Using a Learning Journal: A Rationale and Template for University Students

by Christopher Willard, PhD and Laurel Smith, PhD

This article provides a brief rationale for recommending students use a learning journal. At the end of the article a learning journal topic header template is provided.


A learning journal is a document that students write that tracks their ongoing progress and accomplishments within a specific course. It allows students, and others if necessary, to gain a more complete picture of the actual learning that took place. A learning journal:

* dovetails with excellence in pedagogy

* increases students’ reflexivity

* encourages students’ self-advocacy

* identifies ongoing support of the professor

* provides a written account of class time activities and ongoing assigned research

* accounts for early and frequent feedback.

As we can see, a learning journal is more than a simple reflection upon a course. A learning journal traces a student’s perceptions of their learning progress and outcomes.

A learning journal can be a notebook or journal, but it can also be a series of pages in a document, handwritten on a template, or in an online document. Ideally it would be great if schools had learning journal templates connected to learning management systems that all students could access. The format of learning journals is flexible however they should be started the first day of a course and updated on an ongoing basis.


A learning journal is not to be confused with journalling or free-writing. The main goal of a student’s learning journal is grade protection. When a grade contestation or grade appeal is necessary, the learning journal demonstrates clearly what the student did throughout the course.

Learning journals must be correlated to the course syllabus and when available, to both the course rubric and to individual assignment rubrics. It is expected the student has carefully and fully read the course syllabus and all other course documents distributed by the professor. If these are handed out, students should keep the copy in a folder or notebook with the learning journal. If a student submits a grade appeal, reviewers will have a clearer student perspective through the learning journal’s documentation of printed emails or notes reflecting conversations with the professor.


The benefits of learning journals are noted in a short paper by Grant & Freeman (2003) who examined the use of learning journals by first and second year undergraduate students obtaining a post-graduate diploma. The practical day-to-day usage of learning journals was the highest ranked benefit for first year students’ success. At the second year, researchers saw a reduction in confusion and anxiety by students who used the learning journal.

A learning journals also:

a) functions as a record of evidence

b) document the student’s rationales for choices with respect to assignments

c) records the accomplishment of course activities

d) promotes reflexivity on the part of the student

e) makes a student’s learning visible

f) raises awareness of needed learning assists

g) helps students control their learning

h) encourages students to advocate for grade reassessments when warranted


Course Syllabus and Learner Outcomes

Make a list of the learner outcomes that are outlined on the course syllabus. Ensure that you understand the terminology. Write any questions about what is required by the professor and write down the clarifying answers. It is also good practice to include the dates that you receive clarifying answers from the professor and note whether it was by email or verbal. If verbal include when and where your meeting occurred.

In-class Activities

List your participation in any activities, e.g. small group work, large group work, large group discussion, etc. Did you contribute: add a comment, ask a question, answer a question? What was the teacher’s response if any after you participated? Describe how you participated and what you said in relation to the activity.

Homework Deadlines

Was any homework due? What did you submit? Include a photo or description of the homework submitted. Did you turn it in by the stated deadline?

Diligence and Time Spent

Did you work to accomplish the assignment with diligence, trying your best to meet the stated criteria for it? Describe how you believe you met the stated criteria. Include a list of preliminary sketches, research notes, tutoring you sought, extra research, time to draft and finish or polish your assignment. How much time did you spend? Track hours working on this project. For example, Monday, 7pm-8:30 pm, read 5 pages of textbook, took notes, drafted essay outline, wrote a question to raise in class discussion.

Correlation with Assignment or Grading Rubric

Was there a rubric listing criteria or grading for this assignment? If so keep it. Were any examples provided as to what constituted an excellent assignment? Describe what the professor said were requirements. Did you understand the criteria? If not, did you email or see the professor to clarify what you did not understand? Ultimately, your goal is to understand what the professor expects of you and it is up to you to ask what is required to achieve a specific grade. Don’t ask for vague grading criteria such as, ‘Will it be ok to submit a few botanical drawings to pass the assignment?’ Instead ask a specific question, based on the criteria suggested by the professor such as, “Will three, 8x10 inch pen and ink botanical drawings with compositional elements of intricate detailed flora that fill the entire page be acceptable for an A grade?” In this example, if the professor said yes to your clarifying question, and later returned the assignment with a lower grade with feedback that the intricate elements are out of proportion, you have a case to argue that proportion was not part of the criteria for the assignment.


If you get feedback from a professor by email, print and add your email and the professor’s response to your learning journal. If you had a one to one meeting, be sure to document in writing what was said. You can take notes in the meeting, and ask the professor clarifying questions at the end of the meeting to ensure that your professor can confirm that your notes reflect what you both understand from the meeting. It is also recommended you send an email to the professor stating something like, “Thank you for meeting me. Here is what I understand to be the criteria for this project.” (List what you talked about here.) Then end with something like, “If I have mischaracterized any of our criteria as we discussed, thanks in advance for emailing me back to correct it.” Likewise, it is also fine to email a professor and say something like, “I am a bit unclear on exactly what is expected by this assignment.” Detail exactly what you are unclear about and ask for clarification.

Feedback on assignments

What feedback did you get on your completed assignment? If feedback comments are written on the work or a grading sheet, keep them and attach to your learning journal. If feedback was presented verbally from the professor, write down what the professor said in your learning journal. If it was feedback from other students, write it down and write a response in your learning journal as to whether you agree or not. If you do not agree, this is an opportunity to deepen your learning and practice advocating for yourself and your ideas. Ask for clarity from the professor. This demonstrates you care about your learning.

Keep all work

Keep all completed and returned assignments. You can also take photos as a way to archive your progression. A digital archive is useful to you if you are ever in the position of having to submit a grade appeal.

Email etiquette

Keep emails professional. Address the professor by their preferred name as stated in class or on the course syllabus, e.g. Dr. (name), or Professor (name), or first name. Get to the point of your question without long preambles,. For example: “I would like to clarify what are the expectations for the assignment (insert your Course name and number). I understand that you want 5 drawings, but I am unclear after seeing so many examples in the class presentation. Can you tell me if should they all be in pen and ink, should they all be the same size, should they all be related to the same subject? I want to give this project my best energy and am aiming to earn an A. I appreciate the clarification.” At the end of every email thank them for taking the time to respond.

Ongoing feedback

Your professor’s job is to deliver course content. Your job is demonstrate that you understand it. Your professor should provide you early and frequent feedback as to how you are doing in a course. If you are not getting this, you must ask. Be specific in your question. Rather than ask, “Am I doing ok in this class,” ask, “Am I on track for an A?” What some students refer as doing ok is open for interpretation. It could be argued that a minimum pass is doing ok, so it is important that you are clear in your expectations too. If you have not received feedback from your professor by week three or four, send an email. Getting information in written form is a valuable life lesson. Write, “Hello Professor (name) I just wondered a) how I am doing in your course and b) if I’m not earning an A or B+ is there anything specific that I should do to improve my grade. Thanks very much for letting me know.”

Control your learning

Asking for feedback puts you in control of your learning and it shows the professor you care. If a grade contestation is necessary, your communications with the professor will reveal that you were active in your learning by asking for clarity in how to improve. If the professor does not respond, you have that on your side if there is an official grade appeal. Most professors want their students to succeed so if you haven’t heard back from your professor after a week, write again, “Perhaps you missed my first email asking….etc.” Keep that communication in your learning journal as well.

Option for written feedback

You mostly likely have a right not to meet a professor in the professor’s office. You have a right to ask for feedback in writing. If you do choose to meet in person follow the protocol in the section above about documenting.

Midterm grades

You should know where you stand in the course at midterm in order to understand your course standing and to make a decision whether to withdraw from the course without penalty. Ideally, you should be aware of your course standing before midterm. A mid term assessment will provide you a provisional grade (this can change). If your midterm grade is not the grade that you anticipated, you will need to learn specifically what you did to earn that assessment and what you need to do to improve your grade. Immediate followup is recommended. To do so, write an email to the professor, e.g. “I received a B for the midterm grade. I would like to know specifically how this is possible when I believe I met all criteria for the assignments (if you did). I would also like to know what specifically I need to work on or improve to get my grade up to an A.” Generally your midterm grade should not come as a surprise.

Adult Learner

Be an adult. If you know you didn’t study for a test, don’t ask the professor how you can improve your test score from a C to an A. You already know: study for the test. If you blew off an assignment, next time do it. If you skipped three classes, stop skipping.

Out of the Ordinary Circumstances

Inform the professor when you are sick, by email as soon as you know. Read the syllabus to find out what to do about the non turned in homework or missed assignments. If nothing is written in the syllabus, email the professor and ask. Or if, for example, you miss your bus and arrive late to class, let the professor know and document what happened.

Document unusual interactions or circumstances. For example, if the instructor speaks with you in the hallway, document the conversation in writing. If after reflecting on the conversation you feel that the comments are unfair or unclear then you can write the professor and present your position or you can ask for clarification.

If you feel attacked or picked on in class you have the right to send the professor an email stating what happened and how you felt. This becomes important information for example when a grade appeal is necessary.

Unofficial Grade Contestation or Official Grade Appeal

Grade contestations for specific assignments are handled informally between the professor and student. If you can articulate how you fulfilled the criteria of the assignment you may be able to provide a convincing argument that results in an improved grade that the professor will adjust.

Official grade appeals are based on final grades that have been officially posted to your student record. When your final grade shows up on your transcript, you are eligible to launch an official grade appeal within a few business days. If you miss the grade appeal deadline, you will not be able to undertake a grade appeal so be sure to know your deadlines that are listed in your school’s academic calendar or student handbook. The first step of official grade appeal normally is to approach your professor and present your case, ideally with supportive documentation from your learning journal. If the professor still insists that the grade remain the same, you may proceed to subsequent steps as outlined in the calendar or handbook. Your learning journal is a valuable resource and advocacy tool that can make a difference between winning and losing your grade contestation.

Keeping a learning journal is a great way to stay organized, take control of your learning, and protect your grades. Use the following Learning Journal Topic Headers Template in every course and step into your role as an active, engaged learner.


Grant, A., Berlin, A., and Freeman, G. (2003). The impact of a student learning journal: a two-stage evaluation using the Nominal Group Technique. Medical Teacher, Vol. 5 (6), pp. 659–661.

Learning Journal Template



Time of arrival to class:

Signed in/or called at attendance:

In-class activities:

Homework due:

Diligence and time spent on homework:

Correlation with assignment rubric:

Feedback on completed or in progress work:

Feedback on progress or activities:

Grades given:

Rationale for grade is clear, if not actions taken by student to obtain clarity:

Out of the ordinary circumstances:

Novelist, poet, a post-studio visual artist, and the founder of The Invisible Art Collective International. Recent novels include “Sundre” and “Garbage Head.”

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