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The Art of Teaching, Session 2: Using Portfolios to Improve and Evaluate Teaching

Universities and colleges increasingly emphasize teaching effectiveness as a factor in promotion and tenure decisions. Because of this changing emphasis, the number and quality of your research publications may no longer be the only measure of whether you climb to the next rung of the academic ladder. Given this fact, how can you document your teaching efforts to colleagues who will be making decisions about your future?

Careful development of course and teaching portfolios can be invaluable for educating your colleagues about your teaching. In addition, these portfolios can be tools for improving your effectiveness in the classroom or teaching laboratory.

A course portfolio documents your year-by-year teaching efforts in an individual course, providing a history of your innovations and their outcomes. By contrast, a teaching portfolio documents your global teaching efforts, including both formal and informal teaching, and is frequently used by colleagues to evaluate overall teaching effectiveness. Although the two collections of information overlap, we'll consider first the makeup of a course portfolio.

The Course Portfolio

A course portfolio explains what you are planning to do in a course and why, organizes information about the course, and evaluates the course to inform and direct future efforts. Begin your course portfolio with a paragraph that describes your global teaching philosophy, a statement that will also be included in your teaching portfolio. In writing this statement, consider: How do you view the connection between your teaching and research? What general outcomes are you hoping to achieve? How do you view your role in the classroom? What excites you about teaching? What hurdles do you face? What global needs do your students have? How are you planning to meet those needs? This statement will undoubtedly evolve as you gain teaching experience. Consequently, revisit it frequently as your teaching career progresses.

Before you begin to teach, get yourself a large binder in which to gather materials on a week-by-week basis. Put your teaching philosophy statement at the front of the binder. Now, place a divider in the binder for each class that you teach and another for the informal teaching that you do in association with that course (e.g., undergraduate advising, directing undergraduate and graduate research projects, and outreach efforts). The binder will provide a single location in which to accumulate the complete story of your teaching efforts.

For formal classes, write a paragraph describing the outcomes your students should achieve during this class. Explain the activities your students will do during the class to achieve those outcomes, and describe how you will evaluate their success. For classes you are teaching again, explain previous problems and your strategies to overcome them. If you are planning novel teaching approaches, explain why you selected the strategy and how you will determine its success. Include any information relevant to course development, including workshop participation, consultation with your university's teaching center, meetings with former teachers, and meetings with students. Having articulated what you plan to accomplish in the course, you are ready to finalize your syllabus, incorporating these fresh ideas and goals as well as building on your previous experiences.

As the course progresses, add all documents concerning your class to the binder, including the following:

  • The syllabus

  • The class list

  • A list of the teaching assistants (TAs), their roles in the class, and your TA-training activities

  • Handouts

  • Exams and other forms of student evaluation

  • Lists of videos or other resources used in class

  • Field trip information

  • Web site references

  • Examples of student work, including your feedback on the work

  • Student grades

  • Videotapes of class sessions

  • Course evaluations and comments from students, TAs, and peers. (Be sure to arrange for colleagues to visit your class and ask them for written feedback!)

Have a labeled box available to accumulate larger documents, such as lab manuals or extensive course notes that students receive. You should feel free to ask students to write evaluation letters to include in the course portfolio. Definitely include all unsolicited comments, both positive and negative.

The final and most important information to include is a reflective statement about the course. Begin by reviewing the course materials and making any relevant annotations for future classes. After the course has been completed and you have gathered all of the relevant data, including evaluations, write a substantive reflection on the course. How well did your students meet the intended outcomes? What activities worked particularly well and should be continued in the future? What problems were encountered? What should be changed? Based on both successes and failures, what do you plan to do next time? This final reflection becomes the basis for the goal statement the next time you teach the course.

For informal teaching responsibilities, your course portfolio notebook should contain lists of key information concerning the students with whom you interacted. For graduate students and undergraduate researchers, include a permanent address so that you can track their careers after they leave the lab. Add information about each student's research progress, including the student's awards and scholarships, lab reports, abstracts from meetings, and publications, both local and national. For outreach efforts, include a brief description of the activity and a list of the individuals with whom you worked. Keep any relevant documents such as thank-you notes.

Note: You may also want to keep photo records of teaching activities, for your own records or to share with others. So keep a camera handy!

The Teaching Portfolio

Most teaching portfolios begin with a statement of your global teaching philosophy. Because you have been creating and modifying this statement for each of your course portfolios, you will have developed a rich statement that has evolved over the years to reflect your own unique teaching experiences and strengths. The teaching philosophy statement is usually followed by a description of your teaching responsibilities and experiences. In this statement, you can summarize the innovations and changes you made to each course over the years. For example, describe new lab activities, changes in class format, introduction of problem-based learning, development of new problem sets, and addition of teaching technology. Also include a brief summary of any activities you engaged in to improve your teaching (e.g., workshops and consultations).

The third portion of a teaching portfolio provides documents that support your teaching effectiveness. For formal courses, include samples of course syllabi, home pages of course Web sites, evidence of teaching innovation, and examples of student work. For informal teaching, include a list of all students with whom you worked, their accomplishments, and where they are now in their careers. All of these documents should be annotated so that a reviewer can easily understand why the item was chosen and how it highlights your teaching effectiveness.

The final section of a teaching portfolio deals with evaluation of your teaching effectiveness. In this section, include information about how your courses were evaluated and how your teaching activities accommodated evaluations by yourself, your students, TAs, and peers. Include letters from students and peers, thank-you notes for outreach activities, and any other documents that help demonstrate how your teaching affects your department, college, university, and community.

Maintenance of course and teaching portfolios can help you both develop and demonstrate a scholarly approach to teaching. In this way, they underscore the integral relation between research and teaching, an increasingly important goal in research universities.

Useful References:

A variety of Web sites offer information about examples of teaching and course portfolios. Some of these are listed below.

Teaching Portfolios

The University of Texas series of teaching portfolio how to's

Western Washington University's comprehensive information, including two sample portfolios and an extensive reference list

The University of Tennessee's similarly comprehensive information

A collection of sample teaching portfolios from K-12 teachers to professors from the University of Virginia

Step-by-step instructions for developing a teaching portfolio, from the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning at Brown University

Excerpts from The Teaching Portfolio - A Practical Guide to Improved Promotion and Promotion/Tenure by Peter Seldin

Another excellent article out of Stanford University's Center for Learning and Teaching (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader)

A collection of tips, advice, and examples from the University of Washington's Center for Teaching and Learning

Course Portfolios

To-the-point information on course and teaching portfolios from the University of Washington's Department of Fisheries

The University of Wisconsin Handbook for Creating a Course Portfolio, an extensive article designed for teaching assistants but valuable for anyone