Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

Learning through teaching portfolios?
Some observations from the coal-face

Martijntje M. Kulski
Department of Behavioural Health Sciences
Curtin University of Technology

Introduction

The Australian higher education sector has undergone a period of rapid expansion and dramatic change since the release of the Australian Government's 1988 White Paper, and the introduction of a unified national higher education system. (Dawkins, 1988). These reforms have impacted on both the long established and resultant newly formed universities, changing the organisational culture of these institutions in profound ways. More recently, Federal Government policy statements have placed quality high on the national agenda, and this has raised issues related to the quality of university teaching, as well as concerns regarding the evaluation of teaching in higher education. (Baldwin, 1991) Thus, a report by the Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training (Aulich Committee, 1990) on Priorities for Reform in Higher Education recommended
that the promotion of good teaching within higher education institutions be designated a national priority area and that, in the context of the development of profiles, institutions be requested to provide information on policies and programs which they have adopted to achieve this aim (1990:65).
The demands for greater accountability and for practices which will facilitate the improvement and appraisal of university teaching, have led to recommendations for the use of teaching portfolios in Australian universities. (Neumann, 1994) Wolf (1991) describes portfolios as
a structured collection of evidence of a teacher's best work that is selective, reflective, and collaborative, and demonstrates a teacher's accomplishments over time and across a variety of contexts.
Portfolio programs have been established for some years in Canadian colleges and universities, and are accepted practice in some American colleges. (Braskamp and Ory, 1994) In Australia, teaching portfolios are also beginning to gain acceptance as evidenced by a publication by the Federation of Australian University Staff Association (1987 p 1) which states
FAUSA supports recent moves to give an increased emphasis to teaching skills within universities, including in the context of appointments and promotions. However, it is not convinced that staff development resources are always adequately provided within university teaching and learning units designed to assist staff who wish to enhance their teaching skills. Equally, FAUSA is concerned that committees of review, such as those dealing with tenure or promotion, do not always deal with evidence of teaching ability in as clear a manner as they do with evidence of research achievements.
Advocating the use of teaching portfolios, the document goes on to say
It is for some of these reasons that FAUSA wishes to provide its members with a means by which they can show their own teaching skills to advantage." (Federation of Australian University Staff Association, 1987. p. 1)
The concerns expressed in the FAUSA (1987) guide, and other quarters (for example, Neumann, 1994); regarding practices for the enhancement and appraisal of teaching practices in Australian universities, coupled with a review of the literature on portfolio programs in the United States and Canada, prompted the case study described below. A teaching portfolio project was conducted which sought to provide a supportive environment in which academic staff could construct teaching portfolios and explore some of the issues surrounding portfolio use. The author was facilitator of this project and the findings below are based on the preliminary analysis of observational notes, transcripts of recordings of the group sessions, and written responses to group activities, which were undertaken during the course of the project.

Description of Teaching Portfolio Project

Funding was received from Curtin University's Teaching Learning Group, Quality Funds 1995-1996, for time release for academic staff in the School of Nursing to participate in a Teaching Portfolio Project (TPP). Applications for participation in the project were sought from forty three academic staff. Twenty three expressions of interest were received, and seventeen staff subsequently indicated a definite commitment to participate. Two of the contract staff who applied did not receive a renewal of their contract, and one tenured staff member could not be released from her duties, leaving a total of fourteen academic staff to commence the project at the beginning of second semester, 1996. Thirteen of the staff were at Lecturer Level B and one was a Level A Lecturer. The number of years of teaching experience ranged from 3 to 20 years. These staff met fortnightly, in two groups of seven (plus the facilitator) for seven two hourly sessions.

The program was the same for both groups, although, there was sufficient flexibility in the sessions for groups to pursue particular topics. Participants were provided with pre-reading material and a copy of the FAUSA guide 'How to Compile a Teaching Portfolio'. After an introductory session, which outlined general information on teaching portfolios and portfolio programs, group members developed individual and group goals for their participation in the project. In subsequent sessions, group members focused on their current practices in relation to improving or evaluating their teaching, the items they considered important to include in their own teaching portfolios and how teaching in different contexts (i.e. tutorials, clinical, lectures etc.) could best be documented. Provision was made in the sessions for individual progress and problems to be monitored and addressed, and each session was evaluated to determine issues requiring further attention.

An initial premise held in conducting the TPP was that in order to provide a platform on which the portfolios could be developed, the departure point for the groups' work would be to start from a 'base-line' of practices in which the academic staff participating in the project were already involved. That is, by sharing the expertise of the group in relation to what was already being done to improve or appraise teaching, this could be related to the construction of portfolios and other aspects of portfolio development, such as the items to be included in a teaching portfolio. Staff perceptions of the strategies used by the School and University to provide reward or recognition for good teaching were also determined..

Academic Staff Practices for Appraising and Improving Teaching

At the end of the first session, TPP participants were asked to list any strategies they used to improve their teaching practice. Individual lists ranged from a minimum of four strategies to a maximum of ten. The table below shows some of the strategies listed by TPP participants. The responses have been categorized according to a 49 item list of 'Possible items for inclusion' in teaching portfolios (Edgerton, et. al. 1991) which included the categories; products of good teaching, material from oneself, and information from others.

Table 1: Strategies for Improving Teaching

Examples of strategies used by participants in the TPP
for improving their teaching
No. of participants
using this strategy

Information from others:
Students - Formal
e.g. Student Appraisal of Teaching Forms; Student Opinion Questionnaires
6
Students - Informal
e.g. Qualitative feedback; discussion with students
7
Colleagues - Formal and Informal
e.g. Peer assessment; discussions with colleagues
5
Material from oneself:
Use of different/innovative teaching methods or strategies11
Attending workshops on teaching e.g. TLG6
Further studies in education e.g. Tertiary Teaching7
Reading journals, other material6
Reflecting/thinking about teaching4
Products of Good Teaching:
Assessing student learning e.g. pre-post classes5

Table 1 indicates some of the strategies utilised by the academic staff in the TPP for improving their teaching practice. In relation to items for inclusion in a teaching portfolio, all of the participants had listed at least several items which could potentially be included in their portfolios. That individual lists were by no means exhaustive, was indicated in the discussion on the group feedback on these lists, which were collated for a subsequent session. A number of the participants made comments to the effect that they also used strategies mentioned on the group list, but had not thought of these when compiling their individual lists. In general the strategies participants used to improve their teaching practice, came predominantly under the category of 'Material from oneself'.

The participants were also asked to list methods they used to evaluate or appraise their teaching, and some of the items listed in this exercise are shown in Table 2 below. Individual lists ranged from two to six methods used by the participants to evaluate their teaching. Again, the categories of portfolio items suggested by Edgerton et. al. (1991) have been used to group the responses.

Table 2: Methods for Appraising Teaching

Examples of methods used by participants in the TPP
for appraising their teaching
No. of participants
using this method

Information from others:
Students - Formal
e.g. Student Appraisal of Teaching Forms; Student Opinion Questionnaires
13
Students - Informal
e.g. Qualitative feedback; discussion with students
11
Colleagues - Formal and Informal
e.g. Peer assessment; discussions with colleagues
8
Material from oneself:
Reflecting/thinking about teaching4
Products of Good Teaching:
Assessing student learning e.g. work produced by students5
Same methods as for Improving Teaching (See Table 1)4

At least four of the participants indicated that the methods they used for appraising and improving their teaching were the same, and there was also considerable overlap in the lists, particularly in the area of student feedback. It has been suggested that portfolios may be constructed for both formative and summative evaluation purposes. (Anderson, 1993) Anderson (1993) points out

Conventional wisdom has it that evaluation and improvement make poor bedfellows, but accounts of campus use of portfolios suggest a more complicated relationship between the two - a relationship that portfolios might help us to rethink." (p. 2)
The findings suggest that some participants perceived appraising and improving their teaching as related activities, and in the group discussions the dual role of some activities were explored further. It emerged that some practices, for example, peer appraisal and qualitative eedback from students, were perceived by the participants to have more promise than others for both improving and assessing teaching.

As shown in Table 2 all but one of the participants used Student Appraisal of Teaching (SAT) forms. The distribution of SATs are organised routinely each semester by the University's Teaching and Learning Group. In light of this, and the University's promotion policies, which necessitates the provision of this feedback, the use of SATs by most of the participants is perhaps not surprising. However, in the group discussions it became apparent that whilst the participants regularly used SATs, many of them found this feedback to have limited value, either for assessing or improving their teaching. The comments indicated that the participants felt the SAT forms were too general, and the results could not be related to improvements in teaching in a meaningful way.

Strategies for the Reward or Recognition of Good Teaching

Whilst the participants appeared to have little difficulty in generating lists on the methods they used for appraising or improving their teaching practice, most found it hard to think of ways in which their efforts were recognised or rewarded by the institution, at either the School or University level, as shown in Table 3.

Table 3: Strategies for Reward or Recognition of Good Teaching

Staff comments on strategies employed by the University
or School for the Recognition or Reward of Good Teaching
No. of staff making
this comment

Excel/Alumni Awards5
Recognition from peers/feedback from students2
No recognition or reward for teaching5

In the group discussions, staff commented that there was little incentive provided by the University for the improvement of teaching practices. Furthermore, although some participants had heard of the Excel or Alumni awards for good teaching, none had a clear idea of how these were judged or the basis on which they were awarded.

Conclusions

Can university administrators and academic staff in Australia learn through teaching portfolios? If portfolio programs were to be used as a mechanism by which institutions can provide recognition and reward for excellence in teaching, then it may be a lesson worth learning. Insofar that it would appear desirable for academic staff development and appraisal processes to be implemented in a collaborative and consultative environment, teaching portfolio programs offer promise, in that academic staff can retain ownership of the process. Thus, teaching portfolio programs may provide a 'bottom-up' approach to appraisal and staff development practices, rather than the 'top-down' practices which are currently in place.

The findings outlined above suggest that prior to commencing in the TPP, many of the participants already had the 'makings' for the development of a teaching portfolio, despite the fact that these staff perceived little in the way of institutional support for their efforts. Indeed, it emerged that for some participants the issue was not so much what should be included in their portfolios but rather what to leave out. Whilst it is not suggested that this a representative sample of academic staff in Australian universities, it may well be the case that in a supportive institutional climate many academics may find their teaching portfolios are already somewhere in their filing cabinets. Now if only they had the incentive, the support and the time to put it all together! Further studies on these and other issues related to portfolio use in an Australian context will be required.

References

Anderson, Erin. (1993). Campus Use of the Teaching Portfolio. Washington, DC. American Association for Higher Education.

Aulich Committee, (1990). Priorities for Reform in Higher Education. Canberra, ACT: AGPS.

Baldwin, Peter. (1991). Higher Education: Quality and Diversity in the 1990s. Canberra, ACT: AGPS.

Braskamp, L. A. & Ory, J. C. (1994). Assessing Faculty Work: Enhancing Individual and Institutional Performance. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publishers.

Dawkins, J. (1988). Higher Education. A Policy Statement. Canberra, ACT: AGPS.

Federation of Australian University Staff Association. (1987). How to Compile a Teaching Portfolio: A FAUSA Guide. Melbourne: FAUSA.

Edgerton, Russell, Hutchings, Patricia and Quinlan, Kathleen. (1991). The Teaching Portfolio: Capturing the Scholarship in Teaching. Washington, DC: American Association for Higher Education.

Neumann, Ruth. (1994). Valuing quality teaching through recognition of context specific skills. The Australian Universities' Review, 37, 1, 8-13.

Wolf, Kenneth P. (1991). Teaching Portfolios: Synthesis of Research and Annotated Bibliography. San Francisco: Far West Lab. for Educational Research and Development.

Please cite as: Kulski, M. M. (1997). Learning through teaching portfolios?: Some observations from the coal-face. In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p182-186. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/kulski.html


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