Patch Twenty Five – Write Your Life

Life-Based Writing as a Student Engagement Tool

By Joseph A. Mayo, Ed.D. Gordon State College, Georgia

Student engagement in learning continues to be among the most-pressing concerns in academe today. This patch addresses this issue by quilting together a convincing case for the merits of journal writing in undergraduate education, including hands-on examples of successful journaling assignments.

What is the best way to engage college students in learning? Though this question can invoke debate in academic circles, I have concluded that life-based writing (in the form of journaling) is an effective engagement strategy that encourages students to personalize course content by relating it to their everyday experiences. I have arrived at this conclusion through a combination of decades of informal classroom observations and my own classroom-based research findings over this same time frame that calls upon the scholarship of teaching and learning. Overall, these findings show that journaling compares favorably to more traditional written assignments—including term papers—in terms of stimulating analytical and creative thinking, self-directed learning, awareness of course relevance to real-world events, understanding of self and others, and interest in the subject matter (Mayo, 2010). Outside of teaching in the psychology curriculum, journal writing has also been used successfully in a wide range of other undergraduate disciplines, including business (Wark, 2000), theatre (van Walraven, 2017), athletic training (Walker, 2006), and chemistry and philosophy (Faust & Paulson, 1998). Refer to Stevens and Cooper (2009) for a detailed discussion of the teaching and learning benefits of reflective journal writing.

Research-Supported Journaling Assignments in My Undergraduate Classes

In this section of the paper, I will review (in chronological order) an unfolding sequence of journal-writing assignments that I have instituted in my classes since the early 2000s. Each of these assignments has been supported by the results of my own systematic classroom investigations in which I have quantitatively assessed students’ academic performance and qualitatively examined their perceptions of learning in a variety of undergraduate psychology courses that I routinely teach.

In one instance, journals can take shape as topical autobiographies that encourage students to connect course concepts to their own thoughts or life experiences. In teaching introductory life-span human development, I assign an autobiographical or life-story narrative journal that I call the Life Analysis (Mayo, 2001). Within this assignment, students analyze their own lives in theoretical terms. In doing so, they combine knowledge of life-span developmental theory with a realistic self-appraisal of personal development (physical, intellectual, social) throughout the life cycle. For the life stages that have transpired, learners offer an introspective analysis of the milestones in their development. For the stages that lie ahead, they conjecture about both expected life successes and disappointments. I also build a library-research component into the prescribed criteria for project completion, which involves a search for resources in support of the developmental theories and concepts presented. I offer below a descriptive excerpt from a student’s life-analysis project in which higher-order reasoning is evinced.

My mother often recounts a cute little story to me about my intellectual development as a young infant—a story that relates to applying one of Jean Piaget’s stages of sensorimotor intelligence. As a six-month-old, one of my favorite toys was a “glowworm.” When my parents first gave it to me, they would squeeze it in front of me it, causing it to light up in the dark. I quickly learned to “give it some love” (a hug) on my own in making it glow. And I repeated this action over and over again, each time squealing with delight. Making the toy glow in the dark was a procedure for making interesting sights last, which is the third stage of cognitive development in sensorimotor intelligence (Freedman, 1997).

Following from the success of using the Life Analysis project in my life-span development classes, I introduced the Life-Adjustment Narrative (Mayo, 2003a) as an autobiographical learning tool in instructing sophomore-level psychology of adjustment. In completing this journaling assignment, students record their attitudes, beliefs, and feelings toward the self, important events in their lives, and interpersonal relationships that affect their own adjustment. Similar to the Life Analysis, in the Life-Adjustment Narrative students (a) blend theoretical knowledge of the process of adjustment with meaningful insight into the variables affecting their personal adjustment and (b) cite library references that support the adjustment concepts that they discuss. Some students adhere to a more developmental model, discussing topics that are pertinent to their past and present adjustment, in conjunction with speculating about life-adjustment issues that may impact their future. In contrast, other students adopt a straightforward topical analysis of the issues currently relevant to their personal adjustment. Next appears an illustrative student example of the former stylistic approach that encompasses elements of critical thinking, conceptual application, and personal insight.

Who am I? In the earlier years of my life, this question could have easily been answered with impersonal statements. I am [Jane Doe]. I am 13 years old. I am the daughter of [John and Mary Doe]. I am a member of my middle-school band. I belong to the youth group at my church. Quite honestly, back then I would have adapted rather well to life in a collectivistic culture, where your self-image and personal identity are defined in terms of relationships to groups (Bochner, 1994). Since my early teens, through a wide variety of life experiences (both good and bad), I have embarked on a search for self-discovery as an adolescent, and now, as a young adult in my early 20s.

In teaching introductory applied psychology, I implement a series of brief autobiographical assignments (no more than one, double-spaced, typewritten page), each associated with material from a particular learning module in the course. In completing each mini-autobiographical narrative (Mayo, 2004), students describe and apply one or more psychological principles to their past and present life experiences. As a library component for each assignment, students include library references in support of their descriptions and accompanying psychological applications. Exemplifying mastery of course material covered in a module on learning and behavioral change, I provide below a student’s descriptive account of a personal encounter with a conditioned taste aversion that occurs when a person associates the taste of an ingested food substance with symptoms of nausea or sickness.

When I was nine years old, I vividly remember the time that my teenage brother offered to make me a vanilla milk shake with three big scoops of ice cream. Of course, like most young boys, I accepted his offer without hesitation. What I didn’t know was that my brother had planned to play a trick on me by making buttermilk the main ingredient of this shake. As a child, I had a habit of gulping my drinks straight down, which I also did in the case of this milk shake. As you can imagine, I immediately started gagging and soon got sick to my stomach. This incident led me to develop a conditioned taste aversion (Chambers & Bernstein, 1995) to buttermilk. Even the mere thought of buttermilk made me nauseous for well over a year.

In addition to autobiographical presentations, journals can be used more broadly to analyze everyday situations in the terminology and conceptual framework specific to a given course content. In this way, students are able to apply course principles not only to examples from their own lives (autobiographical narration), but also to situations from the lives of others and events depicted in written and electronic media (biographical narration). To this end, I use the Observational Diary (Mayo, 2003b) as a case-based journaling assignment in teaching introduction to psychology. Students keep an ongoing log of the times that they observe basic psychology in action. Each case description serves as a vignette, or brief portrayal of some real-life experience, which allows students the opportunity to depict, analyze, and apply psychological concepts. As with my other journal-writing assignments, I require students to cite library references in support of their psychological applications. To illustrate attainment of higher-level learning, I submit here a narrative excerpt from a student’s diary.

Case description: In my American literature class, we were put into small groups of four to six students in order to complete an assignment. One person in my group contributed nothing to this process. In fact, he concentrated on other course work during our group meetings. When another student asked why he refused to get involved in our group discussions, he said: “I am just more motivated working by myself than in a group.” Yet when the time came for our group to read the report of our finished work to the entire class, he suddenly “came alive” and volunteered his services.

Psychological application: This student demonstrated social loafing (Karau & Williams, 1993) by exerting less effort in the group than he would have likely done if held personally accountable for completing the assignment on his own.

More recently, I have begun using a journal-writing assignment in my junior-level research methods classes. In the Applied Research Log (Mayo, 2017), students keep an running record of the times throughout the semester that they observe research concepts being applied in the world around them, including at school, home, work, recreational environments (e.g., gyms, restaurants, vacation destinations), in the media (e.g., TV, radio, movies, videos, books, magazines, newspapers), and in scholarly publications (e.g. refereed journal articles, peer-review books). When citing others’ work, students are required to provide appropriate referencing. A student entry follows that highlights the applied learning inherent in completing this assignment.

In an article examining the evolving and contested nature of scientific knowledge (McCarthy & Sander, 2007), the authors describe curriculum-related factors at the university level that might pose obstacles to biology students’ comprehending how biological classification systems change with time. The fact that some students are unaware of the history of changes in biological systems can result in inaccurate and contradictory information about broad classifications. This discussion demonstrates the existence of provisional knowledge in science, and the importance of our understanding that scientific knowledge is subject to change over time.

Cost-Benefit Analysis

Despite the many pedagogical benefits derived from the use of journaling assignments in undergraduate classes, certain costs should be taken into account. For one, some students might complain that journal-writing projects are too labor-intensive, especially when library research is implicated in the guidelines for completion. Another concern derives from the workload demands placed on instructors who, in grading student journals, offer extensive feedback on the nature and quality of finished products. Moreover, relative to the self-disclosure that comes with composing a journal, the instructor must take necessary measures to guarantee students’ anonymity and protect their privacy. On a related note, it is important to instruct students to use appropriate discretion in their self-disclosure, therein shying away from issues that are best suited to therapeutic as opposed to classroom settings. However, after carefully balancing instructional benefits and accompanying costs within the context of my own classroom experiences, I call for additional undergraduate educators across disciplines to consider weaving journaling writing (where applicable) into their curricular plans.

About The Author

Joseph Mayo, professor of psychology at Gordon State College in Barnesville, Georgia, earned his doctorate in educational psychology. He has published his research on constructivist pedagogical innovations in book chapters and peer-reviewed journals. He also presents regularly at regional, national, and international teaching conferences. In 2005, he was appointed by the American Psychological Association (APA) to serve on its Board of Educational Affairs National Task Force on Strengthening the Teaching and Learning of Undergraduate Psychological Science. In recognition of his ongoing contributions to the scholarship of teaching and learning, he received a 2003 Research in Undergraduate Education Award from the University System of Georgia and the 2005 Wayne Weiten National Teaching Excellence Award from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (APA Division 2). He is the author of the faculty-reference book, Constructing Undergraduate Psychology Curricula: Promoting Authentic Learning and Assessment in the Teaching of Psychology, which was released in 2010 by the APA.


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image credit: “Typewriter” flickr photo by tresting shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

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