In our first blog post on Purposeful Assignments, we laid out some ways you could know if you had created a purposeful assignment for your students. In this post, we are going to look at two variations on a portfolio assignment. We spoke to two instructors (Sylvie Lafrenière and Beth Mclin) and they shared the details of their assignments as well as some of the reasoning behind choosing these assignments and their assessment methods.  

Case 1: Fourth Year Course Portfolio  

Our first example is from a fourth year Sociology course. Students submitted a portfolio to demonstrate their learning based on three of the course learning outcomes. The instructor, Sylvie Lafrenière, gave students thirteen options to choose from to make up their three item portfolio. For submissions that were not written work, students were required to write a paragraph that explained the submission. Students chose their portfolio items from the following list of options:  

  • Design a policy that provides a possible solution to a problem you identified. 
  • Design a PSA that informs about a problem you identified, or a solution to this problem. 
  • Create a timeline of the education system in Canada or in British Columbia. 
  • Prepare a video of your experience in the education system, relating to the course material. 
  • Write about the intersection of education and social class in Canada or BC. 
  • Write about the intersection of education and any of the themes covered this semester, in Canada or in BC. 
  • Write an op-ed. 
  • Write a “green paper” or a “white paper”. 
  • Prepare an illustrated journal of the course, of your journey and learning in the course. 
  • Make a political cartoon that relates to education in Canada. 
  • Write a reflective piece on this course as an educational setting. 
  • Write and perform a song about the course material. 
  • Prepare a research proposal for a study you would like to conduct related to the education system.  

When Tine spoke with Sylvie about this assignment she told us that she received a wide variety of submissions and described some of the most memorable examples. She also spoke about why she chose to assign this portfolio and how she went about grading the submissions.  

Tine: What was the assignment?  

Sylvie: Students submitted 3 items out of a list of 13.  If they chose a component that was not in writing, they had to submit a paragraph about what their submission meant. The submissions were really varied.  Some examples I remember most strongly were 

  • A foam installation representing a classroom: all the students were shown with pictures of children as their heads. They were all very cute from the front, but when you turned it around the backs of their heads told the children’s back stories: this one didn’t have breakfast, this one’s parents are getting divorced, this one has an undiagnosed learning disability.   
  • A Wordcloud naming all the major ideas of the course, and including a running joke from class discussions 
  • A dreamcatcher about reconciliation and residential schools and how the damage done to a people has affected the whole society today.  School as a place of cultural genocide.  
  • A song, performed with a guitar in front of class. 
  • A painting of a tree 

Tine: Why did you design this assignment?  

Sylvie: This is a fourth year class, and students should be able to think a little deeper. I thought this might allow them to go deeper than a standard research paper assignment.  It would be more engaging for students and open the door to creativity.  I often tell students to be creative, even in my research methods class, where they don’t think they need creativity.  But they do need that.  

It’s more fun to grade too! You never know what they’re going to come up with. I like to be surprised by the students. I like to see them do or say something I never would have thought.  I give them the tools and they can do whatever they want with it and I get to learn from them.  And I remember these assignments.  I don’t remember any of the essays I’ve assigned. 

Tine: How do you mark these varied submissions?  

Sylvie:  I don’t like rubrics.  Except for things happening on the fly like a presentation.  But I knew what the objectives were, so I was looking to see if that was demonstrated.  They were supposed to demonstrate critical knowledge, explain the interplay between social structures and education and develop solutions for a problem.  I really meant for them to demonstrate critical thinking.  I can’t prescribe how they will show that to me. But letting more things into this box that we call critical thinking helps them show it.   

This was a serious and thoughtful assignment and asks for different ways of demonstrating standards and connections of the course. I feel I am a creative person, who is not necessarily artistic. Creativity is different than being artistic.  I had four objectives in the course and this assignment connected to the first three.  What they submitted showed me whether or not they achieved the learning objectives.  And you can easily see the students who have put a lot of time into it. 

Case 2: Portfolios and a Public Showcase 

Our second example is from a cross-listed Criminology and Sociology course. Students in this course participated in a field school which sent some students to Arizona and others to Osoyoos to visit prisons in international border towns. As part of the course evaluation, students created a portfolio with six artifacts (from a long list of options). Each portfolio item was accompanied by a paragraph explaining its relevance to the course objectives.  Items submitted included posters, dioramas, scrapbooks, songs, articles, public service announcements, podcasts, cartoons, photo albums, white papers, recorded reflections, and video skits.  

In addition to the portfolio, students also created a public showcase. For the showcase, a room was set up with a border between Canada and Arizona. Students worked in teams and created different stations for their side of the room.  For example, a group built a replica of the border marker between Canada and US, another built a “wall” as it looks in Arizona, others prepared a poster about one of the programs in the prison. This was a public display so visitors arrived in “Canada”, received a passport, got it stamped at all stations, then went through the border and into Arizona, to view the other stations.  

Tine interviewed the instructors of this course, Beth Mclin (Criminology) and Sylvie Lafrenière (Sociology). This is what they had to say about assigning and assessing the portfolio assignment:  

Tine: Why did you design this assignment, and how did you mark it?  

Beth: Having lots of papers is onerous for grading. I can discern better what students have learned when they apply it to something in the real world.  I can tell what they learned more easily that way than if I just ask them a question and they answer it.  And it’s actually easier to mark!   

Sylvie: Yes, it’s important to note that we’re not marking creativity.  I got a poem from one student.  It explained how the field experience made him feel. But I wasn’t grading the poem as an art object.  

These were emotionally exhausting experiences: visiting people in human hardship. The format allowed them to process really emotional stuff. The students had to process the darkness and needed an outlet. They had seen people being deported, or sent to a prison they had just visited.  It made the processing of emotional stuff more possible because students had personal connections and could express them. The assignment helped students to process the emotion and connect it to the larger ideas of the class.   

Beth: Yeah, we weren’t grading the quality of the public service announcement, or quality of song or art work.  What we were looking for was: were they able to integrate the meaning of the experiences they had heard about and witnessed?  One student submitted a picture of a water bottle: Could they depict or describe what water represents for someone who is walking through the desert?  What is the border like and can they show the experience of immigrants, and describe what this means to immigrants? 

Sylvie: A strength of this approach is that it is more difficult to plagiarize. That was one of the motivating factors for doing this assignment in this particular course where there were two of us marking for two separate courses.  With essays—how do we know that they are not submitting the same essay for me and for Beth?  We knew because these submissions were personal to the students who submitted them.    

Beth: These were really fun to mark too: they were so reflective of the change-makers we want students to become.  

To mark them, we made a list of elements that show that the expected learning took place. Our general criteria were:  

  • Unique demonstration of their understanding of interactions between criminal justice and immigration issues 
  • Articulates ideas and concepts relevant to the course as reflected in the object  
  • Conveys a message that demonstrates what was learned (this may be explained in the written explanation that accompanies the object) 

 As part of their portfolio they had to submit a paragraph to say how all the elements of the portfolio worked together.  There had to be some kind of integration and link to the whole course. We visited the showcase, looking at each entry and taking notes and pictures. Then we discussed the student’s work and used a 1-3 star system—to show how much the submission hit on the main outcomes expected.  

What’s Next? 

Next in this series we will share how you can build choice and flexibility in VIULearn. We will also be posting more examples of Purposeful Assignments designed by VIU faculty in the weeks to come.  Stay tuned! 

In the meantime, if you would like to work with one of your Curriculum Teaching and Learning Specialists to design your own Purposeful Assignment, please email to book a consultation.