Teaching Profession CTQ Collaboratory

Record Learning Effectively: Making a Better Learning Log

By William J. Tolley — January 13, 2016 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The Need to Innovate the Lesson Plan

In a world of blended learning, messy learning, and universal design for learning, the lesson plans we grew up with are static anachronisms in a dynamic digital world. Any experienced teacher knows the predictions we put on paper amount to wishful thinking on the best of days, but teachers embracing modern learning are also actively attempting to embrace the ambiguity of the organic learning process, making the traditional lesson plan not just an exercise in optimism, but antithetical to the spontaneity we hope to espouse in our learning environments.

Modern Learning Needs

The modern learning environment demands, at a minimum, several capabilities from a document meant to record learning effectively.

A modern learning log:

1. Must obviously be electronic and multi-platform (usable on laptops, tablets, and mobiles);

2. Must be dynamic: Able to support various media like photos and audio that allow for the use of hyperlinks;

3. Must facilitate communication and collaboration between diverse stakeholders, especially the student, whose voice must be heard in the learning record;

4. Must be editable with real time auto-save and an activity log—modern learning does not happen in a static environment, so the log should be designed for fluid amendment;

5. Must catalogue and connect several running documents—for teachers and students to share—that trace learning across various time periods and varied experiences.

You may find you want even more from your learning log—iPad teachers often demand that a tool like this be stylus friendly for handwritten editing. When on the run, I use a good old fashioned clipboard with recycled paper to keep track of learning in real time and later add my notes to my modern learning log. My model is just a suggestion. Make sure when you innovate your learning plans, you do so in a way that supports your learning style, instructional technology knowledge, and the demands of your school or district.

Modern Learning Log Design

I am not the first educator to recognize the need to reform our learning documents. The good people at TeachThought have done an excellent job of curating some brilliant tools for lesson plan design. I often find, however, that pre-packaged plans limit my ideas, so I prefer to “homebrew” my own flexible templates using a tool that combines simplicity and utility. In this case, Evernote.

I also try to stick to my Rules for Tools which require any tech tool I use or recommend to be relevant, not redundant, flexible, authentically useful, and likely to last. An added benefit of this design? You will never have to export your learning plans or acquire a new set of tools every time you change schools or, more likely, your school updates its tools.

A basic understanding of Evernote will help, but anyone familiar with the document/folder system found in most word-processing software will be able to transfer this knowledge to the notebook/note system in Evernote. Each of the examples below represent Notebooks (Learning Plan, Lesson Journal, Student Journal) with individual notes contained within (examples provided).

  • The Learning Plan (Template)(Model)

    a. Audience: As broad as desired. At a minimum, this document should be shared with your students, but you may want to make the documents available to your supervisors and parents as well.

  • b. Purpose: Organization of the daily lesson, but also to facilitate links between daily lessons and ongoing student learning.

    c. Innovations: Some lesson elements are eternal—I still like to list what the main activities are and to remind myself what resources I will need. But some concepts have got to go. As a student teacher in New York City, I remember the grimace that would appear on my cooperating teacher’s face when students in my classes would go off on tangents during lessons. “Gotta stick to the Aim, Bill,” he would say. “Gotta stick to the Aim.” Imagine reconciling modern learning with the idea that students cannot stray from a singular topic. Rather than one aim or one lesson objective, I list all of the unit essential questions relevant to the lesson, and I am always prepared to write new ones into the lesson as students “go off topic” and devise their own.

  • The Lesson Journal (Template)(Model)

    a. Audience: You. You can choose to share your reflections with someone else, but you should reserve a place for yourself to speak freely about your work without worrying about contextualizing your comments for an audience.

  • b. Purpose: A journal to reflect on your teaching has always been a useful tool, but in the modern learning environment, reflecting on the dynamism of the classroom—changes, student initiatives, innovations, compromises—is essential for designing learning in blended and individualized contexts. This is the tool to demonstrate that messy learning doesn’t mean a mess.

    c. Innovations: For some of us, writing in a journal at the end of the school day is a daunting task. Falling behind for just a day or two can limit the value of the Lesson Journal. Evernote’s voice recording functions and its easy drag and drop image tool makes a dreary end of day duty more interactive and manageable.

  • The Student Journal (Template) (Model)

    a. Audience: You and each individual student. And you should ensure the student that this journal will remain between the two of you. This is her place to speak honestly with you about her learning, and she will do so more reliably if she feels she is not being scrutinized by her parents, peers, or principals.

  • b. Purpose: To maintain a line of communication in a busy world. There is not always time for a 1-1 appointment, but in a modern learning environment, the student should always feel like she has agency in her learning. This document grants her voice in her learning. It also provides the teacher with a source and a sounding board for individualizing each student’s learning by tracking individual needs and requests.

    c. Innovations: Ignoring the individual student’s needs was never good practice. In a technologically robust modern learning environment, we can close the distance that remains between the student and teacher through written records, but—much to the relief of many of our learners—through audio and image, as well.

Messy Learning Need Not Be a Mess

The discussion on how to track flexible learning models is just beginning. Early adopters and innovators everywhere will find more support from their supervisors and communities if they demonstrate that modern learning is not just an exercise in chaos. Learning logs begin a conversation on documenting and data-tracking the messiness we embrace in student-centered classrooms and provide concrete evidence of learning informed by practice, reflection, and the learner’s voice.


Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession Efforts to Toughen Teacher Evaluations Show No Positive Impact on Students
After a decade of expensive evaluation reforms, new research shows no positive effect on student test scores or educational attainment.
10 min read
Man and woman evaluating and rating profiles by giving them stars.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Teaching Profession Teachers Who Refuse to Comply With Vaccine Mandates Won't Face Consequences in Many Places
Some districts and states aren't even keeping track of how many teachers are vaccinated.
8 min read
Teachers protest against COVID-19 vaccination mandates in New York on Aug. 25, 2021. On Friday, Oct. 1, 2021, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor denied an emergency appeal from a group of teachers to block New York City's COVID-19 vaccine mandate for public school teachers and other staff from going into effect.
Teachers protest against COVID-19 vaccination mandates in New York on Aug. 25.
Mary Altaffer/AP
Teaching Profession What New Teachers Need
Ideas from the real world on making teachers' first years less overwhelming and more fulfilling.
5 min read
Illustration of a classroom diorama sitting on a student desk.
Illustration by Laura Baker/Education Week (Images: iStock/Getty)
Teaching Profession Opinion This Year Almost Drove Me Out of Teaching. The Right Leader Made Me Stay
After seven years teaching and one class away from becoming an education specialist, I have seen the highs and lows of education leadership.
Samantha Richardson
4 min read
Illustration of woman sitting on a mountain top looking into the distant landscape.