Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Portfolios time to rethink - a discussion paper for the English faculty

After completing the checking of my last portfolio only a few days ago and with only a few hours before my first exam appears on my desk for marking, I decided to put down in writing the thoughts that have been banging around in my head for the past few weeks. It's a bit of a ramble and if you're not in the teaching game it might be too much philosophising so stand warned!!!! However it is about time there was a little more thinking and a few fewer photos in this blog I suspect. 

There is little doubt that the portfolio system of student assessment falls short of truly judging either students' effort or ability. For teachers it is cumbersome and inadequate in terms of leaving all the final grading to the moment before exams commence and for students it relies on making a concerted effort over a prolonged period of time with little or no feedback about either their current ability or the areas in which they need to focus their attention to improve their grades. I am confident that most teachers only skim read the written work presented because of the pressure of receiving 50 -120 such portfolios within a very short time and immediately preceding the exams. I am also sure that most students only look at the grades awarded without reading in any depth the comments teachers may have made. This further discourages teachers from making more valuable comments and giving advice. Since students most often get their portfolios back after the exam results have been declared and the next submission date seems months away they are disinclined to pay very much attention to them.

I have struggled with how to make portfolios more viable and a more accurate form of assessment for all of the time I have spent in Bhutan and I can honestly say with limited success.

These are the measures I have taken both in the past and in Druk School this year. I have introduced a system of writing portfolios containing a balance of rewritten teacher corrected work, copied pieces from reading done throughout the term and original pieces of the student's choice. In addition I have stressed the need to present a variety of different styles of writing in each of these categories. The hope with teacher corrected inclusions was to firstly allow students to see their own writing presented as perfectly grammatically correct pieces whilst simultaneously requiring them to focus on the corrections and avoid making similar mistakes in the future writing. As for copying, they will do it anyway, so why not allow them to choose a variety of pieces, which they enjoy and see how their appreciation grows with what they choose. They should in fact learn about what constitutes good writing from this exercise. This option includes song lyrics, articles, other students' work, poems and many more but again the emphasis must be on only one piece of any one style. They also have the opportunity to learn how to state their sources and not simply plagiarise. Finally the original work gives them choice and options to write on topics and in styles that the curriculum doesn't usually cater to.

For reading portfolios I have also broken with convention and required different styles for each piece included. Students are encouraged to write character outlines and descriptions, summaries, graphic plot diagrams, recounts of single incidents in the book, lessons learnt, similar experiences of their own, judgements on the themes presented and quotes with explanations of meaning and why they chose it: the emphasis being on quality not quantity. These are skills that they are required to demonstrate in exam writing.

Well that was my thinking and modus operandi for the 3 and a half years anyway. Balance and variety being part of the criteria for grading as well as completion and development, helps to stress the importance of style and accuracy while also hoping to encourage the development of skills that will assist them in the future and not only in the subject of English. However the reality is that they stick to what they know, regurgitate the same pieces over different years to different teachers, having failed to put in any work until the very last minute and only the minimum effort is made for any number of reasons. Certainly some students have embraced these ideas and presented incredible portfolios but I feel they are the minority and those who already have an avid interest in reading and creative writing that I cannot claim to have inspired.

I have also committed to comprehensively, thoroughly and thoughtfully correcting their portfolios and returning them to the students before the exams commence so that they are aware of their mistakes and weaknesses as well as their strengths and are told their Continuous Assessment (CA) scores in their final lesson and prior to the exams. This is no mean feat and I will admit to being more than a little stir crazy and stressed in that final week of teaching in order to complete it to my satisfaction and by the deadline. Chasing students' work with the clock ticking and being down to the wire everyday when they most need personal assistance and reassurance is not a good way to go for any of us.

So what to do?

Abandon portfolios completely is my first advice. Select from the various topics covered throughout the term, compulsory pieces of writing which must be submitted within a reasonable time frame. Also provide the opportunity for a choice piece of writing where each student selects their own topic and style. Allow them to make informed choices for this work by suggesting after texts studied, "If you liked this text you could write ….."  for your choice piece. Give several options after each text and constantly remind students that this choice is 20% of their grade for writing. 

For both both compulsory and the choice piece:
1) Set deadlines.
2) Grade work as it is submitted.
3) Return writing to students as quickly as possible
4) Record their weaknesses and the advice given in comments.
5) Penalise repetition of these same errors in future pieces and expect improvement and development over the course of the term.

If I give an example to make this clearer, I would chose an essay, a poetry analysis, a letter and a short answer exercise based on a text as the compulsory writing pieces and grade each with criteria similar to those used in exams out of a possible 20 points. Add the choice piece and there are 100 points for writing over the term. When I have done this in the past, I also allowed students with very poor scores in one area to repeat that type of writing to improve. I usually assign a similar task on a different text and then average the scores so the initial weakness is reflected but improvement and extra effort is rewarded.

To add depth to this example I would associate the compulsory tasks with particular texts for which there is a logical connection. At class nine level the essay "My struggle for an education" is a good choice for essay writing as it can be a narrative based on their own experience of struggle or an expository essay outlining the Bhutanese Education System or even a persuasive essay about what changes in the system are needed. Poetry analysis is required in every paper 2 and certain questions reoccur so assigning typical questions about structure, form, poetic devices, imagery and meaning to any one of the poems studied will work and "Amalkanti" is a simple starting point as the poem itself is not too complex. For letter writing the text "The Big Story" is about unethical newspaper reporting and easily lends itself to letters to the editor. This leaves only the short answer practice to complete and the novel, which is a seen aspect of paper 2 is the obvious choice. For those who wish to repeat the process to improve their grades, it is easy as each chapter provides additional practise. Already I assign and correct pieces such as these as a part of homework and classwork so it is actually reducing the workload not adding to it. These tasks can easily be included in the year plan at the beginning of the year so that correcting can be spaced out and what pieces to include where in the curriculum coverage and the associated skills, can then be stipulated. Specifically teaching in an interconnected manner and integrating the teaching of grammar, writing skills and the study and analysis of texts together is a real benefit for students as it enables them to see the practical application of the skills while reinforcing the content.

This leaves us with only the reading portfolios to contend with and in fact the librarians are already doing a large part of this work by recording reading logs with students at various levels. If students themselves submit a reading log consisting of no more than the books they have honestly read this would be 20 % of the assessment. By having reasonable expectations we can expect honest logs. 2-3 books of any length are more than enough when we consider the amount of subject related reading that students at all levels are required to do. Books shared in the reading program with younger or older students can also be included. Students themselves can be required to submit a given number of pieces, which demonstrate reading outside the classroom, as and when they complete the books. I again would think 3 to be ample and grading each for 20 points to be a valuable exercise. Therefore another 60% of the grade is achieved. I would suggest the variety outlined above in the discussion of reading portfolios as they are currently assessed (by me at least) could be a starting point and students could be given the flexibility to produce any 3 of these pieces and for the final 20% they can be required to deliver a book talk, book promotion speech or talk on a person experience related to the plot of a book they have read, as a part of the speaking component of assessment thus 'killing 2 birds with one stone' as it were. This shouldn't create a huge additional work load and gives those students with an avid interest in reading the opportunity to do the work early in the term and continue to read with the assurance that most of their grade has already been achieved, while those who are less inspired can use library time and shared reading time to achieve one piece a month over the term.

I think that 5 pieces for a term in both the categories of writing and reading would not be too burdensome for students or teachers to grade and the advantages are that teachers are grading work in an ongoing process and when those CA scores are required it is simply a matter of doing the calculation, not a huge additional workload at the very time exams are about to start. For students they are receiving continual feedback about their writing with individual comments about their weaknesses and advice about how to improve so that they can, if motivated to do so, focus on their own improvement over the course of the term. There is also the possibility of being rewarded for putting in extra work. The reading work is similarly spread over the term time with more specific requirements being clearly stated.

I would continue the practice of rewriting corrected work to ensure that students actually notice the corrections and advice of teachers by maintaining a Model Answers display in the classroom. For weaker students there is a model to follow and they are able to clearly see what makes an answer that scores better than their own did score well and for better students there is a motivator to get their work displayed. This display which I currently maintain for senior students is also a source of material to copy in the current portfolio assessment method and an easy way to collect articles and student writing for publication in a school magazine or more public forum.

I look forward to discussing these ideas with colleagues and hope that they can be further clarified and fine tuned by those with more in depth working knowledge and an equal enthusiasm for refining the system to better serve our students and reduce the stress and pressure for committed teachers. The flexibility and choice given to students will hopefully be an additional motivator and being the eternal optimist that I am, I believe this will be a better and fairer assessment of students true abilities than portfolios can ever be made to be.  

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