Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

SLCC, a large community college with more than a dozen instructional sites, developed collegewide learning outcomes and asks students to demonstrate their mastery of these outcomes in their electronic portfolios.

Signature Assignments Become a Signature Practice at Salt Lake Community College

April
2011

In David Hubert's political science class at Salt Lake Community College, students analyze campaign finance data and write papers about recent elections in Utah. In Kati Lewis's composition class, students write papers in different genres—such as a position paper, a review, and a memoir—all on the same chosen topic. And in Suzanne Mozdy's quantitative reasoning class, students analyze arguments they've found on TV or the Internet for logical fallacies, making diagrams to help map the process. In all these situations, students also produce reflective writing samples to accompany their projects, explaining the how and the why behind their learning process. These examples, from fields as diverse as political science, English, and mathematics, are all "signature assignments"—projects that tap into at least two of SLCC's collegewide learning outcomes, constitute real-world application of knowledge, and include reflection.

General Education and Signature Assignments

SLCC is a comprehensive community college with more than a dozen instructional sites, including four main campuses. The college serves about 60,000 students, of which about 23,000 are credit-seeking students who are working toward a two-year degree or transfer to a four-year school.  In 2005, the college adopted five broad collegewide learning outcomes, each with a set of sub-outcomes that detailed skills and abilities students would develop during their SLCC careers. These learning outcomes include acquiring substantive disciplinary knowledge in a field of choice, communicating effectively, developing quantitative literacy, thinking critically, and developing the knowledge and skills to be civically engaged and work with others in a professional manner.

During the 2008-09 academic year, SLCC began a process of updating and improving its general education program to make it more relevant to students' futures as both workers and citizens.  After several years in which faculty members translated the college-level learning outcomes to program and course levels, SLCC added a requirement that, starting in summer 2010, all students would complete a general education electronic portfolio that would help them think intentionally about general education. "We want students to think about general education as a coherent part of their education," Hubert explains. "We have the cafeteria menu approach, and students see general education as a list of checkboxes to complete. We want them to lose that mentality and connect their courses and the learning outcomes." The e-portfolios provide a place for students to collect artifacts demonstrating their mastery of each of the college's learning outcomes, and the reflective writing samples explain students' learning processes. It was a natural step to require that each Gen Ed course produce a signature assignment to be included in the e-portfolio, Hubert says, as many faculty members were already assigning projects that had most of the hallmarks of signature assignments.

Hubert and his colleagues working on the new e-portfolio requirement wanted to allow faculty as much autonomy as possible in designing their signature assignments, so only a few guidelines exist: Signature assignments must address at least two learning outcomes, must include reflection, and must demonstrate a real-world—not just theoretical—application of disciplinary knowledge. Beyond that, faculty members have free rein to design signature assignments that fit their own goals for students' learning in the course. So while a traditional exam or quiz can't count as a signature assignment, many other types of assignments can. Hubert's political science assignment about campaign finance analysis includes disciplinary knowledge (outcome 1), written communication (outcome 2) and quantitative literacy (outcome 3). "This is not an "additional" assignment that I had to add just to satisfy the e-portfolio requirement—that was important to us," Hubert says. "These signature assignments are often things faculty are already doing."

That's true for assistant professor Suzanne Mozdy, who has been giving signature-type assignments to her quantitative reasoning students for years. The mathematics department began requiring in-depth, signature-type assignments almost ten years ago—well ahead of the curve, Mozdy says.  In one assignment, students act as potential car buyers and calculate how different interest rates will affect the amount of money they'll spend. By adding the reflective writing component, which asks students to consider how the material can be used in other classes or in the world, the assignment is now ready for students' e-portfolios. "The big question we get from students is, 'When are we ever going to use this?'" Mozdy says. "These types of assignments are a nice bridge from the math to the real world. Quantitative reasoning is the last general education math course students have to take if they're majoring in arts, communication, or the humanities. So we really focus on real-world math. We do some hard-core mathematics, but we present it in a way that softens it and relates it to real life."  The math department is currently working on developing a "capstone"-type reflective assignment to help graduating students tie together mathematics with the learning outcomes from their other general education courses.

Kati Lewis, an adjunct English professor at SLCC, teaches first- and second-year composition classes. In the second-year classes, she and a colleague from graduate school developed a signature assignment she's been using since 2007 in which students write four genre-based papers—a report, a position paper, a review, and a memoir—all on the same topic, which they choose themselves. Most students tend to choose topics related to current events; obesity, gun laws, alternative energy, and Islamophobia have all been recent choices. After feedback, revisions, and rewriting, the students assemble these papers into a magazine, with an "editor's note" that reflects on the writing process. The editor's note serves as the required reflective component, and the entire magazine goes into the students' general education e-portfolios. "In their editor's note, they argue why they chose the issue they chose and how their magazine relates to the real-world conversations taking place on the issue," Lewis says.

Benefits of Reflective Writing—for Students and Faculty

Lewis also serves as SLCC's e-portfolio coordinator, a position in which she acts as a liaison between administrators, faculty, and students to make sure all parties understand and can benefit from e-portfolios. She runs workshops for students to help them understand the purpose of the e-portfolio, and gets them started with the steps for building and populating their individual portfolios.  When students complain that creating an e-portfolio and doing the reflective writing it requires is extra work, Lewis emphasizes how the process will benefit both their college experience and their later careers. "'If you can do Facebook, you can do this, and it's a better online presence for you'—that's what I tell students," Lewis says. She encourages them to take ownership of the e-portfolio and be thoughtful and thorough in choosing which assignments to include and in writing their reflective pieces.

With faculty, Lewis provides advice for developing signature assignments or updating existing assignments to make them "signature." "I often talk to faculty about how the reflective writing prompts they develop can get students into the practice of thinking of why and how they're doing things," she explains. "Student reflection tells something about the history of what took place in the class, and faculty can see what's working and not working."

Mozdy emphasizes to her students that doing the reflective writing helps them understand how they learn. "I tell them that when they're out of college, no teacher is going to say to them, 'Ok, here's how you'll learn this.' Reflection helps them understand how to learn on their own."

Assessing E-Portfolio Outcomes

Since the e-portfolio requirement was added last summer, about 13,000 portfolios have been uploaded. The college is using surveys of both faculty and students to monitor how the implementation process for the e-portfolio requirement has been progressing, and Hubert plans to start holistic assessments using samples of student portfolios once a large number of students with portfolios are close to graduation. "We're going to use rubrics that look at the evidence students put in their portfolios of our learning outcomes. One of our outcomes includes thinking across disciplines, so if we're saying that's a part of critical thinking that we teach, but our graduating students don't have artifacts in which they show that, it will be problematic," Hubert says. These rubric assessments, which will be piloted this spring, will provide administrators and faculty with concrete data about where curricular improvement is needed.

Lewis emphasizes that the e-portfolios and their signature assignments provide faculty with another way to look at the work they're having students do. "If anything comes out of it, I want it to be that faculty have really thought critically about what our students do and why it's important," she says. For students, she wants to see that they complete the process with a better idea of how they learn and how their coursework fits together.  And though it's too early for SLCC to have a lot of hard data, the anecdotal evidence is encouraging. "I met with an older student yesterday—she's got three kids and is the type of student you might expect to push back on something like an e-portfolio," Lewis says. "But the satisfaction she had was just overwhelming."

Institution: 
Salt Lake Community College