The Active Pen: Journaling as a Source of Reflection

“Journal what you love, what you hate, what’s in your head, what’s important. Journaling organizes your thoughts; allows you to see things in a concrete way that otherwise you might not see. Focus on what you think you need to find in your art.” Kay Walkingstick

Back when I was tutoring SAT and ACT prep, I had to continually promote a learning concept called “active reading”, a term and strategy our tutoring agency highlighted as a “key success” to scoring high on these college entry exams. Essentially, we had to stick to this script:

“Do you ever have moments when you’re reading something for school, and you seem to read the same page over and over again until you realize you can’t remember a single thing you’ve read? Congrats, you’ve just experienced passive reading! Your eyes are physically moving, but nothing is being sent to home base – your brain. So I’m here to teach you how to use active reading to help your brain remember what you’ve read on the test! Active reading only touches on your short term memory, so it will help with the quick paced nature of the SAT/ACT. Let’s begin!”

As you can tell, I gave this speech a lot.

I never thought that once I went back to school I would be learning more about active reading, or even the cognitive processes of brains in relation to reading and written material. This week’s threshold concept proved me wrong, though; the overall concept states that writing is (also always) a cognitive activity. Specifically, the sub concept I will be diving in to is author Kara Taczak’s “Reflection is Critical for Writers’ Development”.

Taczak shares that “reflection is a mode of inquiry: a deliberate way of systematically recalling writing experiences to reframe the current situation” (78). Additionally, taking a cognitive approach to reflection “centers on writers’ abilities to theorize and question areas such as their processes, practices, beliefs, attitudes, and understandings about writing, along with the ability to consider why they made the rhetorical choices they did” (Taczak 78). This means that writing out reflections not only helps writers literally visualize their writing process, it also helps them process in that moment how and why they made the word and rhetorical choices they did overall. It’s a continuous cycle of cognition and metacognition brought to life.

So what does this have to do with active reading?

Active reading can be as simple as annotating a book and taking notes on the side.

Basically, “active reading” is using your pencil as some sort of guide along a page of reading to help organize thoughts and make annotations as you go along. Essentially, it’s a really fancy way of saying “note taking” or even “journaling”. I remember always giggling to myself whenever I’d instruct students to underline important words or phrases in reading passages, because their faces were always scrunched up in confusion, as if the pencil was a new tool and the paper held the secrets and mysteries to the world. Because we phrased it as “active reading”, we hyped up a common concept of reading and writing overall (notetaking and journaling), and sold it as the “cure” for low SAT/ACT grades. Pretty crazy, isn’t it?

Actually, it isn’t that crazy as you begin to dive further into the research of reading and writing as cognitive processes. In their article “Reading Practices in the Writing Classroom”, authors Linda Adler-Kassner and Heidi Estrem note that “the concept of the passive reader is pervasive in the mainstream culture” and capitalize that “reading a book requires a degree of active attention and engagement” (38). Additionally, “’good reading’ is evidenced by a dialogue between the writer’s ideas and those in the text she is using, as well as an understanding, demonstrated through writing…” (Adler-Kassner and Estrem 37). Writing and reading both utilize active cognitive functions that highlight engagement with texts, and vice versa.

Regarding notetaking, the WAC Clearing House article “Writing to Learn” particularly praises the practice, sharing that “notetaking was a more effective study technique than reading or listening alone, although the results depended on the notetaking strategy adopted as well as on whether the notes were available for later review” (58). What form of notetaking was mentioned in this case? Journaling. The article continues, “Journal writing also provided students with an inexpensive, time efficient process for integrating classroom and clinical experiences into a systematic whole” (“Writing to Learn” 64). I’ve been fascinated with journaling as a pedagogical method in writing composition classrooms, and I personally loved the recommendations this article gave to students who wished to journal-write:

  • Establish a clear statement of purpose for the use of journaling in your clinical learning experience that is mutually agree on by you, the writer, and the reader.
  • Make regular journal entries so that the progress of your learning can be traced.
  • Maintain a section on personal learning objectives that you evaluate on a regular basis.
  • Keep a section to record new questions or challenges that have emerged for you as a result of the clinical experience and the process of journal writing (“Writing to Learn” 64).

Mari’s Musing:

When I first started “teaching”, I implemented the concept of “active” reading and writing to my students. Now in my graduate experience, I am once again learning how to encourage active engagement and reflection with regard to writing composition. The challenge I’m currently facing, though, is how to implement a “journal”-esque type of assignment for my students that shows the importance of notetaking and reflection without making it another tedious task to complete. My fellow teacher counterparts, what do you recommend? Would you suggest workshop sessions? Or a user-friendly blog? Or something else? My overall goal is to show that writing and reading aren’t passive activities, and I hope someday to achieve this goal in my future classes.

Works Cited

“Active vs. Passive Reading.” Excelsior College OWL, Excelsior College, 14 Mar. 2019,,topic%20sentences%2C%20and%20key%20words.

Adler-Kassner, Linda, and Heidi Estrem. “Reading Practices in the Writing Classroom.” Writing Program Administration, vol. 31, no. 1-2, 2007, pp. 35–46.

Cherry, Kendra. “How Long Does Short-Term Memory Last?” Verywell Mind, 15 May 2020,

Hermansson, Carina, and Eva Lindgren. “Writing as a Cognitive Process.” World of Better Learning , Cambridge University Press, 19 Dec. 2019,,or%20navigating%20the%20keyboard%2C%20etc.

Phelan, Hayley. “What’s All This About Journaling?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 Oct. 2018,

Taczak, Kara. “Reflection Is Critical for Writers’ Development.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 78–79.

“Writing to Learn: Origins of the Writing to Learn Approach.” Reference Guide to Writing Across the Curriculum, by Charles Bazerman, Parlor Press | The WAC Clearinghouse, 2005, pp. 57–65.

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