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Developing and Assessing Academic and Professional Writing Skills


Edited By Susanne Göpferich and Imke Neumann

Academic literacy used to be considered a complex set of skills that develop automatically as a by-product of academic socialization. Since the Bologna Reform with its shorter degree programmes, however, it has been realized that these skills need to be fostered actively. Simultaneously, writing skills development at all levels of education has been faced with the challenge of increasingly multilingual and multicultural groups of pupils and students. This book addresses the questions of how both academic and professional writing skills can be fostered under these conditions and how the development of writing skills can be measured.
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Portfolios as a means of developing and assessing writing skills

Sandra Ballweg University of Bielefeld, Germany

Portfolios as a means of developing and assessing writing skills1


English: Writing portfolios can serve various purposes: They can be used both as a tool for supporting and facilitating learners’ individual learning processes and as an assessment tool, which rather focuses on learning outcomes and achievements. Through the use of portfolios, improved learning processes, a more holistic approach to assessing writing skills, and, ultimately, better learning outcomes are expected. The aim of this study is to explore a teacher’s and her learners’ actual use of a portfolio as well as their perception of portfolio work in the context of foreign language writing instruction in order to reveal patterns and generate hypotheses on portfolio work. Therefore, this study has a strong focus on the actual use of the writing portfolio and the circumstances influencing portfolio work. The major hypothesis generated in this study through qualitative research methods relates to a gain-loss effect of portfolio use. It suggests that the introduction of portfolios in the writing classroom cannot just be viewed as an additional offer to the students and their learning but can also necessitate abandoning established elements and procedures.

German: Schreibportfolios erfüllen verschiedene Funktionen: Sie eignen sich einerseits dazu, den Schreibprozess zu unterstützen und die Individualität der Lernenden zu fördern. Andererseits können sie als Instrument der Leistungsfeststellung genutzt werden, wobei weniger der Prozess als vielmehr die Lernergebnisse im Vordergrund stehen. Durch den Einsatz von Portfolios werden eine Unterstützung von Lernprozessen, die Möglichkeit eines holistischen Zugangs zur Feststellung von Schreibfertigkeit sowie letztendlich bessere Leistungen erwartet. Ziel dieser Studie ist es, den Umgang einer Lehrerin und einer Gruppe von Studierenden mit dem Portfolio sowie ihre Wahrnehmungen hierzu im Kontext der fremdsprachlichen Schreibförderung zu ergründen, um mit der Aufdeckung von Mustern Portfolioarbeit besser zu verstehen. ← 143 | 144 → Dabei liegt das Hauptaugenmerk auf der tatsächlichen Verwendung des Portfolios und dessen Wahrnehmung. Die zentrale Hypothese, die im Rahmen dieser Studie als Ergebnis qualitativer Forschung aufgestellt wird, beschreibt einen Gewinn-Verlust-Effekt der Portfolioarbeit und nährt die Annahme, dass Portfolioarbeit nicht nur als Gewinn verstanden werden, sondern in verschiedenen Bereichen auch einen Verzicht auf zuvor genutzte Elemente und Strukturen bedeuten kann.

1    Introduction

Learning portfolios are widespread in education. They are used in early childhood education, in all types of schools and educational settings, as well as in teacher training. In the foreign language classroom, the European Language Portfolio is prevalent but open portfolio formats are also used, for example audio portfolios focusing on listening and speaking skills, and writing portfolios. The latter are the focus of this study.

The use of portfolios is expected to improve teaching and learning on several levels, for instance by individualizing learning, promoting learner autonomy and by offering an opportunity for a fair and holistic assessment of complex skills or competencies (Grittner 2009; Kara 2007). Recent studies optimistically show that portfolio use in the foreign language (L2) writing classroom can reduce writing anxiety (Öztürk/ÇeÇen 2007), help to improve self-assessment skills (Poppi/Radighieri 2009) and lead to better texts (Aydin 2010; Khodadady/Khodabakhshzade 2012; Tezci/Dikici 2006). These results show that the positive effects of portfolios can encompass improved language and writing skills, improvements with regard to metacognitive and strategic aspects as well as changes that concern the affective level. However, little is known about the process of portfolio work that leads to these outcomes.

This article first focuses on the potential uses of portfolios and will then investigate a teacher’s and her students’ perceptions of portfolio work as well as the underlying assumptions that motivate their actions. The research questions are: How does the teacher use the portfolio to promote and assess writing skills? How do students perceive the portfolio as a tool to improve their writing skills? How do they perceive portfolio-based assessment? Based on this deep understanding of the processes of portfolio use and the underlying assumptions and attitudes, implications for the development of tailored portfolio concepts will be presented in the last part of this article. ← 144 | 145 →

2    Learning portfolios

In general terms, a learning portfolio is understood to be

“a purposeful collection of student work that exhibits the student’s efforts, progress and achievements in one or more areas. The collection must include student participation in selecting contents, the criteria for selection, the criteria for judging merit, and evidence of student self-reflection.” (Paulson et al. 1991: 60)

Several features that are common to all kinds of portfolios are subsumed under this rather broad concept: Portfolios are tools to document learning for the learners themselves as well as for others, including teachers, classmates and parents. Moreover, they are tools of reflection and assessment.

As portfolios focus on learning products as well as on the learning process, they may include proof of the learner’s accomplishments as well as of poor or even failed attempts. This understanding of learning and achievement differs crucially from widespread forms of ‘red-ink’ writing instruction that focuses on correctness.

Having their origin in the progressive and reform pedagogy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, learning portfolios emanated from a desire to renew educational policy with an emphasis on facilitating the individual’s learning process and personal development. This included an understanding of learning as a meaningful, complex and individual process (Häcker 2008: 27). These ideas were introduced into the writing classroom in the 1950s with writing folders in Great Britain (Hamp-Lyons/Condon 2000: 15) and in the 1970s with writing portfolios in the United States (Calfee/Freedman 1996: 4), where the concept was refined and further developed.

The current concept of portfolio does not just refer to the actual folders but is rather the manifestation of a specific approach to teaching with a set of assumptions, decisions and techniques. This allows, and at the same time requires, the adaptation of this approach to the specific classroom context with the given conditions, especially with learners’ individual prerequisites and needs (Ballweg/Bräuer 2011: 4).

3    Portfolios in the writing classroom

The term writing portfolio refers to a form of portfolios which centres on writing skills, even though reading skills and all other aspects of language← 145 | 146 → use are also included. They are expected to make working and writing processes as well as the individual writer’s skills more visible and, in doing so, are expected to raise the students’ awareness of their own writing processes and support them in improving their writing skills.

3.1   Documenting and facilitating the development of writing skills

The broad understanding of the term writing skills, as it is also used in the context of portfolio work, relates to more than just the ability to write correct and well-structured texts. Writing skills are not solely measured by the output, in this case a good text, but also by an adequate process. For writing in a first language (L1), Fix (2006: 23) acknowledges four subsets of skills which constitute writing skills:

    knowledge-based skills which include knowledge of the topic but also of text types and language use

    methodological skills which enable writers to organize their writing process

    social skills which allow writers to anticipate their readers and to write reader-based texts

    personal skills which include the writers’ capacity for self-regulation

For L2 writing, language skills, knowledge of culturally specific features of text types and intercultural competence need to be added to the list. Yet, to be a skilled writer does not only mean to possess these skills but also that they can be translated into action (Beaufort/Iñesta 2014: 149–151). Based on this understanding, writing skills need to be developed by completing writing tasks which have to be specific, embedded in a context and communicative (Ballweg 2015a: 102).

Portfolios are not only a place to display the students’ own writing skills but in addition to this, they offer numerous opportunities to practice writing, as they include a large amount of written documentation and reflections (Gläser-Zikuda/Lindacher 2007: 192). In this manner, the students’ writing skills are expected to be promoted. In the L2 classroom, this type of ungraded writing assignment is found to be helpful as the students’ texts tend to get longer and syntactically more complex with practice (Bonzo 2005: 124; Delett et al. 2001: 559 f.). ← 146 | 147 →

3.2   Representation of the writing process

Portfolios were introduced into the writing classroom when the focus of instruction and assessment shifted from the product of writing to the writing process. They display the writing process as they include first drafts of texts, comments and feedback by peers and teachers, learning logs, reflections on the text as well as the comments, revised drafts and a final version (Bräuer 1997: 5). This allows readers to reconstruct the individual learner’s writing process.

The underlying understanding of the writing process is often explained with reference to Hayes & Flower’s model of writing with its three iterative and recursive phases of planning, translating (i.e., formulating) and reviewing (Hayes/Flower 1980: 11). Despite the criticism levelled against Hayes & Flower’s early writing model that it oversimplifies writing processes (e.g., Molitor-Lübbert 1996: 1006–1008), this model serves quite well, and in fact, better than Hayes’ later models (1996; 2012), to explain the actual steps of students’ use of writing portfolios, as notes, first drafts and revisions are collected and arranged to illustrate the individual’s working process.

Yet, the above-mentioned criticism, which is also closely related to post-process theory, has to be taken seriously. The model of a writing process of planning, writing a first draft and revising does not reflect the writing process of all writers and, therefore, can be considered as over-generalizing (Carstens 2008: 83 f., 93). From a post-process theorist’s point of view, successful writing instruction should be more flexible and individual and should include creating manifold learning opportunities, offering opportunities for interaction and the negotiation of meaning and facilitating the development of language awareness (Carstens 2008: 86–92), stressing many features portfolio-based instruction includes with its profoundly individual, situational and context-bound view on writing (Ball/Ellis 2008: 504–510). This approach, however, suggests applying the three steps of planning, formulating and revising less strictly as there might be, for example, students who do not work with first drafts in a narrow sense.

The role of feedback and interaction with peers in the writing process and in writing portfolios as mentioned above can be illustrated using a writing process model by Becker-Mrotzek & Böttcher (2006: 27). The authors emphasize writing as an asynchronous way to communicate and refer ← 147 | 148 → to Ehlich’s idea of a “zerdehnte Sprechhandlung” (extended speech act) (Ehlich 1983: 32). The anticipation of a readership with its knowledge, expectations, interests and authority strongly influences individuals in their writing process (Becker-Mrotzek/Böttcher 2006: 27).

While these aspects of writing processes and feedback apply to first- and second-language writing, there is a specific feature to L2 writing portfolios: As the first language is considered a crucial part of second-language writing processes (Börner 1989; Grießhaber 2006; Krings 1989), it might be assumed that L2 writing portfolios are bi- or multilingual (Ballweg 2015a: 109). However, this is neither the case in any of the research quoted here nor in the writing class that formed the context of my own study. In general, in many cases L2 writing portfolios do not represent L1 aspects of the L2 writing process.

3.3   Feedback and social interaction

It is self-evident that feedback and interaction with potential readers is essential for developing the ability to write reader-based texts:

“The consideration of written language as communicative tool implies that every text has an audience. From this point of view, the idea of negotiation between writer and reader is introduced into the composition process.” (Milian Gubern 1996: 273)

This kind of negotiation between writer and reader can immediately help writers to improve the texts on which they are working. Furthermore, it can promote their general writing skills, especially with regard to their ability to anticipate the reader’s perspective. In her meta-analysis of research on writing, Porto (2001: 40) concludes that writing exercises have only little effect on writing skills if no feedback is provided.

The most common form of feedback is comments by teachers. The findings on effective teacher feedback, however, are contradictory and inconclusive, as Busse (2015) shows in her meta-analysis of recent research on the influence of feedback on writing motivation. This is also true for other aspects: whereas O’Brien (2004) emphasizes that feedback on content and structure is most effective, Gascoigne shows that L2 learners can use feedback on correct language use to revise their texts in most cases but do not or cannot react to feedback on content and structure (Gascoigne 2004: 74 f.). ← 148 | 149 → These findings suggest that it can be difficult to measure the effectiveness of feedback due to the multiple and partly interdependent factors that have an impact on the writing process.

To successfully integrate feedback in writing and learning processes, learners have to take the responsibility and demand feedback at the individually relevant stages in their writing process, which is something they also have to learn (Cresswell 2000).

The need for training is also evident in the provision of peer feedback (Kamimura 2006; Rahimi 2013), which is considered a low-threshold form of support (Bruffee 1984: 637; Hu/Ren 2012: 69, 79). Peer feedback as a form of social interaction (Bräuer 1996: 40) and as a means to mirror the recent status of a text (Bräuer 2004: 24) requires learners to become readers of their peers’ texts and to ask questions which then serve to establish how a text can be understood and perceived by an interested reader (Bruffee 1984: 641).

Peer feedback differs from feedback given by teachers and can be understood as being complementary (O’Brien 2004: 9). If learners comprehend its different function, they show a high acceptance of peer feedback and are able to use it to improve their writing. If they feel that peer feedback is offered instead of their teacher’s feedback, they do not consider it useful, as a study with 116 learners of English in China shows (Hu/Ren 2012: 78). This may be one of the reasons for the negative attitude towards peer feedback in L2 learners (e.g., Kasanga 2006), which contrasts with findings from studies where it was seen rather positively (Ballweg 2015b; Kamimura 2006: 12; Mawlawi Diab 2010: 92).

In general, peer feedback is considered a useful supplement to teacher feedback as it focuses on comprehensibility rather than on correctness. However, several factors can influence the success of peer feedback, such as the learner’s age, the number of learners in the class and their language proficiency (Rollinson 2005: 29). Learners need to be prepared to both give and receive feedback. Furthermore, an atmosphere of trust is essential to allow helpful feedback. It must then lead to action, which again requires a setting in which the revision of texts is valued (e.g., Keller 2010: 72). ← 149 | 150 →

3.4   Reflecting the individual writing process and achievements

The awareness and metacognitive control of one’s own writing process is essential for successful writing (Glaser/Brunstein 2008: 371; Schoonen/Glopper 1996: 99). This includes the monitoring of the individual writing process, the setting of aims, the evaluation of results at different stages of the process and the awareness of affective aspects (Glaser/Brunstein 2008: 374).

Writing portfolios are used as a tool to reflect on strengths, weaknesses, personal objectives as well as those specified by the teacher, the individual writing process, and more. As it is assumed that the monitoring and control of the writing process does not automatically develop with writing experience (e.g., Aziz 1995: 22), portfolio-based writing instruction also includes the adoption of new writing strategies.

The reflection in the portfolio and in conferences with peers and teachers are shown to have positive effects on the writing performance. Khodadady & Khodabakhshzade (2012) focus on the students’ self-assessment activities and give an account of their significantly better results in a standardized IELTS2 writing test as compared to the control group.

Portfolio-based writing instruction, and specifically reflective activities, are also shown to have positive effects on students’ ability to manage their own learning (Hung 2008: 139), their overcoming of writing anxiety (Kabilan et al. 2007) and on the quality of the texts they write. Aydin (2010: 481) presents the following findings from a study with 39 future teachers of English in Turkey:

“[P]ortfolio keeping has beneficial effects on the improvement of vocabulary, grammar, reading and research skills, organization of paragraphs and compositions, punctuation and capitalization, giving and receiving feedback, paragraph and composition development methods and techniques, and qualifications of paragraphs and compositions” (Aydin 2010: 481).

He shows that as syntax gets more complex, the students’ planning phase becomes longer and more elaborate, and the texts are more creative and original (Aydin 2010: 481–483). ← 150 | 151 →

What the above-mentioned studies have in common is that their authors strongly emphasize the potential of portfolio use and that their findings point in this direction as well. Despite this, some critical aspects are mentioned, for example, the students’ rejection of peer feedback (Aydin 2010: 484). In general, more research into considering the settings and the way in which portfolios are used is required in order to better understand the described effects and the conditions that are necessary to achieve these effects.

3.5   Portfolio-based assessment

Another field in which portfolios are expected to have much potential is assessment. As language learning is considered a complex activity that requires knowledge, meta-knowledge and the capacity for self-directed learning (Kohonen 1997: 11), the assessment of language learning should include all these aspects. Portfolio-based assessment seems to be an opportunity to transfer recent ideas of teaching, which are characterized, among others, by concepts of flexibility, diversity and equality (Conacher/Kelly-Holmes 2007: 28), into assessment. In a modern understanding, learning achievements are product- as well as process-oriented, individual, diverse, describable by the learners themselves and by others, communicable, reflectable and made cooperatively (Breuer 2009: 72–77; Legutke 2002: 107). This can neither be assessed using standardized tests that focus on vocabulary or morphosyntactic correctness, nor can it be assessed using essays. If learning takes place in complex contexts and in interaction with others, assessment cannot be detached from the context (Lissmann 2007: 276).

Portfolio-based assessment can take account of most of these ideas. Products and processes are both shown and contextualized. Achievements are presented over an extended period of time so that ideally development can be assessed (Hamp-Lyons/Condon 2000: 4).

It must be considered that portfolio-based assessment may cause difficulties: it is time-consuming and work-intensive for teachers and learners (Legutke 2002: 108) as well as difficult to integrate into a system with an institutional and curricular need for grades. While portfolios invite feedback on the individual learner’s development, they are not made for grading in a rather competitive learning environment, especially as grading might ← 151 | 152 → hinder not only honest reflections (Calfee 2000: 285) but also the inclusion of poor first text drafts in the portfolio. The portfolio concept has to fit the respective learning culture or the learning culture has to develop in a way that allows for new approaches to assessment (Breuer 2009: 210–212).

Even in a Montessori primary school where no grades are given, portfolio-based assessment is not without challenges, as Grittner (2009) points out in an extensive study on parents’, teachers’ and learners’ perspectives on portfolio-based assessment. In spite of the potential difficulties, she concludes that portfolios are useful to give students and teachers information on the learners’ achievements and developments. Most interestingly, the teachers’ feedback encompasses the students’ working processes but tends to neglect the learning content (Grittner 2009: 170).

With regard to the effect of portfolio-based assessment in writing and drawing, Tezci & Dikici (2006) point out that the learners who were working with portfolios produced significantly better texts than the control group. These positive consequences are chiefly attributed to the frequent feedback sessions with peers and teachers.

Similar findings were made by Khodadady & Khodabakhshzade (2012) for 59 learners of English in Iran. The students who were working with a writing portfolio achieved better results in an IELTS essay test than those in the control group. For the examined aspects of writing performance, portfolio-based instruction and assessment seems to have clear effects. However, in these studies it is not always evident how portfolio-based instruction differed from that in the control group and how the teachers’ motivation and commitment might have differed, and how this might have subsequently influenced the results. The broad understanding of learning outcomes discussed above, and also described by these authors as a major benefit of portfolio use (i.e., the student’s individual development, their individual writing process, self-assessment, and reflection), is not represented in the studies, as eventually only text quality rather than personal development, the individual process and adjacent factors is measured. It can be assumed that the idea of learning achievements and assessment described above is hard to introduce into the classroom and into research likewise. ← 152 | 153 →

4    The study

As stated above, portfolio work is based on a set of assumptions and techniques of foreign language teaching. Only few of the studies cited in this article that show the positive effects of portfolio use in the L2 classroom describe how portfolios were actually used in the classroom and thus which aspect of the portfolio has ultimately led to these positive effects. Therefore, my study (Ballweg 2015a) aimed at exploring the use and the perception of writing portfolios in German as a Foreign Language at tertiary level. In this chapter, I will present one aspect of this bigger study and elaborate on it.

The study is based on the assumption that there is a major gap in research on portfolios because apart from an action research study on the introduction of the European Language Portfolio by Kristmanson et al. (2011), a vast majority of research was conducted in courses with experts on portfolio work as teachers, mostly in the form of action research. However, in practice only few teachers in Germany using writing portfolios have actually been prepared to use them. For that reason, I focused on how an experienced language teacher with no prior experience in portfolio work introduces and uses this tool.

For this purpose, interviews with individual students and the teacher as well as videography of classroom activities and portfolio conferences were used to gain insight into processes, the underlying assumptions and the individuals’ perceptions of portfolio work. The results show how the teacher is constantly struggling to find an adequate way of using the portfolio while a multitude of options is available and difficult decisions have to be made (Ballweg 2015a: Chap. 8). Moreover, the data show in detail which prerequisites make portfolio work positive and useful to learners and to the teacher (Ballweg 2015a: Chap. 9).

In the following, I will focus on the use of portfolios in the L2 writing classroom and on the students’ and the teacher’s perceptions.

4.1   The context of the study

The study was conducted in the context of a course on “Writing in an Academic Context” in German as a Foreign Language for 16 engineering students at a German university. The level of language proficiency was B1 to B2 according to the Common European Framework of Reference for ← 153 | 154 → Languages (CEFR), and the course took place weekly with three hours per week over nine weeks with an additional session for portfolio conferences.

The teacher was an experienced teacher for German as a Foreign Language. She had heard and read about portfolios and worked with checklists from the European Language Portfolio before. In the semester before the study was conducted, she had tried to introduce portfolio work into a course with the same title. Still, she considered herself a novice in using portfolios in the classroom.

The students were asked to keep a portfolio with several drafts of texts. Apart from three shorter texts of only one paragraph, the students were asked to write a summary, a discussion essay, a further essay, a CV and a cover letter for a job application. At the beginning of the semester, the teacher had intended to give more writing assignments but as portfolio work proved to be time-consuming, she refrained from this.

Classes were used to give input on how to write a good text and to prepare for the writing assignments. The texts were written as homework and discussed with the peers in the session that followed. Two of the texts had to be handed in via e-mail for feedback but the teacher encouraged the students to hand in more than two texts so that she could better support the students. However, only one student made use of this opportunity. The others sent in two texts or even fewer.

The teacher’s focus clearly was the students’ reflection on their individual writing processes and their knowledge about writing and texts. She offered them information on the structure of texts as well as on strategies for planning, writing and revising texts. She did so by discussing these aspects in class and working with sample texts from the students. Moreover, she used peer feedback to encourage students to reflect on text quality in general and especially on the quality of their texts by applying the criteria discussed to the texts of their peers and to their own texts.

The students kept a portfolio folder – digital or in print – that included their own learning biography, the first drafts and the revisions of the five texts (summary, two essays, CV, cover letter) and a learning log. The teacher gave several suggestions on what to include in the learning log but did not give any guidelines. So in most cases they consisted of notes on the content of each class and a list of vocabulary. Apart from these instructions on the content of the portfolios, the students were free to decide on how ← 154 | 155 → to organize their portfolios and what to include. The teacher encouraged them to include material from other language or engineering classes if they considered them useful to demonstrate their writing skills in that semester. For this reason, the portfolios that the students submitted for grading at the end of the semester differed significantly in length.

In addition to the weekly classes, the teacher held a portfolio conference with groups of two to four students at the weekend before the last session in class. While portfolio conferences can have a wide range of foci, for this specific conference, the teacher asked the students to prepare general questions on the organization of their portfolios and to present their most recent versions of them. In most cases, the students took turns reporting on their work with the teacher giving feedback to each of them while the others were listening. Only in one group, the students started discussing their portfolios and their questions with each other.

4.2   Research questions

Whereas previous research on writing portfolios placed a strong emphasis on the effect of portfolio use on writing proficiency (e.g., Khodadady/Khodabakhshzade 2012; Tezci/Dikici 2010), this study aims to shed light on the usefulness of portfolios from the students’ and teacher’s perspective. More specifically, the following questions will be addressed:

1.    How does the teacher use the portfolio to promote and assess writing skills?

2.    How do students perceive the portfolio as a tool to improve their writing skills?

3.    How is the portfolio used and perceived as an assessment tool?

4.3   Research methods

As the research questions indicate, the study aims at an in-depth exploration of portfolio-based writing instruction over the course of nine weeks. Portfolio work is supposed to be understood from the perspective of teacher and students, considering that their views and perceptions are influenced by numerous individual factors and subject to change in a constantly changing environment (Gibbs 2007: 5). Therefore, this study does not intend to develop a universally applicable explanation of portfolio work but rather ← 155 | 156 → attempts to gain a deep understanding and to provide a rich description (Geertz 1973; Ponterotto 2006) of perspectives, influences and processes in a specific course at a specific time that – through a purposeful selection of participants, an extensive corpus of data and a traceable as well as comprehensible research method – allows us to understand the use of portfolios in other contexts and forms a basis for further research.

To this end, a qualitative research approach was used, which is characterized by the aim of exploring and understanding a phenomenon with a focus on the individual, a holistic perspective and a consideration of the context (Mayring 2003: 20; Riemer 2014: 21; Riemer 2006; Settinieri 2012: 250 f.). Grounded Theory methodology (Glaser/Strauss 1967; Strauss/Corbin 1996) proved to be an adequate means for exploring an aspect of portfolio work that has not been investigated extensively before and therefore required a “systematic, inductive, and comparative approach for conducting inquiry for the purpose of constructing theory” (Bryant/Charmaz 2010: 1). The result is not the presentation of causal connections but rather the identification of patterns in the data that allow an understanding of a phenomenon on a more abstract level.

For the generation of data3, the lessons and the portfolio conferences were audio-taped. The core of the 25 hours of audio-taped and transcribed data, however, was formed by four interviews with the teacher and three interviews with each of the seven students participating, which were conducted over the course of one semester. The students came from France (2), Australia (1), China (1), Brazil (1), India (1) and Iran (1) and were in their early 20s. Four of them were enrolled in degree programmes in engineering, three were exchange students in the same field. Four of them were female, three were male. The time they had already spent in Germany ranged from one month to two years at the start of the semester.

After transcription, the data were coded in accordance with Grounded Theory.4 The first step was the open coding of the data from the classroom ← 156 | 157 → observations and from the interviews for which initially codes close to the data, or in-vivo codes, were used, which means that the wording used by an informant was used in a code itself or that the codes were very close to the literal meaning with a minimum of interpretation and abstraction. This step was followed by focused coding.

“Focused coding means using the most significant and/or frequent earlier codes to sift through large amounts of data. Focused coding requires decisions about which initial codes make the most analytic sense to categorize your data incisively and completely” (Charmaz 2006: 57).

Focused coding is used to bundle codes into categories. Hints to what aspect might be relevant are, among others,

a)    statements that are connected or contradict other research

b)    statements of general interest

c)    repetitions, breaks and changes in the narratives and emphasized elements and aspects connected to former research

The second step of data interpretation in accordance with Grounded Theory is axial coding. Here, the data are taken to a further level of abstraction. Data that have been segmented during the phase of the open coding are put together again. In the case of the study at hand, data from the portfolio conferences were added. According to Strauss & Corbin (1996: 118–131), the categories are arranged according to a coding frame that names a core category, which is a central phenomenon, and groups other categories around it to explain causes, intervening conditions, context, the stakeholders’ strategies, context and consequences (Strauss/Corbin 1996; Strübing 2008: 28). In this manner, all facets of a phenomenon as well as its conditions and influences can be reconstructed.

The third and final step is selective coding (Strauss/Corbin 1996: 94), where all the data are viewed again and deductively coded to support or dismiss the results of the axial coding.

The results can, in the sense of Grounded Theory, lead to what is to be understood as alterable, flexible “middle range theory” (Merton 1968) that explains a phenomenon at a certain moment in a defined context and serves as ground for further research (Strübing 2008: 10). ← 157 | 158 →

5    Results: The students’ and teacher’s perspectives on writing portfolios

The data in this study were coded and interpreted as described above to answer the research questions and to shed some light on the way the teacher used the portfolio in the writing classroom (5.1), on the students’ perception of the portfolio as a tool to improve their writing skills (5.2) and on the portfolio as an assessment tool (5.3). The findings can best be summarized by the term of a gain-loss effect (5.4).

5.1   The teacher’s use of the portfolio

To understand the students’ perceptions of the portfolio, the first step of data interpretation must focus on how the teacher used the portfolio. The aim is not to evaluate or even judge the teacher’s actions but rather to describe and retrace them. As there was only one teacher in this study, the results are not to be understood as saturated but they rather describe an individual teacher’s actions, perceptions and assumptions and thus form the basis for the interpretation of further data concerning the students’ perspectives. However, it can be anticipated that the results of this case study are of a high explanatory value and can be used as a starting point for further research.

The teacher explained that she aimed to prepare students with a proficiency level in German of B1 to B2 according to the CEFR for academic writing, teaching them the features of different text types and helping them to understand their own writing process (UB 1, 28–48)5. In the second interview in the middle of the semester, she stated that through teaching this class, she would gain experience that would be necessary to use portfolios reasonably in the following semesters.6 From this statement it becomes ← 158 | 159 → evident that she was aware that her use of the portfolio showed problematic elements. She considered herself a novice in using portfolios and felt she was struggling to introduce the tool into her teaching, which showed in different ways in the data. Several statements like the one referred to above imply that, from the teacher’s point of view, learning how to use a portfolio is primarily based on trial and error, which corresponds with findings by Kristmanson et al. (2011).

How a novice perceives portfolio work is closely related to the category of insecurity, which served as one of the head categories under which several other categories were subsumed during axial coding. In this manner, the quality and context of the insecurity could be described in more detail: Elements of insecurity, doubts and fears showed and were explicitly mentioned at several points in all of the interviews with the teacher so that it can be understood that her insecurity was not an initial one that was caused by the confrontation with a new challenge but was present all the time. As the mentioning of fear and insecurity was characterized by a certain manner of speaking, namely stammering, frequent pausing, abrupt break-offs and the repeated use of modal particles with a mitigating function, especially a bit (“so=n bisschen”), these features served to identify other potentially relevant statements in the data. It is interesting to note that the teacher’s insecurity was related to portfolio activities and, in the data, did not show with regard to other aspects of language teaching and classroom management. A crucial element was the connection between her insecurity and her desire to promote the students’ individuality. When she mentioned her strong fear to give too much information about portfolios to the students and, in so doing, limit their individuality in learning (I_LP IV, 652–654), she made a connection that might not have been obvious to outsiders. However, the data showed that her understanding of supporting learners’ individual needs was more or less to leave them maximum freedom in all decisions and actions. For this reason, she introduced the portfolio with all possible functions at once, namely as a tool for reflection, self-assessment, personal development, learning, documentation, consultation and promotion of writing skills. Furthermore, she explained that it could replace a textbook, would help her to give the students feedback on their texts and that it could be used for assessment (Ballweg 2015a: 248). She left it to the students to shape the portfolio concept according to their needs, which they ← 159 | 160 → actually did (Ballweg 2015a: Chap. 9). She stated that she did not want to give many explanations at the beginning but was prepared to be more specific when the students were seriously struggling with their portfolios (I_LP I, 112–116).

What might be interpreted as the teacher’s helplessness in using the portfolio, rather – or at least also – proved to be the effect of a misunderstanding of the concepts of learner autonomy and individualized language teaching. Her actions were guided by the general idea that portfolios, learner autonomy and individualized learning are positive but she did not have more profound knowledge on how to adapt these broad concepts to her teaching. Expecting students to become autonomous, to reflect their learning and writing processes and to adapt the portfolio to their needs may have been too ambitious an endeavour on both sides that most likely was to be disappointed.

The portfolio was used for several purposes and, with this multitude of options, was eventually reduced to its very basic function, namely arranging the texts. Helping students to arrange the portfolio also became the major focus of the portfolio conference and of the last classes.

The students’ main aim in this class, however, was not to become more autonomous and reflected but rather to improve their writing skills and their general language skills (e.g., I_Qian I/II, 104–138). Encouraged by what she had found out about the opportunities writing portfolios can offer, the teacher placed a strong emphasis on cognitive and metacognitive aspects of writing and aimed at teaching knowledge about texts, for example, about the structure of texts and the features of different text types. This focus made students aware of their writing process and induced them to reflect on writing strategies and text quality and to use peer feedback to stress the writer-reader relationship. All this led to less time left for writing, which was further reduced because the explanation and organization of the portfolios as well as activities of reflection and self-assessment proved to be rather time-consuming as well (I_LP II, 335–341).7 Other opportunities for writing in the portfolio (learning log, reflection) were not extensively used, as most students used short bullet-point lists instead of fully formulated texts. ← 160 | 161 →

The cut-back on writing activities not only showed in class but also in the teacher’s assessment at the end of the semester (I_LP IV, 234–239), when reflection and the organization of the portfolio became increasingly important, while writing skills seemed to matter less (see Section 5.3).

In general, portfolios in L2 writing instruction offer a multitude of opportunities that cannot all be used at the same time. Therefore, teachers have to make many decisions as to both the focus of their teaching of writing and the use of the portfolio. The necessity to make decisions can reveal insecurities, incongruities and a lack of knowledge on the part of teachers that had previously existed but were only revealed through portfolio work. Instead of making decisions based on instinct, teachers have to set priorities, to consider the multiple aspects of writing and portfolio use as illustrated in Fig. 1.


Fig. 1:   Need for priorities and focus in using a writing portfolio

← 161 | 162 →

5.2   The learners’ perception of the writing portfolio

As the students had initially expected a stronger focus on writing in this class, some of them were disappointed and did not find the class and the portfolio useful. This is of course in part due to the teacher’s specific use of the portfolio. Instead of perceiving the portfolio as a tool to promote their writing skills, these students experienced it as separate from their learning. Tom stated that rather than doing portfolio work he would have preferred to “learn German” (I_Tom I, 184–185).

Other students were more interested in, or at least open to, learning more about text structures and specific features of text types. This was the case when they acknowledged that they would benefit from the emphasis on metacognitive learning (e.g., I_Nilesh II, 49–53; I_Aline II, 8–17). It is interesting to note that the teacher’s lengthy and repeated explanations on these benefits hardly changed the students’ attitudes: Those students who were open to this approach right from the start were more positive. Those who did not see any usefulness in it, especially Tom and Atena, rejected the portfolio for at least the first five weeks despite the teacher’s attempt to point out its benefits. Later, a change towards a more positive stance was observed in some students: They acknowledged that the display of their achievements in the portfolio made them feel better about their writing skills but they still had the feeling that the portfolio did not help them to learn German or to improve their writing skills. However, the affective dimension (feeling proud) and the metacognitive dimension (having a broad repertoire of writing strategies available) were valued more highly than in the beginning (I_Atena III, 134–140; I_Qian III, 131–135; I_Tom III, 46–47).

In general, students’ expectations and attitudes at the beginning of a course seem to have a stronger impact on their perception of writing portfolios than the teacher’s explanations. Their own experiences might be more likely to lead to changes in their perception of the usefulness of portfolio work.

5.3   Assessment: Individualizing vs. arbitrariness

Portfolio-based assessment also caused a wide range of reactions among the students. Their interest in good grades was a vital criterion for how ← 162 | 163 → they judged portfolio work. Whereas weaker students recognized that portfolio-based individualized assessment was to their advantage (I_Renato I, 117–122), others were afraid of arbitrariness and unfair grades:

“and then to corr/correct it but somehow I am under the impression that maybe the teacher doesn’t like my my structure the structure of my portfolio and then I will get poor grades but there will be someone who is weaker in writing than me but knows how to structure everything well and then . that’s a bit not fair” (I_Atena III, 231–237; cf. also I_Atena I, 90–97).8

As a matter of fact, by considering additional aspects of the students’ achievements in assessments, such as their individual development and the quality of their reflections on their texts, the traditional criteria of writing assessment, especially the quality of texts, are devalued. The extent of this devaluation can vary and was taken to an extreme by the teacher in the present study, who did not mark her students punitively (I_LP IV, 267–276). She rather stated that she did not feel able to judge the quality of texts (I_LP IV, 301–313), even though she had been doing this for years in her classes. There are at least two possible interpretations of this phenomenon: Either her insecurity concerning the portfolio led to insecurity in assessment or else an already existing insecurity concerning the assessment of texts was revealed through the use of the portfolio and the necessity of revealing criteria for assessment. Unfortunately, the data do not allow concluding statements on this aspect.

Another relevant result of the study refers to the affective dimension of portfolio-based assessment. With feelings of insecurity, pride, dislike of the portfolio and fear of unfair assessment as explained above, the affective dimension proves to be important in the understanding of portfolio work. In assessment, there is an additional aspect to be considered: As has been stated previously, the new opportunities that portfolio-based assessment offers and the holistic view of learners mean that the focus of assessment shifts from the learning outcome to the learner (see Section 3). In this specific class, personal reflections and a learning log were included in the portfolio. Moreover, the teacher asked the students to add a learner’s ← 163 | 164 → biography (UB 1, 246–248), which made the portfolio a very personal document. The example of one student, Atena, shows how this can lead to feelings of vulnerability:

“erm … well I don’t know . well . for the first time I under”stand why ms. x [the teacher] erm . she used to say don’t you feel good when someone criticizes it [the portfolio] and so on and I didn’t bother and it was okay with me (lt) but now it is really my “product * # now if it get poor grades it might be – yes: – it won’t feel good” (I_Atena II, 281–289).

The teacher had similar doubts when she stated that she was trying to be fair but was finding it difficult because due to the personal nature of the portfolios, she rather had the feeling she was judging a person instead of assessing their achievements (I_LP IV, 212–222).

It seems that the personalization and individualization of writing classes through the use of portfolios collides with traditional ideas of assessment in the institutional set-up at a university.

5.4   The gain-loss effect of portfolio use

The phenomena described above may be summarized as the gain-loss effect of portfolio use: While portfolios are expected to add something to the teaching and assessment of L2 writing – reflection, language (learning) awareness, individualization, peer feedback, intensified interaction with teachers, more attention to affective aspects, and much more – learners in this study also experienced portfolio use as subtractive. They stressed that peer feedback was introduced at the expense of corrections by the teacher, work on language was replaced by reflection, writing activities were cut back for organizational matters, and considering additional aspects in a more holistic approach to assessment led to a devaluation of the importance of text quality.

Even though this effect is strongly related to the teacher’s use of the portfolio in this study, it has to be acknowledged that, generally, the addition of elements to teaching and assessment in most cases inevitably leads to the subtraction of others. To concede that this is also true for the use of writing portfolios is an important basis for the development of suitable, context-specific portfolio concepts. ← 164 | 165 →

6    Discussion and conclusion

The results of this study highlight the gain-loss effect of portfolio use but should not be reduced to it. The results explain how the complexity of the portfolio idea forces teachers to make choices on what to add to teaching and what to exclude and how learners perceive these choices as both gains and losses.

The teacher in this study had to make numerous difficult decisions as she was confronted with the complex task of including writing portfolios in her teaching, which entails challenges as well as opportunities. She tried to introduce all possible functions at once in order to achieve a maximum benefit for the learners. This again was challenging and time-consuming for her and for her learners, so much so that the learners were under the impression that they had to give up many aspects of learning that were important to them, and they did not appreciate the additional opportunities offered by the use of a writing portfolio. The teacher’s explanations did not suffice to convince them of the benefits. If they could be convinced, this was rather due to the actual experience of using the portfolio.

One way of dealing with this dilemma is to consider the genuine benefit of introducing portfolio-related activities in relation to the loss that this involves in other areas. It is not a matter of introducing a portfolio with all aspects or not using it at all. Rather, teachers and decision-makers have to analyse the learning needs of each group of learners and the benefit each new element could bring. A matrix for analysing the prerequisites of portfolio use can be based on the model of positive influences of portfolio use (Ballweg 2015a: 312), which comprises criteria in four different fields:

    learning aims and expectations

    the learners’ prior knowledge and personal features, such as their attitude towards mistakes and their self-efficacy

    personal habits and preferred ways of learning and studying

    institutionally and culturally influenced learning habits

Based on an analysis of the prerequisites and aims of portfolio work, teachers have to develop an individual approach to portfolio work for each group of learners that encompasses the following considerations: ← 165 | 166 →

    The benefits of introducing writing portfolios in the L2 classroom should outweigh the necessary efforts and subsequent cut-backs on important contents and aims that this introduction might bring for the whole group as well as for individual learners.

    The writing portfolio should not be an add-on to writing instruction but should be combined with the content to be acquired in such a way that it is clearly a tool to facilitate both the learning of writing and of content instead of an additional burden.

    The focus of the writing portfolio should be clear and comply with the learning aims set by the institution and by curricula as well as by the learners themselves.

The development of a suitable portfolio concept is extremely challenging for teachers as they have to be able to analyse all possible influences and they have to know all options of portfolio use and writing instruction well enough to make informed decisions. To be able to do so, it is necessary to prepare teachers for portfolio use and to support them in the process.


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1       I would like to thank Clive Earls, Martha Gibson, Claudia Riemer, Helen Kelly-Holmes, Antoinette McNamara, Lorraine Barron and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this article.

2       The International English Language Testing System (IELTS) is a standardized test for English as a Foreign Language.

3       From a constructivist perspective, I prefer the term data generation to data collection and data interpretation to data analysis as these terms better stress the subjectivity of perception and understanding.

4       For an extensive discussion of Grounded Theory in language research, see Ballweg (2015a: Chap. 6).

5       Explanation of abbreviations: UB (= Unterrichtsbesuch) – observed class; I_LP (= Interview Lehrperson) – interview with the teacher [plus number of interview I–IV]; I_[+ student’s name] [+ number] – interview with student [name] plus [number of the interview].

6       All data excerpts have been paraphrased or translated from the original German into English in line with the language policy of the volume. As translations are to be understood as a form of interpretation, the character of the original data excerpts may hence not be represented in its entirety.

7       This phenomenon also shows in Grittner’s study of portfolios in a Montessori primary school (Grittner 2009: 181).

8       Explanation of transcription conventions: . – pause of 1 second; .. – pause of 2 seconds; … – pause of 3 seconds; = – amalgamation of words; “ – strong emphasis; / – break-up; (lt) – loud; * – end of commented speech; # – laughter.