From the AHTR Archives: Wrapping up with student reflections

Editor’s note: This post was originally published as “Wrapping Up: asking students to reflect and evaluate” on Dec. 3, 2013.  Please share your own experiences with assigning course reflections at the end of the semester in the comments below or with AHTR’s public group on Facebook.  


We’re nearly at the end of the semester and I’m currently writing the latest iteration of my students’ final (non-test) assignment for the semester, the portfolio and self-evaluation. The instructions for the portfolio and self-evaluation assignment are fairly straightforward: to create their portfolio, students are asked to gather all of their work completed and then, based on provided questions or prompts, write 2-3 pages reflecting on their work for the semester. (You can collect the 2-3 page paper along with the portfolio though with online submissions becoming more common, a list of all the works in the portfolio works, too.)

The portfolio is a collection of pieces that are intended to showcase an artist’s best work, and therefore it can only exist once the processes of creation, editing, receiving outside critique, and revision have been completed. I was first introduced to the concept of using the portfolio as an assignment when I taught at a four-year private arts school where most students majored in studio, graphic, or design major. Accordingly, the curriculum and coursework was oriented towards building students’ portfolios. The concept of the portfolio was applied across disciplines and required, in form or another, as an assignment for all non-studio classes to reinforce to the students – the emerging artists – the value of feedback and trusting their instincts. Over the years, I’ve modified the details and particulars of the assignment but it largely exists in the form that I’ve described above, and the goal has always remained the same: to get students to objectively evaluate their work and to take stock of the progress that they’ve made.

The portfolio and self-evaluation assignment is an example of a “semi-structured task” in which students are given guidance as to what to say but still have the freedom to discover and develop ideas, and falls within the larger category of informal exploratory writing that is described by John C. Bean in the book Engaging Ideas. The questions included in the assignment are intended to guide students’ in two ways: to evaluate their work beyond the letter grade, and to develop solutions rather than dwelling on mistakes by identifying individual strengths and weaknesses. Generally, my questions look something like this:

  1. Describe the one strongest work and the one weakest work in your portfolio. How did you determine what work was “strong” and “weak”?
  2. Describe the easiest assignment to complete and the most difficult assignment to complete. What was the difference between an “easy” and “difficult” assignment?
  3. If you could redo any one piece in your portfolio, which would it be and why? What would you do differently?
  4. Reflect on what your portfolio may not reveal about the semester. Do you think the work in your portfolio is an accurate reflection of your development in the class?
    • Were there any aspects of art history that came naturally to you? How did you use this to your advantage?
    • Were there any aspects that were difficult? Were you able to devise a strategy to manage those difficulties?
    • What did you think would be easy for you but in reality, turned out to be difficult? What was difficult for you but then was easier than you anticipated?
  5. Was there a turning point in the semester for you? When did it occur and why did it happen? Is this “a-ha” moment included or reflected in your portfolio?

While most assignments can be designed to include a reflection or evaluation component, the portfolio and self-evaluation is a really valuable end-of-semester assignment because it only requires students to slow down and take stock of what they’ve accomplished. Here are some excerpts from past students’ self-evaluations (sic throughout):

  • “I don’t think my portfolio is an exact reflection of my development in ART 201 … it would only apply if I actually wrote about my development every time, almost like a journal or my mental notes. I think that type of documentation would have shown my development.”
  • “Connecting the disparate dots of this assignment has been helpful, as it as a kind of a conclusion to the overall course in my eyes.  By going back and looking at earlier postings and writings to the course and comparing them to the more recent ones I can see improvement in how I put my ideas about art and its context into words.” (Note: this self-evaluation was written by a student in an online class and they picked their top three strongest/weakest posts.)
  • “This portfolio gives me an opportunity to reflect back on the work I’ve learned in the past few weeks, materials I’ve struggled over, and how I’ve grown as a student. Describing a work of art came easily to me due to my previous art classes, but understanding Modern Art, finding a meaning, the significance and comparing the work of different artist was a bit of a challenge.”
  • “I realized that I should probably get comfortable at using text/resources faster because they really do help.”
  • “[General education classes] give students who are taking difficult courses more work and force them to learn things that they are never going to use in life … Luckily this class was a benefit to me because my works in my portfolio helped me to become a better writer and as an English major that is a huge part goal of mine to just better my writing. I like to learn new things and discover that even if I do not like something I can do well in it.”
  • “I have grown tremendously as a person and with my knowledge of art. I came into this class with low expectations and a negative outlook on the subject. This hindered my performance more than it was by my apparent lack of art knowledge … After the first few weeks of non-descriptive posts our first writing assignment was due. This was my worst performance of the whole semester. I left the paper unfinished due to my lack of confidence and lack of positive thinking. I started to perk up towards the end of the semester. The styles of art were more interesting to me and I finally figured out the amount of time I needed to prioritize for this class. The blog [post] for writing assignment three was the first time I was very interested in what I was learning and writing about. I believe this is because of the nature of the assignment. I was able to decide on the topic and direction without having such specific guidelines.”

My personal experience with the portfolio and self-evaluation correspond with the benefits that Bean attributes to informal exploratory writing in Engaging Ideas,as helpful tools to develop my students’ critical thinking skills while also giving me another means to gauge students’ progress in the class. These responses are thoughtful, honest, and enjoyable to read. Moreover, each student’s self-evaluation reflects their engagement with art history at two levels, the course requirements of the specific art history class and, more generally, art history as a subject. (And if someone has experience using journaling as a component in their class, I’d love to hear it.) .

In my personal experience, in spite of the assignment’s description as a “self-evaluation,” I have benefited from this assignment by receiving incredibly constructive feedback from students about assignments and also the course as a whole. The feedback from students’ self-evaluations is also productive because the feedback is delivered as a narrative of each student’s own process, and it is then much easier to determine if the assignment itself didn’t work or if there was a particular step that needed to be reworded or scrapped altogether. For example, after students identified their museum paper as the one assignment that they’d redo, I added another assignment, a list of observations for a variety of objects at the museum, which allowed them to get feedback on their work while getting practice with the basics of formal analysis. Based on subsequent evaluations, while students still wished they could redo aspects of the paper, they were more likely to view the paper as an assignment that was enjoyable.

Additionally, though mediated by context of the classroom, the student evaluations grant me a bit of insight into my students’ lives that then functions as “data” to consider as I prepare for the next semester’s class. (For those who are teaching at a new institution, the portfolio and self-evaluation is one really effective method to get a better sense of the school’s student body!) Many of us teach at undergraduate institutions that differ from the ones that we attended, and we are also teaching the classes that we ostensibly enjoyed the most as undergraduates. Students’ self-evaluations offer realistic insight into the distance between the Platonic ideal of what we think they should do versus what students actually do or what their lives allow them to do.

At a very basic level, the portfolio and self-evaluation assignment is relevant within the context of an art history class, and the assignment can parallel the topics discussed in class such as changes to artistic training or a more in-depth view of an an artist’s work over a longer period of time. Additionally, because the art history survey is usually taken by students to fulfill a general education requirement to full certain curriculum requirements, the portfolio and self-evaluation assignment allows students to consider the “general” component of the course by reflecting on the skills they’ve used or allowing them to consider how it relates to their other classes or disciplines. Though the assignment overalls only counts as a small percentage of my students’ final grade, I also (hopefully) signal to students that the assignment – and therefore the skills required to complete it – are important by giving it a grade (pass/fail) equal to other writing assignments.

While the portfolio and self-evaluation can be adapted to any class or subject, the art history survey might be in a unique position to benefit from it precisely because it is often singled out as an example of a “useless” class. While I disagree with this perspective, I also think that the most sensible course of action is to give students the opportunity and means to decide that for themselves. I’m encouraged by a recent article at The Atlantic titled “Re-learning the Lost Art of Patience” that advocates for educators to “teach students that answers don’t always come easily and require time to emerge from the noise.” Quoted in the article is Professor Jennifer Roberts, an art historian at Harvard who requires students to spend three hours looking at a single work of art for an assignment. Roberts explains her rationale for such an assignment by pointing out that students increasingly aren’t allowed to build patience:, “I would argue that these are the kind of practices that now most need to be actively engineered by faculty, because they are simply no longer available ‘in nature,’ as it were. Every external pressure, social and technological, is pushing students in the other direction, toward immediacy, rapidity, and spontaneity—and against this other kind of opportunity. I want to give them the permission and the structures to slow down.” Significantly, Professor Roberts and the author of the article at The Atlantic both emphasize the role played by instructors who can “give permission to their students to slow down. I have found that, for a variety of reasons, students tend to focus on their grades as the sole indicator of their performance to the extent that the letter grade tends to overshadow the process of learning. As educators, the coursework that we assign is one factor that contributes to this mindset, and therefore we are also capable of balancing it with work that de-emphasizes “correct” answers.

I’d like to end with some practical suggestions as to how you might integrate or implement the portfolio and self-evaluation in your art history classroom:

  1. Have some kind of ongoing writing component to your class. If the goal of the portfolio and self-evaluation is to motivate students to view their investment in the class beyond the grade they received, then two exams and a paper might be counterproductive. You may want to consider collecting their work from informal in-class writing activities and returning their work to students at the end of the semester. However, if you’re unsure how this type of assignment would fit in with your teaching plans, I’ve also used this as an extra credit assignment.
  2. Make it required but low-pressure work. This semester, the portfolio and self-evaluation is one assignment that contributes to my students’ final grades but they are told from the outset that it will be graded pass/fail and the main requirements are to meet the page requirement (2-3 pages) and to maintain a professional and respectful tone.
  3. Emphasize the practical value of the portfolio and self-evaluation to your students. The evaluation and communication skills required of the assignment are not unfamiliar to most workplaces and hiring practices – consider being asked “what is your biggest weakness?” in an interview, or having to write a self-review at work. The reality is that these are extremely common scenarios and yet most people only encounter them within the workplace, so the assignment gives students to the opportunity to practice writing in the professional “voice” that is required for cover letters and resumes.
  4. Modify the assignment to fit your pedagogical goals. Though the portfolio and self-evaluation still resembles the form in which I first encountered it, I have modified it to include activities such as responding to an article (like this recent op-ed, “Art Makes You Smart,” from The New York Times) by asking if their portfolio corresponds to the information or perspective in the article, or asking students to initiate a teaching moment in which they have to explain works of art to a partner who isn’t in our class and then explaining their experience These additional activities turn the semi-structured task into a guided one while still retaining the overall objective of getting students to reflect on their work and development throughout the entire semester.

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