Assessing General Education Science Courses: A Portfolio Approach

By Offerdahl, Erika; Impey, Chris | Journal of College Science Teaching, May-June 2012 | Go to article overview

Assessing General Education Science Courses: A Portfolio Approach


Offerdahl, Erika, Impey, Chris, Journal of College Science Teaching


General education courses are frequently a component of the undergraduate curriculum at American colleges and universities (Meinwald & Hildebrand, 2010; Miller, 1988). Although the exact nature of the coursework varies from institution to institution, the intent of general education courses is to provide a broad knowledge and skills base for all college graduates, independent of their major. With respect to the goals of science instruction for nonscience majors, emphasis is often placed on developing students' understanding and appreciation of the nature of science as well as students' abilities to critically evaluate science-related news media and to communicate scientifically (American Association of Colleges and Universities, 2008), with the ultimate aim of developing students' scientific literacy.

Backward design is one approach to creating effective curriculum to realize such goals. Backward design begins with the articulation of clear and measurable learning objectives, followed by the identification of the assessments to be used to gauge student progress, and last by the planning of engaging learning experiences and instruction (National Research Council, 2001; Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). Although it is well-documented that assessment drives learning (e.g., National Research Council, 2001, 2011), it is uncommon for science faculty to have received formal pedagogical training on the best practices in implementing assessment for learning. As a result, assessment in undergraduate science is frequently designed through a "one-size-fits-all" approach (e.g., multiple-choice and forced-response exams) rather than with more authentic forms of assessment. Authentic assessments require students to apply and demonstrate their knowledge by engaging them in problems analogous to those that they will encounter in their lives as adult citizens (Wiggins, 1993). Portfolios have been identified as one tool for the authentic assessment of student learning (Collins, 1992).

The use of portfolios as an authentic assessment of student performance is very familiar in the humanities and the arts but less so in the sciences (Calfee & Perfumo, 1996; Collins, 1992). In the simplest of terms, a portfolio is nothing more than a "container of collected evidence for a purpose" (Collins, 1992, p. 452). As such, there are two decisions an instructor must make when using portfolios--what purpose the portfolio will serve and what will count as evidence. For example, the goal of a portfolio in undergraduate science education might be to demonstrate students' mastery of science content or to reveal their problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. A variety of student work can serve as evidence to fulfill the purpose of the portfolio. This evidence can range from artifacts that are produced in the normal course of work (i.e., written lab reports) to items produced specifically for use in the portfolio (i.e., reflection statements summarizing student growth; Collins, 1991).

Although portfolios are increasingly used in K-12 science classrooms and at the college level with preservice science teachers, their implementation in college science courses is still limited (Collins, 1992; Ziegler & Montplaisir, in press; Zubizarreta, 2009). Issues with the scoring of portfolios, both the time involved and the more subjective nature of portfolio work, present an obstacle for use by some faculty (Collins, 1992; Roecker, Baltisberger, Saderholm, Smithson, & Blair, 2007). Further, a tradition of portfolios in science education has not yet been established, meaning that "early attempts at portfolio design and development will be challenging until more models--actual and mental--become available" (Collins, 1992, p. 459).

The goal of this paper is to contribute to the limited number of examples of portfolio use in undergraduate science (e.g., see O'Sullivan et al., 2011; Roecker et al., 2007; Ziegler & Montplaisir, in press) and in so doing to support the future implementation of alternative approaches to the assessment of student learning in undergraduate science courses for nonmajors. …

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