Using Portfolios to Teach Reflective Writing & Narratives of Learning

Whether you’re teaching a “W” course or not, in a twelve-week semester, fitting in the core aims of writing pedagogy is challenging. You have to offer multiple opportunities for writing in different forms, with varying stakes and audiences (and levels of feedback); to offer practice in substantive revision and thoughtful reflection; to help cement learning by creating a holistic account or thick narrative about that learning, to cultivate meaningful connections (or “assignments with legs“); to help students connect authentically to their learning and to connect that learning to broader communities; and to do as much of this with playful and earnest and timely attention, to boot.

It’s truly an art of juggling, a balancing act — one where often as not I drop at least one plate. To help provide a net for learning, I’ve turned to the portfolio model. Portfolios typically are a small edition of polished works, introduced by a reflective essay, often followed by a selection of works to illustrate process, and usually including an archive of relevant learning materials. There is rich literature in the field on the benefits of using portfolios to help students reflect on what they are doing, to develop meta-narratives of course learning in conversation with others, and to provide a richer context for revising and polishing their work. Portfolios also can help students bridge their learning as writers across our curriculum. Like any other strategy, they are not the be-all and end-all of accomplishing our aims in teaching writing, but they can help create a place where students can synthesize what they are learning about content and process.

Despite differences in what’s possible in paper vs online platforms, portfolios can build on key principles from writing transfer theory to help students develop awareness of their learning (metacognition), forge authentic connections to their purpose and audiences, and create a thick story of learning of both content and process. Students leave the class with a stronger sense of accomplishment and the relevance of their work to their education and their purposes in the broader world.

Here are slides from a recent presentation as a member of a panel on Using Portfolios in Classes, sponsored by the Faculty Commons. It draws on a handful of key threshold concepts for writing from Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle’s important anthology, Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies (2015). It also includes links to a few sample student portfolios, available to the Bates community.

My students’ portfolios are not perfect works. The early ones I assigned in my FYS “Reading the Wild” functioned more as an archive for course writing than as vehicle for reflection, synthesis and learning. There may still have been benefit to that process, as students had to engage in another level of revision, to select examples from earlier drafts and informal pieces, and thereby to create a fuller story of their education as writers.

In ENVR 450 “Environmental Writing in the Public Sphere,” senior ES majors designed portfolios to highlight a single larger work (or series of connected works) on a self-selected topic in their concentration, written for a public audience in a recognizable genre like the long form essay or referenced blog posts. Smaller pieces in different genres helped students experiment with different points of view and see their topic with fresh eyes. A substantive reflection on the process of writing and learning introduced the whole thing. Students were also free to use a platform of their own choosing.  For these seniors, as for most writers, it was a juggling act, as they shared what they learned as scholars with intended audiences who are not, all the while trying out new forms and media.

And for me, that process of learning, where we’re throwing plates in the air and hoping for lovely patterns but finding, inevitably, fragments on the floor — well (syntax be hanged), it is that process that helps us through to find and to create lasting meaning through our words, and impacts that go beyond our classroom doors.

Portfolios and Learning Transfer