Visual Research Journals:
A Space for Doing

As the primary educator for my middle school students, I need to connect academic goals across disciplines, teaching through an integrated approach. To facilitate this, I look to and reflect on my own studio practice, and the importance of journaling as a way for me to make sense of my work. During the 2016-17 school year, and with the support of my Master of Arts in Art Education professors, I conducted a qualitative case study on my students' use of visual research journals. In looking through my students' journals, and modeling my own journaling habits, a dialogue emerged that allowed our class to expand and evolve. 

I'm happy to share my findings as well as any resources that might be helpful for others. Please contact me before using any of these images and / or findings, as this research is still underway.

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Prior Journaling

My students had some prior experience using journals in school. When asked if their journals were helpful, many of them said it was usually just a bunch of words that they were told to write down. Because of this they didn't use their journals unless instructed to, and they rarely referenced back to them. My students and I considered ways to make their journals dynamic. How could we create an environment in the journals that encouraged students to take ownership?


Visual Note Strategies

Although many of my students felt strongly that it was important to have visuals in their journals, there was definitely a drawing bias in the group. I heard a lot of "I can't draw!" I knew that I wanted to provide strategies that would make drawing accessible. 


Daily Documentation

We created rituals around using our journals at the start and end of each day. I asked students questions like: How are you envisioning your project? What are your goals for your project? At the end of each day I asked students questions like: What does your work look like today? What pleasant surprises did you discover? How will you do things differently next time?


Representational Drawings

Students were given markers, crayons, pens, and other tools that they couldn't easily erase to make quick, two minute drawings. Representational drawings served as an emergent process for students to reflect on their work and envision next steps in their process.


Technical Drawings

I never intended to teach technical drawing skills, but by providing drawing prompts regularly I noticed students becoming more comfortable with drawing. Here you can see how one of my students' drawings evolved through close observations.

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An Extension of Your Brain 

"Your journal is an extension of your brain!" I regularly shared this reminder with my students. We set norms around journals including that students would share journals publicly as part of the learning process, and if there was ever anything that they wanted to keep hidden they simply needed to tape those pages closed. 


Drawing as Dialogue

Some of my students hated drawing at the start of the year, but soon it became a tool of encouragement. This drawing served as a reminder for one of my students to simply do! In an interview, this same student shared with me how her use of the journal evolved over the year:

“The ways I use my journal have changed a lot this year. I used to really not like writing things down and I hated drawing because I'm so bad at it. Now I find myself always asking for a piece of paper when I need to explain something, or brainstorm, or whatever else I'm doing. Now I think of my journal as a place where all the jumbled messy ideas bouncing around in my head come together and become something more real. It's also the place that holds all my notes on everything.” 




What does it mean to finish work? At the end of the unit I asked my students to reflect on this question, and as I worked on my final research report, I began to consider this question too. Now having graduated with my Masters from the program at the Maryland Institute College of Art, I plan to continue conducing qualitative research independently to further explore the ways in which my students and I are communicating visually through journals.