Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

Spelman College

Assessing Learning, Encouraging Individuality Through Portfolios at Spelman College


Electronic portfolios have become popular at many colleges and universities in recent years, as faculty and administrators seek innovative ways to document and evaluate student development and achievement. But at Spelman College, a historically black liberal arts college for women in Atlanta, Georgia, portfolios had a place in the curriculum long before most students and faculty had even heard of the Internet. The college first instituted a paper-based first-year writing portfolio requirement in 1993. Since then, Spelman's work with student portfolios has expanded into an institution-wide initiative to develop students' ability to think critically about their lives, their learning, and their educational goals.

Portfolio Roots

In the early 1990s, Anne Warner, director of Spelman's Comprehensive Writing Program and then-chair of the English department, worked with colleagues to start a small course-based portfolio project within English 103, the college's first-year writing course. "I realized we really needed a way to monitor and maintain a strong commitment to student writing," Warner says. "This small portfolio project grew out of that idea." For almost ten years, the portfolios remained within the English 103 courses. But many Spelman first-year students didn't take English 103, so in 2002, the portfolios were moved to Spelman's First-Year Experience (FYE) seminars, which are a college-wide first-year requirement. Portfolios became partially Internet-based in 2005 and entirely electronic in 2007. "As we learned more about electronic portfolios, it became important that these weren't tied to one course," Warner explains. "They became clearly interdisciplinary with a writing-across-the-curriculum goal."

As Warner and other writing center faculty were transitioning the first-year portfolios from paper-based to electronic forms, they conducted pilot tests with Spelman faculty and administrators using various software platforms. These test groups introduced many to the concept of portfolios for the first time, and administrators expressed an interest in making portfolios a wider tool for assessing learning in Spelman's general education curriculum. After a faculty development workshop in summer 2005 on critical thinking and portfolio use and site visits by portfolio consultants, Spelman crystallized the development of a campus-wide portfolio initiative in fall 2006. Called SpEl.Folio, the initiative aims to make electronic portfolios a learning and assessment tool across all four years of a student's Spelman career. The college received a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to launch SpEl.Folio that includes funding for faculty training, workshop materials, engaging consultants, and travel to relevant conferences. The college also dedicated its own funds for software purchases and other program needs.

VALUE-added Learning

In 2007, Spelman became a leadership campus in AAC&U's Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE) initiative. VALUE's goal is to generate leadership, recommendations, examples of best practices and curricular designs, and an assessment framework, all designed to build campus capacity to articulate the aims and importance of a set ofessential learning outcomes; intentionally foster their achievement across the curriculum; and use cumulative assessments, especially e-portfolios, to both measure student progress and improve practices for achieving these outcomes. Examples of student work from SpEl.Folio will be used by VALUE's advisory committee to help develop new ways to measure the achievement of essential learning outcomes.

Spelman's class of 2012 is SpEl.Folio's pilot group, and an additional class will be phased into the project each year for the next three years until all Spelman students are using e-portfolios for reflection and assessment, explains Monica Stephens Cooley, an associate professor of mathematics and, with assistant professor of English Zandra Jordan, codirector of the SpEl.Folio project. In their first year, students will complete two reflections on their Spelman experience, a community service essay, and the first-year writing portfolio. In the second year, students' portfolios will include reflections on their major declaration, assignments associated with quantitative literacy, another community service reflection, and multimedia segments demonstrating foreign language learning and public speaking. The junior-year portfolio will include interdisciplinary assignments and a junior seminar project, and the final year will include a senior capstone assignment and a revisitation of the student's first-year reflections. "Students tend to take courses and check boxes off, but we want them to look at their courses as a liberal education experience over their four years," Stephens Cooley explains. "The portfolio reflections make them look at the connections between their learning experiences."  

SpEl.Folio assignments are first introduced to students in the First-Year Experience class, which is a once-a-week course typically taught by students' first-year advisors. The class focuses on learning goals for a liberal arts education, and teaches students how to write essays that are reflective and address specific questions evaluated by a rubric. "The main goal of this course is to get students to write more, and to understand what it means to be assessed and how we measure what they are learning," Stephens Cooley says. Students write three essays over the course of their first year, each of which is assessed using a rubric developed by the SpEl.Folio steering committee during workshops where the committee evaluated and normed sample essays. Students receive a numerical grade on each essay, and if the grade falls below an established threshold, they are required to resubmit that assignment, Jordan explains. The rubric is the same for all the assignments, so students can see their growth. "They learn exactly what areas of their writing they need to work on from the responses to the rubric, so it's very directed," Stephens Cooley says.

Developing Effective Assessments

Spelman's first-year writing portfolio, now a sub-project of the SpEl.Folio initiative, is its most developed and tested portfolio project. E-portfolios fill two important needs at Spelman—the need for an intensive focus on writing, and the need for authentic assessments of student learning, Warner explains. "Writing-intensive courses and composition courses are most helpful for student learning, but portfolios add the norming, the ability to assert that you have external reviewers, the fact that you're assessing materials that students have already submitted to class in most cases—this all allows a more objectively instituted assessment."

The rubric used for the first-year writing portfolios is slightly more detailed than the SpEl.Folio essay rubric because students work on developing and refining their writing portfolio submissions all academic year before submitting them in April. The first-year writing portfolios are evaluated by a jury made up of Spelman faculty, writing center staff, and faculty from other Atlanta-area institutions. Each portfolio is read by at least two jurors and assigned a "pass" or "resubmit" designation, with a third juror determining the outcome if the first two jurors' evaluations disagree. Developing the rubric the jurors use was an extended process, Warner says. She and her writing center colleagues worked with experts in the field of portfolio assessment, including Bill Condon of Washington State University and Michael Neal of Florida State University, to refine the rubric, and conducted faculty development workshops about writing transparent portfolio assignments that make learning expectations clear. 

Students tend to grumble about the writing portfolios while they're working on them, Warner says, but later express satisfaction with the project. "They say afterward that it's really worthwhile because they learned that they weren't writing well, were turning in [as final papers] their first drafts, and weren't viewing writing as a practice. They definitely acknowledge that the portfolio process was helpful."

Jordan says that the SpEl.Folio initiative, which is based on an electronic platform called Chalk and Wire, has so far been well-received by students, who are extremely comfortable working in an online, interactive environment and appreciate the multimedia options it gives them for creativity and self-expression. "We'd like students to really take ownership of their portfolios, since the ultimate goal is meaningful reflection about learning," Jordan says.

But a strong portfolio program doesn't just happen, stresses Warner, who emphasizes that Spelman's writing portfolio has been more than ten years in the works. "It's important to see that [our success with portfolios] happened with a long preamble of working with electronic portfolios in pilots, developing support, and getting buy-in from every stakeholder, each of whom has different priorities. It can't happen without full engagement," she says.



Spelman College