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Diary Methods

Diary methods are systematic and structured ways of measuring psychological variables repeatedly in participants’ natural learning environment (lida, Shrout, Laurenceau, & Bolger, 2012). As measures of strategic processing, diaries can be considered standardized instruments used to self-report or self-record strategic activities on a daily basis near the time and in the contexts they occur (Schmitz, Klug, & Schmidt, 2011). While the most common diary method design involves responding to a series of questions about one’s own activities once at the same time every day, such recordings sometimes take place several times a day and, at a minimum, after a few days (lida et al., 2012; Schmitz et al., 2011).

Because diaries are completed in participants’ daily environment, diary data can be said to fare well in terms of ecological validity compared to data collected in experimental settings. Moreover, compared to task-specific self-report inventories, which typically refer to one single task context at a single point in time, diaries allow for the measurement of strategies in a range of contexts over time. Because diary methods allow for the aggregation of participant responses over time, they may lead to more valid information than one-shot strategy measurements (lida et al., 2012). That learners record their strategic activities on a daily basis with reference to specific contexts taking place the same day, may also reduce the chances of retrospective biases (Tou-rangeau, 2000) and, consequently, increase the validity of such self-reports.

Diary Formats. According to lida et al. (2012), there are three commonly used diary formats: paper-and-pencil diaries, brief telephone interviews, and electronic diaries. Electronic response formats have become the most common, with participants logging into a secure website daily to complete an online questionnaire, with researchers reminding participants by means of electronic devices if responses are not entered, and with questionnaire data easily transferred to computer programs for statistical analysis.

As an example of a standardized web-based diary in the area of strategic processing, Andreassen, Jensen, and Braten (2017) constructed a diary that referred to three study contexts: attending lectures, individual study (i.e., studying alone), and social study (i.e., studying with others). Based on a review of the literature on selfregulated study strategies, they identified 20 strategies reportedly used in these three contexts, with six strategies referring to the context of attending lectures (e.g., asking questions to the lecturer during or after lectures), eight strategies referring to the context of individual study (e.g., making drawings or figures to better understand text), and six strategies referring to the context of social study (e.g., consulting fellow students). For each study context that a participant had participated in on a particular day, the participant also recorded in the diary whether he or she had used the strategies associated with that context. For each strategy that was recorded in each study context, the perceived benefit of that strategy was also recorded on a Likert-type scale. Before the data collection started, Andreassen et al. (2017) presented and demonstrated the web-based diaries to the participants, and also had them practice accessing and completing the diaries on their computers or smartphones. During the data collection, which lasted for 12 consecutive days, participants’ daily recordings on the diary websites were tracked by the researchers, who contacted every participant who had not completed the diary in the evening with a reminder (via SMS) to enter the diary data for that day.

Validating Diary Data. Several studies have indicated that diary methods may yield valid data on learning processes. For example, Kanfer, Reinecker, and Schmelzer (1996) found high accuracy of diary data when correlating them with data from external observers, and Schmitz and Wiese (2006) demonstrated the effectiveness of an intervention to promote self-regulated learning by means of diary data collected over 35 days. In the Andreassen et al. (2017) study, differences in the reported use and benefits of particular visual and social strategies were observed between college students with and without dyslexia. Still, there are several threats to validity when applying diary methods.

First, depending on the length of the diary questionnaire, the frequency of diary completion, and the length of the diary period, diary methods may burden participants and lead to lack of motivation, non-compliance, and attrition (lida et al., 2012). Presumably, diary methods are more vulnerable to lack of compliance than other self-report methods because data are essentially collected by the participants themselves, without any researchers present.

Second, completing diaries may produce reactivity effects that confound measurements (Schmitz et al., 2011). That is, daily self-monitoring and reporting may change participant activities, for example, lead to an increase in strategy use because students become more aware of and motivated to change their strategies in desired directions. Moreover, such reactivity may increase when recordings are temporally close to the recorded activities (Schmitz et al., 2011). Thus, on the one hand, recordings that are temporally close to the activities may reduce retrospective biases; on the other, they may compromise validity because of heightened reactivity. According to lida et al. (2012), however, repeated completion of diaries may lead to a form of habituation that over time will reduce reactivity.

Third, a potential threat to validity concerns construct variability. That is, during a diary period, participants’ understanding of a particular construct may change. For example, a participant may start out with a narrow understanding of what constitutes “constructing a summary,” but through repeated self-monitoring and reflection and exposure to a diary strategy questionnaire, he or she may come to understand this construct more broadly, with implications for how such strategic activities are recorded in the diary.

Finally, as with task-specific self-report inventories, self-reporting strategic processing on a diary questionnaire where certain strategies are prelisted likely will restrict strategy measurements to those strategies. Thus, although diaries also may allow participants to report on strategies that are not prelisted (Andreassen et al., 2017), they may be less likely to do so because the prelisting makes them more aware of those strategies and less sensitive to other forms of strategic processing that they actually may engage in.

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