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Using learning journals as qualitative research data

Learning journals provide a rich qualitative data source for exploring students’ learning experiences and competence development. In the CORALL project, we used learning journals to study students’ learning process and progress and to develop pedagogical tools to support collaborative autonomous learning.

Published : 30.11.2022

In our CORALL project (Erasmus+ 2019-2022), students, teachers, and researchers from 6 European universities created and tested autonomous learning tools and methods that encourage students to take responsibility over their own learning in collaboration with peers and other relevant stakeholders.

Through writing learning journals regularly in English, students gained practice in self and peer assessment, critical thinking, and reflective writing in a foreign language. For teachers and researchers, learning journals gave insight into students’ attitudes, opinions, emotions, and experiences during the learning process.

Preparing the research design

When using learning journals to support reflection and to gather qualitative research data, it is important to determine and define the purpose and meaning of both writing and studying them.

Our aims were to explore

  1. What competencies students develop during the learning process.
  2. How students experience their learning process.
  3. How to support students to take responsibility for the continuous development of their own learning in collaboration with others.

We used semi-structured learning journals with some pre-given reflection themes and guiding questions. These were based on the learning objectives of the courses and projects involved and on selected key areas of the autonomous learning process, such as team building, needs analysis, goal setting, time management, knowledge sharing, feedback and feedforward, uncertainty tolerance, motivation, self and peer assessment, and emotional and ethical aspects of peer learning.

When the learning journals were related to international projects with English as a lingua franca, students were also asked to reflect on their language and intercultural skills development in authentic project and team learning contexts.

Encouraging and supporting reflection

The aims and benefits of reflexive learning must be shared and discussed with students, so that they understand the purpose of reflection and journal writing. If students lack knowledge of the aims, tools, benefits, and assessment criteria of reflection, it may be difficult for them to commit to writing regular journal entries and to describe complex learning experiences in a foreign language (Nešić & Spasić-Stojković 2017; Chan & Lee 2021).

By contrast, if students understand the academic and professional benefits, they can enjoy the writing process and feel more motivated to produce thorough-going accounts of the highs and lows of their learning experience.

Academic benefits of reflection and reflective writing include improving skills necessary for deep learning, learner autonomy, and life-long learning, such as critical thinking, self-awareness, and problem-solving (Chan & Lee 2021; Tsingos-Lucas et al. 2017; McCarthy 2011; Walker 2006).

Professional benefits have to do with being able to conceptualize one’s learning on a metacognitive level. This, in turn, makes it easier for students to describe and showcase their skills, competencies, and learning styles to employers when applying for jobs.

To support reflection, teachers should act like coaches who ask probing questions and give constructive feedback on both the form and reflective content of students’ writing. Encouraging students to use free-form writing and to not be afraid of language mistakes helps create a safe and relaxed learning environment supportive of open and honest reflection.

Critical analysis of learning journal data

Learning journals can produce rich and diverse data that can be hard to categorize and analyze (Nešić & Spasić-Stojković 2017). This is why we opted for a semi-structured journal format with broad reflection topics and guiding questions. This enabled us to categorize the data thematically and compare and contrast our findings between students with heterogeneous cultural, academic, and linguistic backgrounds.

Journal writing was voluntary and the journals were not graded as such, which encouraged students to be frank about their thoughts and feelings. We wanted students to be writing primarily for themselves and for their own benefit and not for teachers or with an intention of obtaining as high a grade as possible. In all our experiments, 60-70 % of the students submitted their learning journals.

When going through learning journal data, we adhered to the systematic process of qualitative content analysis and thematic analysis (e.g. Merriam & Tisdell 2016; Guest et al. 2012; Nowell et al. 2017) that involved organizing, coding, categorizing, and tabling content under main themes and thematic sub-categories. Selected direct quotations from students’ writing were used to illustrate and validate the trends and patterns arising from the data.

Implications for learning, teaching, and research

Writing learning journals enables students to become active and critical contributors to their own learning through continuous self and peer assessment. Journal writing also encourages students to adopt multiple points of view and to become more aware of their growing competencies, strengths and further development needs.

For teachers and researchers, learning journals bring useful information about learner experiences. Based on the insights arising from journal reflections, teachers and researchers can develop pedagogical solutions to boost students’ competencies in reflection methods and tools, language and communication, peer learning and ethics, and qualitative assessment.


Chan, C. K. Y. & Lee, K. K. W. 2021. Reflection literacy: A multilevel perspective on the challenges of using reflections in higher education through a comprehensive literature review. Educational Research Review, 32.

Guest, G., MacQueen, K. M., & Namey, E. E. 2012. Applied thematic analysis. SAGE Publications.

McCarthy, J. 2011. Reflective Writing, Higher Education and Professional Practice. Journal for Education in the Built Environment, 6:1, 29-43. 

Merriam, S. B., & Tisdell, E. J. 2016. Qualitative Research: A Guide to Design and Implementation (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Nešić, I. & Stojković. M. S. 2017. Insights from Students’ Language Learning Diaries. The Journal of Teaching English for Specific and Academic Purposes, 5(3), 529-544.

Nowell, L. S., Norris, J. M., White, D. E., & Moules, H. J. 2017. Thematic Analysis: Striving to Meet the Trustworthiness Criteria. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 16, 1–13. 

Tsingos-Lucas, C., Bosnic-Anticevich, S., Schneider, C. D., & Smith, L. 2017. Using Reflective Writing as a Predictor of Academic Success in Different Assessment Formats. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, 81(1).

Walker, S. E. 2006. Journal Writing as a Teaching Technique to Promote Reflection. Journal of Athletic Training, 41(2), 216–221.