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November 22, 2006

Tips on teaching: Teaching portfolios

Pitt’s sixth annual Teaching Excellence Fair, held Nov. 8, included summaries from winners of 2005-2006 innovation in education grants and conversations on teaching methods and techniques with faculty, as well as workshops and technology demonstrations led by Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education (CIDDE) staff.


Teachers, how do you demonstrate that your students have learned what you were teaching?

Whether you’re a graduate student looking for that first job, or a junior faculty member aiming for tenure or promotion, the answer is to have a well-organized, uncluttered, consistent teaching portfolio.

“Teaching portfolios are a way to document what you do,” Carol Washburn, a senior instructional designer at the Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education, said at Pitt’s annual Teaching Excellence Fair.

“We can have two totally different teachers — one may be more of an entertainer, one may be more quiet and reflective, for example — teaching the same course with different methods, with different strategies, but, hopefully, the outcomes are relatively the same,” Washburn said at the workshop titled “Developing a Teaching Portfolio.”

“Teaching portfolios are a vehicle demonstrating how teaching is a priority. It’s an assembly of materials that document learning as it occurs and what you’ve done to encourage that learning. More and more they’re used to actually improve teaching,” because they require reflection on experiences and adjustments from lessons learned in the classroom, she said.

Teaching excellence should not be confused with a popularity contest, Washburn said. “In terms of student evaluations, many times our students can respond to us very positively; they like us a lot. But that doesn’t mean necessarily that they’re learning.”

Similarly, “A teacher can have an excellent (curriculum) vitae, but what can be inferred by that and their effectiveness are two different things,” she said.

To get into the proper mindset for developing a teaching portfolio, Washburn recommends assuming the eye of the beholder.

“Let’s say you’re on a committee to look at a new hire,” she said. “What would you want to see in a portfolio? What criteria would you look for? What’s important to you?”

In general, most portfolio evaluators expect to see a teaching philosophy, course syllabi, summary of evaluations, examples of the instructor’s feedback to students and the departmental chair’s evaluation following a systematic review, Washburn said.

So, the first thing in the portfolio should be a succinct statement of the instructor’s teaching philosophy, she said.

“Whether you’re applying for a job, or going for tenure, you need a statement that tells how and why you teach, that encompasses your values,” Washburn said. “When I’m reviewing a portfolio I want to see consistency in how the values presented in your teaching philosophy are carried out through the rest of the portfolio.”

For example, some teachers believe it’s critical to have a personal relationship with their students, she said. “I want to see how they encourage that. Do they learn everyone’s name? Do they meet separately with each student? Do they use email to keep in contact outside the classroom?”

Another example is an instructor who favors group work, Washburn said. “It’s not enough just to say that. I’ve seen a lot of different definitions of group work. So what is it you mean? What’s your definition? What is its rationale? How is it carried out? How is it assessed?”

A common theme these days in many teachers’ philosophy is critical thinking, Washburn said. “Everyone wants students to think critically. Again, just saying that is not enough. You have to build students’ skills at doing that. If that’s what you value — critical thinking and its transfer of knowledge to the real world -— then I want to see how you teach that in class. What I’m looking for is the continuity, the thread throughout the portfolio, like a story you follow.”

It’s important to avoid off-putting clichés in your teaching philosophy statement, she said. “I’ve seen more ‘guiding students to the shore,’ and ‘having students grow and sprout’ than I can remember. Stay away from all that. It’s important to individualize your statement.”

Once the teaching philosophy statement is completed, Washburn suggests asking departmental colleagues for feedback on it.

The portfolio itself should include three categories of “ingredients”: instructor-generated materials; evidence of student learning, and something many instructors overlook: information from others, Washburn said.

• Among instructor-generated materials are syllabi (which should be thorough and clear, with no room for student interpretation), course-related materials, assessments of student work, indications of presentation style, descriptions of methods and strategies, descriptions of efforts to improve teaching (either through reflection or analysis) and scholarly research related to the instructor’s discipline.

“That last thing should be scholarly research about teaching in the discipline,” not research per se, Washburn said. Even though research factors into hiring, tenure and promotion, “Our recommendation is to keep teaching and research separate, with maybe a statement in your teaching philosophy about how you use your research in your teaching. Keep your teaching portfolio focused on teaching,” she said.

• Evidence of student learning includes pre- and post-course evaluations; informal assessments; records of student success; exam grades; papers and assignments; evidence of student success in succeeding courses or in higher levels of academe, and, especially, instructor feedback.

“I want to see the type of feedback you give to a student, because this not only documents your input, but also how you helped them,” Washburn said. “We recommend that you have three different examples of your feedback: to somebody you thought did a stellar job; someone who did an okay job, and somebody who’s missed the point entirely. The feedback for each of those should be different. It tells me about your approach and how student-oriented you are. I want to see clarity of instruction, and whether there is a relationship between the objectives and methods to the feedback you give your students.”

• Information from others includes student evaluations, colleagues’ comments, peer reviews, departmental reviews, invitations to present or publish on teaching and documentation of instructional development activities or workshops.

“I look for evidence of efforts to improve teaching,” Washburn said. “Let’s say something in a class goes totally awry. I taught a class last year where I decided to put everything online. I thought it would be easier for the students, but I discovered nobody read the stuff. I could see it in their assignments, and I asked why. They said that causes them more work; they wanted the materials printed and handed out. The teaching evaluations reflected that. So you document what was wrong, what conclusions you drew and then how you adjusted.”

Also, if students ask for recommendations for graduate school or for a fellowship, that reflects well on the instructor, she said. “It says you’ve been a good influence on them. Ask them to put their request in writing to include in your portfolio.”

The challenge of the portfolio, which is designed for others to view, is picking and choosing what to include, she said.

“Do you need to include everything you ever collected? Absolutely not. Keep in mind that those who review portfolios often do not have a lot of time to go word by word. They flip and scan. You want to take your two or three most poignant examples, not every syllabus you’ve ever developed. If you’re currently teaching three upper-level courses, choose maybe one or two that represent you.”

As for packaging a portfolio, there are no hard and fast rules, Washburn said. “I like it see it bound with a table of contents and section tabs so you can go back and forth easily. I recommend one page maximum for the philosophy statement. Also, if you’re able to put something into visual or graph form, such as progress made on your evaluations over several years, that works much better than text. But the content and the consistency of the portfolio are the most important things.”

—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 39 Issue 7

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