Learning journals

Learning journals or learning portfolios often require students to reflect on what they have learnt in a course. Students need to detail how their thinking has changed and what this means for their future studies.  The writing can be quite informal.

Structuring a learning reflection

Just like all academic writing, a learning reflection needs a key message that is used to structure the narrative. As a writer, you need to make sure that your reader (or marker) understands the significance of your reflection.

A reflection is a piece of writing, so remember what makes writing such as this effective: put your key message in the introduction; use topic sentences to highlight the main point for each paragraph; and conclude with the implications of your key message:

An introduction that includes your keyreflection(s).

  • If you have more than one key reflection, can you relate them to each other so as to give more a coherent key message?

A body, that retells the facts and relates it to your prior knowledge

  • Use topic sentences to highlight the main point
  • Then follow with your evidence (the retelling and relating)

A conclusion, that gives the significance or implications of your key reflections

  • What this will mean for the future? What has changed for you?

A learning journal example from Engineering

To highlight the difference between a summary and a good reflection, two samples on the same topic are given. The students were required to write a weekly journal reflecting on what they had learnt that week. Students were not required to formally reference.

First, an incomplete reflection that is really just a summary of the content:

This week we covered analytical and systems thinking. Analytical thinking is "the abstract separation of a whole into its constituent parts in order to study the parts and their relations"[1] while systems thinking "is the  process of understanding how things, regarded as systems, influence one another  within a whole".[2] It is critical to think at both levels to build good software systems.

An example of where a software engineer needs to think at both levels would be in designing an X system. First you need to think holistically about the problem...  Then you need to think about each individual component ... Initially the software engineer is using systems thinking and then he switches into analytical thinking.

It is important in software engineering to use both types of thinking.

Compare this to the second reflection on the same topic. This reflection was written by Damien, a student in CECS and copied from his blog found at http://theroamingdev.com/resources/learningPortfolio/

Analytical thinking seems to me to be the inverse of Systems thinking. Systems thinking is about seeing a collection of components (be it a computer, some cabling, perhaps a software application) and seeing it as a system (like a network), and seeing how that system fits inside of an even bigger system, and so on. On the other hand, analytical thinking seems to be about separating a system into its separate components, viewing each part essentially in isolation. From these perspectives, you can understand how one seems like the inverse of the other.

A problem I've had to deal with recently was my car (Charade, 1993, also known as 'Shirley') being broken into (it happened last Saturday night). Both the driver side and the passenger side locks were damaged so badly that my key wouldn't fit in either of them anymore. Originally my first approach was to unlock the boot of my car (it's a hatchback), and lean in and unlock the car from the back door. The problem with this was that I was constantly getting my work clothes dirty (from my dusty car), and in the rain, it was totally inefficient, I would get wet because it took me 45 seconds to get into my car once I arrived to it. After a couple of days I got fed up (I am getting the locks replaced by the way), and decided that instead of working against the boot (and climbing over it every time I had to get into the car), I'd use it to my advantage. So I tied a piece of string around the back lock, up through the coat hanger, and put a weight on the end which I put into my boot. Now, until my locks get repaired and installed, I simply pull on the string, and my car unlocks.

I initially started off with an analytical approach, assessing what the goal was (to unlock the door), and how to achieve it (by physically pulling the lock up). It wasn't until I started viewing the car as a system in itself that I realised that my goal was not to unlock the door, but to get into the car. This mind shift was enough to get me thinking about how I could work with the car to make it happen. So over the course of this problem my thinking from an analytical approach, to a much more systems thinking approach, which ultimately gave me a much more feasible workaround.

As for systems thinking in general, to me it looks like systems thinking isn't just the way we'll be looking at this course, but we'll need to start looking at all aspects of our academic and professional lives if we want to succeed (particularly the Software Project, COMP3500). We need to look at the question 'How and why does this fit into the larger system?' A software engineer who can look at a situation this way I think will not only be a better engineer, but also a better manager (which is a position I would like to hold later on in life).

Breaking down the structure of the second reflection

The second reflection is all about the key reflection and why it matters. The writing is structured so that the reader gets how his thinking has changed and why he thinks that this is important.

Introduction includes the all-important key reflection:

Key reflection; Analytical thinking seems to me to be the inverse of Systems thinking

Body that retells the facts and relates it to your prior knowledge

2nd paragraph: Retells his experience with the locks of his car.

3rd Paragraph: reflects on how systems and analytical thinking relates to this experience

Conclusion that gave the significance or implications of his key reflections

Systems thinking is needed in all aspects of our academic and professional lives if we want to succeed.

Reflecting on a project

As part of a project, you may be asked to reflect on the process. Attached under reference documents is a rubric used to mark a learning portfolio for a year long, group project. If you read the descriptors it is very clear that reflections are not just what the students did but also what worked, what didn't, what they learnt and what they will do differently in the future. Students also needed to provide evidence for their claims; what is different from more traditional academic writing is that the evidence came from their project work rather than outside sources.

[1] http://www.thefreedictionary.com/analytic+thinking

[2] http://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/systems+thinking

Reference Documents

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