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Developing a Course Portfolio

Overview: Enhancing the Quality of Courses

A Course Portfolio is a way of recording information about a course through the collection of subject outlines, student statistics and achievements, and, more importantly, through reflections on course changes. Developing a Course Portfolio enables faculties to improve their courses through reflective and iterative processes.

The quality of student learning is often related to the quality of courses that we as teachers provide. Student learning can be enhanced through appropriate and innovative assessments, relevant and interesting course materials and a high level of student engagement. As teachers it is our responsibility to ensure that our obvious part in the learning process, teaching, is supported by well thought out courses and programs.

Course development is not a static process but is something that evolves through monitoring and evaluating student thinking and progress, course materials, teaching and assessment, and many forms of evaluation. The development of a Course Portfolio enables each faculty to record changes, and the reason for the changes to their courses in a coherent fashion. The purpose of a Course Portfolio is to record the "story" or history of a course as it evolves and may be used to justify changes to aspects of the course, and for course review.

Several faculties have progressed towards the development of Course Portfolios and they have answered some useful Questions about Course Portfolios below.

History of the Course Portfolio

The course portfolio emerged from the Teaching Development and Quality Assurance Scheme in the mid 90s. A focus of the Quality Assurance Unit was the continuous improvement of courses and teaching, and as a consequence, the improvement in the quality of student learning.

The development of a Course Portfolio was recognised as a way that courses could be changed and improved in an informed and reflective manner. A rolling data collection cycle was suggested that could include materials from several different sources. Four main sources of data were suggested to reflect the views of the wider UTS community. These were: data supplied by the university in terms of assessment results, CEQ's, student entry data and so on; data collected from the School/Department, students and external stakeholders; data concerning course and subject documentation; and reports from previous reviews including changes suggested and made. (Note that student feedback questionnaires are managed by the Quality Development Unit.)

An interesting way to record, structure and reflect on subjects and then courses with colleagues is through online Course Portfolios and peer review. Bernstein and colleagues at the University of Nebraska have created a practical structure and model, which incorporates "inquiry into the intellectual work of a course, careful investigation of student understanding and performance, and faculty reflection on teaching effectiveness." See the University of Nebraska website and book Bernstein et al 2006 'Making Teaching and Learning Visible: Course Portfolios and the Peer Review of Teaching'. You could also talk to your IML faculty liaison person for further information about Course Portfolios. An ePortfolio is another way to consider documenting a Course Portfolio and if you are interested in exploring this please contact IML.  

Things to Consider

The comments below address some of the common questions about Course Portfolios and draw on the experiences of some UTS faculties when developing a Course Portfolio. They clearly indicate that Course Portfolios enhance the quality of courses through a process of collegial reflection. The adoption of Course Portfolios throughout the UTS community adds value to the quality of teaching and learning across the university.

Questions about Constructing a Course Portfolio

Portfolios can be found in Post Graduate Nursing with Christine Duffield, the Graduate Certificate in Higher Education with Jo McKenzie and have long been part of Practical Legal Training and Humanities and Social Sciences. The comments that follow describe the variety of ways that specific groups have approached the development of the Portfolio. They focus on important considerations for Course Portfolios: Why a portfolio is useful; Who uses the Portfolio, What goes into a Portfolio, Who contributes to the Portfolio, How much time it takes, The official function of the Portfolio, and Tips and Advice gleaned from their experiences.

Why Develop a Course Portfolio?

Some perspectives from across UTS faculties:

From Chris Duffield:

  • It has all the information organised in one logical place.
  • It is one way of keeping track of what we have done. If we want to change something then we can go back and say "Well, we have done this before".
  • The sorts of things that go in are useful for reviews. It is a way of helping to evaluate the course as the course goes on.
  • The portfolio is a place to record the result of the processes already in place for improving courses. We already had the system in place so it was a way of reorganising what we already had.

From Jo McKenzie:

  • To maintain a record of how the course has changed and developed and improved over time. And to record the range of ideas that people have contributed over time and how those ideas have evolved into a different kind of course. To develop a documentation of the process and a reflection of the process.

From Joyce Kirk:

  • Well, there are the usual pedagogical reasons, which I won't go into. There is a staff development function in terms of new people coming into a faculty. They try to get a handle on where things are and what the expectation are of certain programs so that they can enjoy what they are doing, to feel fulfilled using their talents, 'knowledges' and expertise.
  • From a Marketing perspective; whatever is in the course materials at any time is how the faculty sees itself, and what it sees as it's strengths and weaknesses, strengths mainly, and what it is prepared to be judged by.

Who would use it?

Chris Duffield:

  • I would, and staff would on the basis of future course revisions, or to track some historical reasons behind why we are now doing what we are doing.
  • I access the portfolio but it is not used on a day-to-day basis.

Jo McKenzie:

  • At the moment, I use when I go back to see what decisions were made the last time, what happened at the meeting last year, do we still think the same way this year. And every body does when material from it is circulated for meetings to remind them of previous decisions and what we think about it now.

Geoff Monahan:

  • I do. Also the staff, they have been very important. They come to the meetings when we talk about change.
  • At the moment though, the portfolio isn't in a state to be read! In the end I will get the team to have a look at it!.
  • We use the material from the portfolio when we have meetings. A lot of what goes on informally over tea, then feeds back into official meetings
  • The development of the course is a collegial process that is really important if we are going to achieve a lot in a short period of time. We keep coming back to the point of "What is the educational objective that we are trying to achieve?".

Joyce Kirk:

  • When there are new things, obviously the people who are responsible for setting up the quality assurance processes. The departments should be using that sort of documentation to help keep themselves on track, identifying issues that would suggest that new developments will occur.
  • The portfolio is also useful for people putting together documentation for strategies initiatives, for example, or also the Vice Chancellors Development Fund proposals.
  • It is useful for people going on PEP who would be looking for a lead about where to go. For instance our current documentation highlights the cross-cultural perspective and someone may want to grab some of that stuff to help determine their direction.

What goes into the Course Portfolio?

Chris Duffield:

  • We have put in evaluations of the programs; we had external advisory committees for every panel. Completion rates, whatever comes from student administration, statistical things. Course changes that have gone through. Minutes of the Curriculum Evaluation Committee.

Jo McKenzie:

  • A couple of different layers of things. The original documentation of meetings, course outlines, records of discussions that have happened, all that sort of documentation can happen in a file. The second layer is the extraction from that in the form of documents circulated to different members of the course team. What we decide at meetings and what the general outcome might look like. And a third layer that comes from either single day meetings reviewing the course or at retreats. Which is the outcome of the course as it has been revised up to this date, why it looks the way it does, future changes, and we try to come to a collective understanding of what it all means.
  • The portfolio records all the reflections and changes, and reflections on the changes in response to what the teaching group want, or things that the participants want, or things that come through the universities strategic plan and are deemed to be important, or government changes that influence it in some way.
  • Minutes from meetings, subject outlines and various other documents - like samples of past assignment

Geoff Monahan:

  • We keep folders with lots of things in them. We have continued the evaluation beyond the original pilot course. There have been some great benefits. I was able to work with the old CLT department to tailor evaluation questions for our own needs.
  • Results of focus groups with students. We really wanted the students to tell us how we could make the course better. We used the course evaluation questionnaire twice, in the middle and at the end, and we had course evaluations from different lecturers. The portfolio helped us not to make a knee jerk reaction to suggestions, but to perhaps modify some sections and recognise worthwhile activities.
  • We all intended to keep course diaries.
  • We put in CEQ's, student email, course diaries, focus group evaluations, the interim report, stats, all sorts of notes on changes, working notes on course changes, sometimes a napkin from a restaurant.

Joyce Kirk:

  • It is an iterative process, it is never static - which is its charm. It is a top down, bottom up process, happening all at once. We had been through a vision exercise and we decided to make it real through the development of the undergrad course. This included what we are and strengths and so on.
  • There has been a process going over about the last five years which has been the faculty seeing themselves as one group rather than two different schools. The outcome of all this is that there are 6 to 8 subjects that the students do in first year. It is records of these sorts of things that go into the portfolio. It has been a process that has involved a lot of conversation, meetings of the coordinators group, colleagues in the department and across the departments.
  • I think we have a less than 50 page document which sets out the graduate profile and set out the learning environment which we have geared very much to lifelong learning. And that sets the education framework for all the courses.
  • For each of our six undergraduate programs we have developed a graduate profile which is linked to lifelong learning, which has then dictated our approach to assessment, which in turn suggests our approach to delivery and then evaluation. Naturally the evaluation of courses will feed into the quality assurance processes.
  • It will also have things like the report on enrolment, and all that sort of information will go into a lever arch file. We discuss these things, make some notes and put these in the course portfolio and then we may review what is in the course portfolio at the end of each semester, and see what seems to be important. The we would have a meeting with the heads of departments and ask to them about things that have come out that may be useful in the planning of the next semester. And then this portfolio has a place on the shelf somewhere so that whoever is working on the course can come and have a look and get some background before they go into their planning.

Who contributes to the development of a Course Portfolio and puts it together?

Chris Duffield:

  • The Curriculum Committee generates a fair few things that go into the portfolios. The Board of Graduate Nursing Studies generates some items. The new courses and evaluations, that goes in. Student administration things that come across my desk. If individual coordinators have changed the assessment, they put this into the portfolio, what they have done and why.
  • The administration officer is an important contributor.

Jo McKenzie:

  • In this case it is a collective document but probably me as the course co ordinator. But it is the job of the collective group to go through reflections on it.

Geoff Monahan:

  • At the moment I do, every one else is really busy, but we all contribute to it.

Joyce Kirk:

  • Anybody who has a stake in it including academics, and the more the better, and then there are also tother groups such as professional associations, or leading figures in the field. Also the current students and people in other faculties, and there may be student in other faculties that may have contributions to the course.
  • There are some people who are motivators that can make changes, or if there is something adventurous to be done, the more people the better!
  • One of the tricks is to find out which expertise is needed when. Because course development is on going and most academics have contacts with the outside world, the are using feedback collected in whatever form in their usual teaching at subject level. While it looks like a whole raft of people, it is never all of those people all the time. It is much more subtle than that. 

How much time does it take?

Chris Duffield:

  • Honestly, I would have to say not all that much time because there were things that we were doing any way and now all we have to do is consolidate then into one portfolio. It only takes administrative time in photocopying and putting it into the Portfolio. The way that we have done it, it takes a lot less time.

Jo McKenzie:

  • Not a lot of time. It takes a little time to decide what sorts of information you want to collect from course participants, the time is taken in collecting and compiling it in some way. With numerical data that is easier than collecting qualitative data.
  • About once a semester there is a half day meeting with the course team.

Joyce Kirk:

  • I don't think that it takes a lot of time.
  • We are hoping to have a director of undergraduate programs who will have the responsibility of setting the portfolio up. It won't take a lot of time because it will be cumulative.

What official function does the Portfolio serve?

Chris Duffield:

  • If a student comes back and wants to know what they did, there is a record.
  • The portfolio has been useful in collecting every thing in one place so that it is easy to find if we need it for anything.
  • I am satisfied that what we have meets what the university wants in the portfolio, adjusting what we were already doing into a more manageable system.

Jo McKenzie:

  • Well yes, there is a university policy which says there should be a course portfolio. Now, if this is still current then we are doing the right thing.
  • You can take the information from the portfolio and make use of it for the reaccreditation of the course and the changes. This forms part of the quality process ready for review.
  • It records the evaluative processes of the participants including follow up questions and interviews a year after completion. These records demonstrate the participants' change in thinking about higher education and how their teaching has changed as a result. 

Geoff Monahan:

  • The portfolio gives us data at our fingertips, ready to use when we need it. It provides materials for Major Course changes.
  • The quality of student learning will improve because we have the course so much under control.

Tips and advice for developing new portfolios

Chris Duffield:

  • It needs to be driven by an Associate Dean, or that kind of a level, and include an administrative person to actually put the portfolio together. It could be that individual course coordinators should keep their own portfolio.
  • The portfolio has been painless to construct because we have always kept these sorts of details - now we are just collecting them differently.

Jo McKenzie:

  • Make sure documents referring to the course are all physically linked together. Start constructing the portfolio at the earliest time. Ours started from the time the course was developed because it was developed by a team of people that had a model in mind that you could evaluate what you were doing and should get feedback from participants and that you should, as a course team, think about what you are doing.
  • Collect small amounts of information on an ongoing basis by whatever method suits you best. In this way when it is time to re accredit the course there is not a huge scramble for information.
  • Don't do it on your own, do it with a team of people who may have different interests to you to enable you to reflect together on the course.

Geoff Monahan:

  • Use a dictaphone and take it with you or you end up writing on napkins. Create a growing file. Anything that's relevant, throw it in,
  • Create an interim report every so often to organise yourself. Keep regular documentation. Try to be methodical.

Joyce Kirk:

  • I think that in the last round of course review that there has been an enormous amount of good will from people in the faculty. I think people are much more prepared to work together and work in teams, and all of that, and I think that the more people working together, the more effective the course design. I think pragmatically, that it is really, really useful to have a little bit of money because people need an incentive to produce and meet together. So we have been very careful at all our course planning and group meetings to have them at lunchtime where we produce food. It is important to be hospitable when you are asking people to give up their time.
  • We rely on developing collegiality in order to develop the course portfolio.