A look at the first-year writing portfolio

Director of Academic Advising Edmond Johnson
Director of Academic Advising Edmond Johnson shares his opinions about returning to on-campus, in-person instruction in his office at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Friday, Feb. 11, 2022. Hudson Johnson/The Occidental.

First-year students submitted their writing portfolios March 14, in order to fulfill the first half of Occidental’s two-stage writing requirement. While the writing requirement has been in place for at least 25 years, the portfolio system was instituted starting the 2019–2020 academic year, according to Edmond Johnson, director of academic advising, First Year Seminar (FYS) professor and core program coordinator. The change was made because the previous assessment failed to generate accurate assessments of students’ writing, according to American Studies professor and director of the Writing Center Julie Prebel.

Prebel said the portfolio was instituted to make evaluating first-years’ writing ability more equitable for students than the previous system. The previous assessment had three parts, including two sets of essays from Cultural Studies Program (CSP) courses (now titled FYS courses) and a final timed writing exercise.

“One of the reasons that the timed writing exam was clearly not an accurate or effective measure of students’ real writing was because on the timed writing, more than 50 percent of students always received a score below the bar,” Prebel said. “If you have a writing assessment measurement where 50 percent of the participants in that process are not meeting your benchmarks, then the problem is not with the people participating. The problem is with your measurement.”

Ron Buckmire, Occidental math professor, associate dean of curricular affairs and core program director, said the switch from an exam to portfolio was to make the assessment more applicable to the real world.

edmond buckmire
Ron Buckmire, associate dean of curricular affairs, speaking on the First Year Writing requirement on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2020 at Occidental College. The Occidental/Amirah Al-Sagr

“Almost all writing that students would do in any kind of post-graduate career setting is not going to be, ‘Here’s a prompt, produce an essay,'” Buckmire said. “We switched to a mode that … gave students more agency, was more linked to the literature and commonly-used practices in colleges like ours, and that was the portfolio system. They can revise the paper completely from what it started off as.”

The two-stage writing requirement is now managed by the Core Program administration led by Buckmire and Johnson and is overseen by the Occidental Writing Center, according to Buckmire. Since the assessment change was made, Occidental saw a large change in instruction method from fully in-person to fully online following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Johnson said the pandemic made it difficult to implement the new portfolio structure.

“It’s unfortunate that we rolled this out right at the pandemic, because whenever you’re trying to see if something works, you want to control for as many variables as possible,” Johnson said.

But according to Buckmire, the portfolio system maintained its effectiveness even throughout virtual instruction, though with limited data, it was difficult to draw a proper conclusion. Buckmire said there is still overwhelming confidence in the program for all three professors.

“What we’re trying to do this year is to analyze the scores and see [if there’s a difference],” Johnson said.

Students who do not pass their portfolio evaluation are required to take Writing and Rhetoric 201, “The Art of Essay Writing.” All three professors said Writing and Rhetoric 201 should be viewed as a positive experience that will help students improve their writing both at Occidental and after graduation.

Since the pandemic, writer confidence is an issue Prebel said the Writing Center staff is addressing with its students.

“What we’re seeing in the Writing Center in particular … was not so much a decline in any way of writing abilities, but a decline in a bit of writing knowledge and writing confidence,” Prebel said.

Mina Jenab (first year) said she thought the two-stage writing requirement and first-stage FYS portfolio assessment sounded exciting, and that she would have been interested in completing the former timed writing assessment.

“I was really happy because my professor, Professor [Candace] Mixon basically had us make a portfolio at the end of first semester,” Jenab said. “She had us put a bunch of our essays together and write an example RIE [Reflective Introduction Essay].”

Jenab said she felt lucky to have had that experience and to have had her portfolio nearly complete before the deadline, as most other students she talked to did not construct mock portfolios in their fall semester FYS courses. Jenab also said she prepared for her portfolio submission by taking her essays to the Writing Center for editing, and would recommend the free campus service to others.

“You can’t see my essays from high school, you can only see the improvement I’ve had this year,” Jenab said. “I think the RIE shows a good road map of what I thought my best skills were.”