How to... Enrich a teaching portfolio

March 16, 2001

David Baume advises on how to inject a bit of soul into the bare facts that sketch a career.

It takes years, even decades, to build a good research career, but it is a record of achievement that is easy enough to document. A list of papers, chapters and books published, conference papers given, grants received, committees and panels served on, other honours and attainments will do the job.

But how can you document your teaching career? And some might ask: why would you want to?

An appraisal or career review is likely to involve at least some description of your teaching. For promotion, you may be asked to review your teaching work. And if you aspire to the dizzy heights of a university teaching award or a National Teaching Fellowship, you will need to give a detailed and analytic picture of your teaching and make a persuasive statement of how your teaching is exceptional. Or you may simply want to record, better understand and improve your teaching.

What is the best way to record experience?

It is simple enough to list courses you teach or have taught. You may be able to use formal course or module descriptions for the detail. If you do not have these documents, you will probably want to list for each course at least its title; the programme(s) with which it was associated; academic level; and course or module size (expressed as teaching hours, student learning hours or credit points).

This done, you have a minimal, but useful, list. Further information includes:

  • The proportion of the teaching you did
  • What kinds of teaching you did (for example, lectures, practicals)
  • The number of students on the course
  • What assessment you did
  • Your role in planning the assessment -did you write the assessment tasks or mark answers to questions set by someone else?
  • Did you design the course from scratch, modify it or teach it to someone else's design?
  • Did you lead the course? What did this entail?

This will provide you with a good set of data. But how to organise it? A course-by-course structure may be most appropriate, whether you are storing the information in electronic or paper form, or both. Another way to organise it is around your roles as a teacher. The Institute for Learning and Teaching's five areas of work ( www.ilt.ac.uk </a> ) and the earlier Staff and Educational Development Association list of higher education teaching competences ( www.seda.demon.co.uk </a> ) offer a clear and congenial framework. There is other information that might be useful. Preparing and teaching a course usually generates large amounts of material, such as lecture notes, seminar plans and handouts. Assessing the course generates yet more material.

This adds up to a substantial teaching portfolio, mostly assembled from materials in your computer or filing cabinet. (Instead of a lever arch file or three, your portfolio might take the form of an index signposting the information. You could include hyperlinks pointing to the relevant document files.) You may feel that you have a rather dry account. What else might usefully be included? How can you show something of the nature and quality of your teaching?

You should have some evaluative data -about the course as a whole and about your teaching in particular. What sort of data? Student feedback, whether from university or departmental surveys or from your own discussions with students. Aggregated student marks or grades. Comments from internal or external course review and from external examiners. Feedback from a colleague observing your teaching. At this stage, you may find it useful to produce a checklist of information to collect about your future teaching.

You may not be able to assemble a complete collection. Decide how far back it is useful to go. You may also have read or written about teaching and learning or taken part in staff development events. You could include notes of these filed or indexed by theme -"assessment", "group teaching", whatever headings connect best to your interests.

You may still feel the portfolio is incomplete or a little soulless. It describes what you have done, and gives clues on how and how well. But it says little about why you taught the way you did or about how effective you (as distinct from students) felt it was. It gives little sense of what you have learnt about your teaching, about how you have developed your understanding of teaching or about how and why you changed how you taught. If you want to achieve this much richer portfolio, you will need to produce analysis of and reflection on the evidence. To prompt this, here are four questions:

  • What am I particularly good at in teaching? A thoughtful answer to this, backed with evidence, will help you to write applications and plan for interviews, in deciding what teaching you would like to do next year (assuming you have some choice).
  • Which aspects of my teaching do I most need to work on? Student feedback or observation of your teaching by a trusted colleague may give you the answer. But do not ignore your own feelings. The more precisely you can locate problem areas, the better you can choose how to work on them - for example, locating relevant books or papers, attending a workshop, talking to a staff development colleague and evaluating new approaches.
  • What fascinates or excites me in teaching? Look beyond the facts and use the portfolio to prompt your memories of successful classes, startling pieces of student work or important teaching moments. You may find pointers to areas of teaching you would like to take further. There are many ways to teach well. Within the constraints that exist, why not use methods that you find particularly rewarding or effective? Your answer to this question may also suggest areas in which you would like to support and advise colleagues.
  • What have I discovered about my teaching? Reading through your portfolio will not just prompt memories. It may also suggest ideas, models, maybe even theories, about student learning and about your role in planning, supporting, provoking or assessing learning. Your discoveries could also suggest areas in which you could research and publish.

You may have some questions about this business of teaching portfolios. Let me anticipate and answer four:

  • Is this a huge job? If your information about your teaching is well organised and accessible, then no, assembling it or linking to it will not be. Making sense of it, however, takes time.
  • Do I need to do this all at once? No. Assembling, analysing and using a portfolio works best when it is an integrated part of your teaching life.
  • How do I use my portfolio for career review, applications and the like? Treat your portfolio as a well-indexed collection of resources, as a database rather than as a finished object. Your portfolio will speed up writing applications. The applications themselves will be well grounded in a thorough account and understanding of your teaching.
  • How do I know the portfolio is acceptable? Ask a colleague. Ask your staff developer. Look at some other teaching portfolios. Pretend you are on an appointment or promotion panel and judge it yourself.

David Baume is director of teaching development at the Centre for Higher Education Practice, the Open University.

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