Building a Culture of Reflection and Integrative Learning through ePortfolios
Magazine Feature

Building a Culture of Reflection and Integrative Learning through ePortfolios

ePortfolio Leaders at the University of Puget Sound and Middle Tennessee State University Share Their Recent Work

November 20, 2020

More than ten years ago, when the University of Puget Sound first explored implementing ePortfolios on campus, the project fizzled out as faculty and students grew frustrated with the clunky technology.

“ePortfolios should never be about the tool or the technology,” says Renée Houston, associate dean for experiential learning and civic scholarship at Puget Sound. “It’s always about the pedagogy.”

In 2017, the university decided to try ePortfolios again, this time taking that lesson to heart by using ePortfolios as a reflective pedagogy to enhance high-impact practices like internships, study abroad, and collaborative work.

George Kuh has said that high-impact practices, ‘when done well,’ can improve student engagement and performance,” Houston says. “We see ePortfolio and reflective practice as a key component of the when-done-well piece.”

Recognizing the many benefits for students, AAC&U added ePortfolios to its list of eleven high-impact educational practices in 2016.

“ePortfolios have long been recognized as a powerful learning tool in course settings,” says C. Edward Watson, CIO and associate vice president for quality, pedagogy and States Initiatives at AAC&U. “Higher education offers an array of learning opportunities beyond the major and the general education curricula, including high-impact practices, purposeful cocurricular experiences, and on-campus work opportunities. As a result, the undergraduate educational experience can be somewhat fragmented, with students not seeing how these learning opportunities build upon and are in conversation with one another. ePortfolios and associated pedagogical practices offer one of the best mechanisms for reducing this fragmentation.”

To develop a national community and thought leadership around ePortfolio practice, AAC&U also hosts an Annual Forum on Digital Learning and ePortfolios at its annual meeting in January, publishes the International Journal of ePortfolio twice a year, and is kicking off a new yearlong Institute on ePortfolios in January to help teams of faculty and administrators develop ambitious, campus-wide ePortfolio programs.

Below, ePortfolio leaders at the University of Puget Sound and Middle Tennessee State University share their recent work to create cultures of reflection and integrative learning on their campuses.

ePortfolios as a Sounding Board for Reflective High-Impact Practices

Students at the University of Puget Sound start their ePortfolios from their first moments on campus. As part of Bookends, the academic component of the orientation program, cohorts of first-year and transfer students explore common readings, have group discussions with faculty, and write their first college essay. After a workshop on reflective pedagogy, students incorporate an essay into their Sounding Board ePortfolio, where they also introduce themselves and reflect on prior experiences and the expectations, anxieties, hopes, and goals they’re bringing to their new school.

“If you want students to participate in integrative and reflective thinking, you can’t just say, ‘Go and reflect on it,’” says Elize Hellam, director of the ePortfolio program at Puget Sound. “You need to model and cultivate reflective practice over time, creating intentional spaces for them to discover and articulate those connections.”

In their sophomore year, students can continue building their ePortfolio through the RISE (Reflective Immersive Sophomore Experience) internship program. Students attend five class sessions in the fall or spring semester to learn how to articulate their narrative, search for internships, write resumes and cover letters, interview for jobs, and maintain professionalism in the workplace. The following summer, students earn credits to intern, volunteer, or work while connecting their professional and academic experiences through weekly reflective fieldnotes that they post to the ePortfolio.

Because “a lot of internships now are unpaid,” Hellam says, these opportunities have become “a rather privileged space.”

One of the experiential learning program’s core values is to provide funded opportunities for students to apply and extend their learning outside the classroom, ensuring access to high-impact practices by offering fellowships and housing to cover the costs of the experiences. “Building high-impact practices as common experiences is one of the best ways we can ensure equity and inclusion in our program” Houston says.

Beyond the first-year and sophomore programs, faculty in disciplines spanning STEM fields, the social sciences, arts, and humanities partner with the experiential learning office to develop ePortfolios in their classes. At the beginning of its third year, the Sounding Board ePortfolio has been used by students 2,680 times, with twenty-seven departments and twelve programs using ePortfolio to encourage students to document, deepen, and integrate learning across their Puget Sound education.

“ePortfolios are not required, but we are working to make them unavoidable at Puget Sound,” Hellam says.

When economics professor Lea Fortmann was struggling to get students to think like economists by translating concepts from their introductory course into the real world, she worked with the experiential learning office to create an ePortfolio assignment asking students to identify economic concepts at work in the real world and write short reflections.

“Over time, this ePortfolio practice revealed to the students how economics was all around them,” Houston said. “Students wouldn’t have seen that cumulative impact without asking them intentionally to engage in that practice.”

Often, successful projects are the best way to get other faculty on board. This semester, every section of the introductory economics course is using the same reflective activity.

When COVID-19 forced courses to move online, art professor Elise Richman turned to ePortfolios as a way for students to continue sharing and critiquing each other’s work outside of class. But she soon found that ePortfolios also provided students with the chance to reflect on their artistic process.

“Those students have built some amazing ePortfolios showcasing their artwork and articulating their process to someone in the professional sphere,” Hellam says.

To avoid the pitfalls of the campus’s first foray into ePortfolios—widespread frustration with new technology—faculty are paired with paid student assistants that help design templates, create reflective assignments, and provide technical support for their peers.

“The faculty’s job is to teach,” Houston says. “Our job is to remove barriers so that they can achieve their goals.”

To encourage more faculty to adopt ePortfolios, student and faculty “champions” join Hellam and Houston in workshops and for casual lunches throughout the year to speak with other faculty about their experience. Student assistants have also been great cheerleaders within their own disciplines, encouraging faculty to integrate ePortfolios in their courses. Puget Sound alumnus Nate Jacobi, upon getting his first job after graduation, said of his interview, “They didn’t ask me anything I hadn’t already considered in my ePortfolio.”

“Celebrating and honoring the amazing work of our faculty members and students has been key to growing our program,” Hellam says.

But even if faculty decide that an ePortfolio isn’t right for their course, adding small reflective activities that foster this kind of thinking is still a win. “Reflective practice in one assignment or one course will evolve and develop over time,” Hellam says.

Now that ePortfolios are in the third year of implementation, the experiential learning office is working with juniors and seniors to build comprehensive ePortfolios integrating their academic courses and professional experience and to showcase their skills to employers. After graduation, alumni can still access the ePortfolio system to add, edit, or share content.

“Even if no one ever sees a student’s portfolio, they have gone through that reflective process to expand their self knowledge and speak in an articulate, confident way about who they are, the skills they bring, and the passions they have,” Houston said. “Those are the moments when students see their liberal arts education come to life.”

A Culture of Engaged Learning in Middle Tennessee

Like many transformative campus initiatives at colleges and universities in the South, MT Engage began as a quality enhancement plan for Middle Tennessee State University’s 2016–21 reaccreditation process with SACSCOC.

ePortfolios and other high-impact practices are not required through MT Engage, but faculty can certify their courses to signal that they include at least one high-impact practice, one beyond-the-classroom activity (such as off-campus events, cocurricular activities, or volunteering or research within the community), and a reflective “signature assignment” that is uploaded into an ePortfolio.

“The goal is to help students start developing a sense of self as a learner over time and to promote a culture of engaged learning on campus,” says Julie A. Myatt, director of MT Engage. “The ePortfolio is central to providing students with an opportunity to make connections between courses and their learning outside the university.”

MT Engage courses reach students at different stages of their experience. Dianna Rust, a professor in the university studies department, teaches a University Seminar course that introduces first-year students to the MTSU curriculum. Her students research a profession they aspire to join after graduation, including conducting an informational interview with someone currently working in that field. Beyond the classroom, students design a career fair presentation for students at a nearby elementary school. For their signature assignment, students reflect on the knowledge and skills they gained through their research and career fair presentation, as well as what they learned about their future career field and how their experiences at MTSU could get them there.

In Myatt’s Advanced Composition course, students research the communication practices of different discourse communities (usually within an organization or other group united around a common goal), conduct ethnographic observations and interviews with discourse community members, and add their ethnographic report to their ePortfolio. For their reflective signature assignment, students imagine their own entrance into a future discourse community, including the skills, strategies, and future MTSU courses that will help them become effective communicators.

“In our quest to fit all of our course content into a fifteen-week semester, it can go by in a blink of an eye,” Myatt says. “Students really appreciate that chance to slow down, pause, and think about what they’ve learned and what they can take forward. The ePortfolio provides them the time and the space to do that.”

As students use ePortfolios across multiple MT Engage courses, they are encouraged to look back at what they’ve accomplished and integrate their experiences in comprehensive ePortfolios during their sophomore and senior years. Students can submit their sophomore MT Engage ePortfolios to receive up to $6,000 in scholarships to support the completion of their degrees.

To help students make these connections across courses, eight departments have developed MT Engage major pathways. To build a pathway, a faculty learning community within each department works throughout an academic year to map out learning outcomes and develop assignments that link courses together within the major.

Some departments such as marketing or journalism cap off their major pathway by helping students polish their ePortfolios to showcase their work to future employers. In the university studies department, students build capstone ePortfolios for an internal audience—themselves and department faculty. The ePortfolios include a page for each of the major’s learning outcomes, and students submit coursework and write reflections explaining how the work meets each outcome.

“I always tell my professional studies students, even if you don’t send this ePortfolio to your employer, you’re preparing answers for future job interviews,” Rust says. “On your ‘About Me’ page, you’re basically answering, ‘Tell me about yourself.’ When you write career goals, you’re answering, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ And when you put together an academic showcase of your work, you’re answering tons of questions like, ‘Tell me your proudest moment, tell me what you’ve accomplished, and tell me about your strengths.’”

MT Engage faculty receive professional development opportunities through workshops and institutes on reflective pedagogies and ePortfolio assessment. Faculty receive small stipends to participate in MT Engage and professional development opportunities, though “it’s not enough to be their primary motivation,” Myatt says.

Like the ePortfolios and high-impact practices in their courses, MT Engage faculty have a lot of freedom in how they assess their students’ learning. The assignments and reflections that students submit across their major pathways give departments troves of data to assess students’ progress, and faculty assess students’ signature assignments by using MT Engage’s Rubric for Evaluating Integrative Thinking and Reflection, which was adapted from AAC&U’s Integrative and Applied Learning VALUE Rubric.

“This customizable nature is a big part of why faculty have bought in to the extent that they have,” even amid the pandemic, Myatt says. “We’re supporting them in meeting their goals rather than confining them.”

Photo credit: Images of ePortfolios in the collage at the top of the article were shared courtesy of Middle Tennessee State University and the University of Puget Sound.