As a product, a portfolio is a collection of student work that exhibits the writer's efforts and achievements.
As a process, portfolio writing permits both writers and readers to reflect on the writer's body of work.
As a major project, it
- can emerge from the writing students do as a regular part of their course work
- has the potential to move with the student across a program or major
- affords students opportunities to reflect on their writing as a regular part of their course work
- permits the instructor to assess students' cumulative work holistically
Portfolios can be formative or summative, or a combination of the two. Formative portfolios are works in
progress and, therefore, should be responded to as such. They are valuable to the learning process in that
they allow students to formulate--and, thus, test--their ideas without penalty. Summative portfolios are
summaries or products. They allow students to demonstrate their knowledge in a cumulative fashion.
Students might initially operate formatively, writing (short papers, journal entries, microthemes, e-mail
correspondences among class members, for example) to learn about the course material. Later in the semester,
students might assess their work, select (possibly with input from their instructor) representative documents
for evaluation, and create additional ones as their instructor specifies. They might then add an introductory
essay reflecting on their cumulative learning experience, organize the documents in a folder with an appropriate
coversheet and table of contents, and submit the portfolio as the product of their semester's work.
Tips for Instructors
To organize a portfolio project, instructors need to identify:
- the purpose of the portfolio in terms of the larger course goals
- the audience for the portfolio
- the nature of the portfolio: formative or summative, or a combination
- possible contents of the portfolio
- aspects of the portfolio, in addition to documents and/or artifacts that establish the context
and exhibit reflection (for example, a table of contents, or an introductory or reflective essay)
- criteria for success based on how the portfolio contributes to the course goals
Note: This list includes extracts from criteria suggested by Kathleen Blake Yancey (unpublished handout 1993).
As with all term projects, portfolios are most likely to succeed if instructors:
- communicate criteria for success and means of assessment at the time the assignment is given
- build in checkpoints throughout the semester
- incorporate the project into the course activities
Although there are several types of formal writing, this document will focus on term projects. Projects are useful
to consider: they can offer a welcome relief to both students and teachers from the traditional library-based
research paper, and they can actually anchor a course. If the project is positioned as the culminating or pivotal
course activity, other tasks can be devised in relation or response to it.
Like all other assignments, term projects need to be tied to course goals. Term projects vary widely, depending
on the demands of a discipline and the teaching preferences of faculty. In choosing the type of term project for
your course, you might find these questions helpful:
- What do I want students to accomplish in terms of the larger course goals?
- What sorts of projects will contribute to students' academic growth?
- What sorts of projects are consistent with the work in my field?
- What research resources are available for students to complete the project?
- What type of project do I have the time for and the interest in evaluating?
Although the thesis-support library research paper is the traditional major project, other types of research
projects may prove appropriate for specific class goals:
- Annotated bibliographies promote a wide exposure to the literature of a field;
- An introduction, concluding essay, or professional statement can turn a series of microthemes,
an annotated bibliography, or a journal into a semester project. With a table of contents and appropriate binding,
the student will have a valuable finished product that has been produced throughout the semester with a synthesizing
activity at the end.
- Portfolios may be a job-search booster for students in professional programs, especially if organized
with a table of contents and a student statement. Contents will vary by discipline, course, and level of students;
- A poster presentation requires the same research as a major paper. In addition, the student is
challenged to grapple with the material in order to present it in the confined space of a poster accurately,
clearly, and attractively.
Whatever their structure, term projects benefit by being segmented so that students can have clear
guideposts to keep them on track, and teachers have checkpoints to intervene if students are getting off
task. Segments might include some of the following: a statement of purpose or a prospectus submitted early
in the course, a working thesis statement or hypothesis submitted on a notecard, an annotated bibliography
submitted during library research, a preliminary outline, a progress report on research and/or writing the
paper, a draft, and an oral presentation or a poster presentation of work in progress in order to elicit peer
feedback. As with the structure of the project, how it is segmented should be driven by the goals of the
project in terms of the larger course goals.
Accounting For Writing in the Project
Working with major projects in college means engaging, exploring, and challenging ideas instead of accepting
"truth." It also means learning to write for a readership broader than the teacher. Many students may be writing
a college-level extended paper for the first time in your class. Others may have written several, though not in
a field with standards similar to yours. Perhaps only marginally equipped with research skills and with limited
practice writing major papers, they may have difficulty managing information and communicating their thoughts
clearly. You can help them reach your standards by:
- designing assignments that explain how the project meets course goals and is appropriate
to the field of study;
- anticipating library research skills necessary for the project;
- communicating expectations explicitly. Because students write for several disciplines in a single
semester, they benefit from being reminded what a "good" paper consists of in this field, and what a "good" paper
looks like. Should the paper have a cover sheet? Headings? Should supplemental material be placed in an appendix?
- explaining how to avoid plagiarism. Plagiarism often is the result of students not knowing
how to manage information according to the standards of a field. What needs to be cited in a typical
paper in your field of study? How extensively are quotations used in a typical paper in your discipline?
What is your preferred citation method? Where can the students find examples of it?
- providing heuristics that will help them revise their document systematically;
- segmenting project deadlines to give students guideposts and yourself checkpoints.
Term Project Tips
Consider using a term project to anchor your course. Projects provide cohesion and structure for your class. They
benefit students by affording them opportunity to take authority for their course work in a systematic, scaffolded
fashion, and by permitting them to engage in learning as a process while producing a product. The instructor benefits
as well because projects allow teachers to manage time efficiently; that is, after an initial time investment to
design the project, teachers have to devote very little time to monitoring student work until the final project is submitted.
A term project is most effective if it is designed to be a capstone for the course and the student's course work.
That is, all of the parts of the project need to culminate in a final product that is consistent with the broader goals
of the course while providing sufficient flexibility to permit the student to explore a topic that is relevant to his or
her other studies and interests.
Here are some suggestions to help you design a term project:
- Design the project from your course goals. If, for example, you want students to place
major western civilization themes in the context of contemporary issues, design a project that will
move students from themes considered in the abstract to application to contemporary life.
- Decide whether you want individual or group projects. (Group projects require special strategies
and planning that is beyond the scope of this document. Contact Writing Consulting: Faculty Resources
if you are interested in discussing group-project strategies.)
- Consider what prior knowledge students need to complete the project. What information will they need?
Where will they get it? What resources are available through the reference librarians? (It is always courteous to
contact the reference librarians if you anticipate that students will be using their services.)
- Situate the project within your curriculum. How much of the course credit is to be earned through
the project? Too much weight placed on a project leaves you with few opportunities to recognize daily work; too
little weight will yield a poor project because grade-conscious students will realize that the effort to yield a
good project will not pay off for them.
- Segment the project; that is, chunk it out so that students can accomplish portions of it
systematically, and so that you can confirm that students are on track. (This strategy also combats plagiarism.)
Although it is wise to require that students demonstrate their progress by submitting paperwork or presenting
progress reports to class or groups, it is not necessary that you expend excessive time grading the project
in progress. Instead, consider merely giving progress credit.
- Build a calendar to confirm that individual segments and your project as a whole can be completed
in the time you have allocated. Set deadlines for the students to submit segments of the project for progress credit.
- Assign the project in written form so that no misunderstandings arise as the semester progresses.
At a minimum, include the goals of the project in terms of the larger course, the assignment itself, deadlines,
formatting information, and credit for the project.
- Provide opportunities through checklists and peer review sessions for students and their peers to
evaluate portions of the projects as they are in progress. A well-orchestrated peer review session will yield
- Provide opportunities for the students to see their peers' final projects so that they can learn
from the research of their peers. Students might, circulate brief summaries of their projects, or they could
present an oral report or give a short demonstration, depending on the nature of the project.
- Consider incorporating the project into the final exam. An exam question might ask students to
summarize their projects or discuss them in some other way. Such a strategy will give credit for research efforts
and will also help confirm that the projects were the students' own work.
- For future use: ask permission of students to photocopy exemplary projects to share with future
classes; keep notes on ways to improve the project and the timeline for subsequent semesters.
The following are a few examples of projects that have worked:
- Short papers into a project: Teachers wanting students to write short papers
throughout the semester may still design a cumulative project. Over the course of the semester, students write
a series of short papers (three or four) on topics that can be grouped under a larger category. (These papers
may be graded individually, reducing the time required for reading the final submission.) The students then
write an introduction that ties the series of papers into the larger goals for the course. After writing a table
of contents and giving the entire project a title, they submit the project as a single document.
(A modification of this might use a variety of course assignments--for example, a book review, a short paper,
and microthemes--with the introduction and title demonstrating the student's understanding of the place of the
individual writings in terms of the whole course.)
- Annotated bibliography: Teachers wanting students to have research opportunities
and to learn to annotate may design a project around a bibliography. Students are taught how to annotate and a
re instructed in the proper form for a given documentation system. Then they are assigned a specific number of
bibliographic entries for each of the course's themes. After organizing the bibliography, students write an
introduction, placing the annotations in the larger context of their course work. They submit the completed
document in a binder. [Project designed by Jean Attebury.]
- Thematic portfolio: Teachers who want students to apply western civilization
themes to contemporary issues may assign the students to develop a portfolio that examines a contemporary issue
of the student's selection in terms of a course theme. The portfolio could consist of a series of small projects
designed to encourage the student to learn about the theme and the contemporary issue. For example, as evidence
of exploring the contemporary issue, the portfolio might include a microtheme on a journal article, a transcript
or a tape of an interview with an expert, photocopies with annotations (or an annotated bibiliography) of magazine
and newspaper articles. The relevant theme might be represented by highlighted or annotated class notes, and
microthemes or annotated bibliographies of each of the course readings on the theme. The student would then
write an introduction to the portfolio that demonstrates understanding of the relation between the theme and
the contemporary issue.