Reflective Journaling

Doing research is very different from carrying out a traditional course-related lab experiment. The solutions to research problems are not normally known at the outset and often the outcomes are very different from those envisioned at the outset. Each research problem is unique. In addition, each researcher brings with him/herself his own unique set of skills, understanding, and experience with which they will approach their research. Thus, it is essential to be able to effectively leverage one's professional skills and experience in an autonomous and competent manner in the real-world workplace.

Reflective journaling can be an extremely useful tool in this regard. If you are not familiar with this technique, you are not alone. Not often used in the science and engineering fields but a standard practice in clinical training and the field of education, reflective journaling is regarded as an extremely useful and powerful technique for affecting self-discovery and personal and professional growth. The act of journaling involves the regular practice of recording activities and/or situations on paper or electronically with the goal of reflecting on those experiences in order to learn from them and grow personally and professionally.

Journaling is useful in providing insight into self-awareness - what you do (behaviors), why you do it (values, assumptions, aspirations) how you feel (emotions), and how you think. Journaling can expose contradictions, misconceptions, and conflict. In short, it helps you turn every incident into a new potential learning experience.

It is important to understand though that journaling isn't merely the act of chronicling one's experiences. Writing about one's experiences can be useful as it helps to make explicit knowledge that one may have learned and practiced implicitly for better or worse. It also helps to provide perspective and structure to daily events that sometimes appear chaotic and random. However, educational research suggests that active reflection is needed if true transformational learning is to be realized.

In this section we will discuss:

Paper-Based or Electronic?

Journals can be either paper-based or electronic. You can keep a journal on sheets of paper which you can organize in a three-ring binder or write in any small bound notebook. Electronic journals can be maintained on a computer, laptop, or personal digital assistant (PDA). There are a growing number of software packages available for electronic journaling such as Life Journal but any word processing program like Microsoft Word, WordPerfect or even Notepad will serve as well, too.

Paper journals have the advantage of portability and availability though with the increasing multi-functionality of PDA's and similar devices, these are no longer clear advantages. Electronic journals have the advantage of superior readability and indexing and cross indexing functionality. However, electronic journals may be irretrievably lost if accidentally deleted or if the electronic device catastrophically fails. Electronic journals also afford the user confidentiality as these can be password protected in case the electronic device is lost.

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General Guidelines for Reflective Journaling

Journals work best when entries are:

  • Regular made on a consistent periodic schedule;
  • Reflective not merely descriptive chronicles of events but critical assessments/analysis of the situation and/or behavior; and
  • Transformational meaning that specific, doable strategies for change are identified and subsequently implemented.

Entries need not be lengthy to be meaningful.

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Examples of Useful Questions for Reflection

Depending on your goals and individual nature, your journal can be either more or less structured in format and style. One important thing that is known about journaling is that for it to be effective the journal must be more than merely a written record. A set of guiding questions can be useful in facilitating critical reflection if the questions motivate you to reflect. For this reason the following questions are offered as useful starting points in facilitating meaningful reflection.

  • Briefly describe a situation that occurred in lab this week that affected you as an individual or your team (if relevant) as a whole.
  • Why are you describing this incident - did you experience challenges in meeting it? Did you exhibit strengths? Did you learn something?
  • Is there an overarching issue or problem here? What is the potential value here?
  • What were you feeling at the time of the incident?
  • What were you thinking at the time of the incident? Did you have any preconceived ideas? New insights?
  • What was good or bad about the situation?
  • (How) Has this experience challenged your assumptions, prejudices, or biases?
  • What specific possible solutions have you been able to identify to the problem?
  • (How) will this experience alter your future behavior, attitudes, or career?

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