Implementing a Signature Experience and ePortfolio in an English Capstone Course

Posted: October 26, 2021

Kellie Keeling is a senior English major with a concentration in Writing & Publication.
Zoë Phalen is a senior English major with a concentration in Writing & Publication.
J. Michael Rifenburg is an associate professor of English.

Editor's note: This is the sixth in a series of posts called HIPs Implementation related to the ongoing USG-directed effort to document and promote HIPs at UNG. This post describes how a student-professor partnership was leveraged to successfully redesign a capstone course.

For ten consecutive months in 2020, we gathered on Zoom and talked about how to redesign English 4880, a senior capstone course required for undergraduate English majors with a Writing & Publication concentration.

Michael Rifenburg

Michael has taught this course each semester for the past six years. Kellie and Zoë, both Writing & Publication undergraduate students, had not yet taken this class but will before they graduate.

Our redesign efforts produced two outcomes: 1) a signature experience in this discipline-specific capstone course; 2) an ePortfolio in which students document this signature experience and organize additional evidence from their undergraduate English course work.

First, we created course objectives characterized by clear, measurable verbs. We agreed on the following objectives:

  • Assemble a final e-portfolio in which you demonstrate your growth as a writer;
  • Prepare a cover letter to your portfolio in which you interpret and reflecton the culmination of knowledge gained in your undergraduate experience and how it pertains to your identity as a writer;
  • Design a signature work, in which you integrate knowledge across your undergraduate education in meaningful ways to engage with a real-world issue that matters to society and you.

With these goals and objectives in place, we turned our attention to the notion of a signature experience. We were led by AAC&U research on signature experiences (Budwig, Ratliff-Crain, & Reder, 2018) and knew we wanted to design a signature experience that

  • Provided students agency in the topic, guidance in how to pursue this project, and clarity regarding what the outcome would be (e.g., an essay, presentation, movie, series of posters);
  • Invited students to integrate all their college experiences from across general education courses, co-curricular courses, extra-curricular activities, and major requirements;
  • Included a place for students to reflect on the work they have accomplished;
  • Challenged students to undertake a complex project or tackle what Hanstedt (2018) refers to as a "wicked problem." This is a problem that is complex, ever-evolving, and includes multiple stakeholders.

We developed the following "wicked assignment"; this assignment serves as the signature experience for this capstone course. Students include this assignment in their final ePortfolio. Here, we provide the complete assignment sheet:

Research shows the importance of students creating a signature work as the cumulative activity of their undergraduate experience. In this signature work, students should have some agency in identifying the nature of their project, integrate knowledge from across their undergraduate curricular, co-curricular, and extra-curricular experiences, and address what some researchers call a "wicked problem"—that is, a real-world issue that matters to society and the students and one that is complex, big, and messy.

In this course, the capstone course of your Writing & Publication concentration, I invite you to complete such a signature work. The assignment below is guided by three parameters. I am asking you to:

    • Make meaning: that is, I am asking you to construct new ideas or solutions to problems and new understandings of these problems and their causes
    • Integrate: that is, I am asking you to foreground useful connections among seemingly disparate areas of thought, with the goal of adapting problem-solving methodologies from one context to another
    • Make decisions: that is, I am asking you to act based on your thinking as you make meaning and integrate (bullet points inspired from Hanstedt's [2018] Creating Wicked Students)

You will undertake meaning making, integration, and decision making within the broader context of uncertainty. What I mean here is that you are thinking and working with a pressing, current problem. This problem has multiple stakeholders invested in it. It has not been solved.

Here is your scenario:

The financial implications of a global pandemic are hitting U.S. higher education hard. Small private schools are permanently closing their doors and mid-sized public universities are trying to move forward with slashed budgets. [scenario is fake from this point forward] Georgia state legislatures, in an effort to tighten budget belts and ensure long-term fiscal stability for their states, cities, and counties, are asking the University System of Georgia to cut low-performing and low-enrollment majors. At UNG, upper administrators are looking to remove the English literature and Writing and Publication concentration, relocate the English Education degree to the College of Education and dismiss half of the 80 English faculty members. The remainder of the English faculty will be absorbed into the College of General Education, where they will only teach English 1101 and English 1102. As an UNG alumnus and English major, you are incensed. In this wicked assignment for English 4880, you will produce an argument against entrenchment. You will fight to save the UNG English Department.

The product you produce will be up to you. I invite you to make a written argument, a visual one, or an audio one. You will present your argument to your classmates and select English faculty and UNG upper administrators over Zoom near the end of the semester. How might you best reach your audience?

In this assignment, you will refer back to our three parameters: make meaning, integrate, and make decisions. Finally, keep in mind that to make an argument, you will need to draw on more than your English major material. What classes have you taken that can help you make an argument about saving the English Department? What have you done outside of class that shows the importance of the English major?

Students also completed an ePortfolio. We include this assignment below:

To assess its teaching effectiveness as mandated by accreditation agencies, the Department of English requires a portfolio of your work. Near the end of the semester, we will devote time to crafting an individual ePortfolio that you believe best represents the work you have undertaken during your time at UNG. Since this is an ePortfolio, you will create an electronic portfolio of your work on free digital platform like Wix.

A link to your ePortfolio is due on the day of the final exam. Upload your portfolio as a single document to the appropriate D2L assignment folder.

The ePortfolio includes the following items:

    • Title page, which will include your name, my name, and semester.
    • Table of contents.
    • Reflective cover letter of roughly 600 words. Single-space and fully justify your text. Address your cover letter to Department of English Faculty. Discuss the purpose of your portfolio, why you chose the items you submitted, what the selected items say about you as a reader/writer of English Studies, and your future.
    • An employment resume geared toward a specific job or a CV.
    • A resume of your English Studies' classes. In other words, a list of classes you took in language, literature, writing, or a closely related field at UNG or at other institutes of higher education. Be sure to include semester and instructor of record.
    • At least one piece of writing that predates your collegiate career or comes from your first year as a college student.
    • At least one paper that comes from Advanced Composition (ENGL 3130), Technical and Professional Writing (ENGL 3160), Linguistics (ENGL 3020), Grammar (ENGL 3050), or History of the English Language (ENGL 3010) classes.
    • At least one paper that comes from your upper-division English class, preferably a class closely connected to Writing & Publication such as Introduction to Rhetorical Theory (ENGL 3120).
    • Your wicked assignment completed in English 4880.

Michael piloted this course in Spring 2021, and the three of us have an article forthcoming on our work in the international and interdisciplinary publication the Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice. In October 2021, Michael and Zoë presented at the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Summit hosted by Kennesaw State University.

ePortfolios will continue to play a pivotal role in shaping and assessing undergraduate student learning and engagement. We encourage faculty and undergraduate to come together and imagine and implement accessible and equitable ePortfolios practices.

ePortfolios, like the other high-impact practices identified by the AAC&U, are empirically proven to support student learning and engagement—but only when done well and only when equity and access are at the fore of design, implementation, and assessment. We believe that through faculty and students partnerships, we can create effective ePortfolio assignments.

References

Budwig, N. Ratliff-Crain, J. & Reder, M. (2018). Student preparation for and engagement with signature work. Peer Review, 20 (2). Retrieved from https://www.aacu.org/peerreview/2018/Spring/Budwig

Hanstedt, P. (2018). Creating wicked students: Designing courses for a complex world. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

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