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Strategic Directions | Feature

Telling Your Story: Making Sense of Diverse Learning Experiences

A Q&A with AAEEBL President Trent Batson

In our last conversation with Trent Batson, "Who Creates Coherence in the College Experience?" the ePortfolio emerged as the tool students can use to collect evidence of their learning and reflect — not only within a course, but over time — on its relevance through curation and "telling the story" of their own learning. This reflective and integrative process is how students make sense of all their learning, whether in a formal education program or through life experiences. Here, we've asked Batson to explore the mechanism of the ePortfolio and how students use the narrative and create coherence by telling their story.

Mary Grush: Let's begin with a very practical question — aside, in a way, from the integrative benefits of reflection and creating a narrative. If students create an ePortfolio during college and put an effort into reflecting on their learning and "telling their story," will that help them present themselves to the real world any better than would a traditional transcript and GPA?

Trent Batson: Looking at that question from the students' perspective, what they are expected to present now, in a job interview is not a transcript or a GPA — employers don't trust those metrics as they used to. And while institutional prestige is still a factor, employers want to know more. They want to know, "What is this student's story — what does she or he have to offer about themselves?" I think that's the part that universities are missing: that the students should be given help in creating their story about their own learning and experiences during the college years.

Grush: Are ePortfolios prevalent enough in higher education, so that colleges and universities could give the help that you mention?

Batson: The ePortfolio is the ideal tool — it's been used by something like three-quarters of all institutions of higher learning (at least in one program). So, ePortfolios are rather widely spread, but I think they are misunderstood. They are so often seen as simply a fancier resume — something to use to show more through multimedia.

Grush: What should institutions understand about ePortfolios, then? What is being missed?

Batson: I think what's being missed is that ePortfolios stay with the student. They are literally owned by the student. A student builds his or her story on how well they understand the changes they are making as they go through college. Looking at a student's ePortfolio, we are able to see evidence of learning from semester to semester and from year to year, and having capstone requirements means that students have to make sense of what they have learned during a course, or over the last year, or over multiple years. This is what students are discovering about themselves, and the story that they can tell about themselves at the end of a year, or at the end of college.

Grush: So, is that the information — the "more" — that employers want to know now, rather than just seeing a transcript or finding out the GPA?

Batson: Yes.

Grush: It sounds like it's the student's job to create that narrative. But, the student is in college and is responding to that system. What has to happen surrounding the student, so he or she will know what to do to use ePortfolios effectively? How do you build a culture of "telling your story" on campus? What will make this process consistent enough so that students will know what to do and why they are doing it?

Batson: Students, even if they've used portfolios in high school, rarely are being trained to use portfolios as I’m describing. They don't come into college knowing about self-reflection and integration of disparate ideas. So, it's all in the assignments. The instructor still will have to have a huge role. They won't have the role of telling the answers or telling the knowledge. But they will have the role of helping the students discover knowledge.

Grush: What's an example?

Batson: In a writing course, for example, instructors can give the usual assignments, writing different kinds of discourse and forms/genre of writing — online, proposals, letters of reference, and the essay… But the assignments can be collected in an ePortfolio, and the instructor then assigns the students at the middle of the semester to look back on the work that they've done. The instructor can give the students an incentive of the opportunity to revise; for example, the students can do their revisions and then explain why they picked those particular papers to revise. Students are often quite engaged by the "second chance" to get a better grade.

Through this kind of assignment, what the instructor is saying, indirectly, is: "Reflect on your own work." And the instructor has structured the assignment such that the students will be motivated to do the work. Time helps, too: Often, if there have been a few weeks since the students looked at those papers, that helps students gain perspective on their work and return to it re-energized.

Then, at the end of the semester, a final assignment can be made, for which the ePortfolio work will be the basis for the grade. It's important that the ePortfolio have a heavy weight in terms of the grade. If it's just an extra exercise, it will never work out: It has to count. The students should be asked, in compiling the final assignment, how they have changed during the course — based on the evidence of the writing that's included in their ePortfolio.

Grush: But there are other aspects to using an ePortfolio than writing…

Batson: That was just one example focusing on a writing course. You can apply these kinds of assignments in other disciplines, of course… constructed a little differently, but assignments are key. Work with the ePortfolio may also include searching, archiving, curating, use of multimedia, and more… The instructor has to be wise about using ePortfolios and must guide the students in how to manage the evidence of their learning, how to consider the evidence, and how to find meaning.

And at the end of the college experience, the student can tell their story: "This is my story of how I learned, how I improved, and what I can do."



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