Balancing Intuition with Insight: Reflective Teaching through Diary Studies



David Jeffrey, Niigata University of International and Information Studies

Gregory Hadley, Niigata University of International and Information Studies




In the beginning of teaching in a new culture, the language teacher’s interpretations of what occurs in the classroom are frequently based more on intuition than insight.  Because perceptions of the learners and the culture can have far reaching effects on the motivation of a language teacher and the affective nature of their classroom instruction, it sometimes is necessary for teachers to pause and reflect upon the validity of their personal assumptions.  The question for many, if not most language teachers, however, is how to embark on a journey of professional self-reflection while maintaining their typically busy schedules.  One possible answer to this dilemma may be found in keeping a focused, short-term journal, or diary study.  


Diary studies have had a long history of use in English teaching (Maneekhao and Watson Todd, 2001; McDonough, 1994; Thornbury, 1991; Lowe, 1984).  They are usually personal accounts of teaching a language (in the case of a teacher) or of learning a language (in the case of a student).  Bailey (1990) states that diary studies are “documented through regular, candid entries in a personal journal and then analyzed for recurring patterns or salient events” (p.215). Diaries have wide ranging applications. Nunan (1992) remarks “they have been used in investigations of second language acquisition, teacher-learner interaction, teacher education, and other aspects of language learning and use” (p.118).  Bell (1993) adds that they are “an attractive way of gathering information about the way individuals spend their time…. they can provide valuable information about work patterns and activities….” (p.102).  Jarvis (1992) explored the use of learner diaries with in-service teachers in a short methodology course in order to help teachers become aware of the importance of self-reflection for pedagogic innovation.  She summarized the experience by saying that “those who succeeded in reflecting on practice, seem also to reveal a heightened sense of their own responsibility for their learning and for changing their teaching. They seem to have more confidence in their own ability to act” (p.142).


In this paper, we will explore the benefits and difficulties of undertaking a diary study, based upon our personal experience.  Readers will notice a shift between I and we during the narrative of this report.  The first person singular indicates David Jeffrey, who was the classroom teacher and kept a diary of his teaching experiences over a two-week period.  The first person plural signifies the inclusion of Gregory Hadley, who Jeffrey sought early in the project because of his expertise in diary-studies and knowledge about the method of analysis.  We begin by describing the setting of this project.


The Setting


This study took place in our University’s Communicative English Program (CEP), a semi-intensive English as an International Language (EIL) program that encourages students to speak English in a relaxed, confident manner, and focuses on Japanese issues as they related to the international setting.  Small classes of 22 learners are streamed into six distinct levels of language proficiency, and meet once a day from Monday to Friday where they study courses that focus on oral communication, listening and reading skills. The diary study concentrated on the oral communication classes taught by the first author.


The Diary Study


Although I had taught in English language schools, I had difficulties adjusting to CEP’s coordinated curriculum and how to relate to university students. I often worried that the students perceived my classes negatively.  Tired of wondering if things were really the way they appeared to be, I decided that a diary study, based on honest reflections, seemed an interesting avenue of inquiry.  Perhaps a less time consuming method, such as videotaping, to look at my teaching would have been appropriate, but I also wanted to take a thorough route and truly begin to understand more about my teaching environment and myself.


To set the diary process in motion, we devised a checklist for use in the classroom that would keep my thoughts focused and help me write down short notes to assist with the writing up of entries after the class. The checklist was comprised of the following categories:


*    Students initiating a conversation

*    Students maintaining a conversation

*    Students asking questions in a conversation

*    Students closing a conversation


I wrote the diary entries straight after each class, and tried to focus not only my emotions, but also on what I actually witnessed during my lessons.  I wanted to put some distance between me and the clouds of emotions to find out if the affective issues in my classes were truly as poor as I thought they were, and also to determine if what I was seeing in class came from concrete observations or simply my own suppositions.


I accepted the importance of substantiating my diary assertions as much as possible in order to “support reflective comments with examples from class sessions or actual language data” (Bailey, 1990, p.221).  I included as many specific examples of my own responses and classroom events. This was to ensure that the later analysis would be based on clear and open personal reflections.


We first undertook a two-week pilot study to establish the workability of the diary study and the method of analysis. We did not find any issues that needed to be modified. The WordSmith Tools program (Scott, 1997) was tested using the data from the pilot study.  This program is normally utilized in creating concordances as an aid to studying corpora (Johns, 1994), but we found that it could be an ideal tool for analyzing the prominent features of my diary, which was a corpus of my thoughts and reflections of what took place in my classes.  During the pilot study, however, only the second author had access to pilot study analysis, because my knowledge of this data might bias my observations during the actual project. 


The Results


From the program, the main keywords in my diaries were: feel, good, enjoying, trying, happy, conversation, satisfied, confidence, and motivation. Looking at concordances of sentences and paragraphs where these most frequent words occurred paved the way for several insights into my teaching and interaction with my learners.


Affectively, the diary entries suggested that there was a good atmosphere in all the classes.  I had been concerned about this, as I had not been sure as to whether most students were trying to look happy to please me, or if they genuinely were so. The diary seemed to provide more evidence that the learners were pleased with the quality of the classes. Because of the bulk of information generated by a diary study, space will allow for only a few excerpts:


I saw this class face quite a hurdle today, with the new challenge to allow for even more conversation time...I acted merely as a facilitator and put things more in their hands, but I was very impressed to see their determination to succeed…It was good to see them enjoying what they were doing too – lots of smiles and laughter, but with all the necessary discipline.


Observations such as these began to help me to get personal satisfaction from teaching the classes.  I became aware that when I felt confident while teaching, it would seem to instill confidence in the students, who appeared to perform better. This in turn would contribute further to my motivation as a teacher (an issue much ignored in the literature). I started to realize that teachers and students, far from being separate entities, have a more synergistic relationship than I had previously thought. As one excerpt reveals:


I really noticed today how many students speak much better English now than they did at the beginning of the year, and with the necessary confidence too…I’m always smiling, encouraging them and behave in a happy and confident manner, and it seems to motivate the students...We have grown together in confidence through this experience.


There seem to be fewer barriers now between me and my learners, and both our energies now seem more focused on the task of language learning.  While engaged in the pressures of day-to-day teaching, my progress and that of the learners seemed to be static, but the diary gave me a chance to realize that we both had come a long way.


The diary also highlighted considerable room for improvement on the practical side of my teaching by bringing to my attention the need to concentrate more on the management of activities in the classroom: 


I concentrated a lot on my technique, especially the transitions between activities. I've noticed that I can cut down a lot on time here too, and especially on my talking time, but it is a hard thing to achieve in practice and I suppose it takes time to get it right. Easy in theory, but hard in practice! So I want to concentrate on trying to refine these activities more and more in the next lesson and in the lessons that follow after that.


Not only did I need to cut back on the amount of time I spent in explaining tasks to learners, I also needed to become more of a facilitator during class activities. Upon further reflection, I also accepted the fact that some experience is acquired over time, and that I needed to be patient. My colleagues have been teaching for over ten years, and often I was feeling bad for not being able to do what they could. The diary study helped me reconsider my situation, and to relax.


For the first time, the impact of my teaching style and my relations with the students became clearer. When I was not overly identifying my self worth with the response of the students, my classes seemed to go better.  I came to the realization that it is best for me to keep things simple in the classroom, but set achievable standards for the students during the lessons. Success for me seemed to lie in guiding the learners to completing several simple things language task well, rather than creating more unnecessary work through complexity.


The focus of the diary study also helped me to see interesting student behavior that gone unnoticed.  I became aware that many of the learners would subtly reflect back to me my facial expressions. I purposely changed facial expressions several times during the lesson, and noticed that roughly half the students copied and changed as I did. I concluded that I had more influence on the students than I had thought, and was reminded that teaching English entails more than merely the transfer of a skill or knowledge.


Discussion on Diary Drawbacks


Diary studies take a lot of dedication because they are time consuming in nature and can become laborious. Diary studies are not that simple and Bailey adds that “in order to really learn from the record, the diarist should re-read the journal entries and try to find the patterns therein” (1993, p.224). It would also be a mistake to believe that diary studies are an easy substitute to conventional research methods.  While the writing up of a diary is less demanding than preparing and undertaking questionnaire research, Henderson, Morris and Fitz-Gibbon (1987, p.31) point out that a diary takes much longer than conventional research methods to interpret properly once it has been written up.  Although WordSmith Tools (Scott, 1997) was a great help in finding the regular patterns within the diary, the overall process was still time-consuming. Language teachers considering undertaking a diary study should not overlook these limitations. 


Despite these drawbacks, however, it does seem that the advantages ultimately outweigh the disadvantages, so long as the writers of the diaries are dedicated to examining what they have written.   Doing so may reveal aspects of their teaching that can lead to a deeper understanding of themselves and their students. Writing and analyzing my diary was a motivational experience for me. It helped me develop a better self-awareness and gave me the confidence needed to experience with new techniques of teaching, and also heralded a powerful transformation in my thinking and in my attitudes towards my students.




Based upon the experiences of this study, we feel that focused, short-term diary studies may provide a rewarding experience for new and experienced teachers alike.  Although the process can be time-consuming, diary studies are able to provide benefits to those interested both in professional development and in reconsidering what they see in the classroom.


While diary studies can be a very powerful tool for the reflective teacher, it is only one amongst many variations of teacher self-analysis. Recording thoughts on tape for brief periods in and out of the class, taking videotapes of lessons, or simply talking with a sympathetic colleague are equally helpful methods available to language teachers.  Teachers should find what works best for them, as what works for one person does not necessarily work for another.  We would suggest, however, that taking the time to put one’s thoughts down in writing seems to be the most practical means for language teachers.


In conclusion, we feel that the process of conducting a diary-study can help language teachers better understand themselves and their learners, and foster a greater understanding of the complex dynamics that take place within their classrooms.


David Jeffrey is an instructor in the Communicative English Program (CEP) at Niigata University of International and Information Studies. 


Gregory Hadley has taught in Japan, the United States, England, and is currently the coordinator of the Communicative English Program (CEP) at Niigata University of International and Information Studies. 




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