My students and I have made positive experiences with writing portfolios. Here’s why.
Awareness of form
Portfolios bundle low-stakes writing tasks that students do over the course of a fifteen-week term: clusters, mind maps, freewriting, notes on research tasks, drafts and finalized versions of paragraphs and complete essays or summaries or reviews.
The mere fact that these snippets are collected in a dedicated folder makes the students experience these tasks as more meaningful than if they were isolated exercises. Of course, the individual tasks should also be inter-connected and build up on each other.
Control through selection
Portfolios are not only collections. Before students submit their portfolios, they select the pieces of writing that have been most significant to them. The significance of a writing task can be measured by having had an “Aha!” moment while doing it, or by having struggled especially hard with it, or by being especially proud of the result.
Because neither the portfolio as a whole nor any of its parts are graded, students are free to set themselves in relation to their writing (rather than spending a lot of energy worrying about my standards of formal correctness or academic merit). Selecting their own work for submission, they reflect on what it meant to them, and what function it served for their learning process.
As a teacher, I simply offer them tools to develop strategies of writing, but I don’t prescribe the strategies they should develop or judge how well they managed to do it.
Empowerment through reflection
All portfolios are finalised with a cover letter of a page or two. In the cover letter, students explicitly reflect on their selection and their learning experience.
I encourage students to address negative experiences as well as positive ones: It is just as important to know which strategies did not work well to complete a certain task in order to focus on the strategies that did.
So the writing portfolio has value not mainly as a product or artefact 1, but as a material focus for self-awareness of process and empowered learning.
Not only is the cover letter a great source of feedback from the students to themselves, but also to me. I used to spend a lot of time evaluating my seminars to find out what my students took away from my teaching. But by enabling me to listen in directly on the students’ thoughts about their own work the cover letters tell me everything I always wanted to know about mine.
Appreciation rather than assessment
The fact that I don’t grade the portfolios enables me to simply appreciate the students’ work and to learn something about their writing strategies. Usually, the only comments I make consist in encouragement and notes on how an especially good idea or text snippet could be developed further into a module paper. Only if a cover letter mentions a particular struggle or difficulty with a specific writing task, I read the respective snippet carefully and provide feedback or advice 2.
By being free from the pressure of passing judgment and the stress of constantly running student texts through a filter of deficiency detection, I can be aware of their academic interests and ideas, of what they are curious about and what they struggle with. This awareness is an invaluable resource when I supervise these students’ term papers that are graded.
It can have that too and this dimension should not be underestimated: Many students proudly select their best texts and choose beautiful binders with hand-drawn ornamentation. ↩
Often, students assess their work much more critical than I would have, so that I will point out the positive aspects and clarify my own academic yard-sticks. ↩