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Insight Journals and Collaborative Learning, Part One

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How could collaborative discussions and insight journals enhance student learning?

Dr. Washburn dropped in to observe her colleague Gretchen Anderson’s class during one of their discussion sessions. Generally, Anderson used Thursday classes for a student-centered discussion session to build on the course material she had presented in the previous Tuesday session.

In her follow-up conversation with Anderson, Washburn relayed how impressed she was with both the enthusiasm and the quality of discussion. “When I lead discussions in class, it’s painful”, Washburn said. “I can see now why student led discussions are so much better. What a great idea. Students are acquiring valuable discussion skills and leadership skills in addition to expanding their understanding of the material. I wish our faculty discussions were this well done.”

“But I do have one concern”, Washburn continued. “How do you know if students are really learning the material? Maybe I’m being old fashioned, but if I present the material, I know that we are covering major concepts for the class.”

“Here let me show you something”, Anderson responded. “These are what I call our insight journals. Just read through some of the entries. I ask students to capture their thoughts after each discussion on the key concepts they learned, focusing on two questions:

  • What insights did you gain from the discussion today as it relates to the material being covered in class?
  • What insights did you gain from the discussion today about discussion processes?

“Students turn in their discussion journals electronically so they have a permanent record of what they learned. They share these with me after every course module, roughly six or seven times a semester.”

Washburn liked what she was reading. The entries showed how the students were able to grasp and apply the content they were learning. “I notice that there are two students’ names in the journals. Why do you have them do these in pairs?”

“I’m a believer in reciprocal learning, where students are essentially teaching, and learning from, each other. I pair students from different discussion groups to talk over what they learned from their separate discussion sessions. That way they can learn from each other as they prepare their journals.”

“What about tests?” Washburn asked.

“Recently I’ve been rethinking my student assessment strategy. I was unhappy with the testing approach I used. Students were memorizing material for the test, but there was very little long-term retention or deep understanding. I replaced tests with the insight journals. Students are actually retaining the material and putting more thought into what they have learned. I don’t give tests anymore. Another advantage is that I gain several class periods that would have been used for testing.”

“You have really challenged my approach to teaching”, Washburn concluded. “Thanks.”

Active learning can be accomplished when students develop insight through collaborative discussion with their classmates. Coverage of course material is a concern for all educators. But it’s not just a matter of whether the material was presented by the instructor. It’s also about whether students made that material their own. It’s about what students retain from the courses they take. Insight journals are an effective approach to building retention of material (you’ll find a bit more in Part Two of this post).

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There is nothing so terrible as activity without insight. – Johann von Goethe (German writer and statesman)


This post is part of our “Think About” education series. These posts are based on composites of real-world experiences, with some details changed for the sake of anonymity. New posts appear Wednesday afternoons.