As a graduate student planning to teach writing at college level, I'm seeking best practices in grading and assessing 21st-century writing. I created this research blog to post responses to scholars, methods, and ideas about assessing writing in digital environments that I study. I invite suggestions and feedback from experienced educators, graduate teaching assistants and graduate students of writing programs--what does and doesn't work in digital writing courses? Please post your comments below. I appreciate any research you recommend, particularly links to articles, videos, websites and blogs. - Karen Pressley, Kennesaw State University

Monday, March 21, 2011

Assessing Writing through the E-Portfolio: Some Pros and Cons

(Note: Literature about online portfolios refers to these artifacts with a variety of terms such as e-folios, E-Portfolios, portfolios, and others. In this blog I use the form of the term used by the article in which I found it).

In my earlier post on March 21, I wrote of Russel Durst’s 2006 article on the history of composition studies that includes an extensive summary of writing assessents. He notes Kathleen Yancey’s 1999 article, "Looking Back as We Look Forward: Historicizing Writing Assessment" that discusses the E-Portfolio as a strong tool for assessing student’s writing development. While Yancey argues for E-Portfolios, there are other pros and some cons to consider. Durst says:

    "Indeed, one often-sited benefit of E-Portfolio assessment is that grading can be deferred until late in a course and students ostensibly can focus instead on developing as writers and thinkers, without being distracted by worrying about the dreaded grade. Other scholars have countered that students' concerns about assessment are never far below the surface, no matter how much instructors seek to de-emphasize grading, and that evaluation anxiety may be most intense in courses that offer the least feedback on student performance..."

Yancey's work on portfolio assessment is viewed by Durst as a landmark, a most helpful guide for instructors. But he also contrasts her work with skeptical comments by other scholars. For example, Durst writes that Peter Elbow argues with worry that "teachers and administrators might be led to adopt a reductive holistic score, undermining the complexity of a diverse portfolio, and also that a portfolio approach could overemphasize assessment, thus undermining risk, discovery, and play," key aspects of writing for Elbow and others in composition.

Durst writes that Condon and Hamp-Lyons found that “teachers reading portfolios often made their judgments early, before having read the majority of texts.  They conclude that program administrators need to work proactively and closely examine the work of the various stakeholders to ensure that the assessment is doing what they think it should be doing."

Revisionist work on portfolios by Broad (2003) takes what Durst terms “a hermeneutic as opposed to psychometric approach. Broad argues that portfolios are most useful in bringing teachers together to discuss criteria and raise pedagogical, evaluative, and theoretical issues in writing instruction, and that programs should not try to establish system-wide standards or develop rubrics.”

Around the time Durst wrote the aforementioned article in 2006, the CCCC published a position statement, "Teaching, Learning, and Assessing Writing in Digital Environments", and a position statement on "Writing Assessment" which they updated on March 2009 from the original 2004 version.  These are the most concise articles I have seen on the topic. They give me a sense of stability as I wade through the extensive literature about assessing writing through traditional methods and the newest literature about digital compositions. I especially appreciate the guiding principles these statements offer, which are too many to include in this blog's limited space. 

The CCCC position statement on Principles and Practices in E-Portfolios includes details about how E-Portfolios communicate various kinds of information for the purposes of assessment. The article is followed by a list of links to more than thirty examples of different forms of E-Portfolios, what they call "well-conceived e-portfolio projects," two of which I have included here to view:

This CCCC page provides links to instructional videos for creating online portfolios, such as this YouTube video that provides a source of instruction for creating an "eFolio" and links to collections of student portfolios, such as these selected 2010 portfolio showcase winners.   The site offered by Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, provides a discussion, "The Digital Convergence: Extending the Portfolio Model" (2004) that elaborates on "ePortfolio thinking" and offers theories behind different formats such as showcase ePortfolios, structured ePortfolios, learning ePortfolios, as well as assessment ideas for the different formats.

Overall, it seems that the E-Portfolio has, as Durst said, "emerged as the form of writing assessment most preferable to composition specialists for its heuristic as well as its evaluative power," but this method is not used without drawbacks as some of these scholars note. 

When I think about a digital writing classroom, I believe that assessments toward specific goals need to be the first thing on the instructor’s mind when designing the curriculum. It seems that the E-Portfolio would be a particularly effective way to assess digital writing, but only if criteria with specific rubrics for each project are provided by the instructor so students can use these as guides upon which to develop their work and improve their writing.

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