The Disappointment of Portfolio-Based Teaching

Some ideas are better in theory than practice, writes Shari Wilson, who found the much-praised approach gave students needless fears and the wrong motivations.

February 15, 2007

When I was an art director, I loved the idea of showing my design portfolio to prospective employers. After seeing my best design work professionally produced and mounted on boards, I often received either an offer to work on staff, or at the very least, a chance to do freelance work for that advertising agency. I loved creating these pieces, and this format seemed to respect the artistic process more than the drudgery required of day-to-day work in the industry.

When I started to teach graphic design at a local community college, I used the portfolio format for my own students. Although they loved the idea of being able to discard their less effective pieces, I often wondered if I was accurately assessing their work. The outcome revealed an ability to produce beautiful artwork after much trial and error over the course of a semester; yet, the process did not seem to take into account the sometimes painful learning curve that most students experienced. Still, I continued using portfolios, convinced that the advantages outweighed the few negatives.

After being hired to teach composition, I was encouraged to use a portfolio system for my writing courses. What could be better, I thought? This would encourage (and reward) students for revising their work. Given a chance to assess their own writing, they would move from passively learning to actively participating in their own education. They could showcase their best work and have a chance to reflect on writing as a process rather than as a simple outcome. And best yet, I could see their work as a progression rather than as staccato assignments that fell during particular times during a semester. Knowing that portfolios were the standard at a number of colleges -- and in many ways, still considered "progressive" in my discipline -- I started gathering information from colleagues and industry publications to find out how to instill this process into my undergraduate courses.

After two years of teaching writing utilizing a portfolio system, I realized there were pitfalls. Some could be mitigated by a tight syllabus and clearly outlined course requirements; others seemed to cripple the outcomes that my department had deemed desirable.

First, all of my students were anxious about not knowing their in-class grade until the end of the course. In traditional writing classes, students received either a number or letter grade on each writing assignment. They could predict their final grades simply by keeping a tally of how they did on each essay and writing assignment. Faculty often listed how grades were figured at the top of each syllabus, making this even easier.

With the portfolio system, however, a large portion (sometimes as much as 75 percent) of a student's final class grade was based on their final portfolio - which was often comprised of four to six essays. This, of course, was turned in at the end of the semester. Students often took their final and walked away from the campus without any clear idea of how they were doing in their portfolio-based class. Faculty then graded the portfolio, figured the students' final grades, and often turned final grades into the registrar's office without administrative review. Students had no way of knowing how they did until their final grades were posted by the campus. The number of students requesting grade review often escalates with this system -- if only because the students feel powerless and confused by this form of "blind review."

I did everything I could to give students some information about how they were doing during the portfolio-based semester. I made due dates for assignments and gave them detailed feedback about each written work. Rubrics that showed areas for improvement may have helped students rewrite papers for their portfolio, but still gave them no tangible evidence of their grade to date. Even when students came to my office and we went over essays together, they still could not see how this information might be reflected in their class grade-to-date. I ended up wasting many precious class hours trying to reassure students about the portfolio process.

My undergraduates' constant requests to nail down their grade-to-date made me aware that the flexibility and abstract nature of the portfolio system generated absolute fear in many of them. They simply were not prepared to trust this system.

After fielding over 50 phone calls and e-mail messages from students in a state of panic about their grades two weeks before their final portfolio was due, I decided to make a change. The next semester, I initiated what I called "advisory grades." When a student handed in an assignment, I evaluated it, wrote down the grade the assignment would receive in its current state, and logged this "advisory grade" into our campus online grading software. I advised students that when they turned in their portfolios, these "advisory grades" would be eliminated. The new grade replaced the old.

Class-wide anxiety seemed to lessen because students were now able to see the grade their latest assignment had received -- and how they were doing in the class overall. Although this reduced the number of grade reviews that I suffered, it added an additional "step" in what was supposed to be a seamless venture. It also created a loophole. Students who approved of their "advisory grade" simply did not revise that assignment for the final portfolio. This, of course, negated one tremendous advantage of using the portfolio system -- the encouragement to revise.

Another concern was the responsibility of choice that we were now relegating to undergraduates. Some students saw the instruction to "pick the best four out of six" for inclusion in the portfolio as a way to avoid the most difficult and challenging work in my core classes. If my syllabus did not specifically state that all six assignments must be done, they would often only complete four. In this case, the all-important objective for students to evaluate and assess their work was now eliminated.

Even when I began stipulating that all six assignments were required, a fair number of underachievers would produce what I would consider a "token effort" for two out of the six assignments. For example, if I asked for a 10-page paper, these students would produce a one- or two-page rough draft, confident that they were going to exclude this assignment from the final portfolio.

I also noticed that students who were going to eliminate a particular work from their portfolio tended to skip classes that focused on that work; what they didn't realize is that they were missing lessons and concepts that were building to the next assignment. These students saw grades falling rather than climbing; the number of those who met me at the podium after class to complain increased. Disappointingly, these students often refused to make appointments to see me to catch up on missed work -- they only saw the holes in their education as missed chances to gain a few grade points.

The next semester I initiated a punitive attendance policy. I hated treating my undergraduates like high school students, but it was clear that the weakest students did not understand the value of a day's lesson that did not immediately translate into grade points. I also indicated in my syllabus that anything less than a full-length paper would be returned without credit. In response, my less motivated students then turned in what would look like a pre-write -- something so unformed that it could not be considered college-level work. My evaluation of these assignments was wasted time; I knew that these students would never return to these rough pieces to work through initial difficulties to master these concepts. And through the magic of the portfolio process, the poor grade that these works received was eliminated.

Next, when allowed to rework and revise only four out of six assignments, my undergraduates immediately discarded the assignments they found most difficult. It was as if the two assignments that asked the most of them did not exist. This meant that they were reworking materials whose underlying concepts they had, in essence, already mastered. Here, again, part of my curriculum was being eliminated. Students would no longer meet my course objectives with pieces and parts discarded.

When given a choice, students dropped the most challenging assignments. They may have seen this as a wise budgeting of time and effort, yet I felt as if they were making two important statements: one, my expertise in that area was not important; and two, they were telling my department that they did not value that particular outcome. In my courses, students often dropped the more difficult argumentative essay -- or more often than not, the long research paper required for the course. Yet these specific assignments were the ones that would have prepared my students most effectively for courses in other disciplines. And the painful reality was that my department's desire to be democratic was, in effect, allowing under-prepared undergraduates to dictate their own curriculum.

When it came to revision, my overachievers immediately started reworking assignments the minute they received feedback. Yet, 90 percent often waited until the last possible moment to revise their work. Somehow, viewing four major assignments that desperately needed revision seemed to de-motivate them. In an effort to help, I encouraged students to come see me outside of class.

Each semester, I added eight or nine additional office hours a week during the last two or three weeks of class, hoping to lift my undergraduates from mediocre work. Still, I would find myself almost completely undisturbed. Here and there, an honors student would appear with a revised paper in hand, hoping to move from 90 or  95 percent to a perfect 100 percent. My other students simply did not see the value of free one-on-one tutoring with their instructor -- or they were intimidated by the portfolio system. In either case, they did not receive the help they needed to improve their work as a whole.

I finally started initiating the occasional "in-class work day," and placed my students in a computer lab. Here they could rework their papers. I "floated" from row to row, viewing their writing and making suggestions. Still, a minute or two per student did not give them substantial feedback.

Last year, I started requiring my students to see me for a 15-minute consultation once during a critical time in the semester. Although these individual conferences proved fruitful, this short time period was not enough to look at more than one revised assignment. Students may have walked away with concrete ideas to improve an assignment; yet, unless they were tremendously motivated, their other assignments went untouched.

My expectation that students would revise all six assignments and then ask for help in choosing the best work for their portfolio was quickly revealed as a pipe dream. Even my honors students knew the value of their time. Better to spend time pursuing more grade points on the four works that "counted" than waste time on all six. Yet the idea that the students and I were going to view their work holistically was what had sold me on the use of portfolio systems. And my experience seemed to suggest that other than a few overachieving students, I was the only one doing any form of "global review."

As an active writer, I can't help but find the writing process interesting. I loved the idea of encouraging my own students to reflect on their own writing process. Maybe I secretly hoped that one undergraduate out of a hundred would suddenly see the beauty in this creative venture and change their major to English literature, rhetoric, or journalism. The one concrete assignment where I could find out more about my students' writing experience was a "letter to the instructor," which promised 10 points without regard to content. Set inside their portfolio, I hoped this 250-word note would give me the inside track to improving my course and engaging students in my next course.

Unfortunately, the majority of my students used this platform to plead for better grades. Of course, I empathized. One on occasion, I was able to intervene and suggest that a student ask for a medical deferment for the semester's work. But I could only view the work they produced -- not the stressed, and sometimes, troubled person behind it. And, of course, I was no closer to truly understanding their writing process and the obstacles they had faced in producing the body of work I demanded that semester.

A small number of my most accomplished students did take the time to review their work and seriously discuss what they saw as their strengths and weaknesses. On occasion, they complimented my teaching, thanked me for "keeping on them," or made a concrete suggestion for my course. I kept these few notes in a special file to be reviewed when I felt overwhelmed and disappointed. I later began to suspect that the concept of only "showing your best work" was setting students up for failure. Because their worst work was eliminated, their final in-class grade was higher than normal. This source of "grade inflation" created several problems. First, the jump to other courses was even more substantial. Many students who performed well in a developmental course that used a portfolio system then did poorly in a traditionally assessed transfer-level course that followed. By midterm, some students were failing. Shocked, they would initiate grade reviews by the dozens.

Colleagues of mine who did not use a portfolio system started to view those of us who did with a critical eye. "Just what were we letting these students get away with?" they often asked each other. Although there was no official discussion of these concerns, this division did not help our already fragmented department.

There was also dissent among instructors who used portfolio-grading systems. One instructor who taught a lower-level composition course allowed students to discard 4 out of 10 major assignments. He also stipulated that these six successful works would count for 75 percent of the student's final grade. The result was that he turned in a slew of A's and B's each semester. His format looked enormously successful on paper -- yet those of use who taught his former students were in for trouble.

Even if the next course used a portfolio system as well, even subtle differences in format would be devastating to the students' expectations. Asking students to eliminate two assignments out of six would reflect their true abilities more closely, resulting in less
"grade inflation." And with a portfolio worth 50% of a student's final in-class grade, there was more pressure on other parts of the course -- something that these students had not yet experienced at this level. The result was often constant complaint, and in some cases, grade review. I had questions, serious questions, about this process.

The portfolio system also required more work from already overwhelmed instructors. A colleague confessed to working at a university that required him and seven other colleagues to grade over 375 portfolios (each with three essays, including outlines, pre-writes, drafts, "final" papers, and rewrites) in one afternoon. After a "norming" session, each portfolio had to be blind reviewed by at least two instructors; a third would be used in a case where a portfolio grade fluctuated more than a half grade. Although my friend felt reassured knowing how he compared to colleagues when it came to assessing student work, he dreaded this day all semester. No number of after-review drinks at a local tavern washed away fatigue and a general sense of being taken advantage of by his university.

Most departments do not install such a demanding regimen; still, the constant review of work often necessitated many more hours from faculty than those teaching classes in a more traditional format.

In graduate-level courses, I was sure that many of the obstacles I faced would be lessened or eliminated; still, my department chair had strongly encouraged me to apply these principles to my pool of undergraduates. As a contract employee, I felt compelled to do the best I could. Upon reflection, I realize that the students that did well within the portfolio format would also succeed in a traditional class. The students in survival mode would attempt to work the system, just as they would with any course. I did not sense that the portfolio system was a complete failure -- but I had a nagging sense of discontent about the process.

In the end, I'm most concerned that my curriculum is being negatively affected by what is considered a progressive form of assessment. In other disciplines, it seems to be applied more effectively. In graphic design courses, students are motivated to succeed in their specialty. Many of my design students worked to improve their complete body of work -- if only to have a greater number of pieces to show potential employers. Even in the fine arts, students may move into an area of concentration, but often move back to master other formats as they grow curious or bored. In both of these disciplines, students are motivated by discovery more so than grade points; therefore, the portfolio system fits well with the curriculum.

With undergraduate classes, however, a great number of students are motivated to "get the core over with" so they can go on to classes in their major. Anything that helps them scale back the amount of effort and still achieve the same grade in these bread-and-butter classes is desirable -- no matter what the effect on the curriculum. No matter how instructors struggle to hold the line, the portfolio system encourages "grade inflation" that is not only damaging to an undergraduate's academic experience, but to faculty, administrators, and to the college as a whole. This system also allows undergraduates to discard what may be tremendously important portions of the core class curriculum long before they are qualified to be making such decisions. These losses will be felt down the line in future classes, other disciplines, and even in future careers when the student is far from the university's reach.


Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track.


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