Utilize Portfolios for Student Accumulation
by Guy Bensusan
"What do you mean by a portfolio, Dr. Guy?"
The question comes up on the first day of every term. Portfolios have been a coursework mechanism for decades, though the extensive attention they have received in recent learning literature may give an impression they are new.
My response to the student's question is, "Your portfolio will be whatever you choose as a single transportable container in which you keep everything you do for this course. It can be a notebook, a box, a briefcase, even a suitcase, and it will be most useful if you set it up with many sections or files corresponding to the assignments and other activities in which you engage this semester."
I continue by saying, "Each of you will and should do it your own way, because this is your learning experience with the subject matter, and while I may be the teacher, I am here as a helper, guide and fellow-learner to each of you. With the portfolio, I would encourage you to set it up in at least three main sections, which fit the ten assignments consisting of three assessments, six essays and one project mentioned in the syllabus. Others will decide to have additional files which might be called, Work in Progress, New Ideas, Notes on Group Work, Visits to Museums, Interviews with Resource People, Pictures and Photos, Rewrites of Essays, Illustrations for Project, E-mail Correspondence, or even a catch-all called Other."
The point is that their portfolio is where they should keep everything relating to their course learning. They will be going back into it to see where they have been and what they said earlier, keep adding to the information, revising what they have previously written, keep track of how they are perceiving their new ideas and layers of comprehension. They may show it to me at any time, if they want my comments on something, but I will not grade it until it is turned in at the end of the course. Some are bothered by this and ask, "How will I know how I am doing or even if I will pass?"
I reply that it is impossible to fail if one keeps up with assignments, because the act of writing the essays, assessing the changes in one's thinking and perception, and developing the project as a demonstration of the ability to apply course principles usually earns an A. The system is designed to be self-directing, self-pacing and self-administering; the student may move along as fast as he or she wants, and then has the remainder of the semester to update, improve and refine the entire portfolio, and even establish evaluation criteria and formulate the grade that should be awarded.
I strongly favor the work ethic that stresses improvement. I try to eliminate the concept of "final," saying that even after I had been awarded my PhD, I still continued to make changes, additions and revised interpretations in my dissertation. One emphasis then, is that learning continues, and one's improvement needs to be measured (if it needs measuring at all) by the distance the learner travels between entrance and exit. We look for growth in quality, ability to perceive and function at many levels, plus depth and quantity, along with revisits, rewrites, and revising of thinking.
The opportunity to go back and revise is important because it offers the chance to build towards what is ahead. Since all students do not work in the same manner, at the same pace, with the same skills, or in the same order of things, treating the portfolio as an individual demonstration of growth is far more effective than setting up due dates to receive essays and then grade as a separate unit. This latter approach focuses on numbers for grading and separates the essays, which really should function as a stairway.
I want the student's work to build over time, to come together, to move toward a vision of the whole topic; I want the students at the end of the course to see the bigger picture, and to be able to transfer the ideas and methods to the study of other subjects. I want the portfolio accessible for review and additions, available for use in group work, and psychologically symbolic of learning itself --- that is, the ongoing process that emanates from within, the always unequal stages of growth, stasis, frustration and occasional retrogression.
The portfolio should be part of the student's learning, always a reminder that the most immediate source of understanding lies within the self, from understanding the self as well as the learning models and escalator. Finally, I want the student to keep the portfolio long after the course is over, and continue to build on it. It is amazing how much fine post-course development can be built on a solid foundation established during the course itself. To modify an old aphorism, "later books from earlier portfolios grow!" The emphasis is lifelong learning.
Continuity and connection are important in the portfolio. If we think about the three assessments, it becomes clear. On the first day, we will have a learning activity in class that will consist of a video or a musical excerpt or a painting that is appropriate to the course. We will examine it for some time, talk about it, and then I will ask the students to write about it. Many will ask what they should write; the answer is, whatever you think and see at this time; write two or three pages, as much as possible. This becomes the benchmark for the growth --- what is written becomes important for later comparisons. I usually have to remind them, however, that what we are doing is not a test, but an initial set of observations.
Some students will write half a page and try to turn it in to me; I hand it back and ask that they try to comment as extensively as possible, and put it in the portfolio. A few students bring their assessments to my office and want me to read them, "to see if they are okay" (how well they have been conditioned!). I spend a lot of time explaining the ideas behind what we are doing, and they seem to understand on trust, even if they tell me they cannot see at the start how it will all work.
On the other hand, most students will write two or three pages on their initial observations. I often use what they have done as the basis for entry into class discussion. There always seems to be at least one student who will speak out at first, usually with some very definite opinions and judgments about what they have seen or heard. That will evoke parallel and opposite comments, leading me to bring out The Ladder and say, "These are some solid observations. Where do you think they fit on our Ladder?"
Let me use an example from the Southwest Arts and Culture course. One of the paintings I may use on the first day is the "Oregon Trail," signed by Oscar Berninghaus, 1951. It shows a vast expanse of clouds and sky above a plain with grass, and some cacti in the foreground. On either side in the middle background are flat mesas, and a long "s-curve" of twenty-plus Conestoga wagons, pulled by horses, and carrying men and women, moves towards us from the far background. Riders accompany the wagons; men walk next to the horses, urging and prodding, while a Dalmatian dog trots along next to the front rider.
Having shown this painting to the students on the first day of class, I had asked them to look at it for a while and then write about it. A week or two later, I will show it again and ask for their commentary, and someone will always talk about the Westward Movement, the courage of the pioneers, and how hard life was for them as they struggled day after day. Someone will usually count wagons; someone else will say that it must be up in Western Nebraska because of the kind of cactus in the foreground. Another will talk about the immense land acquired in the Louisiana Purchase, which became the Great Plains of the USA.
Then I will ask my "where-are-we-on-the-Ladder" question, and one immediate response will be that we are on the first rung, Reactive Response. Someone else will object and say that we are on the School of Interpretation rung, because we are talking about the Westward Movement and its concept in an interpretation of American History. A third will say that we are in Cultural Context, because what is being shown is not the East or the South, but the West, and we are seeing the geographic culture of the West. All responses have been useful, all have been reasonable, and the students nod in agreement.
Then someone will say, "Somebody talked about the hard struggle it was to cross the plains, but I don't see anything in the picture which suggests struggle. On the contrary, look how peaceful it is. It's a beautiful summer day, the sun is out, enough clouds keep it from being too hot, and there is plenty of grass for the stock to eat along the way. This looks more like it was a group of people going for a long picnic." There will be silence for several moments, then I ask, "What ladder rung would you put that response on?"
Often I will not get an answer, because the previous statement had triggered another, usually from an Indian student. "This is White-man's propaganda. Look at the picture; do you see any buffalo or animals of any kind, anywhere? Or even an Indian? There is no one in the painting except white people coming across the plains in their wagons. That is not the way it was!" Someone else will say, "Yes, and didn't you say that this was painted in 1951? Wasn't that during the Golden Years of the Western Movies? It looks more like what we see on television about a good day on the trail. It only shows us one part of what really happened."
With these useful responses we have actually done enough. I do not have to summarize or bring closure. Each student has already written his own response to the painting, and has put it in his portfolio. This discussion has changed all that, moving the thinking in many directions. Some students had brought out points that had not been seen by others; there was no argument over who was right, only a cascade of ideas. But more than that, the first assessment showed each student that first impressions are only first impressions, and there is much more to be seen. Some students will come up, ask to see the painting closer up, write down information and go to the library to find out more. They are hooked, and will reel themselves in.
The second assessment will come about the sixth week. We will, by this time, have covered most of the models, so students are more used to talking in class with an analytical approach. We have shown the painting a few more times, so that new visions and Ladder rungs emerge in discussion, inspiring students to go back to their initial assessments and revise them.
To prepare ourselves for the second assessment, I show a different painting: "Visions of Yesterday," by William Leigh, which shows a pair of horses pulling a plough diagonally across a field from right foreground to the left background. An Indian in Levis, moccasins, ragged red shirt and vest walks along behind the plough, one foot on the unplowed sod and the other in plowed dirt. The ground on the left is sandy, but contains wild plants and light blue flowers, as well as a buffalo skull. The plowed dirt is all brown, without any differentiation. In the sky are clouds, many of which are in the shape of Indians riding ponies in pursuit of buffalo.
After the students have looked at it for about ten minutes, I will put the first painting back up, and we show them side-by-side. I let them look for several minutes more and then ask them to begin writing their second self-assessment in response to three questions:
(1) What is my response to the second painting, both by itself and in comparison to the first one?
(2) What am I doing differently in considering the paintings this time that I did not do the first time around?
(3) What do I see as the strengths in my growth, and what do I still need to work on?
The answers to these comparative and juxtaposion effect questions go into the portfolio section on assessments. This time there are no questions about my grading them, nor if they are doing well.
At this point in the course, the third question gets the weakest answers. They can see how they are improving, but do not as yet have a clear idea of exactly what they need to do to continue to improve. I assume this is a matter of lack of practice, and I should not be concerned about their lack of clarity here. Instead, I regard this part as a foreshadowing of what will come in the third assessment at the end of the course, when I ask the same question and get more complete answers.
Another portion of the portfolio is used for their essays on the Escalator, mentioned in Chapter B-2. In that chapter the focus was upon the regional arts and culture sequence courses, but I want to shift here to the Popular Arts or Carmen course, and describe the use of the escalator questions as part of the portfolio accumulation. The six steps are somewhat different, and are labeled Perception, Context, Formula, Strategy, Application and Explanation. Again, the first question begins as an initial and unstudied reaction; each subsequent question builds on the previous one and anticipates the next. Our classroom activities will follow along, providing timely and parallel exercises, which will help students to develop their answers.
The first question is, "Explain why you think gender abuse occurs. Explore your ideas extensively. Do you lean more to individual, societal or biological causation? What are your reasons?" The intent is to get them to talk about abuse and to consider various causes for the condition. The question is open enough to allow many to vent some of their feelings, about whether the man or the woman is to blame and, since they are responding to the specific relationships in the Carmen story, it moves them in a structured fashion from category of behavior causation to their listing of reasons for choosing that specific answer.
The second question is longer and contains many parts. "How are gender relationships depicted or portrayed in the arts? Cite some examples from advertising (TV and magazines), popular music, fiction, television and motion pictures. What abuse-related effects, images and expectations might result from these depictions and portrayals? What reasonable counter-arguments can be offered to the positions you have taken?" This question allows the student to draw upon as well as modify the first essay, while the final part leads them into taking a reverse position from what they have argued, foreshadowing the way in which question three is set up.
Students say that by this time they are using the portfolio as a resource, because they already have so much information in it. To me this means they are going back again and again to revisit what they have already done, resulting in changes in their thinking. This shows up in their essays, since many will write that they previously would have felt differently about some aspect of the question, but at this point in the course have another view. This type of statement often comes from students who have rushed through to answer all six questions in the first four or five weeks, and then tell me they are done. I suggest they go back and take another look, because they have not allowed sufficient time for new ideas farther into the course to become part of their thinking.
Question three has more to do with formulas, structures, components and definitions, but also moves into comparisons and contrasts. "Carmen is called a love-tragedy, but HOW is it a tragedy? Is Carmen the tragic figure? Or is it José? Or is the social context tragic? How does Merimee account for what happened? Bizet? With which do you tend to agree more? Explain. How does "Mother" fit in to the explanation picture here?"
The question has three really powerful parts that students must handle, all of which take their inquiry and response beyond the earlier levels. In the first place, they must define the formula and then apply attributes from the plot to that formula to conclude whether it fits. Having done that with both authors' stories, they then must compare their findings. They also must explain how and why they have arrived at those conclusions. Third, they must delve into abstractions, because "Mother" is never a full persona in either story, but always a hovering apparition in the background. Despite that, we are aware in our own times of the influence of parents upon our behavior, and the response thus calls for conjecture --- anticipating the step into Schools of Thought.
The strategy side of things, linked both to earlier and later questions is here. It says, "Storytellers make use of images, structures, characterizations, juxtapositions, developments and sympathy in highly strategic ways. Explain your understanding of these techniques and the reasons for using them with examples from several "Carmens." Details and examples are expected." This question builds upon the previous one, and also follows through on the contextualization of male-female relationships perception and causation, which are in the first two questions. Important however, are the matters of how the author uses the techniques in a strategic manner to gain the sympathy or disfavor of the audience.
These lead directly to the arguments of how and why. Question five applies these matters; "Develop some of your own (individual or group) scenarios (with techniques and strategies) for a Carmen-José story by using several different art forms. Explain how the arts imperative affects the actual implementation of your efforts." The intent is that students will use the creative opportunity to establish their roughed-out plot and storyline in ways that will demonstrate their ability to apply, and include their understanding of how their story will vary when it must shift to another medium.
The final question sums up. "How Carmen is explained varies, depending on who you ask. Academic disciplines have different foundations, focuses and points of view, as do the many schools of thought described in your text. Develop a simulation debate among at least five different academic or interpretative positions in explanation of the Carmen-Jose tragedy, as it would be argued from those respective mindsets. At least two of the positions should be Post-Modern." Not only does this one pull the many parts together, but it serves as another creative opportunity, and some of these will be brought into class discussion during the final two weeks.
There is no final exam. Students are asked to turn their portfolios in at the end of the fourteenth week. A couple of spin-offs derive from that. They are finished with the course and are under no pressure to finish up anything during "dead" week or final exams week. If one or two students have emergencies and need extra time, a buffer exists for them, and after many years of experience with teaching in this manner, I am convinced that we have covered enough ground by having spent twenty-eight periods of seventy-five minutes on the learning. The final four periods can thus be devoted to showing projects, discussing them, reflecting on the course and what we see now, that did not seem to be there before.
About the Author:
Dr. Guy Bensusan is Senior Faculty Associate for Interactive Instructional Television and Professor of Humanities and Religious Studies at Northern Arizona University. Dr. Bensusan may be reached may be reached via email at: email@example.com.