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Maximizing the Function of Student Eportfolios
Eportfolios serve multiple purposes—documenting course or programmatic assessment as well as facilitating student learning (Lorenzo and Ittelson 2005). However, without institutional intentionality to create authentic student products that document student learning, student eportfolios could end up “glorified electronic file cabinets with little meaning” (Reynolds and Patton 2014). Using eportfolios solely for assessment limits the scope of what an eportfolio can achieve. More than just a repository of work, an eportfolio should be a student-centered collection of work that supports deeper learning and self-reflection (Barrett and Wilkerson 2004; Parkes, Dredger, and Hicks 2013).
This article presents findings from a study conducted at the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Center (UROC) at California State University, Monterey Bay, a four-year, public, minority serving institution (MSI). Our institution uses eportfolios, not only for assessment but also to support diverse students using a tool that facilitates reflective learning, develops transferable knowledge, and builds professional online presence. In this article we present examples of how students reflect on their learning, communicate what they are learning to their peers and families, create a professional online identity, and demonstrate learning experiences, which provides artifacts assessment.
Undergraduate Research ePortfolios
Undergraduate research is well documented as a high-impact process (Kinzie et al. 2008) and is tied to a number of positive student outcomes, particularly for traditionally underrepresented students (Cole and Espinoza 2008). However, despite the high rates of participation and positive outcomes of undergraduate research, little is known about how to facilitate reflective learning or develop transferable knowledge through high-impact practices. In addition, facilitating and demonstrating cumulative knowledge is often absent from high-impact practices like undergraduate research.
We support undergraduate researchers in being active participants in knowledge creation—and to be, in the words of Kathleen Yancey, the “information architects” of their scholarly work. We encourage them to collect authentic “cultural artifacts” (Yancey 2004) that chart their growth and development as scholars. To do this, we use reflective writing activities that guide undergraduate researchers to learn about themselves.
Reflective writing is also well documented as a deliberate practice learning tool (Yancey 1998). Meaningful reflection involves critically examining actions and experiences in order to discover new ways of thinking or being. Such reflection uses a metacognitive approach, which supports problem-based learning and teaches students tangible ways to effectively tackle problems (Costa 2001). This reflection encourages self-directed learning and cultivates critical thinking (Lin 2001), helping learners make new connections among issues.
The eportfolio was implemented as a major deliverable for a research seminar series—four consecutive courses designed to immerse students in authentic research experiences, develop their scholarly identity, and prepare them for graduate school. Starting in the spring of their sophomore year, students participated in one seminar course each semester as well as in a research experience during each summer as rising juniors and rising seniors. Three student cohorts participated in this study, for a total of about forty-five students.
The eportfolio was introduced to each cohort during their first seminar course and consisted of two parts: a summer blog, using an open-source online blogging platform, WordPress; and selected students’ academic products. Students produced weekly or bi-weekly written pieces, roughly three hundred words, reflecting on some aspect of their summer research, with the encouragement to also include relevant photos and videos. Additionally, students were asked to comment on a few fellow students’ blogs each week. In concert with the blogging, each cohort was assigned readings designed to foster reflection and communication and asked to communicate regularly with their cohort in a series of forum posts on a private class website. In this way, the summer blogging prompted students to reflect on their learning and development, as well as communicate their learning to their peers, families, and external audiences. At the end of the summer, researchers also wrote an end-of-summer reflection focusing on summer milestones of learning and growth.
The eportfolio was considered a “living document” that grew in depth and sophistication as the students grew as scholars. Students began with basic Home and About Me pages by the end of the first spring semester. Over the summer, students created their blog during their research experience. By the end of the following fall, students added a CV, products from their summer research (an abstract and poster, perhaps also a paper/manuscript), a LinkedIn account, and a more developed About Me page including photos of their research, academics, service, and other items that highlighted their scholarship. By the fall of their senior year, students added their second summer of blogging and further polished their academic products. At every stage, students were tasked to consider their visual rhetoric: to select images, graphs, and illustrations that considered their audience and principles of good design and made a compelling argument for their professional identity. Over the two years, students were refining a professional online presence that could be shared with potential employers or graduate schools.
We reviewed forty-five eportfolios from summer 2014 to fall 2015. Qualitative analysis of the eportfolios and summer essay reflections included content analysis along with scoring eportfolios on the AAC&U Integrative and Applied Learning VALUE Rubric. A priori coding was used to analyze blog posts for visual rhetoric and issues of identity (see fig. 1 for coding structure). Inductive coding from identity theory (Chickering and Reisser 1993; Stryker and Burke 2000) and the AAC&U Integrative Learning VALUE Rubric framed our study.
Figure 1. Qualitative Coding Structure
To ensure consistency in coding, four researchers coded on the same set of cases. Findings were also checked against participant experiences by presenting findings to undergraduate researchers to check for validity from their perspective.
Analysis of students’ eportfolios and written reflections highlight how eportfolios can be used for the four following purposes: reflection, communication, developing professional identity, and demonstrated learning.
As undergraduate researchers move through competing social, personal, and academic roles at the university, they benefit from reflections that force them to think metacognitively about their world as they negotiate existing and newly forming identities by asking questions such as: Am I a researcher? Am I a writer? What does it mean to be an academic scholar? Reflection and writing about new emerging roles help students develop and negotiate their multiple identities as learners and future members of a research community (Stryker and Burke 2000). When asked to write blogs for public audiences, students articulate their research more clearly. In this modality, students use metaphor, storytelling, and pictures to communicate their research interests, methods, and findings to a nonacademic audience.
Reflecting in a public forum motivates students to critique each other’s reflections. Apart from improved writing benefits, peer review of their reflections lets students learn from each other’s experiences and helps normalize some of the challenging aspects of research. Mandy, a white marine science student, notes the diversity of experiences in her second summer of her research experience:
“Everyone in each of these [research experiences] were [sic] all doing science. Legitimate, accurate, well thought and planned out science, but they are each on different levels. This isn’t something I had really realized until I was reading the blogs of my friends and speaking with our [research team]. And I think that this is one of the most eye opening aspects.”
In sharp contrast to traditional essay reflections read only by faculty mentors and staff, a relatively limited and closed audience, public posts motivate students to spend more time editing their work and thinking about their writing in relation to publishing the final product. For example, Alice, a Latina marine biology major, reported struggling with writing and devoting time to editing her work:
“I wrote a weekly blog that was published online. Knowing that my writing was accessible to anyone made me work harder to produce a better product. I did not post anything without reviewing it twice myself and then having a writing partner review it. This revision process was simpler than I expected, and I will continue to use this method in the future. I also kept a personal journal this summer that I tried to write in daily. I did this to become more comfortable with my writing and replace the negative association I have with writing with a positive one. By increasing my ability to critically think and write, I am better prepared for the scholarly work I will need for graduate school.”
The act of writing for multiple public audiences in an eportfolio can be a transformative experience for a student (Gallagher and Poklop 2014). Working with undergraduate researchers to negotiate these multiple audiences warrants critically thinking through all the different possible external and internal groups of people who may come across the eportfolio. Writers continually have to step back to re-evaluate their audience, as Brittany, a multi-racial marine science student, describes:
“Often one of the most complex parts of the research process for me is connecting the somewhat focused results to the grander scheme of your topic. By the time you have all of your information, you may have been thinking about one very narrow aspect of the story for a very long time. When it’s time to tie it all together for publication or other types of communication, one must take a step back and begin to look at the whole picture again.”
Here Brittany is demonstrating learning about the importance of communication as she makes the move to publish her work. Communicating research in her eportfolio changes how she thinks about her project. However, this self-editing also comes with a cost. Student writing online, while often more polished, was also self-censored in that students did not bring up problems, struggles, or conflicts that arose during their research experience on the blogs. This finding highlights the benefits of writing for the public but underscores the need for private avenues for reflection to facilitate students’ reflection on difficult or private issues.
Professional Online Identity
Having eportfolios allows students to present professional identities, but the very act of developing and crafting an eportfolio also helps them to shape their identity and embrace their roles as scholars, as illustrated by Maddie, a white, first-generation, low-income psychology major:
“This summer, I grew in more ways than I thought were possible. I was tested as a researcher, challenged as a scholar, and embraced as a young woman on a mission in New York City—a mission to thrive…. Most importantly, I found the confidence within to believe that I belong in this field, and my roots are firmly planted….Thank you to everyone at [research institution] who believed in me and helped nurture my growth as an undergraduate. Watch out world, here I come.”
Identifying with research and academia is an important step for students who often struggle with imposter syndrome and feeling disconnected from academic communities, such as Monica, a white, first-generation, low-income mathematics major who added her “self-proclaimed identifiers” to her eportfolio.
“I chose mathematician, statistician, married, female, low-income, first-generation college student, because these six phrases are my passion, past, and future.”
Additional reflection and analysis showcase what she got out of her research experience:
“During my time at [the university’s] School of Public Health…. I have been asking myself: ’Why do I want my PhD? Are the reasons I want my doctorate in biostatistics (or statistics) the RIGHT reasons? Is the pressure from others to pursue my PhD influencing my decisions negatively?’… I am ready for a doctoral program. I have a curiosity inside me for research that can only be fulfilled by obtaining my PhD.”
As demonstrated by these reflections, identity development is not just about presenting a professional identity, but how students go about shaping this identity.
Writing about their experience during and after research, students were able to demonstrate their growth and the ways that they tied these experiences and their learning together. Dana, a Latina environmental science major, describes her growth over the summer:
“The original learning outcomes I created for myself were so meek in comparison with what I actually learned this summer. I learned how to age seedling back ten years in time from cotyledon scars. I learned the ethics and principles behind scientific research and how important it is to keep an experimental forest clean from man-made pollution .... I have learned how to look at a scientific graph and draw conclusions from different points within the graph. …This summer has shown me the potential I possess as a researcher and a scholar.”
In addition to students’ appraisal of their learning, the AAC&U Integrative Learning VALUE Rubric was used to assess five distinct criteria: (1) connections to experience, (2) connection to discipline, (3) transfer of learning, (4) integrated communication, and (5) reflection and self-assessment. By using a combination of reflective blogging and essay reflection assignments, the VALUE Rubric was used to document learning happening across undergraduate research experiences.
Students were not given the rubric prior to their research experiences during the pilot years of implementation so that we could assess the learning and reflection that was happening organically. We found some patterns in students’ responses, including scoring higher on reflection/self-assessment and connection to experience. Unless their research directly involved interdisciplinary collaborations, students tended to connect strongly within their own discipline but did not make interdisciplinary connections. For this reason, students scored lower on the connection to discipline category. Similarly, students less often organically demonstrated transfer of knowledge in their eportfolios without prompting.
Lessons we learned from piloting the eportoflio and scoring on the VALUE Rubric included the benefits of norming when multiple staff and faculty are scoring student work. Though initial scoring was consistently within one point of other reviewers, after one norming session, ratings were more consistent. This process also allowed us to modify the rubric to best suit our students’ experiences.
Using the eportfolio as a tool for undergraduate researchers helps them establish a professional identity and communicate research, all while also documenting their learning across the research experience. This practice can be an effective way for institutions to use authentic student work as a means for learning assessment. More broadly, such an approach not only benefits individual students but also can increase retention of underrepresented students in research fields and the preparation of researchers for their career pipeline.
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Natasha Oehlman, writing and professional communication associate, California State University, Monterey Bay; Heather Haegar, assessment and educational research associate, California State University, Monterey Bay; Bridgette Clarkston, curriculum associate and Research Experiences for Undergraduates program coordinator, California State University, Monterey Bay; and John E. Banks, director, Undergraduate Research Opportunities Center, California State University, Monterey Bay