Teaching Handbook

How to Prepare a Course Portfolio

Prepared by:  Carmen Werder    , July 2000

Overview | Design | Enactment | Results | General Tips

Adapted from The Course Portfolio: How Faculty Can Examine Their Teaching to Advance Practice and Improve Student Learning, Hutchings, Pat, ed. Washington D.C.: American Association for Higher Education, 1998.


"A portfolio is an illustrated story of the writer's thinking." --Carmen Werder, 2005

A course portfolio is a reflective notebook that an instructor creates on one course, including artifacts and commentary.

Course Portfolio = Artifacts from a specific course + Reflection on them.

A course portfolio provides an opportunity to investigate the intersection between pedagogy and learning-- to determine relationships between what we do as teachers and what students do as learners.

What are some typical approaches to the course portfolio?

  • Anatomy of a course (analyzing what it's made of)
  • Natural history of a course (chronicling how it evolved)
  • Ecology of a course (explaining how it fits in with other courses in a sequence/curriculum)
  • Laboratory notebook of a course (speculating on what it reveals)

What is its purpose(s)?

"Teaching and learning are full of busyness. Going and coming, we not only 'lay waste our powers,' but we risk losing sight of what we care about most. Portfolios provide a space or perch to see and remember what we're doing and also provide a record for the future." --Carmen Werder, 2005

  • To remind us of successes, questions, concerns encountered in a particular course
  • To describe and analyze the pedagogical reasoning implicit in a certain learning site
  • To document student learning and its relationship to instruction
  • To understand what's happening in a course
  • To enhance a course's effectiveness
  • To make public and share pedagogical insights
  • To enable professional rewards

Who is the audience(s)?

  • Self
  • Departmental, external, and potential colleagues
  • Tenure and promotion committees
  • Professional societies
  • Community
  • Students

Which course(s) should I choose to create a portfolio for?

  • A course you have taught before
  • A course you enjoy
  • A course that matters to you
  • A course you want to understand more
  • A course you want to improve or showcase
  • A course that is crucial in your department/program.

What are the steps to creating a portfolio? Also see General Tips at the bottom of this page.

  • Gathering diverse evidence or artifacts from a course
  • Selecting artifacts that reveal what you are interested in studying
  • Composing reflective commentary exploring your discoveries

What are the essential components of a course portfolio?

  • Design - overall course vision
  • Enactment - methods for implementation
  • Results - learning outcomes

Note well: TO BE A PORTFOLIO, IT MUST INCLUDE REFLECTION ON EACH OF THESE PIECES. Each component (Design, Enactment, and Results) is discussed in more detail below.

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The Design component of a course portfolio refers to the overall course vision, its grand scheme, its governing principle - its dream.

Design artifacts:

  • Syllabus
  • Schedule/Calendar
  • Course description
  • Goals
  • Objectives
  • Governing question (overall question that the course addresses)
  • Course topics or concepts
  • Learning outcomes

Some questions to consider in writing a Design Narrative:
In answering these questions, be sure to explain why you say what you do.

  • What overall question does the course address?
  • What is your overall vision for this course?
  • How does this course fit in with other courses in its surrounding curriculum?
  • How did this course come to be? What is your attitude toward this course?
  • What is the attitude of other faculty in your department toward this course?
  • What expectations do you have for this course in terms of student learning? What main challenges does this course present you?
  • What main benefits does this course provide you?
  • Why did you select this particular course to use as the basis of your portfolio?
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Enactment refers to the realization of a course vision, its actual implementation methods.

Enactment artifacts:

  • Assignments
  • Readings
  • Exercises 
  • Overhead copies
  • Lecture notes
  • Quizzes/Tests
  • In-class/out-of-class activities
  • Labs/Demonstrations
  • Study Questions/Guides
  • Research/Inquiry questions
  • Videotapes/peer observations of class sessions
  • Audiotapes of out-of-class interactions such as conferences
  • Hard copies of individual and group listserv discussions

Some questions to consider in writing an Enactment Narrative:
Remember: The most useful comments here are those that explain why you do what you do.

  • What rhythm does this course have from beginning to end? (starts quickly/starts slowly/gets intense at midterm/or?)
  • If you were going to describe your role in this course, what overall metaphor would you use? (For example, are you like a conductor who orchestrates the learning? Or like a midwife who oversees the labor of the learners? Or?)
  • If you were going to describe the students' role in this course, what overall metaphor would you use? (Musicians working to harmonize their learning? Expectant parents working to birth new ideas? Or?)
  • How would you describe the assignment sequence in this course and your rationale for this line-up?
  • What is the most important assignment/reading/activity in this course?
  • What is your favorite assignment/reading/activity in this course?
  • What is your least favorite assignment/reading/activity in this course?
  • If you were going to highlight one piece of this course that is most representative of its process, what would it be?
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Results refers to student performance based on learning outcomes, which should rely on evidence of student learning and may include demonstrated competencies, understandings, and attitudes.

Results Artifacts:

  • Learning outcomes
  • Student papers
  • Quizzes
  • Tests
  • Oral reports/presentations/demonstrations
  • Lab reports
  • Conferences
  • Web board/electronic discussion comments
  • Pre- and post-tests
  • Surveys
  • Evaluation rubrics
  • Grades

Some questions to consider in writing a Results Narrative: As always, focus your reflection on accounting for why the results occur as they do.

Based on the evidence of student performance that you have for this course:

  • What main learning outcome do most or all students seem to achieve?
  • What main learning outcome do some or many students fail to achieve?
  • How do you account for these results?
  • What is the most surprising result and what does it tell you?
  • What result are you most pleased about? Why?
  • What result are you most disturbed about? Why?
  • What feature(s) of the course do you definitely plan to keep? Why?
  • What feature(s) of the course might you revise/add? Why?
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General Tips

  • 1. Determine purpose(s), audience(s) and format(s) before you begin. Consider alternative versions for different audiences or purposes.
  • 2. Refer to Portfolios page of this Teaching Handbookand look at sample portfolios. Also look at The Course Portfolio (AAHE); this text includes detailed guidelines for compiling a portfolio, along with case studies drawn from the humanities, social sciences, and math/sciences.
  • 3. Be selective about what to include. The value of a portfolio results from highlighting essential features of a course. If it includes every scrap of instructional material or student response, the overall effect can be numbing, instead of informing.
  • 4. Consider using an electronic format. A hypertext format can resolve the design challenge because it allows you to present readers with summaries or condensed discussions along with electronic access to more detailed examples and additional evidence. It also facilitates going public by making the portfolio more portable.
  • 5. Arrange sections with reflective commentary first.
  • 6. Use navigation guides. No matter how selective you are, readers undoubtedly will need some help sorting through the portfolio, especially because it will likely be a new genre for them. Here are some options:
    • Table of Contents You might want to make it briefly annotated, so readers can spot items of particular interest to them.
    • Executive Summary or Overview Beginning with an overall view of the course can help readers get a sense of the big picture or larger theme of the course before jumping into its details.
    • Section Summary or Overview You might use the three main portfolio categories as your sections: Design, Enactment, and Results. In that case, the narrative for each component could serve as the section introduction. Or you might create even more sections and provide a brief preface to each one.
    • Tabs You could use colored tabs to divide the sections or use clear tabs in combination with color-coded pages to distinguish between different kinds of documents, e.g. blue for narrative/reflective commentary.
    • Index A comprehensive index at the back of the portfolio could include key terms or concepts that readers might use to navigate the smaller parts of each section.
    • Navigation Bar If you are using an electronic format, you could include a bar at the bottom of each page with each portfolio component available through links.
  • 7. Consult with colleagues. Like all pieces of writing, portfolios can benefit from multiple readers, so seek out responses from colleagues inside and outside your department.
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