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Digitally Demonstrating Good [Digital] Writing

Chris Friend - June 9, 2014 11:04 am MST
Strange chair in black and white
Robot on tricycle

Last year, I briefly discussed how to create digital portfolios using Google Docs. I explained how to create them, but spent little time on why our students should create them. Yet understanding that rationale is essential to good pedagogy. Students in composition classes often create portfolios of their writing for end-of-term evaluations or as proficiency demonstrations. (These practices have both adamant supporters and vocal critics, but the argument is outside the scope of this post.) Portfolios can give students the opportunity to 1) make a large argument about their experiences in a course and 2) use multifaceted evidence to support that argument. In short, with a portfolio, students use their own work as raw materials to build the kinds of documents we value in our classes. When those portfolios are digital, students have additional tools at their disposal to use language and rhetoric in ways that are relevant to work in today’s digital environments.


Effective online portfolios start with an important, fundamental shift in the way students look at their work. Writing instructors frequently discuss ways to make student work more public, more visible, more accessible. When creating an online portfolio, a student has to shift from thinking of documents as files on a disk to thinking of them as resources on the Internet. As I said in a previous post, “putting their work online…allows students to understand a document as [the] destination of a URL.”

What seems a subtle semantic difference completely changes what is possible with student writing. The traditional arrangement—of essays submitted on paper and placed in a pile on a teacher’s desk—guaranteed an audience of one and separated the essay from any connection with other documents. But if an online essay has its own URL, accessible from anywhere and from within any other text, that essay becomes something a student can point to. Future writing can include references to previous work, allowing students to connect their learning and build, expand, and elaborate on their ideas as they progress through a course.

My students and I often chuckle when we read authors who cite themselves in published documents. To a beginning student, such a move seems arrogant, lazy, or strange. Why cite yourself? Why not just say what you’re thinking? But once students see the value of building credibility by subtly saying, “I’ve already discussed this at length; go look it up, learn what I think about the issue, then come back. I’ll wait here,” they want to make the move themselves. Students like the thought of viewing themselves as a source of information, not simply a submitter of information. With only two online documents and a simple hyperlink, students can direct readers to their own materials for more information. It’s an empowering, authority-building act.

Incorporating hyperlinking into any writing course provides numerous transferable benefits, which I detail in my previous post on the versatility of hyperlinks. I believe that, if a writing course doesn’t ask students to create hyperlinks in their work, that course doesn’t teach modern writing. But when students add hyperlinks to their documents, they make important rhetorical decisions: which words connect with other documents? Where do I want to direct my audience’s attention? How can I best keep the discussion moving while enhancing my ethos through the use of outside sources? It doesn’t take long before a simple hyperlink becomes a strategic decision.


We can also use decision-making to give students greater authority with their work by requiring a portfolio assignment that asks them to think about, rather than merely submit, the assignments they include. By this I mean to let students select from among the writing they did for class to choose the ones that best represent their understanding or performance in the course. If we view a portfolio as a supported argument about a student’s progress through a course, we must allow students to craft that argument in a way that makes sense to them. In other words, the student, not the teacher, must determine the contents of the portfolio.

The moment an instructor hands students a list of required portfolio contents, those students stop thinking about the goals of their writing and instead focus only on meeting requirements. Nedra Reynolds and Rich Rice, in their excellent guide for instructors, Portfolio Teaching, assert that “telling portfolio keepers what to include, where, and in what form limits their learning” (8). If the assignment says a portfolio must include essays 1, 4, and 6, plus homework assignments 3–10, there’s no need for students to pay attention to the content or purpose of those assignments; the documents must be included. Period. As Jesse Stommel wrote in a recent post on grammar instruction, “It is one thing to make a choice to conform to a writing standard, another thing entirely to be obedient to an inflexible and uncompromising rule.” As he argued against uncompromising rules in grammar, I argue against them in assessment. We should not demand obedience from our students. We should demand reason.

If an assignment says that a portfolio must include any documents necessary to prove an argument, the student now has control, authority, and the unavoidable responsibility to think about the construction of this portfolio. Each included document has purpose, and the student works toward a self-determined goal. By giving students the choice of what to include, we make the portfolio a venue for the very rhetorical strategies we teach.

Purpose-Driven Argument

Returning to Reynolds and Rice for a moment, they argue that the key to successful portfolio design “is that the students must be able to explain why something is included or what it is meant to represent” (8). Because they need to justify the inclusion (or exclusion) of a document, students become active rhetors, building their portfolio with a purpose. They don’t include a document because we said to; they include the document because they believe it shows evidence of something — they want us to use their writing to better understand something or to agree with their argument.

This brings me back to hyperlinks. When students write digitally, when their work becomes accessible by a link, their documents become tools to manipulate and implement, and we must allow them to practice using their prior work to support their later work, much like I attempted to do in the opening paragraphs of this document, showing the connection between my current thinking and my previous writing. Given the right publication platform, students can be even more strategic in how they present their evidence: I’ve had students point me to a specific sentence in an previous document (using the Bookmark tool in Google Docs) to show precisely where they expressed an important concept or made a particular breakthrough. Others pointed me to a document with instruction to review a particular historical version (using change tracking in Google Docs), highlighting a specific moment in the revision process. These students showed, digitally, that they understand how to use language to influence an audience.

My students used their writing — both the process and the product — as evidence in their final reflections. Digital tools make this possible by allowing students’ documents to connect with one another in a strategic arrangement that they create. As you plan your writing expectations and portfolio requirements for next semester, have your students use their portfolios as arguments. Give them choices, not requirements. Put the assignment in their hands.

[Photo *getting up!* by happykiddo, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]


  1. I’m bookmarking this for reference as I re-design one of my seminars around an online portfolio project!
    I just assigned a writing portfolio for this first time in a course this spring. The students produced really high-quality writing (more fluent and insightful than what I’ve received in response to more specific prompts/assignments). As I’m reading their finished portfolios I can see the benefits of taking the assignment to another level by encouraging them to design their own elements and to link the various elements so they build on each other.
    I would like to have them reading and linking to each other’s writing, too.

    1. Good to hear, Heather! You point to another useful characteristic of the format: its flexibility. Teachers can implement digital portfolios to varying degrees based on the class’s content, the students’ ability, and even the teacher’s comfort level. There’s no reason to go all-in right up front, but I think many teachers will try baby steps and quickly see the benefit of expanding their approaches.

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