With the end of the semester approaching, many teachers are focusing on ways to assess student work. For classes with multiple projects, portfolios help consolidate assignments into a neat and cohesive package that can be treated as a single product of a semester (or year, or institutional career). Web-based portfolio solutions include LMS-integrated setups, third-party products, generic website-creation tools, and even homegrown solutions developed by institutions. Each has features that allow students to collect, store, assess, and publish their work, but each also has a degree of complexity or a strong learning curve.
In my first-year composition classes, my students create writing portfolios, which I use for assigning final grades and my department uses to assess program performance. My students’ portfolios need to be self-contained and distributable (for department review), but my dislike of carrying piles of paper (and my students’ dislike of printing them) led me to find an online solution that could simplify things.
Rather than going out to look for a new product designed to create and manage portfolios, I opted to keep things closer to home and more familiar. I wanted to adopt technology my classes already used and get those technologies to serve my needs for portfolios. My goal was to find a sensible product that made it easy for students to create portfolios, so their brain power could be spent on their writing, not on how to package it.
I’ve been using Google Docs as the primary writing platform in my classes for the past three semesters. It averts the problem of students failing to save their work, forgetting where they put their files, hard drive crashes, etc. Using an online writing platform has streamlined the technological hiccups of my classes and allowed me to focus student attention on review and revision. Students look at one another’s work live, make marginal comments as conversations, and see their documents as dynamic content, not as one-draft wonders.
Importantly, putting their work online also allows students to understand a document as a destination of a URL. When starting peer review, students have to share their work. With Google Docs, a big, friendly blue button allows students to control who can see their work.
The resulting dialog box provides them with an easy-to-copy (and share) URL.
A few exercises early in the semester with groups sharing work with other groups got students figuring out how to apply a hyperlink to text inside a Google Doc—students typed the name of their work, then turned that name into a link so others could go see what they had done. It created an open atmosphere of sharing that can be so difficult with paper.
Creating links within a document also provides a clear and simple path toward portfolio implementation. Students create a cover letter for their work. (See Ed White’s 2005 article in College Composition & Communication for more on the importance of the cover letter.) Below that letter, I ask students to list the documents they would include in their portfolio, then turn each document title into a hyperlink. That’s it. They now have a finished portfolio, complete with cover letter and table of contents.
When scoring student work, I read through the cover letter, then use the links students provide to look for supporting evidence and determine whether they’ve achieved the goals of the course. It requires no special software, no local storage space, no institutional tech support, and no additional training for students. Using familiar tools, we make digital portfolios work.
One noteworthy caveat: Because Google wisely creates new documents with no shared access, students have to take action to make sure their work can be viewed by others. The last day of the semester is not a good time to learn that you can’t see a student’s work. Using Google Docs as a portfolio solution works well, but students must make sure they allow access to others. I recommend having all their documents set to allow anyone with the link to edit the text.
That gives the teacher the ability to make changes and see when the last change was made—good for checking on deadlines.
No matter what tools you use to create, collect, and store student work, good luck with end-of-the-semester assessments!