Teaching Tips

The Course Portfolio

By William Cerbin
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

What do we mean by "teaching"? Too often teaching is identified only as the active interactions between teacher and students in a classroom setting (or even a tutorial session). I would argue that teaching, like other forms of scholarship, is an extended process that unfolds over time. It embodies at least five elements: vision, design, interactions, outcomes and analysis. (Shulman, 1998, p. 5)

If, as Lee Shulman contends, teaching entails an extended process of vision, design, interactions, outcomes and analysis, then where is teaching documented so that we can study it, discuss it, learn from it, understand it, replicate it, build upon and improve it? In other areas, our scholarly investigations evolve into manuscripts, articles, chapters, and monographs. What is the pedagogical equivalent of the research manuscript?

Frankly, the record of my teaching resides mainly in computer files and files of course syllabi, course assignments, lecture material, and student work. Any reader would have to infer from these artifacts, the vision, design, and interactions of the course, as well as what effect the course had on student learning and development. Only a forensic scientist or an archaeologist could construct a facsimile of my teaching from the artifacts I have accumulated. This is a common scenario. We lose good ideas about teaching because we do not preserve them. We fail to build and refine good ideas about teaching because there is so little upon which to build.

We need something equivalent to a "manuscript in progress" that explicates the vision, design, interactions, outcomes and analysis of teaching. I nominate a type of teaching portfolio-a course portfolio-as a viable candidate to fill this void. Such a portfolio is a superb mechanism for reflection on and improvement of one's teaching. It emphasizes a significant element in teaching, an individual course. Engaging in the course portfolio process necessitates a close look at:

  • Vision: One's goals and hopes for a course,
  • Design: What and how students will engage the subject-what they will read, discuss, experience, study, and hopefully learn,
  • Interaction: The nature and quality of teaching and learning in the course,
  • Outcomes: What students actually learn-changes in their knowledge, abilities, sensibilities, and attitudes, and
  • Analysis: Conclusions about student learning, successes, shortcomings, surprises and changes one would make to improve the course.

Broadly defined, a teaching portfolio is " . . . a factual description of a professor's strengths and accomplishments. It includes documents and materials which collectively suggest the scope and quality of a professor's teaching performance" (Seldin, 1993, p. 2). Portfolios at their best are more than collections of teaching artifacts (i.e., syllabi, assignments, evidence of student learning). They include analysis and reflection; they put forward an argument, make a case, summarize and explain an inquiry into teaching and learning.

Trying to make a coherent argument about, or sense of, all of one's teaching is an unwieldy prospect. A more manageable unit of analysis is the individual course. Our teaching lives are organized around courses. Our teaching often varies among courses; we teach a certain way in one and differently in another. A course is an identifiable entity with certain learning goals, teaching strategies, assignments intended to accomplish those goals, and outcomes (i.e., student learning). As a goal oriented endeavor, a course resembles an "experiment," as the following description suggests:

  • The course begins with significant goals and intentions, which are embodied in its design and expressed in the syllabus and other documents (such as a proposal to a curriculum committee).
  • Those goals and intentions are enacted or carried out in appropriate ways as the course material unfolds over the term.
  • And, as a result, certain outcomes emerge: students grasp (or do not) the key ideas/methods/values of the field that shaped the course design and enactment. (Hutchings, 1998, p. 16)

The course-as-experiment analogy suggests that a course portfolio is the write-up that documents the investigation of teaching and learning in the class. In it, the instructor explores questions about what, how and why students learned or did not learn what they were taught (or what the instructor intended them to learn). The investigation may be a broad exploratory study that examines what students actually learn in the course (i.e., to what extent they attain the stated course goals). Or, instructors might pursue specific questions inside the course, such as "Why can't students apply theoretical perspectives to behavior in real contexts?" or "Why is it so difficult for students to distinguish between causality and correlation?"

Imagine that you developed a course portfolio for one of the important classes each of you teach. What might be the consequences and benefits?

Portfolio authors report that moving from informal or episodic reflection to more sustained and systematic inquiry leads to deeper understanding of their teaching and how it affects student learning. As one biologist said about her portfolio development experience

Too many times, my good ideas about teaching are lost because they pass through my brain as fleeting thoughts or as unwritten resolutions to "do better." The opposite is also true. I repeat mistakes or make due with old strategies because I have not taken the time to rethink my game plan for a lesson or activity. My sense is that the very act of capturing those fleeting thoughts, of formalizing the game plan, of facing the failures, and of underlining the successes will help me to new places with my teaching. (Langsam, 1998, pp. 60-61)

An English professor suggests that portfolio development influenced his concept of teaching.

What most surprised me was how the portfolio increased my sense of unrealized potential in the classroom. I began to see teaching and learning in a more scholarly way-comprising a body of knowledge much in the way one's "discipline" does. . . I began to read more selectively in the research literature on teaching and learning, discovering new ideas and strategies for use in the classroom that made me more aware of the cognitive atmosphere in my classes. I saw-increasingly-many more opportunities to apply principles of good practice in my classes. (Mignon, 1998, pp. 69-70)

In my own case, I discovered fundamental discrepancies between my professed learning goals for the course and students' actual performance. The course syllabus indicated that critical thinking was an important goal of the course but, on close examination, I found I actually did little to facilitate the development of students' thinking. I certainly expected it on papers and examinations, but I was not really teaching it. Another realization came when I started to explore why students had so much difficulty applying newly learned concepts to novel situations and problems. I discovered that students were capable of paraphrasing and parroting back information but had little understanding of the material. This has led to a long-term study of students' understanding in my classes (Cerbin, 1992, 1995, 1999).

I doubt my experience is unique; there are always gaps between instructors' goals and students' performance, and gaps between instructors' goals and their own teaching practices. So, in an abnormal psychology class, an instructor who wants students to develop greater tolerance and empathy for mentally ill people finds she spends almost no time on that goal during the term. Or, an instructor who wants students to achieve a conceptual understanding of statistical inference finds that students do the computations adequately without understanding statistical principles. Or, an instructor in introductory psychology finds that students' misconceptions about human behavior remain unchanged as a result of the class.

Of course, the payoff for better understanding of teaching and learning should be better teaching and learning. The gaps between intentions, teaching practices and student learning provide the problems to be solved. Good course portfolios do not stop with analysis of problems-instructors often think through possible solutions, implement changes in their courses and assess those changes.

Discussions among instructors about teaching often stall or wander because participants do not share a common language, and because the topic lacks a concrete context. A course portfolio puts a problem in a specific context for all to see and examine. Imagine the difference between hallway conversations with colleagues about teaching and one that begins like this, "I've written about several new lab experiments I'm using in experimental psychology class and how students have done on them. Would you mind reading it and giving me some feedback on it?" Moreover, course portfolios may alter the discourse about teaching, as instructors shift from idiosyncratic or personal issues (i.e., my problems and successes in my class) to "problematics that are inherent in the teaching of the subject area" (Hutchings, 1998, p.88). For example, psychological research has shown that students' prior knowledge plays a key role in new learning. In our classes students' intuitive theories of behavior affect their learning of new disciplinary knowledge. But we have not addressed this general problem as a community of teachers.

Developing course portfolios might lead individual instructors to new discoveries and improvements in their teaching. Those ideas may have broader implications for advancing the practice of teaching. Other instructors could benefit by reading about how colleagues have grappled with the significant teaching and learning issues. Course portfolios could serve as a kind of pedagogical text with a variety of uses. Departments could use course portfolios as the basis for focused discussions about teaching and learning throughout the program. Advanced graduate students might study course portfolios as part of their preparation for teaching, and also produce a course portfolio as part of their TA experience. New faculty might benefit from being able to read portfolios of key courses in a department. Departments might ask senior faculty members to create "legacy" course portfolios to pass on their work to future generations of instructors. And so on.


  • Decide on a purpose. Start with a purpose for creating a portfolio. The purpose could be personal growth-to rekindle enthusiasm for teaching, to stimulate teaching improvement, or to reflect on one's development in teaching. Another purpose is to generate new pedagogical knowledge and influence teaching in the field. Still another is to demonstrate teaching performance for job application, promotion, tenure, or post tenure review. Of course, it is unlikely you would write one without a purpose, but purpose is important because it helps determine what goes in the portfolio.
  • Find a focus. Focus on a question, a problem, a dilemma, a predicament, a topic, or an issue of interest that helps structure and organize portfolio development. A good rule of thumb is to pursue a problem that is personally important in your teaching.
  • Adapt the portfolio to the audience. Who will read the portfolio and why? The audience for a personal growth portfolio might include the author and a few trusted colleagues. The audience for a portfolio in a tenure decision will be colleagues making a high stakes decision.
  • Anticipate the data and evidence you need. Collect the artifacts you need to make your case. Save student work, course evaluations, and copies of important materials. Videotape classes, etc.
  • Reflect on your practice. Portfolio development is an opportunity to examine one's basic assumptions, beliefs and teaching practices. Tell more than how you teach; explain why you teach the way you do.
  • Start small. Put aside analyzing the whole of the course. Build a single portfolio entry around an interesting question, experience or finding. This could be an analysis of a single class period or something you notice about students' interactions, or something about your own teaching worth exploring (e.g., trying small group activities for the first time in a large lecture class).
  • Seek feedback. Talk to colleagues about your work. Ask them to read it and discuss it with you. Don't pass up the opportunity to have a good discussion about teaching.

Purpose, focus and audience will help determine the contents of a portfolio. But, keep in mind four major categories-design, enactment, results and analysis.

  • Design. Discuss underlying assumptions and beliefs about teaching. How does your teaching philosophy translate into goals and practices? What are the learning goals and objectives of the course? What factors affect course design (required vs. elective, level of course, characteristics of students, etc)? Include an annotated syllabus that explains not only what the course entails, but why it is put together that way.
  • Enactment. What do students experience in the course? Include copies and explanations of important assignments, projects, learning activities, and exams that address the course goals. Consider including video or audio excerpts of actual teaching-learning episodes or classroom observations by colleagues.
  • Results. How are students changed by the course? What did they learn? How are they different with respect to knowledge, skills, dispositions, values, beliefs? What did they not accomplish that you hoped they would? This section need not scour every aspect of student learning, but should highlight how students performed with respect to the course objectives. Try to include the students' perspective through course evaluations or other forms of student feedback.
  • Analysis. What are your conclusions about the course, about the issues you investigated, about your teaching and student learning? Given the results of the course, what would you change to improve it?

A course portfolio examines teaching and learning in a single course. By structuring systematic inquiry into teaching, the portfolio development process can lead instructors to important insights about their teaching and its effect on student learning. Portfolios also have the potential to influence scholarly discourse about teaching-to foster systematic, focused discussion of significant issues and problems. As a source of pedagogical knowledge, portfolios could be used as texts to learn more about teaching and learning-and to advance the practice of teaching.

William Cerbin WILLIAM CERBIN is professor of psychology and assistant to the provost at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, La Crosse, WI, 54601. In 1992 he developed the first course portfolio. In 1998, as a Carnegie Scholar with the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, he studied students' understanding in his own educational psychology classes and completed a multimedia portfolio of that work, http://kml.carnegiefoundation.org/gallery/

References & Recommended Readings

Cerbin, W. (1992). A learning centered course portfolio. [Online]. Available
Cerbin, W. (1994). The course portfolio as a tool for continuous improvement of teaching and
     learning. Journal of Excellence in College Teaching, 5, 95-105.
Cerbin, W. (1995). Connecting assessment of learning to the improvement of teaching through
     the course portfolio. Assessment Update, 7(1), 4-6.
Cerbin, W., Pointer, D., Hatch, T., & Iiyoshi T. (1999). The development of student understanding in
     a problem-based educational psychology course. [Online]. Available
Hutchings, P. (1998). Defining features and significant functions of the course portfolio. In
     P. Hutchings, (Ed.). The course portfolio: How faculty can examine their teaching to advance
     practice and student learning. (pp.13-18), Washington, DC: American Association for Higher
Hutchings, P. (1998). A course portfolio for a creative writing course. In P. Hutchings, (Ed.). The
     course portfolio: How faculty can examine their teaching to advance practice and student
     learning. (pp.85-90), Washington, DC: American Association for Higher Education.
Langsam, D. (1998). A course portfolio for midcareer reflection. In P. Hutchings, (Ed.). The course
     portfolio: How faculty can examine their teaching to advance practice and student learning.
     (pp.57-63), Washington, DC: American Association for Higher Education.
Mignon, C. (1998). Post-tenure review: A case study of a course portfolio within a personnel file. In
     P. Hutchings, (Ed.). The course portfolio: How faculty can examine their teaching to advance
     practice and student learning. (pp. 69-70), Washington, DC: American Association for Higher
Samford University Problem-based Learning Project. Samford is involved in a university-wide effort
     to incorporate problem-based learning throughout the curriculum. Faculty who redesign PBL
     courses develop course portfolios to document their work. The portfolios undergo external peer
     review and are then published by the institution. http://www.samford.edu/pbl/aboutsu.html.
Shulman, L. (1998). Course anatomy: The dissection and analysis of knowledge through teaching.
     In P. Hutchings, (Ed.). The course portfolio: How faculty can examine their teaching to advance
     practice and student learning. (pp.5-12), Washington, DC: American Association for Higher

Note: This article first appeared in the April 2001 (Vol. 14, No. 4) issue of the APS Observer.