Notes on Journal Prompts
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Based on the assumption that an academic year, in most cases, consists of 180 days divided into 4 quarters, I have grouped these prompts accordingly. You, of course, may choose to use any of these at whatever time you like.
There are eight graphics on this page to serve as general visual bookmarks. Additionally, please consider using the following text links to jump to specific points on this page:
Go to 1st Quarter Prompts
Go to 2nd Quarter Prompts
Go to 3rd Quarter Prompts
Go to 4th Quarter Prompts
1st Quarter Journal Writing Prompts
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What follows below is a simple listing of prompts.
If you'd like to make these really POP (and save yourself some effort at the same time), you may be interested in Journal Jumpstarts, Volume 1, which contains prompts 1-20 listed below.
1. Write about going back to school after summer vacation.
journal writing prompts
2. Write a thank you note to a friend who gave you onion and garlic-flavored chewing gum.
journal writing prompts
3. Draw an imaginary constellation. Write a story such as ancient people might have told about it.
4. Describe a real made-up dream or nightmare.
journal writing prompts
5. Write about your favorite childhood toy. journal writing prompts
6. Write out the best or the worst day of your life.
7. Finish this thought: if I could change one thing about myself (if you can't think of anything, you might want to consider telling how you got to be perfect!)
8. If and when I raise children, I'll never...
9. I have never been more frightened than when...
10. Persuade a friend to give up drugs.
11. Five years from now, I will be...
12. Write about a day you'd like to forget.
13. Invent and describe a new food.
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14. Describe an event that changed your life forever, or make up and describe an event that would change your life forever.
15. Describe someone who is a hero to you and explain why.
16. Write about a time in your life when you struggled with a choice and made the right one.
17. Imagine yourself in a different century and describe an average day in your life.
18. Which character from a book would you most like to meet and why?
19. Three goals I have set for myself are...
20. What would you do if 300 mice had just gotten out of their cages in a pet shop where you worked?Just like the above 20 prompts, prompts 21-40 listed below have not been "dressed up" much.
To see them in their finest clothing, you may want to download Journal Jumpstarts, Volume 2.
21. What would you do if you were locked inside your favorite department store overnight?
22. What would you do if you woke up one morning to find yourself invisible?
23. What would you do if you were able to communicate with animals?
24. What would you do if you could travel into the future?
25. What would you do if you could travel into the past?
26. What would you do if someone just gave you $1 million?
27. What would you do it all the electricity in the world just stopped?
28. What would you do if you could travel free anyplace in the world?
29. What would you do if the dinner served to you in a fancy restaurant came with a fly in the mashed potatoes?
30. Write a list of at least 50 things that make you feel good.
31. Describe the perfect day. Put in as many details as you can. Make it a possible day, not a "dream day."
32. Who is the person from history that you would most like to meet and talk to? Why? What would you like to ask?
33. Who is the person from literature that you would most like to meet and talk to? Why? What would you like to ask?
34. Compile a list of words that describe you as a child. Compile a second list that describes you as you are now. How are these lists the same? How are they different?
35. Compile a list of inanimate or animate objects to which you might compare yourself metaphorically. (I am a windmill. I change direction or my thoughts whenever someone talks to me...)
36. Tell about what triggers anger in you or someone else.
37. Invent a monster and describe it. Tell where it lives, what it eats, and what it does.
38. What is your favorite kind of weather? Why?
39. What is the best book you have ever read? Why did you like it? Did reading the book change you in any way? What way?
40. Write about what you didn't do this weekend.Prompts 41-60 (listed below) are included in Journal Jumpstarts, Volume 3.
Just display the prompt of the day via your digital projector, SMART Board, or classroom TV and take a break from your whiteboard for awhile!
41. Think about an incident that happened to you and exaggerate in the telling. Make it into a tall tale.
42. If you were ruler of the world, what things would you banish absolutely for all time (rain on weekends, eggplant, and so forth)? Make a list. Use your imagination.
43. If you could go back in time anywhere and "anywhen," where/when would you go and why?
44. What law would you like to see enacted which would help people? How would it help?
45. What commercial on TV do you dislike beyond all others? What about it is particularly annoying to you?2nd Quarter Journal Writing Prompts
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46. Design some gadget, machine, building, or other creation that might enrich the future. What does it look like? What does it do? How does it function? In what ways might it benefit people?journal writing prompts
47. What current fashion in clothing do you particularly like or dislike? Explain. journal writing prompts
48. Convince someone why music or art or computers are important in your life. Make them appreciate your viewpoint.
49. If you had $100,000, how would you spend it?
50. Be a building you know well. Talk about your life and memories.
51. You are to tell a person from a distant planet or from another era what pollution is. Make that person understand what causes it and why it is bad.
52. If you could do something that you never have done before, what would it be? Why would you want to do it?
53. Begin a list of questions that you'd like to have answered. They may be about the future or the past.
54. What do you consider your greatest accomplishment to date and why?
55. Write one characteristic or habit about yourself that you like and describe it. Or write about one thing you don't like about yourself.
56. What is your hobby? Why do you enjoy it?
57. If you could go somewhere where you've never gone before, where would you go and why?
58. What's, if anything, would you be willing to fight or even die for? Explain your answer.
59. If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be? Why would you make this change?
60. Is there a machine you feel you could not live without? Explain.The following prompts (61-80) are included in Journal Jumpstarts, Volume 4.
Just like all of the volumes in the Journal Jumpstarts series, Volume 4 features 21 high-quality animations that add “punch” to the prompts.
Use these animations in your own Powerpoints wherever you choose to do so.
61. Write about what you think you will be like and what you will be doing 10 years or 20 years from now.
62. Did you ever stick up for someone?
63. Describe your neighborhood bully.
64. Write about a baby-sitting experience.
65. Describe a great fort you built for a great game you played as a child.
66. Write about an enemy who eventually became your friend.
67. Write about a time you cheated and got caught.
68. Write about a privilege you earned.
69. Write about the stray animal you brought home.
70. Did you ever send away for something that turned out to be a disappointment? (Or order something over the Internet)
71. What is it like to go shopping with your mother?
72. Write about a time you performed in front of an audience.
73. Write about a difficult decision you had to make.
74. Write about learning to skate, to ride a bike, to climb a tree, or to turn a cart wheel.
75. Did you ever get lost in a strange town?
76. Were you ever locked in or out? What did you do?
77. What was it like to spend your first night away from home?
78. What was it like to come back home after a long vacation?
79. Write about a disappointment.
80. Write about something minor that turned into a big deal.The following prompts (81-100) are included in Journal Jumpstarts, Volume 5.
All of the prompts in the Journal Jumpstarts series are titled and listed in a clickable table of contents, making it easier to determine where to resume.
81. Did you ever win or lose a contest? Tell the story about what happened.
82. Write about something you desperately wanted when you were younger.
83. Did you ever know someone who had "everything"?
84. Write about the time as a child you played in one of the following: treehouse, a cornfield, a construction site, a junkyard, an abandoned house or barn, a stream, a cemetery, a swamp, a pasture, railroad tracks.
85. Did your mom or dad ever make you wear something you hated?
86. Write about a time you were talked into something and you regretted it.
87. Were you ever in a helicopter, limousine, racecar, hot-air balloon, submarine, or horse-drawn carriage?
88. Did you ever forget something really important? What happened as a result?
89. Write about an experience in a hospital.
90. Were you ever accused of something that you didn't do?3rd Quarter Journal Writing Prompts
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91. Write about a disastrous trip or vacation.
92. Were you ever given a responsibility that you couldn't handle? journal writing prompts
93. Were you ever in a fire, flood, tornado, or hurricane?
94. Describe the best concert you ever attended.
95. Write about a window you broke or something valuable you lost.
96. Did you ever catch fireflies? Crickets? Frogs? Snakes?
97. Write about a time you tried to help and ended up making things worse.
98. Did you ever break an important promise?
99. Write about moving to another city or neighborhood.
100. Describe an outdoor game you used to play in the summer time.
101. Write about building sand castles or mud pies.
102. Did you ever meet a famous person?
103. Write about mowing the lawn, burning leaves, or weeding the garden.
104. Describe the club you organized as a kid.
105. Describe a car or bicycle accident you were in.
106. Write about being a misfit.
107. Write about a day spent in another country.
108. Write about a time you out-smarted someone.
109. Write about going shopping for new clothes.
110. Did you ever turn someone in or tell on someone and feel bad about it later?
111. Imagine that you are an animal in the zoo. What type of animal are you? How do you feel about being caged? How do you feel about people that visit and watch you?
112. Write about a time your parents embarrassed you.
113. Describe learning something from a friend.
114. Write about a time you gave someone good advice.
115. Write about the funniest thing that ever happened to you.
116. If you had to escort a visitor from outer space for a 30-minute tour of your community, where would you begin and end?
117. Be a grape that becomes a raisin: describe how it feels to shrink, to shrivel, to become dry and wrinkled.
118. Be an icicle that becomes water. Describe how it feels to be cold and firm and full of beautiful crystals but only to melt and lose your shape.
119. You go to the store with your parents and baby brother. Your parents go into a store and tell you to watch your brother. You take your eyes off your brother for just a minute and you can't find him. You...
120. I really hate it when my mother/father/sibling...
121. What if the use of robots in school becomes a workable reality?
122. What would you pack in your suitcase if you could not go home again?
123. You have just met an alien from another planet. He wishes to take a student back to his planet. Convince him you would be the perfect specimen for him to take.
124. If you could change one law, what law would it be and how would you change it?
125. How forgiving are you when a friend lets you down? Explain. Give an example.
126. What if you were named principal for the week? What would you do?
127. If you could only speak twenty words for the rest of your life, what words would head your list and why?
128. It started out as an unusual Monday morning, when I...
129. As I approached the deserted house at the end of the road, I saw...
130. Do you think girls are raised differently from boys? If so, in what ways?
131. Do you think you are treated differently because you are a boy or girl?
132. Do you think men and women are equal in today's society? Why or why not?
133. Do you think a woman will be President of the United States in the near future?
134. Two men or women have it easier in our culture? If so, why do you think so?
135. Have you ever wished you were either older or younger? What would you consider to be the benefits? The problems?4th Quarter Journal Writing Prompts
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136. Describe what you think of as the typical mother.
journal writing prompts
137. Describe what you think of as the typical father.
journal writing prompts
138. Do you think women should take men's last names when they marry? Why or why not?
journal writing prompts
139. Would you rather have a brother or sister? Why?
140. Describe a fight you had with your mother. Now tell it from her point of view. journal writing prompts
141. Write a short biography of your mother.
142. Write a short biography of your father.
143. Visualize a time when your mother was laughing. Recall a time when you two shared a good laugh over something.
144. Write a physical description of your mother. Write as if you were looking at a movie rather than a photograph.
145. Concentrate on a particular habit that your mother has and write about it.
146. If you had three wishes, what would they be? (Do not ask for three more wishes)
147. What is something special and/or different about you? Why do you think it is special or different?
148. Write about two things that your family has taught you.
149. Write about some of the things that you worry about.
150. Describe a happy memory of your family.
151. How do you know someone loves you, even if he or she doesn't say it?
152. Name one thing you like about yourself and why you like it.
153. Imagine yourself as a teacher. What type of student would you like to teach and why?
154. Name and describe a teacher who made a difference in your life. What did that teacher do that was so special?
155. What makes you proud to be an American?
156. Describe the one thing that gives you the most comfort.
157. If you could be a character in any book, TV show, or movie, who would you be and why?
158. If you had to work in any store at your favorite mall, which store would it be and why?
159. Describe the most difficult thing about being your age.160. Describe one possession that means the most to you.
161. Who is the most important role model in your life?
162. Describe your best personality trait.
163. If you could study one subject in school that wasn't offered, what would it be and why?
164. If you had a chance to live anywhere you could, where would it be and why?
165. Write about the pros/cons of year-round school or a four-day school week.
166. Write about your favorite sport.
167. Is the school year too long? Too short? Why?
168. What does your summer usually consist of?
169. Who should be paid more, professional athletes or teachers? Why or why not?
170. What class do you enjoy the most and why?
171. Write about the worst fight you ever had with a friend.
172. If you had only one month to live, what would you do?
173. Describe your dream house.
174. Who is your favorite person to be with? Why?
175. What would be your ideal job when you grow up? Explain.
176. If you could guest star on any TV show, what would it be and why?
177. What do you think your life will be like in 10 years? 20 years?
178. Describe how you would manage your own radio or TV station.
179. What is your definition of success?
180. The saying goes, "Money cannot buy happiness." Do you agree or disagree? Why? journal writing prompts
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Informal, in-class writing activities
Informal, exploratory writing, when assigned regularly, can lead students to develop insightful, critical, and creative thinking. Experience tells us that without this prompted activity, students might not otherwise give themselves enough time and space to reflect on class content, or to forge connections that will allow them to remember and use ideas from assigned readings, lectures, and other projects. These brief writing activities also allow instructors to get a general sense of students’ grasp of course concepts and materials, and can, in turn, inform future lecture notes, class plans, and pacing.
What follows is an annotated listing of some of the more common write-to-learn activities assigned in classrooms across the disciplines at the University of Minnesota.
Freewriting, a form of automatic writing or brainstorming trumpeted by writing theorist Peter Elbow, requires students to outrun their editorial anxieties by writing without stopping to edit, daydream, or even ponder. In this technique, all associated ideas are allowed space on the page as soon as they occur in the mind. Five-minute bouts of freewriting can be useful before class to spark discussion; in the middle of class to reinvigorate, recapitulate, or question; and at the end of class to summarize. It is also useful at many points in the drafting process: during the invention stage as students sift for topics, and during the drafting process as they work to develop, position, or deepen their own ideas.
There are at least two types of freewriting assignments: focused and unfocused. Focused freewrites allow students opportunities to initiate or develop their thinking on a topical, instructor-supplied prompt, for example, “What is a virus?” Unfocused freewrites, on the other hand, allow students to simply clear their minds and prepare for content activity. In either form, students are instructed to write generic phrases like “I can’t think of anything to say, I can’t think of…” or “Nothing nothing nothing” if their minds go blank. Once their self-consciousness or resistance lowers, ideas will begin to flow again.
It’s important, particularly in the case of focused freewrites, that students take a few moments after the timer has gone off to read over what they’ve written, highlighting useful and interesting ideas that may be glittering from amidst the verbal rubble (see example below). These insights might then be developed into formal writing assignments, or at least be contributed to discussions.
Note also that freewriting is often personal and messy. It should be a low-stakes writing activity for students, and should therefore remain ungraded.
This excerpt is from a timed freewrite and shows the student’s subsequent highlights.
One-minute papers are usually written in class on an index card or scrap of paper, or out-of-class via email. The limited space of the card forces students to focus and also presents such a small amount of writing space that it usually lowers levels of writing anxiety. On their cards, students may be asked to summarize, to question, to reiterate, to support or counter a thesis or argument, or to apply new information to new circumstances. Such writing helps students to digest, apply, and challenge their thinking, achieving enough confidence to contribute fruitfully to class discussions. These short writing assignments also deliver quick, valuable feedback to instructors on what students are learning.
The following are examples of prompts:
- Any discipline:
Create a bumper sticker that would summarize yesterday’s lecture.
Without referring to the text, jot down one or two points that surprised you.
Try to view this slide through the eyes of a member of your target subculture. List your observations in the order they occur to you.
- Medical Ethics:
“People suffering from schizophrenia or manic-depressive disorder should/should not be forced to take their medication" (Bean 124).
Think of examples of your own personal experience to illustrate the uses of vector algebra. You might consider such experiences as swimming in a river with a steady current, walking across the deck of a moving boat, crossing the wake while water-skiing, cutting diagonally across a vacant lot while friends walk around the lot, or watching a car trying to beat a moving train to a railroad crossing. Use one or more of these experiences to explain to a friend (a Kinesiology major) what vector algebra is all about. Use both words and diagrams (adapted from Bean 121).
Scenarios are short, imaginative writing activities that allow students to broach a topic or apply content to new contexts. Examples of scenario activities include writing letters, editorials, memos, and persona pieces such as dialogues or role play.
Sample prompts include the following:
- Create a hypothetical dialogue between 3-5 individuals who have different perspectives on, but definite stakes in, your argument.
- Write a short letter to the author of this novel in which you pose unresolved question(s).
- You are Adam Smith. You have an intercom connection to WorldCom. What do you say?
- Write a letter to an elderly and taciturn patient (who has recently been diagnosed with diabetes) explaining what is meant by the glycemic index of foods and why knowing about the glycemic index will help her/him to maintain healthy blood sugar levels.
Logbooks (called journals* in some contexts) provide students with opportunities to think through material in their own voices. They may be structured or unstructured, requiring students to complete frequent short entries in which they, for example, summarize material, connect course topics with their observations and experiences, answer questions you design, or reflect on their own notes using double-entry notebooks. Unlike individual short writing assignments, logbooks compile student writing throughout an assignment, a unit, or semester and, like portfolios, allow students to see the development of their observations, ideas, and skills. These notes may be kept in notebooks, binders, or electronic folders.
* You are cautioned against calling the logbook a journal or diary. Students may associate those terms with strictly personal records of intimate thoughts and wishes and day-to-day activity. Students need to be clear that the purpose of a logbook is the open (public) record of ideas and findings.
Microthemes, conventionally similar to the one-minute paper, have, in practice, taken the form of one-page papers written outside class. Informal and exploratory, these assignments should, again, present students with low-risk situations where they can feel free to speculate and work through their thoughts, paving the way for more sophisticated analysis and evaluation. Examples include the following:
Write a microtheme of between 250-350 words on the following topic: China and India both had dramatic encounters with Western countries during the nineteenth century. Select an encounter each country had with the West in the 1800s and compare and contrast the Chinese and Indian responses. Discuss these two responses in terms of at least one trend in world history.
- Wildlife Conservation and Management:
Write a microtheme addressing an issue or concern based on a news release from a non-governmental organization (NGO) or other stakeholder group. The news release of the NGO should be from the period November 1999 - January 2000. Write the microtheme from the perspective of a natural resource agency person (you). The microtheme will be addressed to me, your supervisor. You will express, and defend, either your opposition or your support of the perspective raised in the news release. You will be expected to use the World Wide Web (WWW). In addition, give the WWW address for the NGO or stakeholder group.
Teaching with informal writing assignments: some notes on procedure
- When introducing the activity, give students your rationale for assigning it. Avoid characterizing it as a “fun little writing activity.”
- If you’re using a prompt, present it both orally and visually by writing it on the board or projecting it on the screen. Exceptions include disciplines where response to oral instructions is valued.
- Whenever possible, do the activity yourself before presenting it to students and/or do it along with them in the class. This makes a significant impact on student motivation.
- Before students write, describe next steps. Will the writing be collected? discussed? included in an assignment portfolio? graded? If students are going to be able to be truly informal, they need to know that they aren’t going to be judged on the quality of their exploratory writing.
- Be clear about time limits (“I’ll stop you in 5 minutes”) and when time is almost over, give a one-minute or 30-second warning.
- At the completion of the assignment, ask students to reflect on insights and developments.
- If you collect student writing, summarize, or at least highlight and comment on your findings during a subsequent class.
Effective write-to-learn assignments...
Now what?: responding to informal writing
If the primary purpose of informal writing is learning (rather than communicating what has been learned) and if the intended audience is usually limited to the writer, how are instructors advised to grade or respond to the writing generated by these activities? Unlike finished student work elicited by more formal assignments, informal writing is not assessed for style or grammar; you’ve asked students to formulate and pursue ideas in a creative and potentially messy process. With this in mind, consider the following strategies for working with completed informal assignments:
For in-class short-writes:
- Do nothing more: continue with the discussion, demonstration, or lecture, confident that the activity succeeded in allowing students to deepen their understanding of the target content.
- Follow the activity by giving students class time to voice ideas and/or questions they may have uncovered by writing. In large classes, ask students to discuss ideas from their writing with a peer in order to share or synthesize responses that you then pull into discussion.
- Collect the writing with or without student names. You can read them quickly for your own information, and then summarize this information in the next class session, or you can grade them (check, check minus, check plus).
- Ask students to keep their writing until the semester’s end, then hand in their five best for grading.
Three important caveats:
For longer informal assignments:
Longer pieces of writing done outside class (microthemes, logbooks, response papers) are read for content. Instructor or peer comments should focus primarily on relevance to the assignment and quality of ideas. Criteria for success in these assignments is usually based on the thoughtfulness of students’ responses and their ability to think coherently on paper. If you find that a student’s ideas are obscured by error-ridden writing, you won’t be able to respond to them.
Writing supportive and engaging comments is, of course, the ideal as these comments will reinforce the idea that these informal assignments are indeed about exploration and the pursuit of insight. If writing substantial comments is not an option time-wise, you (or a classmate) can still note brief questions and reactions in the margins.
Grading informal writing assignments:
Respond with a simple check plus (excellent), check (satisfactory), or check minus (sub-adequate) and, if time is limited, minimal comments:
“Your insights on issues relating to privacy in health care reporting are strong and could be developed into a compelling argument!”
“You’ve named some of the most important issues involved with privacy and health care, but don’t develop any of them persuasively.”
“You’ve summarized the articles and have responded thoughtfully, but don’t answer the assigned question.”
Bean, John. C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001.