A Case for Portfolio-Based Assessment

a teacher berates Calvin for giving wrong answers


Tekla Hawkins

Image Credit: 

Bill Watterson

As far as I know I’m the only instructor at UT-Austin using portfolio grading in a Literature course this term; I know for certain that future graduate-student instructors have been told they are not allowed to use portfolio grading in even their self-designed Literature courses going forward. I’ve heard various reasons why instructors aren’t allowed to choose their own assessment methods, but portfolio-based grading makes the most sense for my teaching style and philosophy, and so I’m taking this opportunity to explain just three of the reasons it makes teaching the course easier: reduced class preparation time, easier grading, and more appropriate and equitable assessment.

The reduced teaching preparation for each class may seem counter-intuitive given the portfolio system that I use--the Online Learning Record, developed by Peg Syverson. This system requires the students to make twitter-length observations about their own learning processes throughout the semester, and write self-evaluations at the middle and end of term. The instructor provides feedback on the self-evaluation at the midterm in addition to feedback on all work in the course. The reduction in class preparation time comes from reading the observations on an ongoing basis. I’ve set up our course wiki to notify me of changes, so each day I receive a digest of information that tells me exactly how the class is going. From an instructor’s perspective, this reduces almost all of the guesswork involved in teaching a class, and so is especially useful for teaching a new-to-them course. Instead of preparing for multiple class discussions that might emerge, ten minutes of reading allows me to focus on whatever the students have said they are struggling with or find especially engaging.

Providing good feedback and evaluations for each assignment becomes easier as well; through the introductory portions of the Learning Record, I have some idea of where the students are at the beginning of the term. Through their observations I know what they’re working on and struggling with, and so (again with just a few moments of review) I can provide focused feedback on particular issues for each individual student. Because the Learning Record is written, I don’t have to remember or look through multiple files to remind myself what the issues at hand are. Because the feedback isn’t grade-based, the students feel less pressured and criticized, and in my experience are more likely to do thorough revisions of their written work.

Assessment for the final grades via a portfolio system is more equitable than relying on an A-F assessment. At a foundational level, humanities are not the same as basic maths. It is nearly always impossible and inappropriate to assess reading and writing skills as if they could be judged via scantron, as multiple ongoing arguments have proved. The struggle against universal education and teaching has been ongoing for years, and the detrimental effects of “teaching to the test” are well-known.

And yet, for many classes and schools, a “traditional” ABC version of grading remains standard. There are many reasons for this, but one is considered to be the ease of grading. If you have hundreds of students, you can design tests and reading and writing assignments that can be easily graded via a rubric. Points per section of the rubric = points toward an A. It’s easy enough right up until you are able to get to know your students. Then it gets harder.

Like most students in my program, I was a TA for a large lecture section during my MA. Our E316ks are typically taught by experienced professors to classes of 200-300 students. The several TAs for these classes typically each lead two discussion sections, help design test questions, and grade all of the exams. UT-Austin has about 40,000 undergraduate students, and E316k is a general requirement, so about 4,000 students take the course each year. Inevitably, we have a very diverse student population, and they give us very different responses to instruction. Most teachers are familiar with the struggle of giving a student who has made a tremendous effort and huge progress a really poor grade because they are not performing in the same manner as their peers. Because I teach in digital classrooms, the variety of student experiences and abilities with technology – in addition to literature and rhetoric – is amplified even further. In addition to traditional essays my students use mind maps, wordles, Google Earth, and blogs. Each of these resist a cut and dry assessment, as DH scholars trying to get tenure are repeatedly reminded. Good instructors have many ways of supporting their students despite an A-F assessment system, but it becomes radically more difficult. The Learning Record ensures that each student meets a minimum standard, but can be evaluated on progress and development in multiple areas instead of just one.

Finally, I find the portfolio system most supports my teaching philosophy. My students are very smart. My job is to facilitate their learning; and the longer I teach the more I realize one of my primary goals is to find methods of teaching that celebrate and prioritize learning over knowing. The Learning Record is one of the ways I can ground each class in that methodology while still being transparent about my own authority over the group. Giving and receiving constant feedback builds community and ensures that a student’s performance and production over the a term is collaborative – between each student, myself, and the rest of the classroom. Prioritizing this idea is especially important when working with digital materials, which are designed to foster collaboration.

I frequently hear two objections to this kind of portfolio system; that students can more easily cheat, and that the classes we teach are supposed to be designed to introduce students to the English major, and so different assessment types will be confusing for the students. Regarding cheating, I can only say that my experience has been that it is very difficult to cheat on the Learning Record, and that as far as I know none of my students have tried. And while I think most courses should move away from an A-F assessment, I don’t think students are confused by having one or two courses use alternate grading methods. Below are quotes from Learning Record evaluations from students all over the grade spectrum:

At first, every time something new rolled around, I grew anxious because I was afraid of getting something wrong...throughout the couse, I have grown just to try...I don't let this fear of failure keep me from getting my work done anymore.

"I feel as though I am learning how to learn. This skill is ultimately better than anything any professor could teach me. I could forget [topic...] but it wouldn't be an issue because the learning record and this class have given me the tools to learn it again by myself."

"I started out literally AFRAID of going to class. Now I actually look forward to it and enjoy hearing everyone's insights on the readings. This course has allowed me to take on entirely new perspectives on learning."

I don’t mind being erased from the student’s evaluation; if I’ve helped them think critically about their own thinking, I’ve done my job. The portfolio-based system makes this easier.


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