Dyan Branstetter | April 2018

The Incredible Power of STEAM Journaling

STEAM challenges may seem hard to assess. There are so many components, and it doesn’t make sense to give a paper pencil test to assess a performance-based activity. STEAM journaling, combined with a single point rubric, can solve the problem of this assessment quandary AND it can be used as a formative OR summative assessment.

Why a journal?

A journal is an essential tool for students and teachers. It is a place to record everything that happens during the STEAM process. Students can record ideas, data, observations, discoveries, design sketches, and more. Not only is it a place to capture what has happened, but it provides students with a place to reflect on their learning through drawing and writing. For teachers, student journals can be a place for us to discover misconceptions students may have, as well as providing evidence for student learning in a way that a test cannot.

Creating student Buy-in for Journaling:

We can learn so much by exploring journals from great minds of the past and present, and thanks to technology, now we can bring them into our classrooms!  Sharing DaVinci’s journals with students is a fantastic way to show an example of how these great thinkers recorded their findings. (Find DaVinci’s journals here). Thomas Edison’s complete notebook has been published by Rutger’s University, found here, and Alexander Graham Bell’s can be found here.

A page from Alexander Graham Bell’s notebook https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alexander-graham-bell-telephone-notebook.jpg

These primary documents can even be treated as works of art, and observing them using the See, Think, Wonder strategy is very effective in helping students determine the purpose of journaling. Students are always amazed when learning about Marie Curie’s radioactive journals. Although they will be radioactive for another 1,500 years, students can safely view pages through a device.

Providing these mentor journals, combined with guided observation and discussion, gives students motivation and purpose when creating and using a journal of their own.

Preparing to Journal:

A STEAM journal is not something that takes a lot of teacher preparation. It can be as simple as a 3 ring binder with plain paper, a composition book, or a stapled packet of paper. Or, it can be designed by students. (Find more information on student-created nature journals here.) Journals could also be digital so that students can add photos, videos, and captions to record the process of their learning. The app Seesaw can be an efficient tool for this, and Google Slides is another great tool for digital journaling. (Find a digital template for Google Slides here.) Whatever the design, the purpose is the same: an organizational tool that can help develop beneficial habits of mind.

How to Start Student Journals:

Students should start by creating an empty table of contents and numbering the pages. In my class, we reserve the first five pages of the notebook for the table of contents and the last five pages for a glossary. As we learn new vocabulary words, students add those to their glossary.

Whenever students are participating in a STEAM challenge, we begin a new page and record our page number in the table of contents. For each new entry, students include the date and time. In fact, every time students begin to sketch designs, ideas, or hypothesize, they should note the date and time. This provides an opportunity to discuss patents and copyrights. Adding that date and time, and even having partners sign as witnesses, shows who had the original idea and helps students give others credit when sharing.

Journaling should also be done in pen. This way, none of the student’s thought process is erased. If students change an idea, they simply cross it out with a neat line and write their new idea. We can see how student learning develops by the hypothesis and design ideas students choose to eliminate.

Strategies for Making Journaling a Natural Part of the Learning Process

When first starting a journal, it is helpful to assign times for students to record so that it can become a natural part of the process. To do this, add a writing component as you build background knowledge. For example, if you ask students to turn and talk to a peer, require them to record a thought in their journal after they turn and talk. This holds students accountable, and it also helps them to retain information. Turn the “Think Pair Share” strategy into “Think Pair WRITE Share”. This will students have a record of their conversations. In addition, your more introverted students, or your students who need more processing time, will have an equal opportunity (and a higher comfort level) to share their thoughts with the class.

Assessing Student Growth and Mastery Using STEAM Journals

I like to use journals for both formative and summative assessment. Using a single point rubric is the most effective way I have found to do this. If you aren’t familiar with these rubrics, I strongly suggest taking a look at this article, by Cult of Pedagogy, and give them a try immediately. These rubrics have revolutionized my assessment process, making self-reflection easier for students, allowing for more student creativity, and making teacher feedback more useful and personalized.

A single point rubric is basically a stripped down traditional rubric. Create a three-column chart. Choose your criteria for proficiency, and list that in the center column. The column on the left is a place to provide feedback for someone who has not yet reached proficiency in that criterion, and the column on the right allows space for feedback for those exceeding that criterion. Here is an example of a single-point rubric for artist statements:

When assessing STEAM journals, I like to crowdsource my class to create the criteria. I typically do this after we have used our journal for at least one STEAM challenge. Once students have a little experience, they have ideas to share related to the journal organization and what it means to have a useful journal as a tool. We also look back at famous journals and sample student journals from previous years, both exceptional and slightly off. After an initial student brainstorm, I summarize their criteria into categories, add anything that is missing, and create the rubric to share.

Using Journals for Formative Assessment

As a formative assessment, I like students to use our single point rubric to self-score and reflect on their journal periodically. This is a great sponge activity task– something that students can do as they wait for class to officially begin, as they arrive in the morning, or as they wait for their bus in the afternoon. After this self-reflection, I conference with each student and use the rubric to direct our conversation. This conference gives me an opportunity to check in with students and set some goals for students who are struggling. I can also provide extensions for higher level students. Keeping a record of these conversations provides you with a progression of student learning.

Using Journals for Summative Assessment

Each marking period, after I’ve conferences with each student two or three times, I collect these journals and score them using the same single point rubric. Students have the opportunity to perfect their journal prior to turning it in, but the conferences and goal setting, along with the clear expectations provided on the rubric, give students a high chance of success. I can analyze the results to find if there are any patterns of misconceptions that I need to address, or if I notice that students are struggling with a part of the design process, such as making observations. Then, I can adjust my instruction accordingly.

However you choose to use STEAM journals, I am confident they will become an essential part of student assessment. If you’re looking for more examples, inspiration, and resources, check out some of the resources below.

Books and Resources for STEAM Notebooks:

Books for STEAM Journaling:

Website: Setting Up STEAM notebooks

Single Point Rubrics:

About the Author

Dyan is a fifth grade teacher in a public school district in Lancaster, PA and has over 16 years of classroom experience. With a Masters of Science Education and a passion for dance and music, she strives to integrate the arts into the curriculum whenever possible. Dyan has a background in teaching advanced learners, and is devoted to using project based learning to help her students achieve 21st century learning skills and master the PA Core Standards.