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«Signifying Authenticity: how valid is a portfolio approach to assessment? Dr Claire Stocks (claire.stocks Dr Chris Trevitt ...»

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Signifying Authenticity: how valid is a portfolio

approach to assessment?

Dr Claire Stocks (claire.stocks@learning.ox.ac.uk)

Dr Chris Trevitt (chris.trevitt@learning.ox.ac.uk)

Oxford Learning Institute, University of Oxford

Abstract

Portfolios are an increasingly common form of assessment, particularly in education (van

der Schaaf and Stokking, 2008; Baume and Yorke, 2002; Mclean and Bullard, 2000) but

also in professional courses like medicine and law (eg Driessen and van der Vleuten 2000; Driessen et al, 2005). Our experiences of using portfolio assessment in Higher Education are within educational development programmes designed to encourage doctoral students or lecturers to adopt a reflective approach to their professional practice (see, for example, Boud and Walker, 1998). In these programmes, the portfolio approach is intended to allow participants from a range of backgrounds and disciplines, with different levels of experience and expertise, to compile a document which is meaningful to them within their given context. However, there are several challenges associated with portfolio assessment and we would like to explore these more fully in this discussion paper (see, for example, Baume, 2001 or Elton and Johnston, 2002).

We are, in part, concerned with some of the common debates surrounding the reliability and validity of assessment practices more broadly. However, we will argue that these general concerns are often exacerbated in the case of portfolios which are, by their nature, intensely personal documents intended to signal the learning and personal transformation experienced (or not) by our participants (see Baume and Yorke, 2002). The meta- cognitive skills that the portfolio is supposed to represent are difficult to pin down and assessors have to rely heavily on qualitative professional judgement when making assessment decisions (see, for example, Driessen et al, 2005). In terms of portfolios as a valid approach to assessment, issues of authenticity become central – how does one judge whether the portfolio represents an authentic experience, or is simply an effort to play the assessment ‘game’? Are there ‘signifiers of authenticity’ that we might look for to help us to distinguish which participants have really developed the reflective insights and capacities that we aim for in our courses? These are the questions that we hope to address with reference to our own practice as assessors of portfolios.

Keywords: portfolios, assessment, authenticity, validity, reflective practice.

Introduction In this discussion paper we outline some of the challenges of using portfolio assessment.

Portfolios are an increasingly common form of assessment, particularly in education (van der Schaaf and Stokking, 2008; Baume and Yorke, 2002; Mclean and Bullard, 2000) but also in professional courses like medicine and law (eg Driessen and van der Vleuten 2000; Driessen et al, 2005). Our experiences of using portfolio assessment in Higher Education are within educational development programmes designed to encourage doctoral students or lecturers to adopt a reflective and research-informed approach to their professional practice (see, for example, Boud and Walker, 1998). In these programmes, the portfolio approach is intended to allow participants from a range of backgrounds and disciplines, with different levels of experience and expertise, to compile a document which is meaningful to them within their given context. Furthermore, two subsidiary aims – those of helping the participants to develop a vocabulary with which to describe their teaching, and helping to familiarise them with the research literature – were found by Young and Irving (2005) to be two symbols of ‘integrity of practice’. Young and Irving define ‘integrity of practice’ as “a lecturer’s ability to explain and justify professional practice in teaching”. Young and Irving found that, far from being a mere subsidiary to good teaching, the ability to articulate one’s approach to and thinking about teaching in the specialised discourse of the discipline allowed interviewees to “convey greater confidence in their ability to explain and justify their teaching decisions”. In this sense, ‘integrity of practice’ provides teachers with more confidence in their own decisions, making them more resilient when it comes to weathering the storms of change that assault Higher Education. Thus, “there does appear to be a sense in which the lack of a language with which to talk of teaching and learning is correlated with levels of confidence”. Based on Young and Irving’s findings, our emphasis on the written artefact and therefore on the language, rather than the practice, of teaching thus seems a less contentious way of judging teaching quality. Moreover, Young and Irving assert that one of the main roles for those who support lecturers’ professional development ought to be “[s]upporting lecturers in developing integrity of practice” by introducing them to the research and language of teaching in Higher Education. However, there are several challenges associated with portfolio assessment and we would like to explore these more fully in this paper.

We have taken the opportunity of presenting a discussion paper, rather than the perhaps more traditional conference paper, to experiment with and gain some feedback on a slightly unconventional approach to presentation.. As may be seen below, a significant body of the work presented here takes the form of a series of extracts which are longer than traditional quotations and are presented in the context of the author’s own thinking (rather than in the context of our own line of argument as shorter quotations are traditionally used). In order to help the reader to make sense of these large fragments of writing we also offer a framing narrative which highlights the areas which are of particular interest to us and helps the reader to follow the line of argument that we are seeking to develop. We have adopted this experimental approach firstly because it reflects the way in which we try to make sense of questions in our everyday practice – we seek out existing literature, select relevant passages, compare and contrast others’ arguments looking for points of agreement or conjecture and attempt to build our own line of argument that makes sense for us. Secondly, such an approach is less about reinventing the wheel (which Gibbs (1998) explicitly recognises as one feature of teaching in Higher Education where the lack of a research tradition has meant that the results of lecturers’ investigations into teaching have not traditionally been written up and disseminated) and more about making sense of existing thinking in our own particular context. The challenge, then, becomes making sense of the different viewpoints rather than simply using others’ voices to support our argument – again, this approach is perhaps more consistent with the day-to-day method that we would be likely to take with course participants as we encourage them to engage with the research literature in order to help us to think through a teaching problem.





We are, in part, concerned with some of the common debates surrounding the reliability and validity of assessment practices more broadly. However, we will argue that these general concerns are often exacerbated in the case of portfolios which are, by their nature, intensely personal documents intended to signal the learning and personal transformation experienced (or not) by our participants (see Baume and Yorke, 2002). The metacognitive skills that the portfolio is supposed to represent are difficult to pin down and assessors have to rely heavily on qualitative professional judgement when making assessment decisions (see, for example, Driessen et al, 2005)). In terms of portfolios as a valid approach to assessment, issues of authenticity become central – how does one judge whether the portfolio represents an authentic experience, or is simply an effort to play the assessment ‘game’? Indeed, ‘authenticity’ is often referred to in the literature on portfolios (this became clear as we compiled the excerpts below) but the difficulty associated with detecting differences between those accounts that are genuine and those that are not are often glossed over. To address this issue of authenticity we have, then, drawn on the work of several writers who all, to one degree or another, discuss the difficulties associated with the assessment of reflective portfolios. We have also turned to our own practice and tried to capture the process that we adopt when we are assessing portfolios. In so doing, we attempt to explore whether there are ‘signifiers of authenticity’ that we might look for to help us to distinguish which participants have really developed the reflective insights and capacities that we aim for in our courses.

What is a portfolio and why use them?

We start with an extract from Elton and Johnston (2002) that considers why portfolios have emerged as a preferred approach to assessment in many professional courses.

From Elton and Johnston:

Portfolios are seen as having the potential to:

engage students in tasks which are central to the educational process as perceived by theories of learning encourage students to take an active role in their own learning in the shape of formative assessment offer “authentic” assessment which in turn is likely to provide predictive information about how a student will perform after moving beyond the assessment (our emphasis) allow assessment of a wide range of learning achievements, providing detailed evidence of these which can inform teaching as well as enabling formative assessment help students develop reflective capacity which will in turn enable them to continue learning after passing beyond the immediate course encourage students to take an active role in their own assessment in that they may be able to select which work goes in the portfolio track students’ development over time showcase students’ responses to a wide range of assignments (Editorial 1998, p.303;

LeMahieu, Gitomer and Eresh 1995, p.11; Murphy 1994, p.179-80).

Various issues have to be unpacked in examining these claims. The reader will note that most claims for the benefits of portfolios relate to the claims made about the learning they can promote. Many of the problems raised about portfolio assessment relate to the consistency and fairness of their assessment.

The context in which we are using portfolios

There are three specific settings where we are using portfolios:

A discipline specific introduction to teaching and learning for graduate students who currently teach at Oxford, and who may wish to teach outside Oxford. It enables them to gain Higher Education Academy (HEA) Associate status. This programme aims to help participants to begin to gain skill and confidence in teaching as well as to begin to appreciate the educational or pedagogic grounds for particular approaches to teaching. By the end of the programme, participants should have an emerging understanding of how to design and plan teaching, understand the effects of particular teaching practices on student learning and have begun to develop a rationale and approach to teaching, based on reading, critical reflection and discussion with peers, colleagues and a mentor. They should also be aware of some of the ways in which their approach may need to be adapted beyond Oxford.

A programme for newly appointed academics, including those new to Oxford and those new to teaching, who wish to engage in structured reflection on teaching and related academic practice. The portfolio is an opportunity to gain HEA Fellow status. This programme aims to alleviate participants’ immediate practical concerns and hence deal with initial anxieties when they commence teaching. Drawing on the same rationale outlined above, it seeks to provide opportunities for participants to learn how student learning might be improved; is intended to contribute to participants’ motivation and satisfaction as university teachers, and begins to raise awareness of how university learning and teaching is influenced by contextual factors.

The Postgraduate Diploma in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education. This is a yearlong course for more experienced teachers who wish to reflect on and develop their skills.

Successful completion via portfolio confers HEA Fellow status and an Oxford Postgraduate Diploma qualification. The Diploma builds on and extends the aims of the programme outlined above -it offers participants the opportunity to learn how to evaluate student learning in existing programmes and construct improved curricula; like the programme above it also contributes to participants’ motivation and satisfaction but this time, not just as teachers, but as proactive innovators amongst and with university teachers; and it further develops in participants an awareness of how university learning and teaching is influenced by contextual factors.

In all cases portfolios are assessed by at least two examiners. In the case of the Diploma, both assessors are ‘educational experts’ from either educational development or Oxford University’s Department of Education (in addition, the programme has a dedicated external examiner). In the other two programmes one assessor is located in a discipline area allied to that of the portfolio author, and one assessor is an educational developer.

Portfolios for summative assessment: issues of validity and reliability



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