Words of Wisdom

I grew up in the '40s and I heard all these great speeches, like Winston Churchill. His most famous, or infamous, commencement exercise speech was one that consisted of seven words. He stood before this graduating class and said: "Never, never, never, never give up."”

— Johnny Cash

A portfolio is as a collection of best or representative work. You may have heard about electronic portfolios being used for employment seekers. Many colleges or universities are now helping students create portfolios to serve as a capstone for their educational experiences.

What makes a good portfolio? It’s not necessarily the obvious: good work. Even good work can be lost or misinterpreted if a portfolio is overstuffed or poorly organized.

There are three basic elements students must consider in preparing a portfolio:

  1. Selection. The contents of the portfolio must be selected according to a logical principle. Does the portfolio only show best work? Does it show development (which might include false starts, less than perfect or unfinished work)? Or range?
  2. Organization. The portfolio’s organization should not only make things easy to find but also reflect the selection criteria. A portfolio that displays development probably starts from early to more mature work; one that displays best work might be organized by genre (type of document) or audience.
  3. Presentation. Contents should be accessible and neat. Navigation elements might include tabs, cover pages, or a table of contents. The portfolio’s purpose needs to be stated in an introductory statement or letter, something that articulates its purpose, what it demonstrates. It might also include a short statement/explanation for each item or each section.

Applying these principles to a writing course can lead to some creative pedagogical approaches. Let’s imagine your students have one semester to assemble a portfolio. In the beginning of the class, describe the portfolio and its purpose, and if possible, show them a sample.

In advanced writing classes, students can come up with their own principle of selection, then describe it in an introductory letter. You can also use the portfolio to encourage reflection on learning. For example, the contents of the portfolio might show students' development as writers over the course of the semester. In such a case, the introductory letter would show how the contents illustrate that development. In a W course, you might ask students to have the portfolio demonstrate their deeper understanding of course theory or their ability to apply principles learned.

A tricky part of the portfolio is having students write enough so that the selection process is meaningful. After all, if they  include everything they wrote for your class, there’s no real selection going on. So the trick is to have them do lots and lots of writing, and a little less revision. They write, they get feedback, and then, based on their goals, they decide what to revise to perfection and include in the final portfolio. This means, for most of them, working on more than one writing project at a time, which is one reason it works well for advanced classes, in which students are highly engaged in considering different ideas and perspectives. Sometimes, you’ll want to specify that a particular assignment, such as a term research paper, be included.

Another option might be to specify that at least one item has to demonstrate research skills. Given the time limits of our semester system, a good way to provide an opportunity for practicing selection is to have students collect and revise the best of journal assignments, the best of reading responses, or the best of informal weekly writing. For example, if students write one journal entry a week for 12 weeks, ask them to include between four and six in a portfolio.

This may sound like more work for you, but it’s really easier. You won’t need to grade most of the work they produce—you read it and respond to it, make suggestions, especially about content and organization, and only see it again to grade if it makes it into the portfolio. By that time, you’ll have read it once, so giving a grade is a bit easier.

From the pedagogical perspective, using a portfolio approach in a writing class helps students learn to be better editors and makes them reflect more carefully on the writing process.

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