From the Teaching column of the October 2006 Perspectives

A Template for Writing a Course Portfolio for Document Teaching

Amy Nelson Burnett, October 2006

There is no single right way to teach. Instead, excellent teaching is as varied as the many different individuals who are outstanding teachers. Given the variety of approaches, methods, and strategies involved, how can we document effective teaching? One possibility is the development of a course portfolio to demonstrate one's teaching, and the student learning that results, in a particular course.

The format of the course portfolio has developed gradually over the last decade. Within the discipline of history, William Cutler described his course portfolio for a class in American history in a Perspectives column in 1997. Four years later, T. Mills Kelly described writing a course portfolio for his Western civilization survey. At that time he commented that one of the challenges he faced was that "I had to make all my own decisions about my portfolio's content and its presentation—I had no style sheet to work from."1

Such a "style sheet" now exists, developed as a part of the Peer Review of Teaching Project (PRTP) at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln (UNL). Over the past six years, the PRTP has assisted over 100 faculty members from 28 different disciplines as they wrote course portfolios describing their teaching and the resultant student learning in a target class. In the process, we have refined the definition of a course portfolio and created a template for it that can be adapted to a wide range of purposes, uses, and institutional settings.

An effective course portfolio has three characteristics. First, it is not only a description of the target course but also contains the teacher's reflections on the various elements of that course. The two elements of description and reflection are closely linked, because in the latter the teacher gives the rationale for the way he or she structured and conducted the course and assessed student work. Second, in order to demonstrate outstanding teaching the course portfolio must give some evidence of student learning from the class. Only in this way can readers determine whether the teacher's efforts have indeed been effective. Finally, the portfolio should be relatively brief, with the body no more than 10 to 15 pages long. Supporting material, such as the syllabus, examples of assignments and exams, and samples of student work, can be added as appendices, but readers should not have to wade through pages of documentation. The reflections of the teacher in the body of the portfolio reveal much more about the course than does an archive of course-related documents.

The Course Portfolio Template

To make the process of writing a course portfolio easier, we have broken it down into three steps, each of which involves writing a two- to four-page memo. In the first memo, the teacher presents the larger institutional and curricular context within which the course is taught and then describes the learning goals set for the course. The description of context helps readers understand the circumstances under which the course is taught. Is it a large general education survey or an upper-level course for majors? How many students typically take the course, and how do their backgrounds and experiences influence their attitude toward and preparation for learning the course material?

Central to this memo is a discussion of learning goals. These goals generally extend beyond specific content knowledge to include cognitive skills, such as knowing the difference between a primary and secondary source or being able to identify the thesis of an essay, and affective or attitudinal changes, such as a greater appreciation of the foreignness of the past. Specifying these goals at the outset of the portfolio-writing process is important, because the goals provide a framework for the rest of the course portfolio. They not only determine what specific methods and pedagogical strategies a teacher uses in structuring the course, but they are also used to evaluate the quantity and quality of student learning.

The second memo centers on the syllabus, which functions as an overview of the course's contents and the teaching techniques and pedagogical strategies employed. This memo gives the teacher the opportunity to explain the reasons for structuring the course as it is: why did I choose X and Y as texts? How do I use classroom time, and what do I hope to accomplish during that time? What methods do I use to assess student learning, and why?

Both the first and second memos can, and indeed should, be written before the course begins. In the process of reflecting on their course goals, teaching methods, and assessment measures, teachers often make significant changes to their syllabi to bring these three elements into better alignment. By contrast, the third memo can only be completed after the end of the course.

This third memo looks at the student learning that results from the course. Like teaching itself, learning can be of many different types and take a variety of forms, and not all of that learning can be assessed by the traditional means of exams or papers. We have developed a menu of methods for documenting student learning, from which faculty can choose those most useful and appropriate for their course and discipline. These might include a comparison of quizzes or surveys covering the same material given at the beginning and the end of the semester to measure changes in student understanding; excerpts of written work that demonstrate student learning at a high, medium, and low pass level, accompanied by statistics showing what percentage of the class fell into each level; quantitative analysis of student performance on quizzes and examinations given throughout the semester; examples of the work done by a few individual students over the course of the semester, particularly if they are working on an assignment, such as a research paper, that moves through several different stages; or classification of multiple-choice exam questions according to type and complexity of learning and analysis of student performance on each type.

To document student learning, teachers need to collect examples of student work over the course of the class. Not all of this material will be incorporated into the course portfolio. Instead, it serves as the archive that faculty draw from as they discuss the quantity and quality of student learning in the course. As with the first two memos, reflection on student work is critical. Our rule of thumb is that no element of student work should be included in this memo unless the teacher also includes some discussion of its significance for demonstrating student learning. Nor does a teacher need to include an entire essay exam or research paper in the portfolio. One can often demonstrate the element of student learning being discussed by excerpting a few paragraphs from the longer document and explaining why those paragraphs were selected.

Once the three memos are written, the final step is to link them together into a course portfolio by providing transitions between each section and writing an introduction and conclusion. The latter often includes an overall assessment of the match between the course learning goals and actual student learning, as well as a description of changes that the teacher plans to make the next time the course is taught. The teacher may also discuss what he or she has learned in the process of writing the portfolio. Whether or not this last question is addressed, we have found that the process of writing a portfolio has had a dramatic effect on individual teachers. In a survey of UNL faculty who were fellows of the Peer Review of Teaching Project, virtually all of them said that writing a course portfolio had helped them improve their target course and had fostered self-reflection and greater awareness of their teaching practices more generally.

Uses of a Course Portfolio

The course portfolios written by our faculty have been used for a variety of purposes, both formative, as a way of improving their teaching, and summative, as a way of presenting their teaching for external review, evaluation, and reward. Course portfolios have been included with nominations for teaching awards and in tenure and promotion files. Several faculty have presented their portfolios at disciplinary or teaching-related conferences or have published articles incorporating elements of their portfolios. Faculty within the same department have used their portfolios to improve coordination in the teaching of sequential courses and to set uniform learning goals for sections of the same course taught by several different individuals. While the process described here results in a portfolio that gives a snapshot of an entire course, it has been adapted to serve the scholarship of teaching and learning, as teachers focus their three memos on a specific teaching issue or question within their target course.

The course portfolio template developed at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln has been introduced and adapted on four other campuses (Indiana University at Bloomington, Kansas State University, the University of Michigan, and Texas A&M University) with the support of a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Our web site (www.courseportfolio.org) makes publicly available for review and comment over 200 course portfolios written by faculty from all of these institutions. The web site is intended as an international repository for course portfolios, and all faculty teaching at postsecondary institutions are invited to post their portfolios on it.

A course portfolio is not the only means of documenting teaching excellence. Nevertheless, its emphasis on teacher reflection, student learning, and brevity make it a particularly effective means of highlighting teaching in a variety of contexts. The template described here is intended to help make the development of a course portfolio easier, serving as the "style sheet" for all who wish to document and reflect on their own teaching and on their students' learning.

—Amy Nelson Burnett is associate professor of history at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and the author of Teaching the Reformation: Ministers and their Message in Basel, 1529–1629 (forthcoming). She is one of three coordinators of UNL's Peer Review of Teaching Project and co-author, with Daniel J. Bernstein, Amy Goodburn, and Paul Savory, of Making Teaching and Learning Visible: Course Portfolios and the Peer Review of Teaching (forthcoming). The Peer Review of Teaching Project was recognized with a TIAA-CREF Theodore M. Hesburgh Award Certificate of Merit in 2005.

Note

1. T. Mills Kelly, "Toward Transparency in Teaching: Publishing a Course Portfolio," Perspectives 39: 8 (November 2001). On earlier versions of the course portfolio, see Chapter 5 in Pat Hutchings, ed., Making Teaching Community Property: Menu for Peer Collaboration and Peer Review (Washington, D.C.: AAHE, 1996); Pat Hutchings, ed., The Course Portfolio (Washington: AAHE, 1998); Joyce Appleby, "President's Column: Reviving the Teacher-Scholar Ideal," Perspectives (April 1997); William W. Cutler III, "The History Course Portfolio," Perspectives 35: 8 (November, 1997). The portfolios by Cutler and Kelly are posted on the AHA web site at http://www.historians.org/teaching/aahe/aahecover.html.