Wednesday, March 14, 2007

I Heart Critical Thinking: The Portfolio Essay

I believe in the final portfolio. Despite the fact that they take a long time to grade and they tend to accumulate, clogging every shelf and drawer in my office, I think they are a valuable teaching tool that more accurately charts a student's skills and progress than a final paper or test might.

BUT, in order for them to work, it’s important to give students plenty of cues as to how to approach the final reflective essay that accompanies the portfolio. Otherwise, these tend to be full of vague, generalized statements; mere reiterations from the directions in the assignment; or evaluations of how much the student did or didn’t enjoy each assignment, i.e. “I really learned critical thinking from that one assignment. And I really liked doing that other assignment because it helped me to think critically.” Or they end up being a sort of thank you letter written to give strokes to the professor for how great the class was and how much they liked it (or, in a few cases just the opposite, a chance for students to vent about how much they hated the class).

In none of these cases does the essay/reflective letter meet the goal of the final portfolio – to look back at the products of the course in order to notice process and chart progress: to see where challenges, improvement, and breakthroughs occurred.

Like other academic essays, the reflective piece should use specific details and support from the text (now student-created) to support their assertions. It is an opportunity for students to see for themselves what they have learned in the course, and to show the instructor their ability to apply some of the rhetorical moves of analysis, interpretation, and critical evaluation to their own work.

Part of the problem with reflective essays has to do with genre. Perhaps most confusing is the issue of audience. Is this piece for the teacher? The student? Those anonymous reviewers who will be looking at the portfolios? Often, when we ask students to reflect, as opposed to research, analyze or synthesize, they have difficulty figuring out the voice, the point of view, and the formality of the piece. Ostensibly, the piece is to be written in first person, a point of view that lends itself, especially at the freshman level, to unsupported evaluations and opinions (because if I ask you to write in first person, I must be asking you to tell me how you feel and what you think, right?)

What we can do as teachers to help students navigate the genre of portfolio/reflective essay:

• Call the essay something other than reflective. I refer to it as an interpretive or analytical essay to remind students that they have to perform the same rhetorical moves they have been practicing during the term, but this time, they are analyzing their own process and their own texts. If you call it a letter, make clear that it is a formal letter.
• Give students specific format cues and conventions. Tell them this is a formal essay, that they are supporting an argument or thesis (the thesis can be that they learned something). Tell them whom they should consider the audience. Tell them that they must support their assertions with specific references to the text -- their writing or class work. Remind them that it must be organized logically, paragraphs must be well-developed, and it must be carefully copy-edited.
• Show them examples of successful portfolio essays. As a class or in mentor session, have them analyze examples, noticing voice and audience, structure and organization, assertions and supporting details.
• If you have time, build invention and revision into the writing process. Give them an opportunity to brainstorm and share ideas of what pieces they might choose and why in class or mentor session. Have them “workshop” their draft essays and rewrite it for the final portfolio.