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Visual Journaling

Christopher Strickland, University of Nebraska at Kearney


Key Statement: Visual Journaling is both a reflective and creative practice that can amplify and empower students’ authentic voice and self-efficacy.

Keywords: Visual Journaling, Reflection, Student Voice





“The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So, write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.” - Neil Gaiman (n.d.) 


For years I have been using Visual Journals as a tool and the visual journaling process as a critical component of my teaching and learning practice to procure meaning-making, metacognitive awareness, and assessment of student learning within the arts and arts education. In this piece, I want to highlight another significant facet of this tool, which is the ability to amplify and empower students’ authentic voice and self-efficacy. This is important for student-centered learning because it supports active engagement and participation, promotes advocacy for self and others in decision-making, and can positively shape an individual’s overall educational experience. Helping students find their voice is especially paramount for culturally responsive educators who serve historically marginalized groups and work toward espousing diversity, equity, and inclusivity in their schools and communities. At the core of student-centered learning is the critical role of student voice in the dynamic of teaching for understanding (not just knowledge acquisition), as well as for personal transformation and embracing social justice principles to constructively change and improve our world.


Image courtesy of Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash.

What Is a Visual Journal and What Is Visual Journaling?


Visual Journals are a derivative of an artist’s sketchbook; however, the difference is in the intention or purpose and process (Dalton, 2023; Strickland, 2019). Within an educational context, Visual Journals are a primary tool that can be adapted and used with students of all ages, in any discipline or content area and domain for learning. Visual Journaling is a creative and metacognitive reflective process concerned not with the development of artistic technique and craftsmanship, but with students’ thinking. Through the exploration of curricula content, students reflect upon their thoughts, feelings, and lived experiences, and they respond visually and textually in order to connect, understand, and create personal meaning with the learning content. Subsequently, the Visual Journal becomes an effective tool of empowerment, as the process of Visual Journaling makes students' thinking visible and cultivates learning agency for personal transformation (Arnheim, 1969/1997; Dalton, 2023; Ritchhart et al., 2011) as students discover and amplify their authentic voice and self-efficacy.



How Can Visual Journaling Help Students Find Their Voice?


The Power of Communicating With Images and Symbols


The 21st century is a heavily image- and symbol-laden world that requires individuals to develop essential visual literacy skills. Visual literacy is the capacity to analyze, evaluate, utilize, and create images and visual media. Visual literacy empowers individuals to effectively contribute and consume visual culture and digital media, as well as engage as discerning citizens within a diverse, democratic, and visually oriented society (ACLR, 2011/2022; Freedman, 2003; Yenawine, 2013). Using images, symbols, and text to communicate and express oneself, such as with Visual Journaling, is powerful because of the innate cognitive and deep affective response the human brain has to visual stimuli.


Cognitive, Emotional, and Social Awareness


In the 21st century, the separation between the classroom and world in which one lives is an antiquated concept. “What happens outside must be brought in because you’re working with and teaching human beings who are impacted by world events” (Sealey-Ruiz as cited in Kantawala, 2023, p. 59). Subsequently, creative practices, like Visual Journaling, communicate and interpret lived experiences, as well as cognitive, emotional, and social awareness and offer “humanizing ways of being and knowing” (Price-Dennis & Sealey-Ruiz, 2021, p. 2). As students become affirmed and validated for their perspectives and contextualizing personal experiences within the learning process, agency and autonomy emerge (Glass et al., 2013; Nieto, 2009).


Reconceptualizing Identity and Purpose


Visual Journaling releases the imagination, invites creative self-expression, and demonstrates reflective and reflexive thinking through reconceptualizing concepts, such as identity, purpose, knowledge, and value (Donahue & Stuart, 2011; Freedman, 2003). In this way, Visual Journaling becomes a transformative experience for galvanizing and empowering one’s voice. Individuals who “engage in reflexivity understand that their reflections must lead to action and result in a different way of being and acting” (Price-Dennis & Sealey-Ruiz, 2021, p. 73).


Implications for Visual Journaling as “Best Practice”


My experience has been that visual journals are safe spaces to engage in deep reflection and develop positionality.  Allowing students to demonstrate their knowledge and awareness fosters a certain confidence that inspires students to claim a stance or position on the Visual Journal pages through communicating using visuals, imagery, symbols, and text to define their positionality. The opportunity to witness Visual Journaling help students develop confidence, agency, and self-efficacy through the creative and reflective process is inspiring and fulfilling. More often than not, as students engage and experience the Visual Journaling process, they are able to expand and launch off the pages of the Visual Journal and begin to own and share their voice by engaging in more public spheres (e.g., class conversations, online discussion boards, service-learning opportunities). Subsequently, this enriches the discourse and learning experience for all due to the diverse perspectives and lived experiences that are heard, validated, respected, and legitimized.

The aesthetic and material resources used to engage visual journaling can vary from analog to digital media. Traditional artistic materials that can be used include printer-paper or sketchbooks, as well as drawing and painting instruments like pencils, pens, markers, and pastels. Digital media and web-based software that is free, such as  Google Keep™, and/or more elaborate and paid subscriptions, such as Adobe Creative Cloud® can also be used, depending on student or institutional resources and preferences.

Visual Journaling redefines normative structures for teaching and learning, allowing student voices to be honored, celebrated, and championed, as equity is within the creative process itself, regardless of the artistic materials or media used. In this way, the process of Visual Journaling reflects "best practice," as it leverages the synergy of arts media and reflexivity to foster intelligence, creativity, and the significance of culture for transforming individuals into different and new ways of knowing and being (Price-Dennis & Sealey Ruiz, 2021).



Next Steps


The following are my suggestions to start implementing visual journaling within one’s teaching and learning practice:

  1. Demystify and debunk the idea that only “artists” are individuals that can or have the “right” to be creative and expressive, as well as communicate through visuals/imagery.

  2. Cultivate learning communities that respect and value diverse sociocultural contexts, wisdom from lived experiences, and students’ voices for critical meaning-making.

  3. Promote visual journaling as a creative and interdisciplinary process for reflective and reflexive practice and the amplification of voices and perspectives.


Discussion Questions

  1.  What challenges, (bias, misperceptions, fears, etc.) regarding creativity and communicating with visuals and images, would inhibit the use of Visual Journaling as an instrument and strategy in your teaching and learning practice?

  2. What do you perceive as faculty’s responsibility for helping students discover and exercise their authentic voice?

  3. How can Visual Journals become interdisciplinary spaces where we challenge our minds and our hearts to grow and transform?




ACLR. (2011/2022). ACRL visual literacy competency standards for higher education. American Library Association.

Arnheim, R. (1969/1997). Visual thinking. University of California Press.

Dalton, J. E. (2023). The mindful studio. Davis Publications.

Donahue, D. M., & Stuart, J. B. (2011). Artful teaching. Teachers College Press.

Freedman, K. (2003). Teaching visual culture. Teachers College Press.

Gaiman, N. (n.d.). Neil Gaiman quotes.

Glass, D., Meyer, A., & Rose, D. H. (2013). Universal design for learning and the arts. Harvard Educational Review, 83(1), 98–119.

Kantawala, A. (2023). Navigating the self: A path to social justice. A conversation with Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz. Art Education, 76(4), 58–62.

Nieto, S. (2009). Culture and education. In D. L. Coulter, J. R. Weins, & G. D. Fenstermacher (Eds.), Why do we educate? Renewing the conversation (pp. 127–142). Wiley-Blackwell.

Price-Dennis, D., & Sealey-Ruiz, Y. (2021). Advancing racial literacies in teacher education: Activism for equity in digital spaces. Teachers College Press.

Ritchhart, R., Church, M., & Morrison, K. (2011). Making thinking visible. Jossey-Bass.

Strickland, C. M. (2019, February 19). Creatively communicating metacognition and meaning making: The art of visual journaling for learning. ReDesign.

Yenawine, P. (2013). Visual thinking strategies. Harvard Education Press.

About the Author


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