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Is Portfolio Evidence Useful?

It would seem that, with students working on the Web and producing work that is more widely and easily accessible for evaluation than ever before, we must be living in the golden age of assessment and evaluation. But the very abundance and variety of work on the Web produced within every type of file type imaginable leaves us grasping for any consistent and standard way to provide a reasonable equivalent to the old standardized system of grading. How do we deal with overwhelming abundance and variety?

First ask, why not just keep the system of grading we have now? The problem with grading is that a universe of knowledge about a student, built up over 15 weeks and shared by both students and the faculty member, is almost entirely lost to others by abstracting out of that universe of knowledge a single symbol. People have reasonably asked for years, “But what’s behind that grade?” And, therefore, we now hear of many advocates for an alternative method of assessment and evaluation: not boiling all work down to one symbol, but preserving student work over time and keeping it accessible, arguing that the archived student work shows more about a student than a simple grade.

But to whom, precisely is this student work (“evidence” or “student artifacts”) valuable? Within the course, the work is valuable to the student’s collaborators. In fact it may form a crucial part of the total collaborative project in the course. It is also valuable to the instructor because he or she is an expert in the subject matter and has the context and expertise to interpret and assess the work. Within the structure of one course, then, it seems the greater ease of collecting, sorting, integrating, and presenting the work is a great benefit provided by our new digital tools and sites (such as electronic portfolios).

Beyond the single course, but in the same discipline, preserving the work in a permanent archive accessible on the Web, affords many of the same benefits in subsequent courses as in the single course: continuity over time of seeing students’ work, their evolving abilities, a more longitudinal perspective on student development in a discipline, and a better basis for evaluation.

However, once we start to look at the preserved student work from many different courses over time, and those looking at the work are no longer experts in most of the disciplines represented in the work, now what value do the work artifacts have? And, ultimately, after graduation, of what value is the vast collection of years of student work to anyone? In other words, does the portfolio approach work only at the course or departmental level?

Some exceptions to this general train of thought: Within community colleges, or within a vocational education setting, collecting the evidence (a nice layout for a store window at Nordstrom’s that the student did, for example) seems to provide a much more concrete and authentic way to judge a student’s ability over time, and the portfolio approach continues to make sense over the entire college career in other similar courses.

Or, if students are collecting work that is directly related to the job they will be seeking and therefore their potential employers can understand and evaluate the student’s portfolio of work, we see another example of how the vast collection of student work is valuable unto itself. Students, after all, have the freedom to select only the work they find relevant in any situation to the current need, and therefore make their presentation relevant.

Finally, students in art, music, writing, architecture, drama, and so on, all have a strong reason to keep portfolios as they have been doing for centuries, long before portfolios became electronic.

Still, even with these many exceptions to my question about the value of a portfolio beyond the course or major level, the question remains: For the vast majority of those students to whom my exceptions do not apply, what is the value of their collection of evidence once they are beyond the course or departmental level?

This question is very important because it is the one question about portfolios that has not been answered satisfactorily. Framing the portfolio artifacts in a learning outcomes structure (with learning goals and rubrics) has been beneficial to the institution for doing institutional research and has had the benefit of helping faculty re-think their syllabus and teaching approaches, but the effort in many cases has ultimately been perceived as too much work for too little benefit. Many institutions that used the student-learning-outcomes-assessment approach have backed away. Accountability, without attention to student development, seemed simply “make-work.”

We are, then, still left with a number of questions about using portfolio approaches beyond the course or major, or beyond those obvious educational sectors or fields where portfolios have always been valuable.

One approach is to make the portfolio (the collection itself, not the technology), the project of the course and then to make a capstone portfolio a requirement for graduation. This would mean that the student herself would continually re-craft and re-comment on the collection. The collection would be winnowed down, the student would write a summary of achievement and link to examples within the portfolio collection itself to support claims about achievement. The burden of integrating the variety of work in the portfolio and then of interpreting what kind of achievement the selected work represents (self-reflection within an academic context) falls almost entirely on the student, with some help from faculty at various points.

A large collection of undifferentiated work over 2 years or 4 years or more is not of much use to anyone. It is like the boxes of photos and letters and clippings out of which people make scrapbooks--the scrapbook (ideally) creates some coherence, selects work that is representative, and therefore conveys a message. This is the process for capstone portfolios: constantly building a student’s academic identity over time by re-visiting and re-working the portfolio collection.

The point is that we now have much more ability for students to maintain their own record of achievement. With this ability, we need to make two very significant changes to our practices:

· Faculty (professional staff) need to use the portfolio collection as the main project of the course, in all courses.

· Students themselves need to craft and interpret the portfolio constantly during their college career, and as they end their college careers, so the portfolio collection will be meaningful to employers or admissions officers.

If it is not the main work of the course, the portfolio will simply be a distraction, and not worth doing. Making the portfolio the main work of the course does change the dynamics, but once adjustments have been made, many benefits accrue, and, at least in my own experience, this has made my teaching much easier.

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