Electronic Portfolios in Science and Math

Argument for E-Portfolios in STEM
Course Examples, Assignments and Rubrics
STREAMS SPIDER Network Program and Mentoring
Assessment and Deep Learning
Hints for Implementation and References
Different Models for Different Purposes

Electronic Portfolios (e-portfolios) are online repositories where students display the progression of their work and reflect on the curricular and co-curricular elements of their college life.  Modern portfolios are learning tools.  The basic theory behind these portfolios is that by promoting reflective thinking we encourage students to consolidate their learning through actively engaging with what they know, why they know it, and how they learned it.  E-portfolios allow students to have a place where they store examples of their work and start to build a resume’.  But the value-added component is that the reflective actions of selecting examples of best-work and explaining why this is their best work can lead students to a deeper understanding where they begin to see connections between their classes and gain deeper insight into their discipline and knowledge base.

Scientists and mathematicians traditionally underutilize writing as a strategy to promote student learning, even though in one form or another, we use writing a lot as professionals.  Yes, there is the formal writing of journal articles for publication, but as practitioners we also

Even though we do all these things on a regular basis, we often only ask students to write in formal “lab report” styles.  E-portfolios are one way to tap into proven strategies from the Writing-to-Learn and Writing-Across-the-Curriculum movements to produce credible assignments for students that would aid their learning.

In addition to teaching with writing, e-portfolios promote a reflective approach to problem-solving. In high school and the early years of college, students are taught the tools of science. With those tools comes a deception that science is based on certainty, on methods that work, on “facts” which are clearly known.  This is partially necessary – all scientists need to know the past’s problems and how they were solved – in part to understand the problems we face today and in part to see what types of solutions worked in the past. 

But the daily grind, the default mode, for researchers is fundamentally tied in with a state of uncertainty, of doubt, of questioning.  What a scientist does is examine what is not known.  She lives right at the boundary of what is known, speculated, hypothesized, and totally bewildering.  But to live there and not become totally lost requires a constant re-grounding and reflection.  Without a process of thinking about what one does know, and how one has arrived at the current place where questions are open, every possible answer seems just as likely and research is hopeless.

For students to transform from early learners of particular facts and methods to practicing scientists or mathematicians, concrete steps need to be put into place to improve the novice scientist’s skills of self-critical reflection.  E-portfolios can help young scientists organize their thoughts and practice reflecting on what they are learning.  Assigned entries can help students reflect on what they know, what methods led to that knowledge, what others know that they don’t yet, or what no one yet knows but might soon be knowable given the right approach. 

E-portfolios, or learning portfolios in general, can serve a wide variety of audiences and purposes.  In these materials, we point to different uses in classroom or lab settings, uses as part of a longitudinal effort to help students see connections along their learning curve for multiple years, uses for departmental program review, and uses as part of mentoring programs.

There are three components to the successful creation of any e-portfolio: honest, self-critical reflection; mentoring and collaboration; and documentation and evidence. The trick in making e-portfolios manageable is to find ways to use the portfolio process within the learning activities that already take place within a course or major.  Neither students nor faculty have time to make the e-portfolio an add-on.  But clever re-purposing of assignments and scaffolding of assignments into an e-portfolio form can be done, and we give some suggestions from the literature in what follows.

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