As teachers, most of us have goals for student learning that go beyond the mastery of discipline specific facts and principles. We want to help our students to become critical thinkers and adept writers, to make connections between different fields of knowledge, and to prepare for future careers. To these somewhat elusive yet practical objectives many faculty add a number of holistic goals such as helping students grow as individuals, become engaged citizens and develop skill and enthusiasm for life-long learning.
But how do we incorporate these broader objectives into the fabric of our course? How do we translate what’s essentially a shaping of attitudes and dispositions into assignments and classroom interactions? And finally, how do we assess that such learning has taken place?
One way of addressing these larger goals is to make them explicit and to encourage students to consider the larger purpose of their education. One can ask them periodically to reflect on their personal values and priorities and on how a particular course helps achieve these. At the very least, such reflections remind students of the active role they play in shaping their time in college. At best, they can help students become more intentional about their learning.
The Learning Portfolio is a rich tool for fostering such intentionality and selfawareness. It allows students at the end of a course or a curriculum to document what they have learned, to recognize what is meaningful to them, to plan how to use what they have learned and to set goals for future learning. “As written text, electronic display, or other creative projects the portfolio captures the scope, richness, and relevance of students’ learning” (Zubizarreta, 2004, 16).
In my own course “Critical Approaches to Young Adult and Children’s Literature,” I assign a learning portfolio in lieu of a final exam. I instruct students to select as many as five pages from their writing, indicating the source (e.g. reading journal, class notes, paper, toolkit posting, team meeting notes, etc.) They then write a five- to seven-page introduction to this collection explaining what it as a whole means to them and how it reflects the changes in their thinking about the course material.
To prepare my students for this final assignment, I give them ample opportunity throughout the semester to flex their reflective muscle in reading journals and response papers. In the portfolio, students use these introspective exercises together with their standard papers as evidence for the argument they present in the final essay. To get them started, I give a list of questions and let them choose two or three to guide their reflection. Examples include:
One common concern about learning portfolios is that the assignment produces mandated confessionals and that it may encourage students to “schmooze” or hide behind shiny rhetoric. As a safeguard I add this warning: “As was the case for all previous projects, this is not the place for flattery or arguments you don’t believe in. You will be evaluated for the depth of your critical and reflective thinking. You will receive an A for an essay demonstrating that you have not learned anything in this course if the argument is compellingly written and evidence-based.” In addition, I encourage my students to seek peer feedback before they hand in their portfolios, offer them models of successful portfolios written by former students, and share with them evaluation criteria such as these (adapted from McGregor, 1993, 102):
In reviewing the essay I will look for the following as they apply to the questions you choose:
I have found that if I set the tone of reflective inquiry throughout the semester and clarify expectations, students will challenge themselves to produce meaningful, authentic self-reflection, which makes for an exceptionally rewarding reading experience. I am always surprised how individual the responses are, how every student identifies a unique area of growth – most of the time one that I and the student would have never suspected.
Reflecting on her experience reading Carolivia Herron’s Nappy Hair and bell hooks’ Happy to be Nappy as well as on the controversy sparked by the first book, an African- American student majoring in psychology writes: “Reading the two books brought back so many memories for me of being a child very uncomfortable in her skin. Memories of longing to be White, longing for straight, blonde hair, and longing for acceptance came rushing in. Why were parents [who threatened a teacher for using Herron’s book] in such an uproar? Did they realize that these two books were dealing with some of the most important issues that a Black child faces?” The student then describes how her questions spilled over into her life outside of the classroom, into conversations with parents raising minority children. “One day, while visiting, I began to tell [an acquaintance] about our class and what we were reading. Being African-American and having a daughter slightly younger than myself, she said that when her daughter was younger, it seemed that the genre was just beginning to take off. She went home and brought me back a stack of books that she had shared with her child.”
Those new conversations lead her to formulate a new goal: “In the future, I am pretty certain that I will continue to explore the field of literature written for minority children . . . using the skills I learned in this class to take on the task!”
Among the most inspiring pieces are those of students (often fourth-years) who (re)discover their own voice through personal reflection. In her learning portfolio, an English major who seemed disenchanted throughout the semester gives me a glimpse into how she struggled to recover her love for literature:
And finally, there are contemplations about the limits of discipline-specific knowledge mixed in with a compassionate exploration about what it means to grow and be human:
A regular practice of reflection can encourage students’ self-awareness and renew their commitment to their education. Rather than thoughtlessly going through the motions, they begin to see how what they learn connects to their own ambitions and aspirations. By asking students to construct a narrative about their own learning, we give them permission to articulate what’s meaningful to them and to formulate their own learning goals in life.
McGregor, Jean. (Ed.) (1993). Learning Self-Evaluation: Fostering Reflective Learning. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 56. San Francisco: Jossey- Bass.
Zubizarreta, John. (2004). The Learning Portfolio: Reflective Practice for Improving Student Learning. Bolton, MA: Anker.