Taking a Bite in the Middle

plush Cookie Monster lying on its back, apparently dead, cookie with one bite taken out left at tip of outstretched hand

Support for Portfolios

Assessing student writing with portfolios has become common practice in composition studies. In 1986, Peter Elbow suggested the use of portfolios in place of examinations. A dozen years ago, Kathleen Blake Yancey referred to portfolios as the “third wave” of writing assessment, replacing essay scoring as the predominant methodology for measuring student achievement or program success. Six years later, Ed White wrote about what he called the “second phase” of portfolio scoring, using cover letters to focus attention on students’ metacognitive awareness of their learning and achievements in writing courses. The next year, Reynolds and Rice established standard practices easily implemented in classrooms when they published their Portfolio Keeping and Portfolio Teaching texts. The composition field has accepted the utility and practice of implementing portfolios in its classes.

More recent scholarship has centered on electronic portfolios, with numerous systems from a variety of vendors, including from UGA or Eli from Bill Hart-Davidson’s team at MSU. These systems allow students to place created work into a collection, manipulation, and presentation container with various tools (or bells and whistles) attached. They also add complexity to students’ process of making a document or the teacher’s process of grading them. These complexities do not exist when using traditional paper portfolios. To be sure, most ePortfolio systems allow review, revision, and tracking tools impossible to implement on paper. Oh, and let’s not forget the ability to abandon the file cabinets and stacks of binders.

But some teachers may not be ready to learn new tools. New teachers, such as GTAs, who need to be trained in the field and its pedagogies might want to keep technology simple. Experienced teachers might have found comfort in routine, and the switch to a new ePortfolio system might be too drastic. Or perhaps an institution has decided that ePortfolios don’t need to be implemented or won’t be supported. Whatever the case, a single-document Digital Portfolio can help students learn more advanced use of their existing software without having to learn an entirely new system. Along the way, they will learn several significant digital-literacy skills and better understand intertextuality. The Digital Portfolio begins with what students know: their word-processing programs.

Or perhaps I should say that it begins with what students think they know. While the vast majority of students have been using a word processor for years—typically some version of Microsoft Word—they don’t necessarily understand how it works, nor do they necessarily use any features beyond the most basic or obvious. I’m sure most any writing teacher can immediately think of humorous, bless-their-hearts caliber tales of students who lack skills others consider fundamental. I still recall the college freshman I taught who pressed return twice at the end of each line to double-space his text. Bless his heart. Just yesterday, I had a conversation with someone who demonstrates three separate ways to create hanging indents to students who previously used the tab key. Bless their hearts. Or how about those students who wonder why typing the digit 2 in the header changes every page of the document to page two? Yeah, bless their hearts, too. My point is this: Students know how to type essays, but they don’t know the automation tools of their word processors. In short, our students know how to do the hard part of document creation, but they don’t know how to use their tools to do the easy parts for them. Expecting these students to create websites for do-it-yourself ePortfolios seems to be missing an important step.

Microsoft Word—or pretty much any other document-editing software these days—includes several features that I propose we teach our students to help them create documents more easily, help us work with more consistent documents, and improve student software literacies. Specifically, I assert that students should understand automated page numbering, automatic tables of contents, text-formatting styles, comments and document metadata, and hyperlinks. Again, each of these tools exists in Microsoft Word, Apple’s Pages, and the free OpenOffice Writer, so software access should not be a factor limiting implementation. However, we cannot assume whether instructors are aware of each of these features (particularly formatting styles). On many occasions, I have presented ideas based on styles in a document, and audience members interrupt to ask what they are. The features I’ve listed combine to create robust and manageable documents.

[If you aren’t familiar, a style is a pre-defined collection of formatting features that can be quickly applied to text, providing consistent formatting to a document and alleviating the need to apply each component separately. For instance, the “header 1” style typically defines the font, font size, font weight, paragraph spacing, paragraph indentation, and alignment.]

By teaching students how to create a single-document Digital Portfolio, we would give our students skills they could apply to any document-creation projects, and many of these specific technological features exist in other applications, making them generally applicable to more than just word processing.

The Five Skills Students Should LearnRely on Styles

Rather than manually applying formatting to their text, students should learn to define and apply styles. By allowing the application to handle the formatting, students save themselves the trouble of having to remember the myriad settings used for each kind of text in their documents. More importantly, styles encourage students to think of their document structurally, identifying the function of text, rather than its appearance (which is managed by the system). Students begin to see document components as headings, titles, and body content, rather than text that should be bold, or bigger, or plain. Application-applied formatting then ensures visual consistency when ready to publish or submit the work.

Because styles label the structure of the document, they provide a degree of machine-readability to the text. Macros, automation routines, and search engines can rely on such structural data to better “understand” the document. By labeling headings and organizing sections, students bring an explicit hierarchy to their text, making it more easily parsed and digested. Styles also allow the creation of automatic tables of contents, showing students how their document structure can be interpreted by the application and converted to functional information. Indeed, this setup reinforces a key reading skill: targeted information processing. Ironically, by teaching students how computers process their documents, we can help them understand a human reading strategy.

Track Sources

Word-processing applications provide the ability to highlight text. If we apply that feature to the creation of student work, we can help students see the balance of quoted/paraphrased/summarized content and their own ideas. Indeed, showing students how much of the published texts read in class come from other sources would address issues of plagiarism and intertextuality: by highlighting borrowed ideas in what they both read and write, students would see patterns in citation and reference in their field. This comparison would lead to conversations about the amount of outside sources appropriate in a given situation.

If we apply that same principle to peer review, rather than outside research, the “track changes” tool becomes helpful and relevant. When students collaborate on a document, we see who makes what suggestions or changes. I recognize that neither this tool nor the information it provides are news, but positioning them within the context of visualizing sources of ideas in the life of a text may help provide a new perspective: change tracking illustrates the interwoven nature of writing, leading to conversations about the best distributions of notes, revisions, and interactions in the margins of a given text.

Use Hyperlinks

Because modern word processors can incorporate hyperlinks to outside documents or other webpages, student writing can directly and literally link to the content that informs their thinking. Linking quoted text to the original source creates explicit identification of sources and highlights what of a student text comes from outside influences. Returning to the idea of machine-readability, incorporating links within student texts allows detection of related concepts, helping computers and databases better “understand” how the text fits within the network of ideas. This, of course, encourages conversations about the purposes served by works-cited lists.

Intra-document links show the utility of document organization and begin to bridge the gap between writing for paper and web-based distribution. I mentioned automatic tables of contents earlier; these tables often automatically serve as hyperlinks to the listed sections of the text. Rather than using traditional linear, page-number-based search methods, these automatic links apply today’s link-saturated, interactive text forms to the environment in which students naturally compose. Indeed, many composing platforms support the creation of hyperlinks using a process nearly identical to that used in a word processor; once students see that their texts can be connected, they should be able to transfer that skill into other environments. Getting students to see their traditional papers as connected may be the most challenging first step.

Looking again at works cited lists, though, intra-document links can provide a functional illustration of the functions of in-text citations to students learning the process. When we use a citation, we in effect place a link to our works-cited page. Why not implement that link using the tools in our software? Then, within the works-cited list itself, students could like their entries to the actual documents as found online. Here, I’m emphasizing the functional connections among ideas, rather than the formatting of the references. By making citations and references clickable, we bring academic tools into familiar interfaces for students.

Add Metadata

Students are accustomed to putting their names at the tops of papers they write. But what about the other information word processors allow students to store? They could incorporate assignment names, keywords, or contact information with their documents. That last part, contact information, would reinforce the idea of writing as participation in a conversation. This becomes especially relevant if student texts are made public. Students don’t often have need to contact the authors of their course texts, but if others wish to refer to, extend, or build on the ideas our students write about, including contact information—if only an institution name or Twitter handle—allows student documents to serve as directories, connecting future authors with their work. Including relevant keywords, like explicit document structure, helps search engines make sense of student writing and allows it to be more easily discovered.

As a hypothetical aside, I often wonder how programmers determine what should and should not be automatically tagged. Most mobile devices location-tag photos as they are taken, allowing users to see where they have visited and what they saw when they were there. Yet those same mobile devices have document-creation apps that are completely location-unaware. The unspoken assumption is that users do not care where they are when they write. Yet how many writing-process studies do we ask students to do that involve a description of their writing environments? Adding location awareness to document-creation apps, especially on mobile devices, would create a trove of data currently absent from and unavailable to writing studies.

Convert Files

By creating a single-file Digital Portfolio, students also gain awareness and skills related to file formats and their occasional interchangeability. Using the “Master Document” feature of Word or Writer, students can combine separate documents into one complete portfolio. Styles create consistency throughout the document, and the resulting file can easily be exported to a PDF that preserves links/highlights/etc. and protects student work from changes after publication. Understanding the differences in file formats and their capabilities helps students view applications as tools used to help them accomplish specific goals, rather than all-purpose destinations for any computing task.


Again, I acknowledge that my ideas here are neither novel nor earth-shattering. But I believe writing teachers miss an excellent opportunity for applied informational literacy when we use paper-based or system-based portfolios, where students disconnect the tool they use to create a document from the environmental context in which that document ultimately exists. Digital Portfolios are a byte in the middle of the portfolio function/familiarity continuum. By showing our students that their familiar word-processing application can do more than simply add typed words to a page, we enhance their understanding of the functions of language, the interconnectedness of ideas, and the nature of technology as a tool.

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About Me

Hi! I’m Chris Friend — a teacher, speaker, and podcaster specializing in introducing newcomers to conversations around education, writing, and technology.

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