Information Sheet #59

October 8, 1991


[Again this fall, the Ways of Knowing faculty have decided to participate in a portfolio reading exercise. This "Other Readers Program" involves obtaining 5-10 page portfolios from each WOK student and having each writing folder, composed of two or three papers from the WOK course, read by two or more faculty. The portfolios this year will be collected in the week prior to Thanksgiving vacation (Nov. 18) and each WOK instructor will have one week to read approximately 25 portfolios from four other sections. In the week after Thanksgiving vacation, WOK students will receive the faculty's scoring sheets, indicating each reader's response to the individual's collection of writing. In some instances with portfolios that are judged by the faculty readers to be "Not Passing," advisors or mentors may recommend to students the possible benefits of enrolling in a writing course for the spring term.

Printed below is a statement listing some of the advantages for students and faculty from this Other Readers Program. In terms of Coe's writing-across-the-curriculum goals, the initiation of the WOK portfolios is probably the most significant improvement of the writing program in the past two years. The voluntary participation of nearly all WOK faculty in the Other Readers Program has made it possible for the portfolio assignment to substantially strengthen the composition experience for our freshmen. --Bob Marrs]

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Nine Reasons for "Other Readers" Reading Portfolios

1. Establishment of College-Wide Composition Standards for Freshmen. Coe is among a small minority of colleges which survives without a freshman composition program, and Ways of Knowing is the only course in the freshman year when many students will do any academic writing which has been read and responded to by a faculty member. The portfolios afford a procedure for establishing reasonably clear and equitably applied standards which indicate what writing skills we expect from our freshmen by the end of their first term at Coe. The portfolios and the Other Readers Program enable the WOK faculty to establish a set of composition standards, to communicate those standards to our students, and to evaluate their work according to those common guidelines. The portfolios symbolize Coe's seriousness about writing and an expectation that all students should be capable of writing clean, thoughtful academic prose.

2. Leverage for Motivating Marginal Students. Ways of Knowing sections meet Writing Emphasis requirements in all but one major respect: a D- in WOK is sufficient for passing the course, but in Writing Emphasis courses a grade of C or higher is necessary to earn Writing Emphasis credit. The portfolio provides a uniform mechanism for identifying students who are not meeting acceptable standards in their compositions. Even if they receive a passing grade in the course, the instructor can use the portfolio evaluation as a leverage for convincing the student to concentrate on improving language skills. When a WOK instructor's evaluation is backed up by two or more Outside Readers, it is easier to persuade the student that a serious problem needs serious attention.

3. Value of Multiple Readers. Students need and deserve multiple readers for their work. In most courses, students put many hours of hard work into their compositions, only to have the papers read by one person. The portfolio with the Other Readers option rewards students by providing them with a broader audience, increasing the likelihood that they will receive some useful responses to their own work (in most cases, reinforcing comments and evaluations they had previously received from their instructor).

4. Fairness in Grading. Exchanging portfolios is an excellent means for helping faculty verify the fairness of their grading scale. By reading portfolios from 3-4 other sections (as well as participating in the two-hour norming session), faculty have the opportunity to read the compositions of students in other sections and learn how those compare with their own students. While portfolios do not determine any grades given by faculty members (e.g., a student can have a passing portfolio but still fail the course), the use of multiple readers for the portfolios should reassure most students that their grades reflect general faculty agreement and are not just the product of a single instructor's whim.

5. Instructor as Coach, not Adversary. The use of outside evaluators for portfolios can improve the relationship between the student and the WOK instructor. If Outside Readers are used to help determine whether portfolios are of passing quality, students are less likely to view their instructors as adversaries. The portfolio assignment enables the teacher to adopt the role of a coach, working on the side of the student, helping the student prepare a folder of writings that can be pleasurably read by faculty not previously familiar with the student's work.

6. Beneficial Emphasis on Meaningful Revision. The portfolio assignment will increase the amount and quality of revising done by students. Coe's writing curriculum is grounded in the importance of revising, on the assumption that "writing is rewriting." The portfolio calls upon students to produce one more version of their compositions, one further opportunity for them to learn from past experiences. The key to writing instruction is helping students learn how to read their own words; the portfolio assignment invites them to read with fresh eyes their compositions and see what they can find.

7. Student Ownership of Their Writing. The use of portfolios, with students having some options for choosing which works to include in their collection, increases the likelihood that students will assume "ownership" of their writing. Students are more likely to take their work seriously, caring about what they say and how they say it. By collecting their compositions for an outside audience and writing an introduction to the collection, students may begin to see their writings as a form of self-expression and development, not merely a fulfillment of an instructor's imposed assignment.

8. Potential Reward for All Students. Regardless of the strengths in the writing, every Coe freshman's papers reveal ample opportunities for improvement. Even most "A" papers are usually worth revising. The portfolio is a means for motivating the very best students to re-think their papers one more time, even though the student may have no doubt about the final grade. One benefit of the Other Readers Program is that the very best portfolios will be eligible for Book Store Gift Certificates. Last year eight $50 certificates were awarded; it appears that a similar set of awards will again be made available this year.

9. Potential Reward for Faculty: Improved Faculty Communication and Exchange of Ideas. Although the portfolio system has no direct influence on individual faculty assignments and grading practices, the portfolio does provide a mechanism so faculty can join together, discuss and share their assignments, talk about grading practices, compare how different faculty respond to student writing, and clarify their ideas about appropriate evaluations for student's papers.

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