Emory Report

April 26, 1999

 Volume 51, No. 29

First person:

Portfolios aspects of meaningful personal learning

As we know, not every facet of teaching and learning is the same just because it happens in the same institutional framework. I remember the trouble I had cramming for the vocabulary and grammar that were necessary for the final exam in my high school Russian class.

Unfortunately, I have only retained a fraction of that knowledge. However, with regards to the biology exam, I had a true interest in the subject. A competitive runner back then, I found this knowledge particularly helpful for my training, and I started to understand it as a part of the foundation of the success I was striving for. Even though my high school biology diploma is now 20 years old, I have retained much of what I learned then and still find it useful.

As a curious learner with a call for teaching, I see the following aspects as basic for personally meaningful education:

  • Orientation toward the needs of the learner;
  • Recognition of learning as process- and product-oriented;
  • Interactive relationships with the student;
  • Recognition of independent and collaborative learning.

Such teaching calls for a holistic learning environment, one that honors the intuitive path to knowledge as much as the cognitive, emotions as much as thoughts, practice as much as theory, academic effort as much as artistic expression.

From my experience, portfolios help create such an environment. During the early '80s, Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff began to experiment with using portfolios as a collection of prewriting, drafting, rewriting and final papers, as well as commentaries from the writer, peers and the instructor. Both Elbow and Belanoff were searching for an alternative to standardized tests and final exams that, in their role as a one-time measure for ability and preparedness, are clearly opposed to the process of gaining knowledge and the long-term goal of developing skills for lifelong learning.

The documentation of the learning process in the portfolio makes it necessary not only to provide various sorts of text as representations of the discourses in which the learner is involved but also different techniques of writing as glimpses into the student's intellectual strategies. In addition, the emphasis on the "process" character of the portfolio is reinforced through special tasks in personal and academic writing: Constructing knowledge as a process is achieved here by inviting the students to structure their learning based upon individual experience and personal language and, as a second step, to contextualize those findings within the larger academic discourse.

What strikes me as powerful in regard to personally meaningful learning is the merging between the learner's biography and the academic discourse that takes place in portfolio practice. Having used portfolios regularly in my seminars on German language and literature, I noticed that besides intensified involvement in the course subject, a growing awareness of the individual nature of the learning taking place. Through documenting, sharing and finally presenting what they have been working on, students reflect the what, how and why of their work. Here they have a chance to gradually recognize their individual needs, interests, motivational patterns and working habits, and out of that develop effective individual learning styles.

Let me give an example. I assign my second- and third-year German students to keep a portfolio that documents their efforts in essay writing. The emphasis of this semester-long assignment is analysis and interpretation of the students' writing performance. Instead of a midterm or final examination, they are asked to adapt the material, so that two distinct portfolios take shape:

  • An example portfolio containing work especially meaningful to the student; and
  • A process portfolio showing what has been gained throughout the semester, and what is still problematic for the student regarding the subject matter. During individual conferences at the end of the semester, the student and I discuss the portfolios as two different kinds of self-evaluation. Along with the jointly assigned letter grade, we construct a brief list of what the learner needs to focus on during future study of the particular subject.

Wanting to stress the reflective character of this kind of work, I see journal writing as being most relevant for reporting on what happens in the process of keeping a portfolio. It verbalizes whether the individual's needs are being met and therefore helps to personally identify with the project. At the same time, this account of what has been learned and what has yet to be achieved produces perspective and motivation for the individual: "What and how do I want to continue learning? Why?" My experience has shown that it can motivationally stabilize students' learning attitude if they are encouraged to regularly write personal comments. In this way, frustration, worry and needs--but also joy and enthusiasm--can be expressed freely.

Self-reflection of this nature, as much as it should be considered private, sometimes needs commentary from others as resonating space--opinions from fellow students, teachers, friends, acquaintances and relatives. They can be in written form, but can also appear in the portfolio in audio or video form.

Another powerful part of the portfolio collection includes artifacts, things that usually don't have an immediate connection to anything in the classroom but often indirectly influence the individual's learning process: photos, newspaper clippings, drawings, creative writing, Internet sites, letters, etc. Such material often reveals interdisciplinary and intercultural ties. Although their purpose may remain somewhat unclear to the portfolio users, such additions create freedom and space for personal expression.

In my understanding, portfolios should not merely be taken up and put away at the end of the semester or school year, but instead should be utilized in developing future teaching and learning strategies. Ideally, portfolios will make it possible to connect what has traditionally been separated: courses at different educational levels and in different departments. I believe that it is reasonable to foresee the portfolio as one of the key elements for future learning across disciplines.

This is a short version of an article that appeared this year in Tracer, a French journal on innovative teaching. Gerd Bräuer is assistant professor of German studies.

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