Creatively Communicating Metacognition and Meaning Making: The Art of Visual Journaling for Learning

Feb 19, 2019 | Blog, Curriculum and Assessment Reimagined | 0 comments

Back in July, Jon Altbergs wrote a post: 6 Ways to Use Drawing to Make Meaning. In it, he wrote about some simple activities that teachers across content areas could use to help students develop their visualization skills and make meaning of content, while also giving students a way to express themselves beyond the written word.

In the guest post below, Artist Educator Christopher M. Strickland takes this idea and turns it up to 11. He describes a tool familiar to few outside of arts education, the visual journal, and helps us understand how to bring this powerful tool for metacognition and meaning making to all classrooms. We hope you’ll come away excited to try this with your students.

What is Visual Journaling?

Visual Journaling is a reflective process that involves exploring concepts, ideas, and thoughts visually in order to understand and create personal meaning. Contrary to popular belief, artistic talent is not necessarily a requirement to engage visual journaling; in fact, this universal experience only requires individuals to be open to explore, discover and reconnect with oneself and their life experiences.

Within an educational context, Visual Journaling can be more than just a powerful tool for personal meaning-making; it can also function as an assessment tool for metacognitive awareness.  Although the basis for Visual Journaling stems from the concept of an artist’s sketchbook and a visual arts classroom, it possesses critical application across all academic content and different contexts.

The Purpose of Visual Journaling in my Teaching Practice

The use of visual journaling within my teaching practice parallels my pedagogical shift from teaching for knowledge towards teaching for understanding. As an Artist Educator, the idea and purpose of sketchbooks as a learning tool is very familiar and important; however, having my students feel the same way was another story. One of the challenges that I found working with individuals who do not identify as being creative or artistic, is their fear of drawing and making images. For many, making art can be terrifying because of the fear of failure and rejection due to a perceived lack of talent or inability to draw subject matter “perfectly” or realistically. In effort to help unleash my students’ innate creativity and ability to become effective visual communicators, I decided to use visual journaling, rather than traditional sketchbooks, to engage my students and help remove the stigma of artistic talent or ability within my visual art classes.


For many, making art can be terrifying because of the fear of failure and rejection due to a perceived lack of talent or inability to draw subject matter “perfectly” or realistically. While sketchbooks are traditionally used to refine artistic ability, Visual Journaling focuses on developing visual literacy skills to support meaning-making and deep understanding.


The main difference between a sketchbook and visual journaling is the intention. While sketchbooks are traditionally used to refine artistic ability,  Visual Journaling focuses on developing visual literacy skills to support meaning-making and deep understanding. Visual literacy is defined as, “a set of abilities that enables an individual to effectively find, interpret, evaluate, use, and create images and visual media” (ACLR, 2011). Understanding that not all my students were going to pursue careers in the arts, I believed to be “a critical consumer of visual media and a competent contributor to a body of shared knowledge and culture” (ACLR, 2011), it was important to help prepare my students to be visually literate. When I discovered that Visual Journaling is also an effective formative assessment tool, I designed a professional development course for art educators on using Visual Journaling as a formative assessment tool. Additionally, I began to have conversations with colleagues in other academic content areas about the interdisciplinary potential of Visual Journaling.

Visual Journaling: Interdisciplinary Potential

The conversations I had with colleagues about the interdisciplinary potential of Visual Journaling across academic content revealed the importance of making student thinking visible. Therefore, the significance of visual journaling is reflecting and chronicling the “educational and aesthetic aspects of experience” (Freedman, 2003, p. 41) with the intended purpose of enculturating the “habits of mind and dispositions that support lifelong learning” (Ritchhart, Church & Morrison, 2011, p. 15) through the use of pervasive symbols, imagery, and text. The Visual Journaling process as a Student Performance Task is described in detail and can be accessed from reDesign’s collection of activities.

The Visual Journaling Process

The nature of traditional journaling is reflecting upon ideas and daily life experiences through text and writing. However, as contemporary culture is becoming increasingly saturated with images and visual media, it is undeniably changing what it means to be literate in the 21st Century; therefore, it only makes sense that individuals would reflect and respond through the use of visuals and imagery. To engage in Visual Journaling the following are the basic supplies and materials needed:

  • Notebook or sketchbook (ideal sizes range from 5 x 8.25 inches – 9 x 12 inches and pages can be lined or blank.)
  • Assorted pens, pencils, colored pencils, markers, SHARPIES, brushes and paints.
  • Eraser(s)
  • Scissors
  • Sources of visual images (e.g. magazines, newspapers, photographs, etc.)
  • Glue sticks or tape
  • As students become more adept at Visual Journaling, they can use various objects, artifacts, and handmade papers for collage

In Figure 1, three different examples of Visual Journaling pages created by undergraduate students are presented. In each example, a combination of visuals/imagery and text were used to organize, describe, and/or respond to a topic, theme, or aesthetic experience involving a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston, Massachusetts.

Figure 1: Examples of Student Visual Journaling Pages
Visual Journaling Figure 1
Visual Journal Figure 2.1
Visual Journaling Figure 2.2

Visual Journaling is not only critical for personal meaning-making and the development of visual literacy skills, it is essential to developing metacognitive awareness. Transitioning from the mere reflection of ideas and experiences to metacognitive awareness is a process described by Ritchhart, Church, and Morrison (2011, p. 28) as “the ongoing mental work of understanding new ideas and information.” This process requires teachers to provide prompts and/or visual provocations that are based on constructive or generative questions and authentic inquiry (see figure 2].

Figure 2: Example Prompt
Visual Journal Prompt: Architecture: After reading the Sporre chapter on “Architecture” and during the architectural tour of Cambridge, take a picture(s) of architectural structure(s) that captivate your attention. Put the image(s) of the architectural structure(s) in your visual journal and answer the following question: How and why does this architecture stimulate your senses? (feel free to use the Elements of Art in addition to the Elements of Architecture to respond to this question!)

This process also requires students to use visuals and imagery to help communicate, construct meaning and express their understanding. Using visual symbols, pictograms, ideograms, photographs, as well as text to respond to questions about educational experiences, students are able to explore and uncover their thinking about thinking (see figure 3), as they engage higher level thinking skills, including “the unpacking of underlying assumptions; forming multiple, possible associations; and performing self-conscious, critical reflection” (Freedman, 2003, p. 89).  As a result, students creatively engage higher level thinking and demonstrate their meaning-making and understanding of ideas in a visible way. Over the given time period of a semester or year the chronicled responses of learning experiences within a visual journal provide a purview of student thinking, performance, learning, and growth within that class or course.

Students creatively engage higher level thinking and demonstrate their meaning-making and understanding of ideas in a visible way. Over the given time period of a semester or year the chronicled responses of learning experiences within a visual journal provide a purview of student thinking, performance, learning, and growth within that class or course.

Figure 3: Architecture Prompt: Example of Student Visual Journal Response
Visual Journaling Figure 3

Why Visual Journal?

Individuals still might be wondering why they should engage Visual Journaling within their teaching practice. The following are the three primary reasons I use to promote the use of Visual Journaling:

  1. Visual Journaling is about personal meaning-making and understanding. As Kerry Freedman (2003, p. 91) notes, “Understanding is as much about who you are as about what you know; it is as much ontological as epistemological.” Through the use of visuals and imagery, students can naturally demonstrate their learning and make their thinking visible.
  2. Visual Journaling can be an invaluable tool for Formative Assessment. As the goal of formative assessment is to monitor and provide ongoing feedback to improve student learning, Visual Journaling provides an ideal format for assessing metacognitive awareness and growth of student thinking by “capturing individual responses and growth over time” (Ritchhart, Church, & Morrison, 2011, p. 16), rather than relying on standardized assessments and traditional summative tests.
  3. Visual Journaling provides an authentic context for navigating multiple perspectives and creates a nexus for knowledge, understanding, and exploring one’s potential impact on their community. As Ron Ritchhart (2015, p. 47) notes, understanding goes beyond merely possessing a set of skills or a collection of facts in isolation; rather, understanding requires that our knowledge be woven together in a way that connects one idea to another. This web of connection and relations becomes the vehicle for our putting ideas to work and seeing the applicability of our skills in novel circumstances and in the creation of new ideas.

Essentially, Visual Journaling becomes an archival blueprint for students’ thinking and engagement with complex and authentic performance tasks that directly applies their knowledge, understanding, and skills. Examples of performance tasks include personal assignments, such as creating an original artistic expression or crafting an expository essay for social justice, to more collaborative service learning projects that involve mathematical modeling or scientific research to solve environmental problems.  

To help you get started, check out the new Visual Journaling Peformance Task in the reDesign Design Lab.

Closing Thoughts

Visual Journaling is a significant tool and process for learning because it focuses on the individual and the interdependence of inquiry, feeling and knowing. If  “visual thinking is indivisible,” as renowned psychologist, Rudolf Arnheim (1969/1997, p. 307) claimed, then the benefits of Visual Journaling abound. Visual Journaling allows students to explore emotional, cognitive responses, and construct interactive, multileveled meanings as they develop understanding through visual thinking. As a result of engaging in Visual Journaling, students are able to deeply engage educational experiences and content, exercise choice, nurture their powerful voice and self-efficacy, as well as own their personal growth and learning process.

Moreover, Visual Journaling across content areas is especially important for culturally responsive educational practices that strive to teach for understanding, rather than just knowledge acquisition. When used strategically, Visual Journaling not only helps students with their personal meaning-making,  it increases their metacognitive awareness and makes both their thinking and growth visible. It is pertinent to note that although this post has focused on Visual Journaling for student learning, the same process of Visual Journaling, as described above, can also be used for an educator’s own reflective practice and professional growth – but that’s a post for another day!


ACLR. (2011, Oct 27).  Visual literacy standards homepage. Retrieved from (Accessed November 28, 2018).

Arnheim, R. (1969/1997). Visual thinking. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Freedman, K. (2003). Teaching visual culture. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Ritchhart, R. (2015). Creating cultures of thinking. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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

Curriculum and Assessment Design | Knowledge-building | Mastery Learning Systems Design Teaching and Learning

“Creativity follows mastery.” These are the words of Benjamin Bloom, who believed that learners are capable of incredible things if they have access to powerful learning environments. This is why we’ve chosen the name “Bloom” for our knowledge-sharing initiative. Bloom is all about our stake in helping to build the capacity of practitioners and leaders who work with our most marginalized youth to reimagine, recreate, redesign our models for learning–within schools and beyond. For us, this is fundamentally a matter of social justice. Reach out if you’d like to submit a guest post, or sign up for our monthly newsletter: [email protected].

Related Insights

Explore Our
Educator Resources

Check out reDesign’s curated collection of tools, resources, and guides to support educators in learner-centered communities. We’ve got learning activities, performance assessments, competency-based implementation tools, and formative tasks for learners of all ages!