Abstract | Overview | Background | Portfolio Structure | Portfolio Assessment | Models | Infrastructure Considerations | Challenges | References

The “Autobiography” Model For Developmental Reflection
Reflection and Learning | Format | Assessment | Example Portfolio
W. Webster Newbold

My work with portfolios began in departmental assessment of English major students during their capstone seminar taken near the end of their undergraduate careers. Our senior capstone seminars normally include two main emphases: a special topic for detailed study, organized and presented according to the expertise of the teacher involved, and the presentation of a senior portfolio as the only program-wide instrument for assessing students' progress. My special topic was a study of textuality and new media – an historical look at literacy development itself followed by a critical comparison of how digital media are affecting communication and thinking. From this perspective, it was natural to include the actual use of new media tools to assemble and present students' work; I chose electronic portfolios as one promising way of managing the assessment of students' progress as literacy practitioners and scholars, and I worked the production of the document into the activities of the course. Students would study about how language expression changed over time, and would explore and learn for themselves how the emerging tools of their age impacted their own literacy.
     My portfolio program is not primarily designed for teacher education; however, about fifty-five percent of our majors are education students, and I asked them to include within their larger English portfolio their experiences and artifacts as emerging educators. This is in addition to the general requirements of all students – that they reflect in detail on their learning, that they present a minimal number and type of examples of their work as evidence, and that they offer some "showpiece" artifacts that demonstrate their best achievements. After three separate offerings of this seminar, my sense is that students are pleased with their learning generally, and most pleased that they have a chance to express themselves in a creative way and emerge with a product that both helps them look back to where they've been but also points them forward to the future.

Reflection and Learning
The focal point of this large project is the literacy autobiography, a critical retrospective which engages students in reflection about their mental development along with creatively communicating and defending that reflection. To initiate and sustain this process, I insist that students produce enough reflective text to stimulate their own thinking heuristically, and to engage readers with concrete evidence of their process and growth. Such intense reflection has been the driving force – or obstacle to overcome – for almost all students in the seminars I have offered. As they look back over as much of their work as they can gather, they talk about gaining a new perspective on their education, often with areas for improvement starkly evident. But they for the most part enjoy and value the chance to present themselves in a new media format using challenging (often exasperating) new electronic literacy tools. In the multi-media environment they recognize something new, the beginning of a new form of expression and communication in which they have a huge stake. Even students who are not computer competent, and who feel pressed to keep up with the development process, almost always end up with a sense of having added value to their education and to themselves.
     Much of the reflective learning is encouraged by the hypertextual nature of the environment. Collecting old essays and school papers into a manila folder or three-ring binder is one thing; dynamically linking one document with another in a "seamless" web of text and graphics is quite another. I require a minimal number of links because I want students to explore how they can connect their learning on different levels, especially the metacognitive with the more concrete, the concept or generalization with the example. This process reinforces traditional academic literacies of argument-and-support, but also allows a new flexibility in organizing textual and graphic elements. Undoubtedly the environment encourages new thinking modes – acknowledging more, perhaps, the associational way out mental faculties work and suggesting new means and paths of symbolic communication. Such phenomena cry out for more research to help us understand how thinking adapts to ways of experiencing and manipulating symbolic elements.
     Jason's portfolio is particularly good at making links between prior work and current reflection.  It is, however, a PowerPoint project translated into a Web site. The reader should bear this in mind when considering aspects of screen display and navigation. [Note: You must use MS Internet Explorer to view Jason's portfolio.]

Unlike my portfolio task-force colleagues and many others at Ball State and elsewhere, I did not select Webpages as the preferred vehicle for the English majors portfolio. There were several major reasons for this:

I do not discourage Web-experienced students from using an HTML format, and several strong portfolios have been produced as Web sites (see Rich's portfolio). Rather, I give students choices about what to use, beginning with basic Word documents with hyperlinks and including PowerPoint. Most students opt for PowerPoint; its attractive aspects include relatively easy manipulation of text and graphics within an overall graphical theme and an "all-in-one" file format that makes keeping and transferring the whole portfolio simpler than with multiple-file systems such as Web sites. There may also be a sense that Webpage designing would be cool but that knowing PowerPoint may be a more useful set of skills overall, both for current projects and future professional work and/or teaching.

As with the teacher education portfolio, fair and efficient assessment of majors portfolios is a crucial consideration.  Initially, as I was the only teacher in our majors program using electronic portfolios with everyone in the senior seminar, I have assessed each portfolio myself as a course project; using the guidelines I furnished early on, I mainly checked for evidence of significant effort at gathering prior work and reflecting on it as an indicator of growth and change. Students needed to have a minimal number of example texts, and needed to make use of them clearly and reasonably. There had to be so many links between the autobiography and example texts, and there had to be enough showpiece selections of different assignment types – essays and research projects. Education students had to include several lesson plans and furnish a philosophy of teaching as well. As in many major assignments, "learning process" indicators were significant – I evaluated to what extent students carefully read and enacted my process comments on their draft versions, which they received at two points before final submission of the portfolio. Technical aspects such as links also had to be functioning successfully, and language accuracy and usage correctness also figured in.
     Clearly, I have thus far been engaging in a type of assessment that looks at individual students and constrains ranking or grading to a limited number of rubrics laid down in the course.  While I think that this has been valuable for them and me, it stops short of where portfolio assessment claims to offer major advantages – in the authentic assessment of an individual's work over time, and in the assessment of programmatic success. I did not revisit the evaluations students received on assignments from prior courses, and I did not apply any means to judge how well those students had been taught by other English faculty. To bring electronic portfolios into a position of significant instrumentality in teaching and learning in our department, we would have to evaluate the whole range of work in terms of its quality, in addition to looking, as I did, at how well students reflected on and assembled their reflections in my senior seminar. In other words, we would need to carry out summative evaluation in addition to the mainly formative evaluation I have done thus far. To accomplish this summative individual as well as program evaluation in the English curriculum, a number of significant changes in attitude, expectations, procedures, and administration would be needed. Such changes are already under way in the teacher education curriculum, driven by external political forces as well as internal desires for reform.  Whether we can work in individual departments to prepare the ground for authentic assessment through portfolios is an open question. If we can, we have an excellent opportunity to change the direction and emphasis of college teaching to achieve better guidance of students, more positive attitudes toward learning, more convincing evidence of our own effectiveness, and more concrete demonstrations of the value we add to students' lives.