Investing in Portfolios
By Tony Scott
Portfolios have become a common element in composition classrooms, but until recently they have not achieved great currency in other disciplines. This, however, has begun to change. Writing portfolios are now being used in disciplines as diverse as history, biology, chemistry, and math.
What is a Portfolio?
Portfolios can take a variety of forms depending on the needs and goals of the teacher or institution. Generally, a portfolio is a collection of texts composed over time that serves as evidence of a writer’s processes and development. It might contain a wide variety of texts depending on the course and discipline in which it was generated. Typically, portfolios contain early and revised drafts, peer assessments, teacher assessments, workaday writing and reflective writing. The incorporation of reflection is essential because it is through reflection that students learn from the evidence they have gathered in their portfolios.
Before turning in their portfolios, students reflect on the work they have compiled and formally present it to the instructor in “reflective memos” or “cover letters.” Usually, only one grade is assessed for the entire portfolio at the end of the term. Many teachers also collect and assess portfolios at midterm.
Why Use Portfolios?
In addition to making students more rigorous self-evaluators and more independent writers, portfolios can be useful assessment tools for teachers. Because the portfolio gives teachers the option of responding to final texts without grading them, more focus can be placed on the effectiveness of the documents themselves. Moreover, when portfolios are finally graded, the grade is based on a more comprehensive view of the writer’s development. Portfolios enable teachers to evaluate the student writer in action, negotiating a variety of contexts, each of which requires different skills. Portfolios also help teachers to incorporate workaday writings and early drafts into their assessments, enabling them to further emphasize the importance of process work.
Regardless of the discipline, teachers have found that portfolios can help them accomplish a number of pedagogical goals that extend beyond writing. As students reflect upon their work they are likely to see the connections between class discussions, research, and finished products that experienced writers/researchers often take for granted. An idea that is first formulated in a written response to a chapter could evolve into a research project—evidenced by field notes and library research—that eventually becomes a full-length paper or a grant proposal. Through enabling them to document this process, portfolios help students to discover and articulate these connections during reflection, deepening their understanding of the everyday work of a particular field.
An Example of a Science Portfolio
In a recent issue of the Journal of Scientific Education, Charles Adamchick, a chemistry teacher, described a portfolio system he has successfully incorporated into his classes. Adamchick’s portfolio system shows the broad range of texts that can be collected in a portfolio. He asks his students to include the following:
A Goal Record
Sheet: students record their goals at the beginning of the term.
Keeping the list of goals in the portfolio helps the students to continually
refer back to them, and it also enables students to measure their progress
toward their goals at the end of the term.
Test Self-Evaluation Forms: students reflect on their performances on tests, analyzing their preparation and adjusting their approach.
Chapter Summaries: students not only summarize the main points of chapters, they also evaluate what they have learned, making connections with prior readings.
Work Samples: students include a wide variety of texts: lab reports, major tests, worked-out solutions to difficult problems, checklists of lab skills mastered, etc.
Reflective Memos: writings in which students analyze the contents of their portfolios.
Adamchick stresses the importance of reflection within his portfolio system: he claims that because students learn to assess themselves through continuous examination of their own work, they are usually in agreement with his final evaluation when he conferences with them at the end of the term.
Lauding the potential of portfolios to transform education in the sciences, Angelo Collins, of the School of Education at Florida State University, writes, “they will help students demonstrate that they have not merely mastered the facts about natural events but have constructed knowledge that represents the concepts and processes of science and captures the excitement of the scientific enterprise” (451). While portfolios may seem like a risky step, you may find that, in addition to helping your students grow as writers, portfolios will deepen your students’ understanding of your discipline.
Adamchick, Charles. “The Design and Assessment of Chemistry Portfolios.” Journal of Chemical Education. 74.6 (1996): 528-531.
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