Journal-entry assignments are a valuable tool for incorporating semi-structured writing into a course. Less formal than traditional writing assignments which often include a thesis statement, citations, or full-length papers (5 or more pages), journal entries allow the building of connections between course content and real life experiences within one or two pages of writing. Often they are most effective when requiring students to first define the term, theory, or issue and then asking them to describe how either how they or someone they know had a real experience related to a given course topic.
This technique pushes students to be agents of learning as opposed to passive learners. If they can start to link the jargon/terms of a given field with real examples or experiences, the importance of what they are learning is made clear to them beyond the purposes of the classroom. Furthermore, this can lead to lively discussions if the instructor is willing to spend a few minutes of class time engaging students by talking through each others’ examples.
Remember that journal-entry assignments may be new for many students, so it is always beneficial to clarify what you expect as the instructor in terms of formatting, length, and audience, as this is certainly a different manner of writing than their usual lab reports or research papers. Yet if used multiple times throughout the semester, journal-entries can continuously improve students’ abilities to link course content to how it relates in their own lives and can also be used in building to longer, more formal assignments (i.e., scaffolding) later in the semester.