Portfolios, Self-Evaluation, and Student Learning

Teaching Matters

May 1997

University of Southern Indiana

Laurence E. Musgrove

Department of English

In the January 1997 issue of Teaching Matters, Editor Steve Cox, professor of Economics, challenges the University community “to identify some of the issues and questions associated with assessing (1) teaching effectiveness and (2) student learning” (9). I’d like to accept some of that challenge and share what I’ve learned in the last few years about the role portfolios can play in promoting and assessing student learning.

Because my department has given me the opportunity to teach English education courses in “teaching writing” and “teaching literature” at both the undergraduate and graduate level, I’ve learned quite a bit about what secondary school teachers have found to be effective ways to promote and evaluate literacy and learning. I’ve also had the chance to practice some of these strategies in my own courses.

Most significantly, I’ve come to believe that student learning can be enhanced through self-assessment and that the student portfolio can be an effective assessment tool for students. I’ve found so much success with portfolios that I now require all of my students in all of my classes to organize and demonstrate and assess their learning through portfolios.

While I know teachers across the curriculum use portfolios in a variety of ways, I’ve developed a standard set of portfolio ingredients for all of the English courses I teach. These basic ingredients include a résumé, a list of learning goals, reading responses, in-class writing, formal essays, a midterm self-evaluation essay, a midterm exam, a final self-evaluation essay, and a final exam.

First, I have students compose a résumé. This résumé, which will become the title page of their portfolio, is the first step in self-evaluation because it prompts students to establish specific identities, a sense of themselves as college students. They list their present educational objectives, highlights of qualifications and achievements, employment histories, education, and other general interests. I copy these résumés and file them for future reference when conferencing or when evaluating their other work.

Next, I ask students to establish a set of learning goals for the course. I’ve learned that college students are fairly good at setting learning goals, and that they are fairly honest about what they can and can’t do. In my introductory writing classes, I am able to help students understand that many of them have the same reading and writing goals and that they are on the right path to learning if they know where they want to go. In Early American Literature, I also ask students to list what they want to know about Early American Literature and about Early America through its literature. In the Teaching Writing course, I also ask students to list what they want to know about teaching writing in the secondary schools. I don’t expect them to necessarily have the same initial goals that I do, but I do expect them to think seriously about what they think they want to know about the subject matter of the course.

The point of setting initial learning goals is to help them identify themselves as learners, to “plot out” the narrative of their learning, so to speak. At midterm and at the end of the term, I have students return to these initial learning goals, review their portfolios, and compose an essay in which they evaluate the degree to which they’ve achieved, changed, or added to these goals while citing evidence located in their portfolios. These midterm and final essays are particularly valuable self-assessment instruments because they allow students to take pride in their accomplishments and to be honest about their shortcomings. And the proof is in the pudding as well. The essays will also stand as evidence of students’ abilities to write focused, organized, developed, and correct essays.

Reading responses and in-class writing provide students further practice in using writing to learn. For every reading assignment, I have students compose a one-page, typed, and double-spaced reading response in which they summarize the main idea or story and reflect on how that idea or that story relates to what they already know or have experienced. These responses serve as a means to record their learning, to evaluate their learning, and to share their learning with other class members in small groups and whole class discussion. Frequently, I use in-class writing to help students warm-up and stretch their thinking about a general topic we will be discussing in class or reading about for the next. In-class writing also helps me argue for the value of using writing as a personal, thinking tool. When I ask students to think with writing, I emphasize that writing is a useful activity because it can help us make our ideas hold still long enough to judge and, if necessary, revise them.

Like most of us who use writing across the curriculum, I assign formal essays and research papers. I usually allow students to revise their essays at least twice because I think revision is an excellent way to promote further learning, not only about what it means to write correctly, but about audience expectations, focus, organization, and the development of ideas. I also require that students compose self-evaluations of their essays. In these self-evaluations, I ask students to restate their theses, describe what they like best about their essays, what they like least, what they would change about their essays if they had more time, and, finally, what kind of help they want from me. And just as in the case of their learning goals, I’ve found that students are fairly adept at evaluating their own work. I’ve also found that these self-evaluations save me quite a bit of response time because when I read what a student thinks (rightly or wrongly) about his or her own paper, I know where to begin when making my suggestions for revision.

Again, I’ve found that when I allow students to participate in assessment, I discover that they are good at it, they know their failings, they can describe their successes, and they generally know what they need to accomplish next. They are no longer passive, waiting for me to tell them what is already obvious to them; they take control of their own work and the process of becoming better writers and students. While I also include midterm and final exams in my classes to provide me with another means of measuring students’ understanding of the major concepts of the course — “aesthetic reading” in Introduction to Literature, “thesis statement” in English 101 — they serve primarily as summative rather than as formative instruments.

But someone is sure to say, “This portfolio approach must be very time-consuming. You have all of that paper grading to do!” Well, I think that’s partly correct. I do read quite a bit of student writing. Still, I require that students type everything they hand in, and I also don’t read each ingredient of the portfolio the same way. First of all, I don’t read in-class writing; students write and store it in their portfolios. I’m able to read the résumés and the learning goals very quickly because I read primarily for who they are and what they want to learn. I also read the reading responses quickly to make sure that students are comprehending the material adequately, marking obvious sentence and word errors and looking for examples of interesting responses I can share in class. Essays and research projects take a bit more time, but because I’m reading drafts of works in progress two or three times, I’m fairly familiar with the territory. Also, because I read these essays in different stages of development, I don’t read for error (a very time-consuming approach) until students have focus, organization, and support under control. By that time, I’ve found that many students have corrected most of their own errors anyway. Finally, I read midterm and final self-evaluation essays only once with an eye toward finding adequate demonstration and support for students’ claims about what they’ve accomplished and learned during the term. If they claim they’ve become better writers, for example, the evidence should be in their essays and in their portfolios.

Should all faculty have students use portfolios? Of course not. But I would encourage faculty to consider, at the very least, how their students might use goal-setting and self-assessment in their courses--and perhaps in their majors. Having students use portfolios to track and evaluate the degree to which they’ve achieved the goals they’ve set for themselves and the goals we’ve set for them just happens to be, I believe, an effective way to promote self-assessment and, consequently, student learning.

(I would like to thank my English Department colleagues Drs. Everett, Gottcent, and Rivers for reading and responding to drafts of this essay.)