On writing my teaching portfolio

About a year ago, I started writing a teaching portfolio to apply for LTH’s “pedagogical academy”, which, when successful, comes with the title of “excellent teaching practitioner” (ETP). During the process, I took teaching portfolio writing courses both at UiB and at LTH, both with a focus on writing portfolios specifically for the application to ETP; I talked with many unofficial and three official critical friends, and I finally submitted a portfolio in January. And then, about a week ago, I was notified that I had been awarded an ETP, so something went right! Here are some reflections on the process and on what I think is especially important in writing a teaching portfolio.

Disclaimer before I start: This blogpost is written based on my personal experience in writing the ETP portfolio, doing the interview, being approved, and getting the written feedback. I do not have any further insights into how the process works, and these are not official recommendations by me as an academic developer at CEE (those might be very different? I don’t know), just my personal experience as an applicant!

Check the guidelines!

This might seem obvious, but depending on the purpose of the teaching portfolio (for ETP at LTH like mine, or for application for a job or promotion, or whatever other purpose you might have), the requirements might be surprisingly different, both in terms of length, what focus the evaluators want to see, how scientific it should be in terms of working with theory and literature, how much and what kind of evidence should be attached to the main text. Sometimes it might be good to write a teaching portfolio as a highlight reel of the greatest teaching successes; in my case I knew that it was really important to show development over time and reflect on it, meaning I had to reach much further back into the past, and reveal a much crappier early teacher-me, than I would have done purely based on my gut feeling.

You probably have a lot more teaching experience than you think

One of the rumors that exist around getting an ETP at LTH (even though my colleagues always say that this is just a rumor and not true) is that you basically have to have been teaching for decades in order to become an ETP. But as always, better be safe than sorry, so how do we show evidence of these decades of teaching experience?

Looking through old successful teaching portfolios, I realized that pretty much everybody started out with how they were sports instructors as teenagers, and how what they learned then shaped them as a teacher. That is true for many people, and it is true for me, too. It might feel weird to reach that far back into the past, but it might be useful to at least consider, and see if any of what you learned back then still influences how you teach today. For me, for example, I realized that having been a sailing instructor since I was pretty young makes me very risk-adverse in terms of letting my students experience “dangerous” situations (quotation marks because the situations are not actually dangerous, they just have surface similarities with previous dangerous situations, so I go into protective mode), even though that might be exactly what they need and want to do. In freediving, for example, the reflex to bring people’s airways out of the water can be really annoying to people trying to hold their breath! And that’s not even a dangerous situation, just one that looks similar to what sailing instructors would avoid at all costs — people floating motionless and face down in the water. But also in regular teaching, I used to go to great length to not let students experience negative emotions, for example by using myself as an example when talking about microaggressions or other negative topics, rather than let students speak about their own experiences, which would actually be preferable in terms of their learning. Through writing my portfolio, discussing with my writing buddy  Peter, and a lot of reflection, I managed to confront that impulse and develop teaching units that actually allow students to experience and confront uncomfortable memories — for what I believe is better for their learning. So thinking back to when I was a teenager actually made for an interesting (I think) storyline that is relevant for my current teaching. Plus it shows the long history of teaching, which is something that people wanted to see.

Take time to really think through the structure

When I started out working on my portfolio, I started collecting evidence and notes and ideas and it quickly became hugely overwhelming, especially since I went all the way back into my teenage years (see above — and I actually still do have artifacts from that time that show what kind of teacher I was back then!). Of course I could not fit everything I had ever done into one teaching portfolio, and not even all the highlights (this blog alone has 1386 published posts already, and even though some of them are about #wavewatching, most of them are actually artifacts of how I think about my teaching, and how it has developed over time). How should I ever choose what to present and what to leave out?

Rather than trying to figure out the three highlightiest highlights of my teaching career so far, it became a lot easier to see what examples I wanted to include when I started thinking about my teaching philosophy, and my guiding principles. In a lot of my recent work, I have used self-determination theory to motivate choices I make when designing teaching, so it seemed a good idea to also use it in the portfolio, too. In self-determination theory, we have the three components of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, so there I had a structure for my portfolio: I used those three as “guiding principles”, and then chose to present three cases, one for each, illustrating how those principles manifest in how I think about teaching.

Obviously for me as an academic developer it was easier to find a theoretical framework than it might be for many people who don’t have as much time to read and think about teaching as I do, and I have not seen any other portfolio that was as clearly linked to theory as mine is. So obviously there are many other successful strategies out there! But please feel free to feel inspired by mine. Whatever works for you; I am just describing my own experience here.

So now I knew I wanted a case on autonomy, one on competence, and one on relatedness. Next, I knew that the evaluators wanted to see development over time, evidence of teaching and supervision at different levels (meaning bachelor, master, and PhD), and also that my main teaching these days, i.e. academic development courses, are not what is typically described in applications for ETP at LTH. So therefore I picked

  • one pretty old example where I was teaching Bachelor students in oceanography and how laboratory experiments developed over time, from “I HAVE TO SHOW EVERYTHING BECAUSE IT IS SOOOO SOOOOO SOOOO EXCITING!!!” to actually thinking through what students need to learn and have the prior knowledge to learn at any given point, and how to scaffold their learning. So in a way a very boring story that probably every teacher can tell one way or another. This case seems to have been very important judging from the feedback I got, though, since this is the most “real” teaching I am doing in the sense that it is similar to what all other LTH teachers do, so it is most relatable. It also gave me the chance to weave in #KitchenOceanography, several of my own publications, my blog & social media, my work with other teachers outside of my job context, and basically everything else I wanted to talk about (and despite the feedback I got from basically EVERYBODY, I probably left in way too many different things, both in the portfolio itself and in the appendix. Oh well…)
  • another pretty old example where I was supervising Master and PhD students and created communities of practice and discussed what worked well and what I would do differently now, which I chose mostly because I wanted something on supervision and I didn’t really have any other interesting cases there,
  • and lastly one from my current work as academic developer, which, I think, worked really well because during my writing process, I taught about the topic that I was writing about, and I actually changed the way I taught based on reflections that had happened during the writing, mostly prompted by my writing buddy Peter. So real-time reflection represented in the portfolio! There were no explicit comments on this in the feedback I got, but I think it was a nice touch that showed how I interact with peers to improve my teaching.

Once I knew which cases I wanted to present, everything became a lot easier since I wasn’t trying any more to press everything I had ever done into one portfolio. Should I, in retrospect, have chosen different examples? In the interview I had to defend the lack of quantitative evaluations of my teaching, so maybe I should have considered presenting examples where I actually have such data.

But having said that, I am very happy with the first and third example I gave just because I think they make good stories that I am happy to tell; and I think the second one strategically worked really well, too, for the reasons described above. I am just not as excited about it as about the other two, but again, choosing what I am most excited about didn’t get me anywhere when I tried it, so sticking to my structure was probably really good advice.

Make the structure very clear

Now I had this (awesome, I think!) structure, but how could I make sure to rub it in so much that readers would definitely realize how nicely rounded and coherent my portfolio was?

Instead of a classical table of content to guide readers through my portfolio, I chose to show a table of the main points, including page numbers, on my cover page (see top of this post). I have not seen anyone else do this in their final portfolios (it was inspired by something Peter had in one of his draft versions!), but to me it made sense — both in terms of trying to make navigating my portfolio easy for evaluators, but also for me to make sure that my portfolio was coherent in itself, that the principles, cases, and learnings actually fit together, even in this super brief summary. This turned out to actually be very useful (for me — no idea what the evaluators thought about it).

Think about what the relevant literature is (and what the evaluators think it is…)

This one I found really difficult because I have read so much and am very used to pulling references out of my sleeve for most things I say about teaching and learning. But for the purpose of the portfolio, I felt that I should limit myself to a reasonable number of references, while also making sure to include the ones that I felt were expected to be included. I had, for example, noticed, that in almost all successful portfolios I had access to “constructive alignment” and hence Biggs & Tang were mentioned. For me, while I think the idea of constructive alignment is useful, this would probably not have been a concept and reference that I would have included without strategic considerations. But since everybody else seemed to do it, I thought I should better be on the safe side and include it, too. It felt weird to be strategic about citations in that way, but it kept me from stressing about whether evaluators would be missing “key” (to them) references.

If you are coming at this from the other side and are wondering what literature to refer to, going back to the recommended literature in courses you took is probably a good start, as well as looking through the lists of references of successful portfolios and seeing if there is anything in there that sparks your interest (or, if it doesn’t, that shows up over and over again).

Read successful portfolios for inspiration

As I mentioned above, I read as many successful proposals as I could get my hand on (which ended up being about a dozen — if you ask people to share, they tend to be super willing to do that!). I did this very early on during the process and took notes, and then when I was actually working on writing my portfolio and especially once I had found my structure, I didn’t look back at the actual portfolios, just at my notes. I think that helped me get a feeling of what seemed to be important (like being very clear about structure), what worked and what didn’t, but in the end it didn’t influence me too much and I could still write a portfolio that feels very much like my own.

Ask for a lot of feedback, or better, find writing buddies

In my writing process, I talked to so many people! Peter and Kjersti are my writing buddies who saw many different versions and gave substantive and really foundational feedback from very early on in the process. Over the course of several months, we talked pretty much weekly, and that was so important!

Then I got feedback on almost finished versions of my portfolio from two other academic development colleagues, one of them officially assigned as a critical friend through the portfolio writing course i had done. During the whole process, I additionally had conversations with lots of other colleagues who never actually read the portfolio, but gave me input based on concrete questions. And then I had two “official” critical friends (as in for my ETP application, I was required to have conversations with two critical friends that have ETPs from LTH, and discuss in my portfolio how those conversations influenced my thinking) give me feedback on a pretty much final version of the portfolio (those two I should have gotten involved earlier, since by the time I got their feedback, I was soooo over writing the portfolio, that I didn’t actually want to change things any more :-D). This is actually a really useful step in the process, since this type of critical friends have experience with the exact type of portfolio we were supposed to write, and with the process, and with the culture at LTH. Plus it kick-starts conversations with other people that are invested in their teaching!

But long story short — getting feedback is very helpful. And the best thing was to regularly meet with Kjersti and Peter and discuss newer and newer versions. Both of them contributed so much to the development of the portfolio, and Peter even to the development of my teaching during the writing process! So this is really my most important piece of advice: Find someone who you can do the work together with, and meet up regularly! Peer support and community are so important!

Consider what kind of evidence you are expected to show (and start collecting!)

I’ve touched on this above — most of the evidence I show in my portfolio is qualitative, but what the evaluators are looking for is quantitative. The problem here is that I don’t actually have quantitative data on the cases I chose to present, it has just never been collected. I have lots of free text feedback and also a lot of peer feedback on my teaching, and in the end that was enough. But I had to explain the lack of quantitative evaluations during my interview (which I could, not just because that data simply doesn’t exist, but also because even if it existed, I could convincingly make the case that it would probably not be very useful, hence we never collected it in the first place). I was preparing a future portfolio, I might try to find some numbers somewhere, or consider swapping out one of my cases to one where I actually have numbers. Not because I think that would make the portfolio better, but because I think that’s what the evaluators wanted to see. Maybe this should have been one of my criteria for when I picked my cases, in addition to the criteria described above. But all is well that ends well? But if you are considering writing a teaching portfolio at some point in the future, make sure you collect the kind of data evaluators will want to see, even if that is not the kind of evidence that actually helps you improve your teaching (which you are obviously collecting already and anyway), just to make your own life easier!

Ask about the purpose of the interview

(Obviously only if there is an interview in whatever process you are in…)

One thing I noticed during my interview and that other people who were in the process now reported, too, was that during the interview it wasn’t always clear whether questions were asked in order to give us the opportunity to expand on what we wrote in the portfolio, or if they were checking if we remembered what we had written. I could and should probably have asked during the interview, but I didn’t, so I still don’t know.

Also I got a question that — to this day — I do not understand. It was something like how my blogging influences my teaching (of course it does! So much reflection that I am sharing with the world and getting feedback on! So many ideas from peers! So many opportunities to connect with new people, get new input, be inspired!), but then later clarified to whether my teaching is shaped by what people on social media want to read on my blog, if I am making design choices on the chase for “likes” (erh, no??). During the interview, I was really not sure what that question meant, but talking about it with friends later, they were so offended on my behalf that I am now even more confused about what the point of that question was. I should definitely have asked for clarification!

Whatever the outcome, it is not really about you. But enjoy the process!

No matter what some people claim how perfectly portfolios let you measure teaching quality, don’t believe it. I am sure there are really crappy teachers that can write excellent portfolios, and I know for sure that there are excellent teachers that write portfolios that are then wrongly evaluated as not-excellent-enough. In the end, this is an imperfect measure, and while there are strategical considerations that can help you (like for example what I describe above when choosing my structure and cases) and while it certainly helps to understand the socially constructed norms of what makes a good teaching portfolio in your case, none of this is actually measuring your teaching quality (and much less your worth as a human). At best, it is measuring how well you can follow the expected norms in how and what to write about your thoughts on your teaching. So do not take the outcome all too seriously! Do, however, take the writing process seriously. It’s a great opportunity to deeply reflect about your teaching, which can — and in my case was — actually be really fun! And it will in the end improve your future teaching — and that is the one outcome that is most relevant anyway! :-)

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