A Guide for Using Response Journals

Professor Bob Broad, Department of English, Illinois State University



In this course I will require you to compose a Response Journal. Since reasons and methods for assigning, composing, and evaluating response journals aren’t familiar to (or the same for) everyone, I’ll explain mine briefly below.


I require you to write responses to questions, texts, events, and other things because I believe that writing promotes learning and thinking. My favorite explanation of the doctrines of "writing-to-learn" and "writing-to-think" comes from Peter Elbow’s Writing without Teachers:


Think of writing then not as a way to transmit a message but as a way to grow and cook a message. Writing is a way to end up thinking something you couldn’t have started out thinking. Writing is, in fact, a transaction with words whereby you free yourself from what you presently think, feel, and perceive. You make available to yourself something better than what you’d be stuck with if you’d actually succeeded in making your meaning clear at the start.



If you read the above quotation closely, you will learn a lot about what I believe, value, practice, and encourage regarding writing, thinking, and learning. In short, I believe you will learn more and better if you make active and creative use of your response journal in this course.

Frequently Asked Questions

"What is the journal for?"

Use your journal as a tool to help you learn and think more and better about the content of this course.

"To what will I ‘respond’?"

Most entries I assign will probably be responses to readings for the course. Other entries might be: answers to questions posed by the professor and/or students, reflections on your writing processes, self-evaluations of your work in the course, evaluations of my teaching, records of your out-of-class research, or "open" entries in response to whatever you find useful to yourself and the other members of the class (including the professor), or something else.

Grounding your writing in the thing to which you are responding

When you write, make a point of working closely with whatever text or event is the focus of your thinking.  If responding to a text, quote directly from several specific passages of that text and/or provide page numbers;  if responding to an event, refer to specific moments or aspects of the event. 

"How much should I write?"

The length requirement for each of your journal entries depends on your "level" within the university's hierarchy of courses.  Find your course number level and for each entry write at least the number of words indicated.

For 100- and 200-level undergraduate courses:  In most of these courses, I assign between 8 and 12 journal entries. To help avoid “journal burnout,” if you are assigned more than seven journal entries, then you may skip one (1) journal entry of your choice out of those required without penalty or guilt.  

For graduate and advanced undergraduate courses:  Here, I usually assign between 6 and 8 journal entries.  Because I assign fewer entries in these courses (and also because you are graduate or advanced undergraduate students), I normally do not provide the option to skip journal entries.  Also for graduate students: readings for a particular journal entry will usually include multiple chapters and/or journal articles.  In most cases, I encourage students to discuss more than one of the chapters or articles assigned, as a way of getting the various readings "talking to one another."  However, if in one or two cases a student wants to focus exclusively on a single chapter or article in greater depth, this is (occasionally) acceptable. 

"What about ‘grammar’?"

Make your entries readable, but beyond that don’t expend energy on adhering to the conventions of the dominant dialect, sometimes referred to as "standard written English." Rather than focusing on spelling, punctuation, syntax, and usage, you need to focus on "cooking and growing" your ideas and insights. (Command of the dominant dialect is, I believe, a very important consideration in most formal and/or published writing.  Just not for the raw, exploratory writing-to-learn that you’ll do in your response journal.)  Writing a journal entry is a creative, intellectual, emotional process. Write fast. For the sake of readability, write your entries on a computer or word processor whenever possible.

"Who is the audience for my journal entries?"

Your audience will in all cases be your fellow students and your professor. Treat your response journal as a public document; you may be asked to share any journal entry at any moment during any class meeting.

"What should I write about?"

In every case, I urge you to write about that which most interests, concerns, and moves you in whatever you are responding to. Assuming your own questions, insights, feelings, and imagination are exciting to you, journal writing need not be busy-work or drudgery. Since everyone gets stuck now and then, and since suggestions may help you jump out of a "journaling rut," below I offer some specific suggestions.


[Note: I borrowed, sometimes verbatim, some of these categories of thinking from Toby Fulwiler’s The Journal Book.]

"How will Professor Broad evaluate my journal?"

Your Response Journal is an important part of the work you do in this course. It also makes visible important kinds of work that might otherwise remain invisible (e.g., reading and thinking). You can therefore expect it to count as a significant part of your grade for the course.

I will assess both the quantity and the quality of the writing you do in your journal. At some point in the semester I will collect your journals and offer you general responses, a response to a specific entry you choose, and assess quantity and quality. Then at the end of the term I will re-assess your journal as a part of your "course portfolio," a collection of all the written work you produce in the course.

“What about ‘non-alphabetic’ entries?”

Following the suggestions of Patricia Dunn in her book Talking, Sketching, Moving (full reference below), I encourage (but do not require) every undergraduate student to include in her/his journal one or more of the following four kinds of journal entries.

1. Oral/Audio. Provide a spoken journal entry in audio format. Original music and/or song is another audio option. You can record your entry on my office voice mail (309-438-7704) or record it and provide it in mp3 (via e-mail) or wav (on CD) file format.

2. Visual. Create a visual response. Make a collage, sketch, cartoon, sculpture, Venn diagram, graph (bar, pie, etc.), conceptual web, flow chart, puzzle, multimedia, etc.

3. Moving. Drama, dance, puppet show, mime (“Dancing is drawing the world.” –Freire)

4. Other. Some combination of the above options or something I have not yet heard of that represents an engaged response.

Examples of non-alphabetic journal entries.

Most non-alphabetic entries I receive are photographs, drawings, or phoned-in oral reflections.  Here on the worldwide web, I can share with you a non-alphabetic entry that is a song. 

In spring 2005, Angela Bates enrolled in my section of English 100, "Introduction to English Studies."  Among other things we read for that class was "Tracing Process: How Texts Come into Being" by Paul Prior, from Bazerman and Prior's collection What Writing Does and How It Does It

Click on the link below to listen to Angela Bates's audio journal entry, an original song she wrote about the writing process of a university student and a future teacher of writing.  She calls her song "Writing Matters," and it touches on TV, grades, ice cream, college basketball, romance, sleep deprivation, and visions of the future in its humorous account of one person's multi-dimensional writing process.  

Click the link to listen to an mp3 file of Angela's song "Writing Matters." (Phonorecord and copyright 2005 Angela Bates)

Click the link to open a pdf file showing the lyrics for "Writing Matters" by Angela Bates.  (Copyright 2005 Angela Bates)

"What do students say about response journals in Professor Broad's classes?"

"I must admit that having to do a journal entry forces me to actually read the chapter or the article, instead of skimming it like I would do many times, as sad as that may be to admit!!" (Eng. 297, Fall 2003)

"My journal entries are my favorite thing [in my course portfolio] . . . The writing style best fits my thought processes and allows me to write as I think which of course is quite useful in the process of writing to think and writing to learn."  (Eng. 297, fall 2004)

A Few Other Details

At the beginning of every entry in your journal, please be sure to write five pieces of information:


  1. Your last name,
  2. The date on which you are writing,
  3. The number of this entry (e.g., "Journal Entry #7),
  4. The topic of this entry (your idea, the name of the thing to which you are responding, or both), and
  5. A title for this entry (you can be creative).