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Learning journals: inspiration from a learning journalist

April 21, 2012

Recently I discovered and am greatly enjoying the blog Baby Steps in Data Journalism, by Journalism professor Mindy McAdams (@macloo). This blog is Prof McAdams’s efforts to learn programming from the very basics in order to “learn to do data journalism.”

Professor McAdams seems to be beginning from the very foundation of programming. She’s selected some great texts and resources to get started, including Nathan Yau’s excellent book: Visualize this The FlowingData Guide to Design, Visualization and Statistics. What I enjoy most about this blog is that it is very clearly documenting Professor’s McAdams’ learning journey one small step at a time. She chronicles her experiences installing Python, points out errors she found in the text, and is commenting on ideas that she learns in a number of online Python courses.

Each of these bite size posts are helping me to remember what it’s like to learn programming for the first time, and find enjoyment in her process of learning. Here’s a good example, where Professor McAdams explains how she finds the behavior of the return statement in Python to be a bit peculiar. I learned programming so long ago that I find it hard to remember that these things were ever peculiar to me, and so it’s very instructive to read these insights and also see how quickly you can go from being a complete novice in programming to scraping year’s worth of temperature data from and graphing it.

I have to also think that years down the road, Professor McAdams will find tremendous value in the blog she is keeping now. Imagine being able to go back and follow your learning process for a particular skill from its very first steps. I know I’ve found myself going back to older posts in my blog often to remember how I learned or did a particular thing.

This gets me thinking that it would be a very valuable exercise for many students to do this themselves. What if students also kept a learning journal of their work in a similar fashion, and wrote short (less than 100 words) posts describing what were learning, what things they were still confused about, and any other questions they may have. I think it would be incredibly instructive for a teacher to regularly get these insights into his students’ thinking.

What do you think? Could this work? Part of me thinks it would be hard to achieve the level of quality of this baby steps blog, since this is the work of a very accomplished journalism practice, but then I think if an approach like this were to become the backbone of their learning in all of their courses, students might make very rapid progress, and who knows what they could do?

9 Comments leave one →
  1. April 22, 2012 9:25 am

    I like this idea, John. While I understand your questions about the differing developmental stages of the professor and our students, I see ways this could work. Your post has me thinking about ways to design this process. Part of the challenge as I see it, having tried similar small-scale projects with high school sophomores and seniors this year, is sustainability. How do we design the exercise so it sustains itself with (ideally) intrinsic motivation–over a semester or year? Part of the answer lies in structured reflection on past posts. Students need to see value and growth over time, while also needing guidance from us about what kinds of posts will sustain the project. For short writings like this, I tend to give feedback with three criteria: is the writing clear, specific and developed. Over the last ten years or so, these criteria have proved themselves–both with my feedback to students on a variety of short writing exercises, and with their own self-monitoring.

    Thanks for your post; I like the possibilities.

    p.s. I am discovering that not all students at either the sophomore or senior level naturally reflect–through writing, or through other means. GIven my age, personality and predilections, I do, but that does not mean all students do. If this project has legs, it must address this gap. I can’t assume students will embrace this exercise just because.

    • April 22, 2012 4:05 pm

      Great points. If I were to do this, I think it would be helpful to provide students with some guidelines on what makes for helpful posts. One thing I notice in Professor McAdam’s posts is that they are generally reflective, and seem to be written toward her future self. She doesn’t just explain what she learned, she adds in how her new understanding of programming is changed from its previous state. I think this also ties into a lot of stuff I’ve been reading about note-taking as well, which suggests that students will learn more if they try to re-construct just after a class is finished, rather than trying to make sure they write down everything the teacher says in class.

      I don’t think this is too different from the journaling that students are often asked to do in English class while reading a novel, except that suddenly the text is public (if you want it to be) and searchable, which probably yields some very big benefits in extended projects where you want to go back and find out what you were doing a month or two ago. I also think think Bo Adams’s idea of observation journals are good examples of this idea as well.

  2. jsb16 permalink
    April 22, 2012 10:53 am

    How do you handle giving feedback on frequent writings like this?

    • April 22, 2012 4:07 pm

      That’s a good question. First, thanks to the wonders of private school, I don’t teach more than 50 students at a time, so it’s likely to be more manageable. Second, I’d like to think you develop a culture in a class where students are constantly reading and commenting on each other’s writing, and so the responsibility doesn’t just fall on me to provide feedback for every student. For me, this has turned out to be a very hard thing to achieve in practice.

  3. Susan Berrend permalink
    April 22, 2012 10:58 am

    John, I do this in a baby-steps way with ‘exit-cards’. When I suspect a concept is causing confusion (polarizing filters lately) students write this sort of learning/confusion response on an index card before leaving. I review them and then must report back to the class the next day what their issues are and the %’s of students with similar concerns. The reporting back is the key piece; it lets them know they are not alone, and by reporting back, they know I am heeding their concerns. I try to get longer reflections during construction projects; they get better with time.

    • April 22, 2012 4:08 pm

      Yes—I could see this being a lot like an exit ticket, except that since it’s stored electronically, the student and teacher can easily access the reflection at a later date.

  4. April 23, 2012 7:02 pm

    I’ve experimented with similar things in a number of contexts: exit tickets, one-on-one conversations, applications for reassessment. I keep finding that my students are extremely resistant to acknowledging that they changed their minds. There’s a prevailing attitude of “well I knew that all along” or “that’s obvious” or “that’s what I meant, I just couldn’t put it into words” that has so far been resistant to all of my attempts to engage, celebrate, or even just quietly listen. I’m open to suggestions — and if you try it, I’ll be interested to hear the results…

  5. May 5, 2012 12:52 pm

    Great post, John! Now I’m really curious to read prof McAdams’s blog and to think about whether I should be teaching web scraping as part of the research process, especially in connection with this article ( When in comes to learning journals, a keynote speaker I heard earlier this week challenged just about everything I believed when it came to reflecting on learning. If I understood correctly what @GaryStager was saying, even asking students to do a quick check in is interrupting rather than supporting the learning process. Has anyone else ever heard someone articulate this philosophy? My personal experience tells me that my best learning experiences growing did involve reflection: taking a break from whatever I was working on and talking about it (what I tried, what results I got, and what I might do next) with my brother or another peer. I can’t prove that this reflection definitely helped, but it sure seemed like it! On the other hand, I certainly wouldn’t want to be interrupting students when they’re in the zone and doing fine on their own. Is that the biggest problem with formal reflection in school, or am I still missing the gist of Dr. Stager’s philosophy?

    • May 7, 2012 8:30 pm

      I think the idea of a learning journal might be more for reflecting after student has reached a moment of insight. It might be trying to summarize the main points of a class after it ends, or as simple as answering the question “what did you learn today?” each evening. I don’t have data to back this up at all, but I think it could be a powerful tool for learning. I’m starting to try this out myself by creating a tumblr, A Quantum of Learning.

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