. The interaction with the module leader in the form of feedback was particularly appreciated, as was a structure which acted as external motivation to do the reading:

I would keep the LJ: I especially appreciated the encouragement it gave me to do all the reading for the week. Purely as a motivational tool it is successful.

Even though it seems silly, it made sure everybody read the text and coursepack so there weren’t just a few people holding up the class because everybody had read it.

Means you have to read the book, but because of the short space of time involved I found it difficult to engage with the texts enough to make an informed entry.

I occasionally pulled an (anonymised) sentence or two out of a journal and put it on the screen at the start of class for students to think about, or brought it up as a point to consider in discussion. I also put together a handout with a selection of the best comments. This was an effective way of validating the work the students put into the journals, and demonstrating that not only did I read and consider seriously the ideas in the journals, but also that they were coming up with topics worth discussing. One student suggested in his or her evaluation that this kind of sharing was beneficial: “Maybe share the journals a bit more as I may have been a bit more inspired with insight into other people’s when I was struggling.”

It would be possible to do the journals in written notebooks and hand these in rather than hosting them online. In the context of this module, I found there were particular benefits of using a VLE to host the journals. It was instantly clear who had done the task on time and who had not, making marking easier. Students could submit their entries remotely at any time, and I could read them remotely at any time, something which meant that I was able to attend an overseas conference in the middle of the term and still keep up with what students were saying in their journals. Additionally, the students had a record of their work which they could look over at the end of the course as they were preparing their final essays. Terrion and Philion (2008: 585) outline some of the other benefits of using electronic journals rather than hard copies: they allow for contemporaneous but not necessarily simultaneous dialogue, and geographic distance is no barrier to communication.

Finally, reading the journals as I was preparing the class gave me an idea of what the students found easy, what was more difficult, and where the gaps in their knowledge were. As a relatively new teacher this was something that was reassuring: I could plan the lecturing portions of the class with a better sense of whether the material had been understood and what had engaged or confused the students. The trade-off, of course, is increased preparation time. More experienced teachers, or those more familiar with the knowledge gaps of students in their programme, might have found that the payoff did not balance out the extra time spent. With a relatively small class of about 25, and usually around eight or so journal entries to respond to, I found the extra time demands to be reasonable. The activity does not lend itself quite so well to larger classes, although if teaching assistants are used then they could perhaps take on the task of monitoring and/or responding to entries. Teaching assistants might well experience the same reassurance in being able to get a sense ahead of time about what the students grasped and what was causing them more trouble.

Bibliographical References

  • Barnett, Ronald (1997). Higher education: A critical business. Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.
  • Brockbank, Anne, and Ian McGill (1998). Facilitating reflective learning in higher education. Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.
  • Creme, Phyllis (2008). “A space for academic play: Student learning journals as transitional writing.” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 7.1: 49-64.
  • Elbow, Peter, and Mary Deane Sorcinelli (2006). “How to enhance learning by using high-stakes and low-stakes writing.” McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. Eds. Wilbert James McKeachie and Marilla D. Svinicki. 12th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 192-212.
  • Moon, Jennifer A. (2002). Learning journals: A handbook for academics, students and professional development. London: Kogan Page.
  • Richards, Jack C., and Charles Lockhart (1994). Reflective teaching in second language classrooms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Terrion, Jenepher Lennox, and Ruth Philion (2008). “The electronic journal as reflection-on-action: A qualitative analysis of communication and learning in a peer-mentoring program.” Studies in Higher Education 33.5: 583-97.
  • Todd, Richard Watson, Mills, Nathan, Palard, Chatchai and Preeya Khamcharoen (2001). “Giving feedback on journals.” ELT Journal 55.4: 354-59.
  • Showalter, Elaine (2003). Teaching literature. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

July 2009