Writing Portfolios in Biology: Balancing Process with Product

Author: 
Cindee Giffen, UW-Madison
Description: 
A course coordinator explains why the course evaluates biology students' drafts, reviews, and final products together in one portfolio.

In Introductory Biology 152, all students engage in an Independent Project (IP), a semester-long staged writing assignment. Students write a project proposal, a first draft, and a final paper in scientific journal article-style, and present their results to an audience of their peers and instructors. Students are given formative feedback on their proposal and first draft; only the final paper and oral presentation are formally graded. When the final paper is graded, instructors review not only the final product, but all previous drafts and reviews; this body of work becomes the student's IP portfolio. Students are given credit for making progress from one draft to the next, for how well they respond to their reviewers' comments, as well as for the quality of their final paper.

 

Why would you assign a portfolio writing assignment?

Many lower-division undergraduates need help in planning and executing a semester-long project, and may not be disciplined enough to work throughout the semester without periodic deadlines and having points associated with those deadlines. At the beginning of the semester all students are given 20 “progress points.” Students can keep all of these points by making adequate progress at each stage and submitting assignments on time. Progress points account for 20 of 120 total points for the written portion of the Independent Project. We hope that after having this experience, students will be better organized and more likely to start projects earlier in future courses. Students often comment on how much they have improved over the course of the semester, so we believe that students will be more likely to engage in the writing process (i.e. drafting, revision, peer review, editing) if they have had positive exposure to a portfolio assignment.

Grading a student's entire portfolio for a project allows an instructor to reward students for improvement and reinforce good working habits. If we formally graded each draft, students with a lower level of college preparation or ESL students could be disproportionately impacted. Our reviewers would not be able to focus on global concerns in early drafts, and high-achieving students might be less willing to put as much effort into the subsequent drafts. Portfolio grading enables an instructor to push each student to make gains in their writing, so that the final products are of the best quality possible.

Tracking a student's response to review is another advantage of the portfolio process. Introductory Biology 152 is a Communication-B course, and is therefore meant to teach students about discipline-specific communication. Responding to critical review is a fundamental part of science, so we explicitly define it as a goal of this assignment. Through several drafts, students learn how to incorporate reviewer comments into their writing, as well as how to defend their choices should they decide to not act on their reviewer's suggestion.

 

A complete Independent Project portfolio contains:

  • The final draft of the student's IP
  • For mentored research students: the mentor-reviewed and signed copy of their paper
  • ·Reviewed Proposal and First draft
  • ·Peer review sheet
  • Peer review receipt
  • Any additional materials specifically requested of you previously by your reviewer.
  • ·(Optional but recommended.) A letter to your reviewer supplying any necessary extra information regarding your particular project

 

Students are graded on the quality of their final paper, as well as the progress they made and their response to critical comments.