Writing Portfolio

Class of 2021 portfolios are due May 17, 2019*.

*Students who will be studying abroad in spring term must submit their portfolios Friday of 7th week in winter term.

Why in the world does Carleton want me to prepare a portfolio of my writing from courses?

The quick answer: To satisfy the College’s graduation requirement.

A better answer is contained in this thought experiment:

Imagine that you are competing for something you really want—maybe a job, an internship, a scholarship, a promotion, a trip around the world—and as part of the application, you have to submit something you have written, a single sample of your best work. Think about what you would choose. Now think about what that particular sample says about you. How does it show your strengths? What does it leave out?

Now imagine that you are allowed to add one more piece to the sample. How does that second piece complement the first? Does it strengthen your case? In what ways? Would a third piece add even more? If you imagine a reader reviewing your materials, what examples of your work would be most effective in representing you—one piece? Two? Three or more? What variety does a reader need to evaluate your writing in connection with the larger goal you seek?

As you can see, a range of written work reveals much more about your writing than a single example. The writing portfolio is deliberately positioned at the sixth term, the point where students declare a major and prepare for methods courses, junior colloquia, senior seminars, and comps. The Carleton faculty want all students to be confident that they have the writing experience to be successful in the major. A portfolio of work completed during the first six terms gives faculty a good sense of a student’s readiness for advanced writing in the major.

How did Carleton come up with a sophomore portfolio?

Carleton’s writing-across-the-curriculum philosophy assumes that students will write in nearly every course on subjects and in forms that will vary according to discipline, level of the course, and professors’ goals for each course. To measure a student’s ability to manage various writing situations, we could ask students to demonstrate their writing proficiency in various ways:

  1. Students could submit the paper that got the best grade in any course.
  2. Students could choose the paper that they think was most successful.
  3. Students could collect all the papers from one WR course.
  4. All students could take a writing exam at a specific date.

The first two of these choices invite the same problems you saw in the story above: one specimen, no matter how excellent in the context of a course, does not fully represent a college writer’s abilities.

The third option resembles what Carleton students did for many years—the work in one course was assessed for writing proficiency by the instructor of that course. Over time, students told us that they were frustrated by this method. Even though writing was contextualized within a course, the writing may or may not have been representative of a student’s broader experience of writing in college. Furthermore, the criteria for passing the writing requirement seemed to vary, depending on the course, the kind of writing assigned, and the instructor’s expectations.

The fourth option makes little sense in an environment where writing is valued as a means of learning rather than a de-contextualized exercise. Besides, we feared that students would revolt, and we sympathized.

In 1999, the College received a grant to explore new ways to assess student writing. Faculty held workshops, invited speakers from other schools who were national experts on writing assessment, and examined several assessment methods. Given the nature of Carleton’s curriculum and the broad mastery of writing strategies our students are expected to achieve, the faculty decided that a portfolio of work collected at the end of the sixth term would accomplish several important goals. (See next section.)

With the generous cooperation of volunteers from the class of 2004, faculty read pilot portfolios in the summer of 2001, and all students who entered in 2001 or later have been required to submit a portfolio. Every June, about 35 readers gather shortly after Commencement to read portfolios from the class that just completed the sixth term.

How do students benefit from preparing a portfolio?

  1. Students are in charge of choosing the writing they want faculty to evaluate.
  2. Students introduce their choices with a reflection on their experience as college writers and make an argument that the pieces in the portfolio document their writing achievements to date and their potential as writers in a major. This reflection is the only new writing required, and it offers students a chance to show how they can develop a persuasive argument from documentary evidence—their own writing for courses.
  3. A community sense of “good writing” at the sophomore level clarifies expectations of student work in advanced courses for both faculty and students.
  4. A portfolio provides the means of a) rewarding students who perform at an “exemplary” level via public recognition, and b) helping those students whose writing earns a “needs work” rating as they begin the junior year and the writing associated with the major.

Why do you claim that faculty improve their teaching by reading portfolios?

  1. After learning about methods of assessing student writing, faculty talked together about writing skills needed across the curriculum. In so doing, they developed a structure for a portfolio that would speak to rhetorical tasks necessary to succeed in all majors.
  2. Now that they routinely read portfolios, faculty have learned that their own teaching is affected by familiarity with student work across the curriculum. Faculty seldom get a chance to read work they have not assigned, and a portfolio allows for an efficient means of appreciating Carleton students’ experience as college writers. Through this rich experience of reading student work, faculty calibrate their expectations in their own courses, often revising their assignments to reflect what they have learned from assignments written by colleagues.

Why would I revise a paper for the portfolio?

Revision tells readers that writers care about their work and how it will be read. Some students worry that admitting to revision will mark them as poor writers who need to fix their writing before faculty can understand it. In some cases, that may be true. However, all writers benefit from revision, and no faculty reader will ever hold it against a writer that s/he took time to revise. Careful revision is a mark of careful thinking—and respect for readers.

What have we learned from Carleton students through their portfolios?

A few highlights:

The vast majority of Carleton students assemble a passing portfolio that shows their ability to write in several disciplines and in forms ranging from textual analysis to narrative to formal reports to laboratory procedures and more. Students are learning to produce the kind of writing that leads to success in college.

Writing at Carleton is truly across the curriculum. Portfolios (466) from the class of 2012 included assignments from 361 courses taught by 209 faculty members—that’s nearly 100% of the Carleton faculty teaching in any one year. (Courses such as History 100 and English 109 that have multiple sections are counted as one course.) Courses and faculty were distributed as follows:

  • Arts & Literature
    119 courses, 63 faculty
  • Humanities
    87 courses, 30 faculty
  • Social Sciences
    106 courses, 50 faculty
  • Natural Sciences & Mathematics
    48 courses, 56 faculty

(Totals do not include some courses taught on off-campus programs and a few transfer courses.)

As the scholarly literature on writing assessment predicts, the general quality of student writing is improving. Portfolios from previous years are always included in the scoring of a new class to measure consistency of evaluation. In most cases, evaluation is consistent indeed; however, a portfolio rated “exemplary” in 2002 would likely be rated as a high “pass” this year. We attribute the higher standard at the upper end of the range to better communication among faculty about effective teaching. Reading successful assignments written by colleagues offers faculty the chance to learn from one another. The result is a gradual improvement in the quality of assignments, which, in turn, helps engender better student writing for those improved assignments. We see a direct connection between faculty evaluation of portfolios, their subsequent teaching practices, and student learning. Overall, writing at Carleton is improving.

Where can I get help preparing my portfolio?

Please see the FAQ for answers to routine questions.  You may contact George Cusack, Director of the Writing Across the Curriculum, who will be glad to advise you. You may also talk with your academic adviser, staff and tutors at the Writing Center, professors who assign you writing, or your class dean.

Where can I get help with writing?