Reading Diaries

What?: What are Reading Diaries?

Reading Diaries are:

  • a form of written assignment
  • especially used in reading-based seminars
  • an alternative option where normally a more classical academic paper or essay is required, or other forms of combined types of assessment (e.g. portfolios) including a written part.

In a Reading Diary (following: RD), the students:

  • combine writing about a given text with describing their own learning process (i.e. metacognitive self reflection)
  • monitor their own understanding of the text in combination with monitoring their own reading and learning strategies and attitudes
  • manage or even adjust their reading and learning strategies and attitudes


The method

During the seminar that runs over one semester (i.e. a 14 weeks course), the students write three reading diaries about three texts of their own choice. In other words, they identify and choose three of the compulsory weekly readings. Each reading diary entry comprises approx. 2-3 pages. Thus, three entries of 2-3 pages each will result in 6-9 pages total. After the last seminar session, students write a final reflection that comprises approx. 6 pages. Thus the whole written RD consists of 12-15 pages.

The texts must be written unassisted and uploaded to the provided folder at least 2 days (or as agreed) before the respective seminar session. The lecturer will give short written feedback and bring it to the seminar meeting. This can be done, for example, in the form of comments on the printed reading diary. Of course, it can be done completely digitally as well. The Reading Diary offers a good basis and preparation for a lively discussion in the seminar sessions.

It is important that each RD entry is written before the respective seminar session. It is not a protocol and must therefore be written before the discussion in the seminar meeting. The RD entry does not have to follow strict citation rules. It may be written from a first-person perspective. Moreover, there is no claim to completeness, as it is not a summary or a review, but deals with the relationship of the reader to the chosen or assigned text.

It is important that students find their own voice and that they use the reading diary to start their own active engagement with the texts.

Alternative variation: Before each seminar session, students do free writing about the text of ca. 400-500 words. This text is not handed in, but they bring it to the seminar session, printed on paper. At the end of the semester, they select three of these papers and develop them into the final paper or assignment. (In this variation, the written feedback of the lecturer is left out. Usually, feedback is highly appreciated by the students.)

Why?: Why implement Reading Diaries?

Which learning objectives or competences do RDs support?

Students who take notes on readings and who do reflective writing about readings have been shown to learn more, enjoy reading more, and to earn higher grades in assignments and classes (see Nückles et al., 2009). Thus, to help them make the most of their readings, they contribute regularly to a personal reading diary. The reading diary serves four purposes:

  1. It helps the students process and document their reading.
  2. It encourages connections to be drawn from and between individual readings.
  3. It provides a forum for honing synthesis and critical thinking skills.
  4. It helps to demonstrate that they are doing the required readings.

With appropriate support, writing can serve as a beneficial medium helping students to self-regulate their understanding of subject matter as well as to reflect and adjust their learning strategies and attitudes.

How?: How can RDs be implemented successfully?

Questions of content and experience

There are different possibilities for writing the reading diaries.

On the one hand, it can concentrate on the content of the text. The reader may use the reading diary to summarise, explain or discuss a passage considered most important or most interesting or most difficult. Though, it is important to bear in mind that a simple summary of the selected passage would not be sufficient. The reading diary should result in a deeper engagement with a part of the text that appears important to the reader. It is also desirable to ask questions about the text or to name gaps in understanding that should be discussed in the following seminar session.

On the other hand, the reading diary might deal with the personal reading experience. New insights, moments of surprise and personal examples can be part of the content. If questions arise, it may be helpful to record what helped in answering them.

Judgements about the structure or comprehensibility of the text ("easy to understand", “too difficult and thus useless”, "poorly structured", etc.) are not desirable. This should be clearly communicated in the instructions to students.


Concluding reflection

The concluding reflection is written at the end of the semester. The three entries written before serve as the basis for this final reflective entry. They are not revised after the feedback; they are preserved in the original state as documents of the learning process. The subject of the final reflection is the process that may have resulted from the discussion of the text in the seminar, the writing of the reading diary and/or the feedback of the lecturer. The student should refer to the previously written reading diaries and record possible processes such as experiences, developments or advances in knowledge. If suitable, a central theme or thread can be worked out across the three RD entries: What are the connections? Are there contradictions, which ones?

While the first three RD entries were perhaps written in a free form, in the final reflection arguments and quotation rules should be used to support one's own statements. Formally, the usual rules for writing academic papers should be followed. A central question of final reflection could be: How do I understand the texts at the end of the course?



The grading of the final product (3 RD entries plus the final reflection) is based only on the concluding reflection. The finished document should have a length of 12-15 text pages. Both the reading diaries and the final reflection are submitted in one document (including cover page, table of contents, references and bibliography).

Students are given clear information about the aspects of grading (language use, argument, content, reflection, etc.) and their percentage to the grading.


Possible structures of the whole document

Example A:


Reading diary entries

Concluding reflection

Upshot and outlook


Example B:


Concluding reflection

Upshot and outlook


Appendix: Reading diary entries


Other ways of structuring the final product, such as the interweaving of passages from the RD entries and a commentary, are also conceivable. We intentionally do not include any students’ sample work in this toolkit, as this could encourage mere imitation. What is desired is a facilitation of scientific writing that means more freedom. Experiments with content and form are welcome as long as the work deals with the seminar texts and a process is reflected.



-Examples of Handout for students:

- English version by Steffi Hobuß, Leuphana University

- German version by Steffi Hobuß, Leuphana University

-Homepage of the project guided by Alexander Renkl at Freiburg University, Lerntagebücher als Medium selbstgesteuerten Lernens

-Description of a student's RD experience in Times Higher Education


Further Reading

Berthold, K., Nückles, M., Renkl, A. (2007). Do learning protocols support learning strategies and outcomes? The role of cognitive and metacognitive prompts. Learning and Instruction, 17: 564-577.

Hübner, S., Nückles, M., & Renkl, A. (2007). Lerntagebücher als Medium des selbstgesteuerten Lernens – wieviel instruktionale Unterstützung ist sinnvoll? Empirische Pädagogik, 21: 119-137.

Nückles, M. & Renkl, A (2010). Das Lerntagebuch in der Hochschullehre: Ein hochschuldidaktischer Ansatz zur Förderung selbstgesteuerten Lernens. In Spiel C, Reimann R, Schober B, Wagner P (Hrsg.): Bildungspsychologie Göttingen: Hogrefe, 319-323.

Nückles, M., Hübner, S., & Renkl A. (2008). Short-term versus long-term effects of cognitive and metacognitive prompts in writing-to-learn. In: Kanselaar, G., Jonker, V., Kirschner, P.A,, Prins, F.J. (Hrsg.): Proceedings of the 8th International Conference of the Learning Sciences (Vol. 2) Utrecht, NL: International Conference of the Learning Sciences, 124-132.

St Clair-Thompson, H., Graham A., & Marsham, S. (2018). Exploring the Reading Practices of Undergraduate Students, Education Inquiry, 9:3, 284-298, DOI: 10.1080/20004508.2017.1380487


Nückles, M., Hübner, S., Renkl A. (2009). Enhancing self-regulated learning by writing learning protocols. Learning and Instruction, 19: 259-271. :