10 Science-Backed Reasons Why You Need To Start A Learning Journal TODAY
Summary: Want to improve an existing skill or learn a new one? Or stop a bad habit or start a good one? A learning journal is one of the most powerful and easily accessible techniques anyone can use to improve their learning in any domain. This article explains why learning journals are so effective and provides an easy guide on how to start one.
Written by Darin Fox 05 Feb 2024

What is one thing you can start doing today that will help you get better at anything, stop bad habits, or start good ones? And is it completely free (mostly)?

Journaling. Not a diary. A learning journal.

In this article, I share 10 reasons backed by science why writing in a learning journal is so powerful AND my top 10 tips for starting and maintaining a journal to help you achieve your personal and professional goals.

In my 25 years of helping people, teams and organisations get better at the stuff they want to get better at, I found few learning tools as powerful and as accessible, as maintaining a learning journal. It may be the tool I recommend the most to my coaching clients, many of whom are deep subject matter experts who like to know the science and evidence before they commit.

Why does the simple act of putting pen to paper hold such transformative power in our learning journey? As we journal about our learnings, thoughts, and experiences, we set in motion a complex cognitive process. Multiple areas of our brain light up, facilitating the processing of information and emotions. This has not only proven to ease the burden of challenging moments in our lives but also unlocks the door to learning, bolsters our memory, and enhances our overall cognitive capabilities.

The focused act of handwriting (and not typing), slower than our incessantly rapid thoughts, acts as a countermeasure to our relentless autopilot. Journaling grounds us in the present moment and engages our senses in the tactile experience of writing. This article shares my experiences of maintaining a learning journal as a writer and as a coach, and the science behind it, including educational and psychological theories. A learning journal can become your own executive coach in your professional and personal development.

Learning Journals: Backed By Science

Scientific evidence supports the power of writing in a learning journal. As we document our experiences and thoughts, we engage in a cognitive exercise, retrieving it from memory, fortifying neural connections, and ensuring enduring retention. The process of written reflection, making connections to prior knowledge, and the analysis of your own learning strategies contribute to a well-rounded approach to self-regulated learning. So what does the science say?

1. Stress Reduction and Mental Clarity

An experimental study at Michigan State University reveals that expressive writing can cool down your brain during moments of worry, offering a powerful tool for stress management.

2. Health Boost

Journaling about traumatic events and personal feelings has been linked to a lower likelihood of falling ill. A consistent 15-20 minutes of daily journaling over four months has been shown to lower blood pressure and enhance liver functionality.

3. Physical and Emotional Well-being

Regular journaling correlates with fewer stress-related doctor visits, improved immune system functioning, reduced blood pressure, enhanced lung function, and better liver function.

4. Cognitive Enhancement

Engaging in the retrieval practice of writing down information, strengthens neural connections in your brain for better long-term retention.

5. Metacognition and Self-awareness

Journaling fosters “metacognition”, enabling you to understand your learning process, strengths, weaknesses, and thought patterns. It encourages self-awareness by surfacing unconscious emotions, beliefs, and biases that may impact learning.

6. Memory Encoding and Knowledge Integration

The act of writing strengthens memory encoding, creating deeper connections between new information and existing knowledge. Reflection aids in integrating new skills and behaviors into existing frameworks and ways of thinking.

7. Goal Clarity and Overcoming Challenges

Journaling helps articulate your learning goals, increasing focus and motivation. It facilitates the identification of obstacles and the development of strategies to overcome them, fostering confidence and resilience.

8. Improved Learning Strategies

Studies indicate that journal writing improves self-regulated learning strategies, leading to better understanding and performance.

9. Gratitude Journaling for Holistic Well-being

Renowned researchers Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough emphasize that daily gratitude journaling improves sleep quality, strengthens relationships, enhances personal joy, and alleviates physical pain.

10. Recognized Learning Technique

Journaling is endorsed by various educational theories and practices, including Cognitive Science, Constructivist Learning Theory, Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, Self-Regulated Learning, Self-Determination Theory, Bloom’s Taxonomy, Adult Learning Theory, Reflective Learning, and Pedagogy.

My Top 10 Tips in Starting and Using a Learning Journal

Journaling is a pivotal element in your learning process, fostering a deeper understanding of your experiences and contributing to personal and professional growth. They encourage you to interpret events or situations, focus on specific incidents, and articulate your learnings and reactions honestly. The essence of a learning journal lies in the detailed exploration of attempts at new skills, outcomes, questions, insights, and the planning for future attempts.

Following a structured approach to journaling improves your learning journey, helping you to build on your understanding and test new skills, activities, or behaviors. Maintaining consistency, deep reflection, and experimentation with your journaling will ensure its effectiveness as a transformative tool for your development.

1. Looks Matter:

Go out and buy a nice-looking journal. Spend some money on something aesthetically pleasing to you. If possible, the image on the cover of the book should mean something to you and motivate you to write. Something that looks nice and feels nice will be more motivating than a spiral, cardboard notebook.

2. Make it Your Own:

Your journal is your private space; despite my offering some steps here as a guide, there’s no right or wrong journal process. Write whatever feels right and true to you. Find a journaling style that suits you, such as mind maps, diagrams, or bullet points.

3. The Power of Writing:

Writing is better than typing. There is significant research that shows that handwriting notes on paper lead to better retention and learning than typing notes on a screen.

4. Write Every Day, Keep It Easy:

Keep your journal portable and nearby for easy access, making daily journaling a seamless part of your routine. Find a time and space that works for you. Maybe it is daily first thing in the morning or after work while taking the train home. Maybe it is weekly. Consistency is key. Block out the time for quiet time.

5. Reflect and Connect:

Reflect on new ideas and concepts, connect them to prior knowledge, deepening understanding and aiding recall. Reflect deeply, going beyond summarizing just the facts, and delve into your understanding, feelings and thought process. Go beyond describing events; interpret, address questions, articulate insights, and suggest transformative actions to yourself in your writing.

6. Skill Development Process:

When using a journal to develop a new skill or change a behaviour, write about specific events relating to what you want to learn. In any one entry, focus on one particular incident, skill, or activity. Jot down what you tried doing, whether it was a new skill, a different activity, or a behaviour change. Describe what went well and what you think could have been done differently. Record the questions, hypotheses, and new ideas that occur to you and consider what you have learned and what you will do differently next time. This is the essence of a learning journal.

7. Analyse and Improve:

Use your journal to analyse your learning styles, identify gaps, and plan improvements for your self-regulated learning. Be willing to explore your own emotions and reactions to what happened when trying to develop or change. Take time to articulate them as honestly as you can. Track day-to-day symptoms, recognise triggers, and learn to control them for improved self-awareness.

8. Positive Self-Talk:

Every single one of us has a voice in our head that wants to reinforce we are not good enough. It is human nature. Confident people have learned to exercise their positive voice more so that it has the muscles to speak louder than the negative one. Whichever voice gets the most exercise, is the loudest. Use your journal to cultivate positive self-talk, identifying and challenging negative thoughts by reflecting on past evidence of you being successful in similar situations.

9. Spark Your Creativity:

Engage in brainstorming and freewriting to spark new ideas and approach problems from different angles. Explore different perspectives and challenge yourself by asking questions and exploring your personal biases.

10. Reflect on the past:

Regularly reflect on your progress and goals to make your learning more meaningful and practical. One of the biggest advantages to maintaining a journal consistently over time is that themes will start to emerge over time that is not apparent to you in the moment. Periodically take time to re-read what you have written in the past. You will likely identify a trend, assumption, or bias you were not aware of.

I highly recommend you start to include a learning journal as a key element of your personal development. In my 25 years of experience, few tools are so immediately available at your fingertips right now to help you ramp up your learning and personal change goals. The science backs it up with neuroscience, psychology, and proven adult learning techniques.

If you would like to know more about journaling or if you think coaching 1on1 or in a small group would help you achieve your professional and personal goals, then please contact me at Darin.Fox@expertunity.global.

Research Refernces

For worriers, expressive writing cools brain on stressful tasks

Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing

Critical Self-Reflection

Gratitude Works

Learning Journal’s For Developing Independence

Benefits of Journaling: The Science and Philosophy Behind Keeping a Diary

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