Academic Exchange Quarterly     Winter   2004    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  8, Issue  4

To cite, use print source rather than  this on-line version which  may not  reflect print copy format requirements or   text lay-out and pagination.


Reading Journals: a versatile assessment strategy


Jeanine Graham, University of Waikato, New Zealand


Jeanine Graham, Ph.D., is a Senior Lecturer in History



Reading journals can be used in a variety of ways to encourage students to read more reflectively and to develop skills in communicating their understanding. While normally used as an individualistic assessment strategy, incorporating regular feedback and a collaborative element can enhance student performance.



How best to encourage undergraduate students to read widely, wisely and well is a constant challenge for university teachers and one that can be complicated by students’ varying family and employment commitments, time management strategies, and prior experience of tertiary education.  Assessed reading journals offer one solution.  Easily adapted in scope and scale, this commonplace teaching and learning strategy can be easily adjusted to work effectively at both graduate and undergraduate levels and with outcomes that link directly to recommended teaching practice about providing on-going  developmental feedback (Hyland, 2000). The case study below demonstrates how the strategy can be used in ways not usually canvassed in the literature on journals, logs and diaries (Moon, 1999; Gibbs, 1995). It suggests that both learning and employability objectives can be achieved through a flexible system that accords well with recognized goals of assessing for understanding (Ramsden, 2003).


A second-year level example

The most straightforward use of a reading journal is as a record of a student’s independent or assigned reading, preferably with a strong reflective component.  In a introductory course on Victorian Britain, for example, a group of some sixty students accessed, read and annotated a range of published resource material. Locating contemporary newspapers and periodicals, parliamentary debates and official reports extended the students’ literacy information skills. Other categories, such as monographs, scholarly and popular articles, websites, novels, biographies and a richly-illustrated ‘coffee table ‘publication, were relatively easy for most students to uncover but occasional small group or full class discussion on ‘favorite finds’ was a useful way of sharing search strategies and promoting a sense of collective endeavor amongst students who had little previous tertiary experience of passing useful  references on to others.



For many undergraduates in that class, it was a novel experience to be involved in developing both the assignment specifications and the assessment criteria. Small group discussion in the first week of teaching soon elicited a list of twelve types of sources that could be explored; identifying the key criteria for assessment was more difficult. Most groups could agree more readily on the relatively mechanical aspects (such as accuracy of referencing and standard of proof-reading) than on the more substantive ways in which a 100-word annotation might be assessed.  There was little understanding about the scope and structure of an annotation, hence student hesitation about how best to evaluate one.  Examples of informative annotations, adapted from Library Choice cards,  were then circulated along with others (devised by the course instructor) that were unfocused, emotive, badly organized and poorly expressed. Class members soon identified what comprised an effective annotation, even if they did so initially in negative terms.


Student responses on all three topics – sources, criteria and the nature of annotations –were then compared against the instructor’s draft assignment specifications and assessment criteria, prepared in advance but not distributed until that point. While few modifications were required, the opportunity to fine-tune the instructions at this stage, with student involvement, prevented problems from arising later because of student misunderstanding. The final version of the assignment instructions was distributed the following day.  End-of-course evaluations reflected a high level of student enjoyment of the scope and challenges of the reading journal and the way in which the tasks had been developed. There is obviously scope here for a much more explicit development of strategies for student self-assessment as part of a teaching-learning partnership (Boud, 1995).  


A third-year level case study

The number of entries and the total assessment value of a reading journal can be adjusted to match the teaching and learning objectives of any particular course of instruction and the potential in-class application of the task can also change to suit a specific situation. In a third-year-level paper on childhood history, for example, a shortened journal was adopted so that all individual entries contributed to a collective course bibliography, copies of which were then distributed to the entire class by the end of the first five weeks of teaching.  Subsequently, as students worked on their independent research projects, many made extensive use of resources which other course members had located and annotated for the bibliography (Graham, 1999). Website access is now an alternative means of dissemination.


Requiring weekly or fortnightly submission of journal entries ensures that students are engaged in independent and reflective reading throughout the teaching semester and not undertaking an intense burst of activity just before the assignment’s due date. Dividing the journal into two sections and marking each after a five or six-week period is another strategy for consideration.  Informal third-year student feedback suggests that a reading journal spread over ten or more weeks palls in appeal when there is little variation of task. Yet a sustained journal also has considerable potential to be used to enhance ‘employability’ skills - analysis, communication and teamwork (Yorke and Knight, 2004).  It was with very similar objectives in mind that the strategy was adjusted for another third-year-level class of 30 students.


The key goals this time were those of fostering a collaborative approach within each of two separate seminar groups; ensuring that students read steadily throughout the semester in areas that related to all parts of the teaching program; providing on-going formative feedback not just final summative assessment comments; and encouraging students to think much more deliberately about the range of skills which they were developing and applying in the course.  Each week’s task formed the basis for a regularly scheduled short period of in-class discussion.


Although ten tasks were originally proposed, with two of these to be optional, in practice eight tasks were set and students were required to complete all of them, preferably within the time estimate guideline provided (usually between five and eight hours).  Tasks scheduled for the second half of the semester were deliberately designed to be shorter so that students were not compromising work on their independent research projects. Normally, no entry was to be longer than two pages of typing using a size 12 font. Students prepared two copies each week, one of which they handed in at the end of seminars for comment.  The other, on which they often made notes during or after their contribution in discussion, was retained for their own files. Each week’s entries were reviewed and an indicative grade noted (as an aide-memoire) by the instructor but the students were not given a formal mark each time. Entries were returned in the following week’s classes. Students were asked to retain the reviewed sheets and to hand these in, at the end of the course, as the full reading journal for final assessment. Overall, the journal entries were worth 25% of the full course assessment: most students spent 50-60 hours of independent study on them.


The assessment criteria (not in rank order) were: completion of the tasks in accordance with the instructions; relevance of points noted in relation to the tasks set; thoroughness of analysis of materials read; evidence of a developing understanding of key concepts and debates; comprehensiveness of response within the space and time constraints suggested; and the standard of presentation, oral and written, in the typed entries and seminar contributions. Most students favored one final grade being given for the overall standard of the reading journal, an approach which accommodated steady improvement in analysis, referencing and expression, but some later recommended a calculation based on eight numerical totals.  That system would have negated the teaching goal of trying to give students the opportunity to improve their skills in the light of responses from both their instructor and fellow course members.  Feedback aimed to be ‘developmental’ not ‘judgmental’ though some students may have thought the distinction artificial. As Alan Booth has argued, however, the ‘diagnostic, summative and formative functions of assessment… are not separate entities but are part of a continuum in which the aim is improved understanding’ (Booth, 2003).


Details of the reading journal tasks

To enhance student communication and analytical skills, each task involved a slightly different style of presentation. In the first week, when all students were reading a seminal article, they wrote a short commentary (maximum of eight lines) indicating their response to a methodological question.  They also read sections of two autobiographies, identifying and listing comparatively the range of themes discussed, and then developing a 300-word paragraph on the comparative treatment of one of those themes.  The second week’s task enabled students to begin reading either of the optional course texts. They recorded the frequency and context of references to a central work in the field of childhood history and prepared a short commentary on one of the more substantial of these references.  From the course text each student chose five significant sentences, statements or paragraphs that could be used for in-class discussion. Two were typed (in size 24 font) and reproduced on overhead transparencies. A summary list of points that could or should be covered during class discussion was then prepared in relation to each of the overheads.  The outcome was  a lively and stimulating set of class conversations, with all course members coping well with the ‘ordeal’ of standing up in front of their peers and leading class discussion for the first time.  With these first two tasks, as was the pattern subsequently, examples of the type of presentation required for the following week’s journal entry were normally prepared by the course instructor  for showing in class and could  be accessed by e-mail (or, now, placed on a website) for any student uncertain about layout or approach.


The third exercise in the reading journal enabled students to finish reading their chosen course text. Each course member then selected five topic areas for further investigation and emailed these to the full class (a strategy that ensured everyone had reliable e-mail access by this point though postings on a course website would now be a more efficient alternative).  For one of the five areas, students had to indicate, in full sentences with no grammatical errors, three lines of enquiry and the related research strategies that could be adopted to start an investigation.  The final part of this task involved their choosing any two articles noted in footnotes or the bibliography of the course text; locating the relevant articles in the Journals section of the university library (an area which some students had never used up to that point) ; and compiling a 100-word summary of the scope and key argument for each article. Specific details of font and layout were given and all of the summaries, consistent in format and with each student’s initials indicating authorship, were then photocopied as a class set.


Task four, also intended for full-class distribution, was a timely opportunity for students to investigate biographical materials. Each student selected one individual whose activities or ideas had been influential in the history of children or childhood. Choices were notified to the full class electronically to avoid any duplication.  Within the 400 words allowed, students were to spend no more than 50 on biographical details;  between 150 and 200 on relevant areas of activity; and the remaining 150 -200 words explaining the influence of their chosen individual. Three key reference sources were to be listed at the end of each report. A full class seminar on the role of individuals in relation to childhood history was both informative and thoughtful in the light of student work for that week.


Since all students were required to prepare for a mini-conference presentation on their proposed independent research projects, there was a deliberate break in the schedule of reading journal tasks. The change of routine was welcomed by the students as was the (to them) novel experience of the whole class going off campus, by bus, to a well-appointed tramping club lodge for a full afternoon of progress reports.  The benefits of the different class dynamics of that day were obvious in the course for the remainder of the semester.


The last four tasks continued to contain a variety of presentation methods and source materials. One involved a bullet-point listing of major ideas contained within a scholarly article, followed by an analysis of how one of these ideas had been developed by the author. Since the article related to children and the media, students then reviewed current newspaper or magazine advertising to select an item that reflected this link. They had to explain that choice in three coherent statements. The following week saw the students reading allocated sections of a lengthy reference work and identifying three important concepts which were expanded within the reading.  This was a familiar activity; beginning to consider key points for a broad examination question was not. This early practice in prioritizing five suggestions and giving a sentence of elaboration also gave course members an opportunity to share ideas, not always a hallmark of examination preparation.


Website resources featured in the seventh task as students located sites on three different subject areas: curriculum, contemporary issues, and historical materials.  Both descriptive and evaluative comments were required but word limits prevented this task from becoming too demanding. For several course members this was the first conscious consideration of criteria for appraising the scholarly value of websites. And for the final exercise, students were directed to a substantial collection of published historical documents and guided to writing a 100-word documentary analysis for three selected texts. They also highlighted (on photocopies) phrases which they felt reflected contemporary attitudes towards children and childhood and provided one-line explanations for their choices. This final task did not receive separate feedback. Instead students had a one-week period in which any missed exercises could be finished for inclusion in the full reading journal. Since several course members had been affected by illness, bereavement and family complications, this opportunity was well-received and in no way disadvantaged those whose journal entries had been completed on a regular basis.


When students were asked to indicate which of the course assignments should be retained in future years, their  anonymous responses on the reading journal  ranged from positive  - ‘The Reading Journal is a keeper!’ ; ‘Kept me very busy! Was always a challenge but learnt a lot!’; ‘Very beneficial for weekly growth. Evaluations kept you focused’; to lukewarm or critical – ‘Lots of wide reading, which I wouldn’t otherwise have done, but they were quite random tasks, and often quite annoying’; ‘Too much work involved for a low percentage of course grade’.  Fewer than 10% of course respondents recorded a negative comment. No one recommended that this particular assessment strategy be dropped. Several applauded the inclusion of course texts within the journal tasks. Certainly that strategy helped to build a basis of shared understanding in the first few weeks of the course.


From a teaching perspective, the reading journal tasks, linking in with the seminar/lecture program, were carefully planned to complement the other aspects of the course assessment – an independent research project worth 25%, a final examination worth 40% and a 10% participation mark, no proportion of which was awarded to students who missed more than 20% of the class meetings. In future years, more attention will be paid in the first weeks of classes to encouraging students to think about their reading techniques, skim reading especially, since few had reviewed this aspect of their learning. Additional opportunities for the students to reflect more consciously on their learning and writing could be linked with an expanded style of journal (Moon, 1999)  or integrated more deliberately into non-assessed classroom activities in ways that encourage greater student/instructor partnership and interaction (Bean, 1996).  Adapting the reading journal from an individualistic assessment strategy to one with a strong element of collaborative learning, however, has been a very worthwhile practical experiment and one that will be repeated in future years, with its effectiveness enhanced as the course instructor gains greater understanding of the conceptual frameworks underpinning this style of teaching.




The uneven quality of student preparation for class discussion poses significant difficulties for instructors, at undergraduate level especially. Reading journal tasks which assist students to process required readings while enhancing their analytical, writing and communication skills, can improve student participation in class and encourage them to maintain constant engagement with course materials. The practical orientation of the reading journals may well stimulate students to embark upon more reflective writing about their learning experiences.





Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1996, pp. 97 -118.


Booth, Alan. Teaching History at University: Enhancing Learning and Understanding. London and New York: Routledge, 2003, pp.147, 134 – 48.


Boud, David. Enhancing Learning Through Self Assessment. London: Kogan Page, 1995, pp. 11 - 47, 93 – 117.


Gibbs, Graham.  Assessing Student Centred Courses. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff Development, 1995, pp. 31 -37.


Graham, Jeanine. 'Individual Effort: Collective Outcome: A Case Study of Group Teaching Strategies in History'.  Innovations in Education and Training International, 26, 3, August 1999, pp. 205 – 18.


Hyland, Paul, ‘Learning from feedback on assessment’, in Alan Booth and Paul Hyland, Eds. The practice of university history teaching. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000, pp. 232 - 47.


Moon, Jennifer S. Learning journals: a handbook for academics, students and professional development. London: Kogan Page, 1999, pp. 49 -58.


Ramsden, Paul. Learning to Teach in Higher Education. 2nd ed. London and New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2003, pp. 176 – 206.


Yorke, Mantze and Peter T. Knight, ‘Employability: judging and communicating achievements’. No 2 of the Learning and Employability Series. York: Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN), 2004, pp. 1-20.