Writing department goes digital for student portfolios

Ellie Phillips

Except for the students who took an equivalent course at another college or university, every student at Grand Valley State University is required to take the Writing 150 class as part of their general education. For both students and teachers, the biggest hassle of the class is the creation and distribution of the final portfolio.

Throughout the semester, students write papers, all of which are reviewed and put in a portfolio for grading at the end of the term — though specific reviewing methods during the semester itself vary. Multiple copies of each paper are created: One for reviewing, one for the portfolio, and often one or more for peer review, as well.

To reduce the paper waste of this process, GVSU Writing Department Chair Dan Royer took it digital.

“Dan created software to allow the writing committee to review papers online,” said Bart Bartels, campus sustainability manager. “The program (will) help avoid over $30,000 in expenses from printing thousands of pages, buying a separate software program, and avoid(ing) travel by committee members.”

Though the proposal Royer wrote requesting funding for the project gives a good estimate of how much of that paper is used, he doesn’t know exactly the cost of GVSU’s paper use, he said.
“As far as cost savings, I am not so sure about that $30,000 number since I don’t know what GVSU pays for paper,” Royer said.

“Each semester 29 teachers collect over 1,700 portfolios from students enrolled in WRT 150,” the proposal reads. “Each portfolio includes three pieces of writing that is 4-10 pages long.

The portfolios are distributed via faculty mailboxes and offices, graded, returned to the teacher, and then redistributed again for third reads if needed. In short, we are currently passing around about 35,000 printed sheets of paper at the end of the term each semester.”

Regardless of the monetary savings, the program has definitely been a hit with the teachers asked to evaluate it.

“One of the best features for me was not having to lug heavy portfolios at the end of the semester,” said Julie White, a Writing 150 instructor. “During the course of the semester, I was able to collect and comment to drafts electronically instead of just in paper form. Students were also able to see their own progress by viewing multiple drafts saved in the draft papers folder. Overall, I was quite pleased with the first round of portfolios I evaluated using this new electronic system, and my students seemed to be receptive to it, as well. I look forward to seeing the electronic system utilized more fully in the future.”

Another instructor, Amy Norkus, also enjoyed the program.

“I was interested in how our grading brains would adapt to the process, and was very surprised to find that the system actually made grading more interactive and dynamic than the paper-based system,” Norkus said. “As teachers, we got to see right away whether a grade agreed or not at second read, and it was engaging to be able to follow each portfolio’s journey through the grading process. I felt more connected to my portfolio group as we all worked on grading, and seeing whether a grade agreed or not made me think more about my own grading throughout the process. Any initial challenges seemed to be worked out in our test semester.”

The program has the capability to add filters, which sort drafts by assignment, and allows final portfolios to be uploaded as PDF files to preserve student formatting. These elements make the system more user-friendly.

“It has changed the way I think about grading,” Norkus said. “And I think, as my colleague Dauvan Mulally pointed out, that it meets students where they are as digital natives.”
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