Encouraging attendance and engagement through portfolio assessment

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Professor Lynne Murphy, Department of English Language and Linguistics, School of Media, Arts & Humanities

A classroom filled with prepared students, interested in the subject and eager to talk with each other about the subject. This is the goal. This is a classroom in which people learn. This is a classroom in which teachers enjoy teaching.

But these days, it feels like the world is conspiring against such classrooms. Standing in the way are the cost-of-living crisis, the mental-health crisis, the perennial academic-timetabling crisis, not to mention the after-effects of pandemic lockdowns. Students, for the most part, want to participate in their learning—but it’s easy for reading, attendance, and course enrichment activities to fall down the list of priorities behind pulling a work shift, saving a bus fare, or staying under a warm duvet.

We tell students that active engagement in their course will be worth their while, but the evidence we give for that claim is fuzzy. The rewards of engagement are not necessarily immediate or immediately perceptible. And it’s easy to understand how the intention to participate falls down. I know that physical exercise will be worth my while, but it’s a slog. It’s also hard to know where to start (weights? cardio? flexibility?). So, it goes lower and lower on my to-do list while I do the easier things first.

My solution for the exercise problem is to make myself accountable to others: to book a spot on a scheduled class or arrange a walk with a friend. The exercise gets crossed off the list. And that’s what I try to do for students: to make the individual rewards of course engagement more concrete, so it goes up the to-do list. Then the whole class benefits from an engaged studentship. Portfolio assessment makes this very doable.

What is a portfolio?

A portfolio is a collection of work (i.e. more than one piece), related to a theme (i.e. the module topic), produced over a period of time (i.e. the semester) (University Modes of Assessment).

The key here is that the contents of a portfolio are not prescribed. The types of work involved can vary across modules. A portfolio for one module might involve learning journals and a podcast. For another it might be multiple drafts of an essay or two. How portfolios are assessed can vary too.

Incorporating engagement into the portfolio

Of course, the main part of a portfolio must be academic work that tests the learning outcomes of the module. Engagement activities should relate to these learning outcomes as well, but should focus more on taking part than on mastering academic skills/content. In my modules, these activities are called participation (and so, from here I use participation as a synonym for engagement).In my first-year modules, participation is 20% of the portfolio mark, in order to instil good engagement practices from the start. From second year, it goes down to 10%. Appendix 1 below this post gives first- and final-year examples.

For the assessment-period portfolio submission, students submit a ‘participation record’ that indicates which activities they did during the term (first- and final-year examples in Appendix 2 below this post). (Not shown, but available on request: the Canvas information pages that make clear what each of the participation activities involves.)

Portfolio-friendly engagement activities

Engagement activities in the portfolio should:Set clear expectations. Students should know what counts as participation and when their deadlines for it are.

  1.    Set clear expectations.
    Students should know what counts as participation and when their deadlines for it are.
  2.    Have a virtual paper trail.
    Anything on the participation record should be independently verifiable through Canvas or Sussex Direct. I.e. either the student should be submitting something to Canvas or the tutor should be counting something on one of those platforms.
  3.    Avoid any potential for bias.
    In particular, staff should not be grading students on the frequency or quality of contributions to seminar discussions, as our perceptions of who’s said what/how much are unreliable (and there is no paper trail).
  4.    Offer choice / be inclusive.
    Not all students can or will participate in the same ways. It should be possible to get a very good participation score without attending extra events or speaking in front of class.

And, of course, the module convenor should consider the workload their activities create for themselves—e.g. what expectations to set about feedback on these activities.

Potential engagement activities include:

  • doing assigned formative work for feedback
  • participating in activities in the classroom
    • e.g. quizzes on the week’s reading, unassessed presentations, writing up ‘minutes’ of seminars for posting on Canvas
  • reflecting on the teaching material or the process of learning
    • e.g. learning journals
  • engaging with tutors or peers outside the classroom
    • e.g. attending student hours, forming/attending study groups, contributing to Canvas discussions
  • doing extension activities beyond the classroom
    • e.g. attending research seminars, Skills Hub events
  • doing extra module work
    • e.g. taking online quizzes, doing supplementary assignments
  • attendance at teaching sessions.

No portfolio should try to include all of these! The nature of the subject, the level, the tutor’s workload, and the module learning outcomes (see below) should come into consideration.

Some of these are more about engaging with the subject or learning processes individually; others are about building community among the cohort—including the tutors. Some are controversial—many believe the last one in particular is undoable. So that one gets two further sections:

Assessing attendance: directly

I asked Sussex Academic Developer Sarah Watson to review the ‘legality’ of how I treat attendance in portfolio assessment. She wrote:

Currently, there is no University policy to say that we can’t grade attendance, though it is of course a contested issue due to cost of living, caring responsibilities etc., With this in mind, it is recommended that students should not be penalised for not attending their lectures and seminars. However, you offset this by:

1. having attendance as only one aspect of the participation mark

2. allowing students to get the grade if they have informed you that they cannot attend

In other words, it’s OK to consider attendance as part of an engagement/participation mark because (1) students who fail to attend can ‘make up’ for poor attendance by doing more of other activities, and (2) ‘notified’ absences don’t count against anyone. Take the example of a student who attended 11/22 sessions (lecture and seminar) but emailed the tutor about each of the absences when they happened; that student would have a 100% attendance record (22/22). If the same student had not emailed the tutor, then they would have achieved 50% attendance. Emailing is certainly not the same as attending, but keeping in touch with the tutor at least shows continued engagement in the module while acknowledging that perfect attendance is often not possible.

In recent years, I have treated attendance as up to 10 or 20 participation marks (see appendices), relying on those percentages. In a class where it’s worth 10, then, the 50% attender gets 5 points toward participation. Another way to do it is to do categorical marking: with a certain number of points for hitting a certain attendance threshold. Those who don’t meet that threshold will know they should make it up with other kinds of participation.

Assessing attendance: indirectly

Another way to ensure attendance is to have participation activities that happen during class time. Our first-year modules have reading quizzes at each session, ‘played’ like pub quizzes in teams. Those quiz scores contribute to the portfolio mark. Zero scores resulting from notified absences are removed from the quiz average. (For what it’s worth, these quizzes are very popular; they are often requested in student evaluations of other modules.)

The maths

The total participation ‘points’ available should add up to at least 100, so they resemble a percentage mark that can easily be figured into the portfolio. (In some of my modules, students can get more than 100 participation points, and so some students’ marks are lifted considerably by participation.) 

Students are told to strive to do at least slightly better on their participation mark than they expect to do the rest of the portfolio, so that the participation helps their grade.

There is an aspect of ‘the rich get richer/the poor get poorer’. Students who are already well-organised and keen are the most likely to do the most participation work. Students who don’t engage enough to even know about the participation opportunities are likely to have their mark taken down further by lack of participation. But in the middle, I see students who might be struggling (whether with the material or with the social aspects of learning) putting themselves into a place where learning is more active and possible.

Incidentally, having a participation element in the module does not seem to result in rampant grade inflation. Average marks on my portfolio-assessed modules are in the low-mid 60s, like the marks for other modules I’ve taught.

Learning Outcomes/Resits

The portfolio as a whole must assess whether the student has achieved the module’s learning outcomes (LOs). But because portfolios submitted in the re-sit period generally cannot involve participation activities, no learning outcomes can explicitly demand engagement/participation.

So, I treat the participation element of the portfolio as being other means of engaging with the content/skills LOs. That may be direct engagement with it (as when students submit the assigned formative work), supplemental (as when they go to events related to the module content or skills development), or indirect (as through attendance, where they get opportunities to develop and show learning).

Give it a try!

I am an evangelist for portfolio development, and I’d be happy to talk with any Sussex colleagues about their portfolio ideas. Contact me at m.l.murphy@sussex.ac.uk.

Using the UK Professional Standards Framework (PSF) to ensure good practice and excellent student experience. This teaching practice outlined in this blog post is informed by the highlighted areas:

Areas of activity

  • A1 Design and plan learning activities and/or programmes of study
  • A2 Teach and/or support learning
  • A3 Assess and give feedback to learners
  • A4 Develop effective learning environments and approaches to student support and guidance
  • A5 Engage in continuing professional development in subjects/disciplines and their pedagogy, incorporating research, scholarship and the evaluation of professional practices

Core knowledge

  • K1 The subject material
  • K2 Appropriate methods for teaching, learning and assessing in the subject area and at the level of the academic programme
  • K3 How students learn, both generally and within their subject/ disciplinary area(s)
  • K4 The use and value of appropriate learning technologies
  • K5 Methods for evaluating the effectiveness of teaching
  • K6 The implications of quality assurance and quality enhancement for academic and professional practice with a particular focus on teaching

Professional values

  • V1 Respect individual learners and diverse learning communities
  • V2 Promote participation in higher education and equality of opportunity for learners
  • V3 Use evidence-informed approaches and the outcomes from research, scholarship and continuing professional development
  • V4 Acknowledge the wider context in which higher education operates recognising the implications for professional practice’
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