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Portfolio Best Way to Demonstrate
Quality of Teaching, Says Barker
December 6, 1999

Good teaching must be documented, and keeping a portfolio is the best way to do that, says Keith Barker, director of the Institute for Teaching and Learning.

A portfolio, he said recently, during a lunchtime workshop for more than 20 faculty and graduate assistants, can be useful in the promotion, tenure and reappointment process, when looking for a job, and as support for grant applications. And most important, it can help educators improve their teaching and student learning.

"We know how to document research," he said, "but teaching also needs to be well documented."

Use of a teaching portfolio is not required at UConn, but at a number of universities, including Texas A&M, Michigan State, and the University of Nebraska, portfolios are already used, at least in part, for personnel decisions.

A portfolio is a description of strengths and accomplishments, Barker said - akin to a list of research publications, a set of documents that collectively suggest the scope and quality of a faculty member's teaching.

He said a portfolio should include:

  • a statement of teaching philosophy;

  • a list of teaching responsibilities;

  • representative course syllabi;

  • steps taken to improve teaching;

  • instructional innovations and evaluations of effectiveness;

  • samples of student work;

  • student evaluations;

  • unsolicited compliments; and

  • statements from colleagues who have visited the classroom.

The package must describe more than the mechanics of teaching, he said. "It shouldn't be just 'here's the course, here's the syllabus,' but 'here's the evaluation, the measures, and the steps I've taken as a result. Always think of what your students are getting out of a class, not what you're putting into it."

Barker described some approaches to evaluation that he has tried in class.

He asks students to fill out a brief questionnaire, known as "the minute paper," at the end of class, with questions such as: "What was the most useful thing you learned? What question remains uppermost in your mind as we end this session? And what was the 'muddiest' point in this session?" He then responds to the issues raised in the next class, saying, for instance, "You said you wanted more examples, so we'll do at least one a week.

"Students like to know that you're taking notice of their comments," he said. The second time the questionnaire is used, he said, ask the same questions. Then the teacher can document improvement as a result of the data collection.

Barker said it is important to summarize the data in a way that can be used in a portfolio - for example, by tabulating the results.

Another approach he has tried is to develop a set of questions on the material taught in a course. He asks students these questions at the beginning of the semester and again at the end, and plots the results on a graph to show what the students have learned. "It gives me some confidence that I am achieving what I intended," he said.

"Don't discount what you do as being trivial," Barker cautioned, "because other people may not think so." In the 1980s, he said, he developed a grading sheet with weighted grades that was intended to ensure consistency across the different sections of his course. The sheet is still being used in computer science 10 years later. He now includes an example of the sheet in his portfolio to demonstrate his approach to assessing students' work.

Barker encourages faculty and teaching assistants to invite colleagues into the classroom to evaluate their teaching. A visit from one of the University's teaching fellows can be arranged through the Institute of Teaching and Learning. "Teaching is essentially private," he said, but a statement from someone who has visited the classroom can be a powerful endorsement.

Barker said it's important to gather material at the time. "Longitudina l data is very important. Don't wait until the last minute to compile your portfolio," he said. "You need to be proactive in collecting some of this data."

He said a portfolio, like a resume, is a living document that needs to be updated each semester. "The first time you do it, it takes a while to get in place, but once it's there, it's much easier to keep it modified."

Barker offered some tips for compiling the portfolio:

  • be selective;

  • keep the front material to a maximum of 15 pages, including statements on your activities, initiatives and accomplishments, but provide back-up material for reference;

  • arrange the items in order; and

  • compile supporting data that is available upon request.

The workshop, sponsored by the Institute for Teaching and Learning, will be offered again next semester.

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu