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Project diary or learning journal

Aim of the tool
To help you remember something later, it crystallises a particular problem or issue, and enables reflection. It can take you in new directions and clear your mind

When to use it?
This tool is useful at the beginning of an intervention, but can also be used for evaluation

How difficult is it to use it?
Easy – moderate – for experienced users/facilitators

Tool for thought or tool for action?
Tool for thought

Benefits
It provides an insight into what works and what does not, as well as valuable information about the process of change.

Issues to be aware  of
It requires project staff or participants to be diligent about keeping the diary up to date. The values of the diary writers may influence their recording of events, and it is not necessarily easy to analyse

Description of the tool
A project diary is a written record of significant activities, events or processes that occur during the life of a project.

It is highly recommended that project staff keep some sort of diary to record their insights and experiences during a project’s planning and implementation, as these insights are important to collect and reflect upon in order to improve the way future projects are run. Project staff’s diaries can provide a meaningful reflection of the time that may be needed to implement a project.

For example, diaries can provide a more accurate guide to the time commitment (and budgeting) required in future project designs. Diaries are also invaluable for identifying the little things that make, hold back, or break a project. These small factors, such as not engaging particular stakeholders early enough, may not have been considered in the project plan, but are the things that end up being important. Project diaries therefore help collect the information that helps make a meaningful evaluation of a project’s implementation, rather than having to depend on sketchy memories or anecdotal evidence.

An option is to combine diary-keeping with regular meetings, whereby project teams and other relevant stakeholders can reflect on what is working well and what needs improvement, and decide on what should be done to improve the project.

Keeping a diary could be done either through a traditional ‘written’ format, or through an electronic file that is updated as required.
You can also consider having a selection of participants keep diaries to record their observations of a project, and the changes they undertake. You may want to consider selecting the participants using specific criteria, such as demographics, previous knowledge or values etc., to see if different sub-groups have different experiences.

Example
We often advise people to use a project diary, or learning journal. In some cases people like to decorate their diary booklet to make it their own.
Most important is that people take the time, regularly, to write things down.

Steps involved in using the tool
One of the first decisions to make concerns the form that your journal will take. For most people the choice seems to be between three main forms – notebooks, loose leaf paper within ring binders, or digitally via a word processor or note taker. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. The first two are not dependent on high levels of technology and so can be quickly and easily used. However, they do not have the same versatility as digital journals in terms of search and (re)organisation. The loose leaf journal can be reordered and added to, but things can also be taken away, and this can mean you lose important material. The notebook journal is less flexible, but does have more of a feeling of permanence. It is worth taking a little time to decide which journal form to adopt as you will have to live with the consequences for a time.

One of the next questions concerns when and where journal writing takes place. Is there a place where you will be relatively undisturbed? Is there a good time to write? For many practitioners, the answer is to grab time when it presents itself. In many respects there are distinct advantages to writing as close to the time of the experience as possible (Holly 1989: 92). Using something like a notebook or loose-leaf paper means that you can sometimes jot things down as you are working with an individual or a group as an aide-mémoire. You can then ‘fill-in’ details, feelings etc. after the encounter. One of the key points here is not to be too precious about journal writing – just do it. Ron Klug (2002: 34) talks about a college professor who gave the following salient advice to a student: “Go through the motions, and you’ll get the emotions”

Some people like to begin their journal with the sort of free-writing advocated by Tristine Rainer. Here they just write about what comes into their mind for a certain period of time. This can get things flowing and bring out thoughts and experiences that were not at the forefront of our minds. Others start by writing an autobiographical piece. However, for those of us starting a learning journal, some sort of basic framework is probably useful. A good starting point is to use four basic elements:

  • Description of the situation/encounter/experience that includes some attention to feelings at the time.
  • Additional material – information that comes to your notice or into your mind after the event.
  • Reflection – going back to the experiences, attending to feelings and evaluating experience (Boud et. al. 1985: 26-31). 
  • Things to do – the process of reflection may well lead to the need to look again at a situation or to explore some further area. It may highlight the need to take some concrete actions. In this ‘section’ of the entry you can make notes to pick-up later.

A further consideration concerns what you are to write about in your journals? Here Ron Klug (2002: 54) has come up with a helpful set of starter questions for an ‘end of the day’ type of journal. These have been amended here slightly – they can be further amended to be used for reflection at any point in the day:

  • As I look back on the day, what were the most significant events?
  • In what ways was this day unique, different from other days?
  • Did I have any particularly meaningful conversations?
  • Did I do any reading? What were my reactions to it?
  • How did I feel during the day? What were the emotional highs and lows? Why did I feel as I did? 
  • Did I find myself worrying about anything today?
  • What were the main joys of the day? What did I accomplish?
  • Did I fail at anything? What can I learn from this?
  • What did I learn today? When did I feel most alive?

Last, it is important to be honest when writing journals. ‘Write how you really feel and not how you think you should feel. Record what you really think, not what you believe you ought to think’ (Klug 2002: 56).

Sources and further readings