Developing Learner Autonomy and Goal-Setting through Logbooks

Diane Raluy, Kanda University of International Studies, Chiba, Japan.

Ramon Mislang, National Central University, Taiwan

Raluy, D., & Mislang, R. (2022). Developing learner autonomy and goal-setting through logbooks. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 13(3), 347–366.


From an earlier study undertaken by the researchers, data revealed that more than 90 percent of students thought making goals would help them achieve academic success in English. However, the lack of explicit instructions on goal setting in classrooms resulted in students making goals that were often too difficult to achieve. In addition, a system for helping students monitor and evaluate their goals through teacher and peer support appears to be absent in many educational contexts. To help students attain higher success with achieving goals, a system inspired by aspects of the GROW model (Whitmore, 2017) was created to support goal-setting activities. For 13 weeks, students drafted goals on Google docs and shared them with peers during classroom instruction. Classroom activities were implemented to help encourage peer support and exploration of goals inside the classroom. Outside of the classroom, Google docs provided a way for teachers to view students’ progress towards goals and a platform to offer advice and support where needed. Qualitative and quantitative data were collected from a pre-semester and post-semester survey. Results are intended to help advance methods for turning goal-setting tasks into an interactive feedback system. This system could play a valuable role in autonomous learning environments.

Keywords: Goal-setting, Interactive Feedback System, Autonomous Learning, Logbooks, Collaborative Dialogue

Transitioning to online and blended learning environments in 2020 compelled many educators in Japan to rethink classroom pedagogy and digital literacy. A year later, the learning environment has been reimagined as educational technology has become a more integral part of assessment policies, classroom management, and learner engagement. When returning to face-to-face teaching in the spring of 2021, it became apparent that while our first-year university students had increased digital literacy and access to online learning resources, they still needed a lot of support in developing effective language learning behaviors. Setting academic goals, being proactive with seeking help from peers, and connecting learning moments with future decisions are some examples of behaviors that our learners continue to need support with.

Our learners are not solely to blame because we did not have a system for providing them with collective and personalized feedback for effective learning practices. While summative assessments such as essays and conversation tests and formative assessments through individual notebook reflections helped us to partially interact with our students, those assessments did not encourage effective and consistent dialogue about learning. In other words, the assessment resembled more of a monologue in which learners did not have a voice for communicating questions about teacher feedback or exploring options for applying teacher feedback in future learning experiences.

The need for a system to provide effective and customized learning paths to engage our learners/students pushed us to implement digital logbooks. These tools were based on some aspects of the GROW (Goals, Reality, Options, Way Forward) model, which is a coaching framework used for goal setting and problem-solving (Whitmore, 2017). While not designed specifically for language education, we saw the potential in using it in order to prompt students to take charge of their learning and give them a focus in class. Using online logbooks could provide a system for efficiently encouraging collaborative dialogue between teachers and students as well as building a community of practice that would raise awareness of successful language learning behaviors. In this paper, we will explore how the use of digital logbooks through Google docs can benefit learners in setting goals, collaborating with peers, and achieving academic success.

Literature Review

Knowles (1975) describes how self-directed learning (SDL), or students taking charge of their own learning, helps them learn at their own pace while building confidence and making the experience of learning more motivating. In order to help students become independent learners, some establishments have successfully set up Self-Access Learning Centers or drop-in advising desks where students can ask advisors for support and guidance towards learning pathways. However, with only 58 centers registered in Japan (LLS Registry, JASAL), supporting learner autonomy outside of the classroom is not yet the norm in the educational field. Hence, it often falls on the teacher to take on the role of advisor and help students make goals towards becoming more independent learners.

Deciding on specific goals can be challenging for learners in environments that primarily focus on the cognitive processes (Neisser, 2014) of learning or transformation of input into output because these environments are generally concerned with describing what learners do and do not understand. Seminal work done by Flavell (1979) reveals that metacognition, or the awareness of variables that affect the development and outcome of cognitive undertakings, can lead to developing strategies for problem solving and self-regulation, which may be important variables in planning more manageable goals for self-directed learning. Research by Zimmerman (1986), Wenden (2001), and Cotterall and Murray (2009) have echoed sentiments from Flavell’s work and exemplified salient connections between the facilitative role of metacognitive processes and language learning achievements. However, some studies by De Backer et al. (2012) and Mahdavi and Miri (2019) suggest a call for more research on encouraging and developing metacognitive instruction in peer activities. In the next section, the use of logbooks to encourage peer interaction and development of the metacognitive process in goal-setting will be discussed.

Dam (2009) defines logbooks or diaries as a tool for students to develop learner autonomy by keeping track of their process of learning both inside and outside of the classroom. Klimas (2017) noticed that the use of logbooks for goal-setting ensured students were able to devise a clear plan of action which, in turn, made them engaged with their own learning. Dam (2003) and Little et al. (2017) suggest teachers play a key role in developing learner autonomy in foreign language classrooms. Dam (2018) also outlines that the use of a logbook is an essential learning tool that follows a cycle: Teacher’s time, learners’ time and together time. The logbook acts as a support which is influenced by the teacher for input, then worked on individually by the learners themselves and finally reflected on in groups. Brockbank and McGill (2006) argue that in order to promote transformatory learning, reflection should not be limited to an individual’s observations because learners may have limited experiences with critically evaluating themselves. The logbook becomes a collaborative tool making it not only a self-reflection book of a learning journey but also a trip the learners take together and help each other with, following guidance from the teacher. These logbooks can act as a dialogue that can help teachers understand what learners need support with and help teachers plan for adjustments in future lessons.

The logbooks allow the teacher not only to guide students through their journey but also enables them to gain insights into the learners’ thought process and learning strategies (Dam, 2009). Using logbooks creates a new bridge between the teacher and the students and blurs the division between work done inside and outside the class, making it what Reinders and Benson (2017, p. 574) describe as an “extension of classroom learning,” leading to “an interconnected web of learning opportunities.” It also allows for feedback from the teacher, which can be beneficial to students provided it follows the online feedback best practices described by Liebold and Schwarz (2015) as follows: giving prompt, clear, detailed, individualized, frequent, and balanced feedback. The logbook then becomes a dialogue between the students and the teacher, where guidance and feedback are key elements. Students have access to technology in their personal life through smartphones, tablets, or computers. These familiar tools, when used in a classroom, can have numerous positive effects, such as an increase in motivation and engagement across all levels (Francis, 2017).

While students have more access to resources and multimodal learning platforms, there has also been an increase in obstacles to social-communicative behaviors due to limited interactions in online formats or socially distanced face-to-face classrooms. However, Vygotsky (1978) viewed the role of social interactions as an important part of the learning process because interactions with peers could awaken a variety of internal development processes. John-Steiner and Mahn (1996) articulate these development processes as the interdependence between individual construction of knowledge and co-construction of knowledge through social processes. Guidance and interactions with peers, learning through observation, collaboration, and dialogue can foster higher-order thinking skills (De Backer et al., 2017; Ismail & Alexander, 2005; Polly et al., 2017; Rogat & Linnenbrink-Garcia, 2011). These skills are important because when learners are able to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of their present abilities, they can evaluate their learning heuristics and create specific goals for self-directed learning (Thornton, 2013).

Taking into account the need for personal customized goals and reflective dialogue, the use of logbooks became an obvious path in order to develop a goal-setting system that encompasses scaffolded guidance outside of class and collaborative dialogue with peers inside the classroom to foster communication between students. Learners could work in class on specific goals they have set themselves, potentially making them more active and focused during the lesson.

Research Questions

  1. Do students perceive logbooks as an effective tool for learning?
  2. Do logbooks support self-directed learning?
  3. What are the attitudes of peer feedback in goal setting?


The study was conducted at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, Japan. The participants used in this study consisted of eight freshmen classes, totaling 131 students. Each class had sixteen to seventeen students with English proficiency levels ranging from A2 to B1 on the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) band. Students in these classes ranged from 18 to 19 years of age. Students enrolled in Commerce, Economics, Law, and Social Science departments must enroll in the Practical Applications for Communicative English (PACE) program. During their first year, students must complete compulsory English courses alongside other courses in their respective majors. Compulsory English classes meet twice a week and last approximately 90 minutes per class. Successful completion of PACE courses may help students prepare for short-term study abroad programs and overseas internships.


Before officially using a coordinated curriculum and standardized lesson plans, teachers are given two class periods or 180 minutes for orientation. During our orientation, students were given an initial survey (Appendix A) to collect data on their background and experiences with making goals. The initial survey consisted of two yes/no questions, four multiple-choice questions, and four open-ended questions. To avoid survey fatigue and cognitive overload, closed questions were inserted at the beginning of the survey. The survey was assigned as homework to give students adequate time outside of class to formulate their responses for the four open-ended questions. These questions were the result of a poll the researchers took in a previous semester on whether making personal goals helped them or not. A sizeable number of students did not have success with the personal goals activity, prompting the researchers to inquire about factors that led to this result.

The post-semester survey (Appendix B) was administered a few weeks prior to the end of the spring semester to collect perspectives and attitudes towards activities designed to support students making personal goals. Students were given 20 minutes at the beginning of the lesson to complete thirteen questions. A combination of Likert-scale and multiple-choice questions were used to collect ordinal data. The remaining seven questions were mixture of short open-ended questions in the beginning of the survey and long open-ended questions at the end of the survey. We decided to administer the survey during class to avoid homework fatigue and ensure students would not forget to take the survey after the semester ended.

For our logbooks, we used Google docs, which is an online word processor. We chose Google docs because it offers a range of functions such as suggesting mode, comments, and a chatbox that could be used to facilitate communication between users as well as be an effective way for students to work together and communicate. According to Lin and Yang (2013), using Google docs can promote student learning and motivation during and after class through interaction between learners and collaborative work. They also state that it proved to be effective when giving feedback using different functions and it was often used for peer feedback. Because students are required to use logbooks for collaborative purposes in and outside of class, we thought it would be more effective to use Google docs instead of traditional paper logbooks.

At the beginning of the spring semester, students were introduced to the personal goals task and to how to record them in their own Google docs (Appendix C) during a two-lesson orientation. The teachers demonstrated how students should write their three goals for the unit. They were provided with a list of sample goals and a template they could use. It was important at this stage to stress that they do not need to think of new goals for every unit but that it would be an ongoing process if they feel particular goals in previous units were not achieved. A unit consisting of six lessons meant that the more advanced students could achieve their goals easily and early on in the unit. Wanting to keep all students engaged throughout the unit, we decided on three goals.

A unit lasted for three weeks (Table 1) and consisted of two lessons per week. Students shared their goals and discussed how to achieve them at the start of each lesson. At the start of each unit, the teacher checked the contents of the personal goals and used google docs functionalities, namely suggesting mode and comments, to help students elaborate, define or add relevance to their goals. In class, students would use a grow worksheet (Appendix D) to share their goals and give them opportunities for peer advice. At the end of the unit, the students went back to their documents in order to rate their performance and reflect on whether they felt they had achieved their goals or not. They wrote in detail what went well and what did not for each goal and analyzed their outcomes: how close they were to achieving their goals as well as analyzing what techniques worked well or not. The teacher then checked each outcome of the students’ own rating on their performance and wrote a comment on the document detailing what the student had done well as well as giving advice on what could be improved. This was also an opportunity for teachers to potentially get some feedback on their lessons and gauge how much students had progressed or if they were still struggling.

Table 1

Overview of Using Logbooks for Goal-Setting and Reflection

Week & Lesson #Protocol
Start of the unitStudents write three goals for the unit that focus on various skills (Pronunciation, grammar, syntax, and learning behavior). Teacher checks goals and gives feedback on students’ initial goals.
Week 1 Lesson 1 & 2Give students a friendly reminder to keep their goals in mind and work through a series of questions with their partner (s).
Week 2 Lesson 3 & 4GROW Peer Feedback
Week 3 Lesson 5 & 6Reflection on their goals
End of the unitStudents rate their performance on the shared document. Teacher checks ratings and makes corrections/ gives feedback on students’ productions.

Results and Discussion

The logbook entries being written on a personal shared document allow for teacher feedback, on an array of critical thinking skills and learner strategies, which are customized to each student’s needs and interests. They give the learners an insight into their own strengths and weaknesses, encouraging them to adapt their learning in future lessons. They also give the teacher an insight as to the students’ strengths and weaknesses, allowing him/her to adapt their future lessons accordingly, as well as create a dialogue between the student and the teacher outside of the classroom. This dialogue can help teachers understand what learners need support with and help teachers plan for adjustments in future lessons.

Using Google docs as logbooks for goal-setting proved to offer a number of advantages, such as live feedback in class which allowed the teacher to help students create specific enough goals while they are writing and monitor everyone from their desk. The teacher was then able to monitor all the documents at once, not having to worry about a student forgetting or misplacing their journal. The logbooks also became a lot more versatile as they could be used in remote learning classes or as homework tasks while being able to monitor thought progress, reflection and do a needs analysis to tailor future lessons to the students’ needs. The centralization of all the logbooks in a digital space also meant that other students could check everyone else’s reflection reassuring those who needed to build up their confidence but also creating new opportunities for peer advice.

Pre-Semester Results

At the start of the term, students were asked to complete a survey that the researchers designed themselves regarding goal setting. Most of the 156 respondents had had experience setting themselves goals, and receiving feedback from friends, parents, or teachers, while 15% (n=23) of students did not receive any feedback at all. Overall, the goals were viewed in a positive light, with 95.7% (n=148) of students saying that goals would help them achieve success in their English and academic skills. Looking at Figure 1, the survey identified that almost 30% (n=47) of students never tracked their goals, outlining a need. The most popular techniques for monitoring were smartphone applications and vision boards, which allowed them to visualize their goals as well as measure progress.

Figure 1

Methods of How Students Track Their Goals (N=156)

Looking at Figure 2, most students were not able to achieve their goals. When asked why, the main reasons listed were mostly personal or goal-related. On a personal level, 32% (n=50) ­simply forgetting about their goals. Others realized their goals were too ambitious or vague for them to achieve (n=56).

Figure 2

Student Perceptions on the Difficulty of Goal Setting (N=156)

Post-semester Results

Data collected from the post-semester survey revealed attitudes towards personal goal activities and their impact on learning in an academic environment. Of the 131 participants in the post-semester survey, approximately 75% (n=98) reported that their speaking skills had improved. In addition, 44% (n=58) of participants said their research and study skills had improved. Data from the post-semester survey also revealed that while setting personal goals in the beginning of the semester was really difficult for 42 participants, that number declined to 20 people towards the end of the semester. Looking at Figure 3, as the semester progressed, setting personal goals became increasingly less difficult according to the post-semester survey.

Figure 3

Student Attitudes of Goal-Setting in the Beginning and at the End of the Semester (N=131)

In regard to participants’ experiences with personal goal activities, while approximately 38% (n=49) of participants said they learned a lot from the personal goals activities, 28% (n=36) of participants said they didn’t learn much from them. To follow up on responses to this survey question, participants were asked what they liked about the personal goals activities. Numerous students mentioned how motivating the personal goals were and valued getting personalized feedback from the teacher. However, many students also commented that it was difficult for them to focus on three goals. Writing the outcome section also proved difficult for many of them.

When asked how they felt about sharing their personal goals with a partner, approximately 33% (n=43) of participants wrote that they learned a lot from it. In addition, 27.5% (n=35) of participants reported that the personal goal activities motivated them and nearly 24% (n=31) of participants wrote that they could compare their progress with partners. When asked about the feedback they received from their partner, one student wrote, “Some had a same difficulty as me, and we were able to work together for it, and it really motivate me.” Apart from the personal activities being motivating, participants also commented on the collaborative aspects of the personal goal activities. One student wrote, “I think it was an important process to develop each other’s goals.” Although the majority of responses were positive, approximately 25% (n=32) of respondents expressed a disconnect with the personal goal activities because they did not learn much from them. Other respondents also echo these negative sentiments as one student wrote, “I did not think it is worth doing because our goals were quite similar and ordinary, so our feedback was also predictable.” Survey respondents also commented that some feedback from peers was not helpful either because it was not as good as teacher feedback or feedback appeared to be more praise than advice.

Limitations and Adjustments

The main criticism from participants, when asked what they disliked about the personal goal activity, was the difficulty to create three goals as many learners struggled to come up with ideas despite the goal examples provided. Some also mentioned that having to concentrate on three separate goals was too challenging for them and would have preferred to concentrate their efforts on one goal at a time. Taking these comments into consideration, we decided to make a few changes to the personal goal form. While the general flow of the unit remained unchanged, students had the choice between setting themselves one, two or three goals for the unit. The first goal had to be set following a general theme for the unit (e.g., pronunciation) and made specific by the students to meet their own needs in that area. At the start of each lesson, the teacher gave the students an activity on different aspects of the general theme in the hope that it would help students towards achieving their personal goal(s). Goals two and three became optional and could follow any theme the students chose.

As mentioned in the survey results earlier in the paper, about 25% (n=32) of participants claimed they had not learned much from the personal goal activity. While most students had a positive outlook on the activity, some of the criticism that emerged suggested a lack of feedback from their partner or abstract and unclear advice. Monitoring the students during the feedback activity and providing extra support as a teacher could alleviate these issues. In the second term, the creation of a list of the most common advice the teachers give was created. All the students had access to it and could refer back to it to give each other advice. Another downside which was pointed out was that some students only gave praise. Assigning personal goal partners at the start of a unit, bearing in mind the students’ strengths and weaknesses could help weaker students gain confidence. A minority of students also stated that they value teacher over peer feedback, and even though the quality and precision of the advice may differ, the type of feedback should not be seen as competing against one another but as complementing each other. Overall, a stronger emphasis on how to give more constructive feedback to others could be beneficial for this activity and encourage foster a learning community.

Initially, students wrote their goals outside of class as part of their homework. However, some students took the goal writing seriously while others rushed writing them before class, affecting the quality or completion of their goals and general attitude towards the activity. This resulted in some students not being able to fully participate in goal-sharing and feedback activities during lesson two. Consequently, this led to some students not benefiting optimally from class activities and reaching expected outcomes. We decided to deal with this issue by having the students complete the activity in class, giving them ample time to discuss, share their thoughts and write their goals. This also allowed the teacher to give live feedback, making sure all the students create specific goals and know how to achieve them.

Another drawback was that many students had difficulties writing the outcome for their goals as they had to think of both positive and negative aspects for each goal. The original purpose of having students comment on what actions made particular goals more achievable than others was to raise awareness of habits or behaviors that lead to personal goals success. This might have been challenging because students may see outcomes as a dichotomy of success or failure instead of a system of small steps towards progress. The reflection section was modified to give more freedom to students in terms of what aspect(s) of their goal(s) they wanted to reflect on. It was made more user-friendly by simplifying the outcome table, allowing learners to reflect on all of their goals at the same time and think of their general sense of progress, allowing them to focus on what they deem important and relevant to their learning path. Collaborative reflection prompts related to personal goals help students reflect and take charge of their learning as well as create a dialogue between learners and teachers.

At the end of the second term, one of the researchers administered a final survey to their students (n=75). The adjustments made were largely well-received by students. When asked their thoughts on the new version of the logbook activity, 69.3% (n=51) of respondents said they liked it better than the previous version while 28% (n=21) said it was the same as before. Only 2.7% (n=16) deemed it worse than before. The main reasons mentioned by students were that it was easier to focus on one goal and raised awareness of their goal(s) by looking at them every week and measuring progress. In this survey, 73% (n=54) of respondents also claimed that this activity was useful in terms of motivation and progress. These results prompted us to believe that assisting with goal setting in class while also making students reflect collectively on their personal goals approach, techniques and outcomes are very beneficial to actually achieving them.


Overall, using logbooks helped create a dialogue between the teacher and learners, making it easier to support personal goals and encourage learner autonomy. At the start of this project, we were interested in determining whether logbooks supported self-directed learning and if they were perceived by students as an effective tool for learning. The attitudes towards peer feedback in goal setting was also an important aspect of the logbook reflection process. The survey revealed students were generally positive about receiving personalized feedback from the teacher and classmates and it contributed to developing a good relationship between the educator and the learners. Gaining access to students’ thinking process in terms of planning goals, implementing them, and reflecting on the outcomes is important whether in online or face-to-face settings as learners do not always have the opportunity or courage to ask questions directly to the teacher.

The personal goals can be viewed as a structured system of communication inside and outside of the classroom used not only with the teacher but also with other learners, sharing experience and advice. In the second term students reminded each other of their goals at the start of each class and would discuss not only how much progress they had made, but also share the techniques they were using. Being able to compare themselves to others, to learn from each other and also to track their progress on their Google docs gave them ongoing encouragement towards achieving their goals. Learners were responsible for their own goals as writing them down and sharing them with classmates made them accountable for their success or failure. This also prompted them to be more active in class with a sense of focus and not simply follow the class passively. While students need to be supported in very different ways depending on their experience of goal setting and technical knowledge, the personal goals activity creates a structure that not only focuses on measurable and achievable goals, but also on the process required to achieve them, leading to self-reflection and evaluation.

Notes on the Contributors

Diane Raluy has been working as an EFL instructor for over ten years in France and Japan teaching a wide range of students from early education to university. She received a Master’s degree in language didactics. She is interested in integrating online tools in the classroom, learner autonomy, and advising.

Ramon Mislang has been an educator in the TESOL field for fifteen years and has taught in The United States, China, Japan, and Taiwan. His research interests include encouraging oral communication in the classroom, increasing awareness of behavioral norms in target language conversation, self-directed learning, and self-access learning centers.


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