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Use of Portfolios for Assessment in Introductory Economics

What was its purpose?

Since many students take only one college-level economics course, fulfilling general studies obligations, necessity demands that this first experience deliver a lasting and powerful impression. One successfully implemented strategy employed in my introduction to economics course is the creation of portfolios. The portfolio as the central assessment tool creates a vehicle to promote active student learning and development of economic reasoning skills. Students are challenged to become better thinkers, communicators and empathetic listeners. Opportunities for critical thinking, creativity, and developing informed opinions on contemporary social issues are embedded in the portfolio’s activities allowing assessment to occur at levels of application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Five key elements make up the content of the portfolio collection. These include a reflective essay, a reaction paper, a Haiku, position papers and an economics journal.

How was it integrated into the curriculum?

My course is developed around four general modules with various elements of the portfolio tied in. In the first module students are introduced to basic concepts such as ‘thinking like an economist’, scarcity, opportunity cost, production possibilities and supply and demand model. Students draw on a core concept as the basis for their reaction paper in which economics is linked to life experiences. The reaction paper is meant to be open-ended and informal, yet creative [samples]. The due date for the reaction paper coincides with exam one.

Approximately 80 percent of the course is spent examining contemporary issues and developing skills in economic reasoning. The issues considered include an analysis of the priorities established in the federal budget, the magnitude of the national debt, the design of the Social Security program, implications of the U. S. income distribution and the economics of crime, pollution and discrimination. Lecture mixed with discussion introduces each new socio-economic issue. A consistent format is followed to help students logically organize information. Interest is, first, peaked by soliciting student perceptions and establishing common ground for future discussion. To highlight the height-width-depth-breadth of the issue a review of current and historical statistical evidence gleaned from authoritative sources follows. Functional literacy in the use and interpretation of statistical data is developed. Students retrieve information on the web. During these web assignments students hone Internet surfing/computer literacy skill initially by locating pre-specified URLs, downloading and printing requested information. In time, students conduct independent searches for resources beyond what has been identified in class. An analysis of the role of economics, introduction of relevant terms and principles follow. Finally, students propose solutions and discuss the potential implications, costs or benefits. Throughout this stage, note-taking is required and rewarded. Carrier (1983) concludes that note taking is a legitimate component of the educational experience. Note-taking activities develop the ability to distill the ‘big ideas’ from minor points.

The concluding activity of each issue is the preparation of a position paper. Position papers are the “goal” of the class and provide an excellent opportunity to assess student learning at cognitive levels beyond mere general knowledge and comprehension. Structuring a response in the form of a news magazine feature article, a senatorial campaign speech or an editorial comment, students apply the power of economics to understand and to solve contemporary socio-economic problems. Critical thinking skills are fostered as a student progresses from paper one through four. In addition, role-playing builds empathy for alternative perspectives [samples: 1, 2].

Each paper is submitted twice. The first submission results in a grade. Students turn in their written papers, all notes taken plus any web assignments. Each student has the added responsibility of soliciting a first read “peer reviewer” to offer suggestion on grammar-related improvements prior to this first submission. Students may choose a peer reviewer either in or out of the class. The second submission of the revised paper occurs one class day later electronically. This collection is converted to a composite PDF file and posted to my website expanding the potential reading audience.

The Haiku is a lesson in brevity. Written after the final position paper is completed, the Haiku supports creative expression in the affective realm of learning. Any topic or concept covered in the course is eligible [samples].

The last module of the course provides insight on the operation of the macro economy. Students prepare a five-entry Economics-in-the-NEWS Journal drawing on current articles from major newspapers such as New York Times, Wall Street Journal or USAToday. Each dated journal entry identifies a macroeconomic concept, contains a summary of the article’s content and evaluates its personal implication [samples].

The reflective essay, the last element of the portfolio, is collected on the day of the final examination. This essay provides an opportunity for students to reflect on a semester’s worth of effort and to assess their personal gain. The instructor has an opportunity to evaluate student growth outside the realm of grades. Several prompting questions are suggested such as (1) How has my thinking changed about “economics” in general, in level of appreciation, in creative thinking and problem solving capacities; (2) How does the subject matter of this course relate to my overall learning, my ability to read and analyze news events, my ability to see the whole picture, as well as, the parts, my future course work or life; (3) How has the course material or activities changed the way that I think, my opinions or values concerning contemporary social issues, my tolerance of opinions or perspectives different from my own? and (4) How have my reading/writing/research skills been affected as a result of my work on this project? [samples].

The finished product is bound in a small three ring binder or other bound format. The components include: 1) cover page, 2) table of contents with pages listed, 3) reflective essay, 4) reaction paper, 5) Haiku, 6) revised position papers and 7) economics-in the-NEWS journal [samples: 1, 2].

How did students respond?

Student testimonials from reflection papers say the portfolio works as a vehicle to support an active learning pedagogy (Salemi, SEJ, 2002) because …

· A deeper understanding of concepts is reached by developing creative thinking and problem solving skills.

“This economics course has taught me to analyze situations first, before I come to my conclusion. I used to be the kind of person who would go with my first reaction rather than think about the situation and what the effect might be. I learned to think as an economist rather than an individual. The idea is to increase social well being rather than trying to benefit myself. I learned that what is right for me would not necessarily help society as a whole.”---M. W., F01.

· Mutual respect between student and instructor is fostered.

“It seems to me, through all the research papers we have done, you gave us a chance to express ourselves as individuals and it let you know what we have learned from your lectures and from the readings. I found out that there is no way you could have written a position paper well if you did not read the chapters it covered. As a teacher you probably know that there are students who do not like to read text material and just study from their notes. I could even be one of these but you did a good job with the structure of your class. And you have definitely expanded my mind with information that I did not know was imaginable. Maybe, you even learned a bit about us in return.”---K. W., F01.

· Ability to capitalize on differences among student learning and assessment styles.

Using a variety of pedagogical and assessment techniques increases the probability of student success. Lectures highlight foundation material. Discussions build on the realm of possibilities. Variety in assignments enables students to balance an area of weakness with one of strength. Progressive writing assignments push students from the passive role of audience to the active role of writer, thinker, and communicator. The position papers and Haiku provide opportunities for critical thinking, creativity, and developing informed judgment on issues of real concern.

“When I entered class on the first day, I did not know what to expect and after going through what was expected of us I was not sure I was going to like it. I did not like the fact that we had to write all those papers. It seemed like so much at the time and I did not think I was going to be able to do it. But what I did not realize was that those papers were like our test. And by the end I was not at all upset about writing the papers. I actually came to enjoy them because they helped me understand the information much more than a test ever would. The reason I think they helped me so much was that I had to actually think about the topic before writing and had to connect it to something that was going on in the economy.”---B. S., F01.
“I really had fun with the haiku because it was a challenge to convert economics into an English format and still make a strong point.”---C. S., F02.

· A positive attitude toward economics is developed.

“My view of economics has always been somewhat of a limited one. I was under the impression that economics was solely about money, and that most of what I would learn about I would not understand anyway. Economics has turned out to be something that affects me everyday. I never dreamed I would be discussing poverty, crime and problems with the federal budget as my friends and I sit around my kitchen table. ….Overall, my general thinking about economics has changed so much, that I find myself seeking out articles about our economy in the daily paper. --- M. M., F02.

· Tolerance for different opinions and perceptions is encouraged through peer-to-peer exchanges.

“In class there were many different discussions. We discussed things from crime to social security to pollution to poverty and much more. Throughout those discussions there were many different views. Some people had the same view as I did, that made me feel that my view was right. Many people, also, had views there were different than mine. I had to think about those views and usually I would decide that both views could be correct. Before this class I thought that when dealing with economics there was one right answer and a lot of wrong answers. I now understand that there are many right answers and many wrong answers. By considering other peoples’ views, I feel that I have become a better person, as well as, a better economist.”---R. B., F01.

· Practitioners are challenged.

 To be a successful practitioner of the portfolio approach requires a commitment of time that exceeds the requirements of a chalk-‘n’-talk pedagogy and “scantron”-assessment mentality. This portfolio approach requires a commitment of out-of-class time to keep abreast of current events and to seek the most current statistical evidence; a commitment of in-class time to allow opportunity for verbal expressions from students; a commitment to read student papers and to offer fair, constructive suggestions for revision-only to re-read those same papers! Yet the commitment is not without rewards. Student growth is evidenced in the testimonials offered in the reflection papers. Acknowledgements from students who have used their “fledging wings,” economic knowledge, to win scholarships and awards and to vocalize an informed opinion at a campus sponsored “Talk In” are a source of personal satisfaction. And the improvement in student scoring on course evaluations reveals a high level of satisfaction with this approach.

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