There are several reasons why the faculty in the Biology Department instituted student portfolios as a major requirement. First and foremost we believe that portfolios represent an important learning process. Development of portfolios affords students an opportunity to bring together concepts and ideas from a variety of courses within and external to the major. Integration and synthesis are key to deeper and more sophisticated understanding of current problems. In short, we view portfolios as a key component in the transition from novice to expert learner. The following quote from page 31 of the Expanded Edition of How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School produced by the National Research Council and published by the National Academy Press in 2000 supports this decision:
Research shows that it is not simply general abilities, such as memory or intelligence, nor the use of general strategies that differentiate experts from novices. Instead, experts have acquired extensive knowledge that affects what they notice and how they organize, represent, and interpret information in their environment. This, in turn, affects their abilities to remember, reason, and solve problems.
A key component of a portfolio is the narrative in which the student reflects upon what she knows, how she knows it, and what she doesn't know. This metacognitive approach to learning has been demonstrated to increase students ability to problem-solve in new and unique environments (e.g., Palinscar and Brown, 1984; Scardamalia et al, 1984; Schoenfield, 1983, 1985, 1991).
A second reason for requiring a portfolio derives from the current climate of accountability. K-12 public schools are increasingly being held accountable for student learning by accreditation agencies and elected officials. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts chose to require all students to pass a high-stakes comprehensive exam (MCAS) as a graduation requirement. Many graduate school programs also require all students to pass comprehensive exams. These types of curriculum-wide comprehensive exams are not currently required in public higher education, but they are under discussion. Biology Department faculty opted for a comprehensive portfolio in lieu of a comprehensive examination.
Thirdly, we envision using student portfolios as one mechanism to evaluate our curriculum. We need to know if the curriculum is perfect (not likely), needs some revision (most probably), or should be thrown out and redone (not likely).
A good portfolio includes the following
Students begin developing their portfolio as soon as they enter the major, and continue to update, expand and refine it as they progress in their studies and learning. All entering students will enroll in the First Year Seminar wherein they will begin development of their online portfolios. Portfolio development will continue as students complete additional courses required for the major under the mentorship of their adviser.
Portfolios will be evaluated on a pass/fail basis only. Students that show clear thought, adequate knowledge and skills, reflection of self and place, and careful future planning will pass. Students with poorly completed materials, missing materials, discussions that show a lack of thought, etc. will not pass.
As this is an ever-evolving process, we will work closely with current seniors to help them develop the best portfolio possible so that it will not prevent them from graduating.
National Research Council. 2000. How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. National Academy Press. 374 pp.
Palinscar, A.S., and A.L. Brown. 1984. Reciprocal teaching of comprehension monitoring activities. Cognition and Instruction, 1:117-175.
Scardamalia, M., C. Bereiter, and R. Steinbach. 1984. Teachability of reflective processes in written composition. Cognitive Science, 8:173-190.
Schoenfield, A. H. 1983. Problem solving in the mathematics curriculum: A report, recommendation and annotated bibliography. Mathematical Association of America Notes No. 1.
Schoenfield, A. H. 1984. Mathematical problem solving. Academic Press, Orlando, Fl.
Schoenfield, A. H. 1991. On mathematics as sense making: An informal attack on the unfortunate divorce of formal and informal mathematics. Pp. 331-343 in Informal Reasoning and Education, J.F. Voss, D.N. Perkins, and J.W. Segal, eds. Earlbum, Hillsdale, NJ.