Teaching is a lifelong art, that … involves continuous learning not just for the student but for the teacher as well.”

(Mildred Katz and Joseph Henry)


Excerpt from Chapter One – Why Document Learning? in Penny Light,, Documenting Learning with ePortfolios: A Guide for College Instructors, forthcoming, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011


“Learning today is a complicated business.  New technologies are pushing the boundaries for learners as they seek to navigate a global world where information, literally, is at their fingertips.  Yet, the way that learners use the information is often in question because they do not seem to be effectively analyzing the material that they find (Batson and Watson, 2011). Instructors seem, more and more, to lament that their students lack the critical thinking abilities that will allow them to be successful learners and yet, increasingly, critical thinking is becoming a core competency for college and university campuses. Documenting learning is perhaps one of the most important ways for students to develop their critical thinking skills.  Proponents of the ePortfolio movement have argued for well over a decade now that learners need to document what they know, reflect on their knowledge, and present that knowledge to specific audiences in order to learn deeply (Barrett, 2004, 2006; Cambridge, 2010).  Deep learning (Ramsden, 1992; Biggs, 1982; Biggs and Tang, 2007; Trigwell et. al., 1997) as many have pointed out, should be the goal of learners today and that learning should be lifelong.  Ideally, students should internalize what they are learning because they are genuinely interested in the task, want to challenge themselves, and increase their competence – a mastery orientation to learning – rather than a performance goal orientation to learning aimed at giving the teacher what they think he/she wants in order to get a good grade (Dweck, 1986).  As Darren Cambridge notes in his book, Eportfolios for Lifelong Learning and Assessment, “a major purpose of education is enabling individuals to have agency in the world through their evolving understanding of themselves, their capabilities, and their connections to others” (ix). In other words, learners need to understand what they know and are able to do, but more importantly, how they know what they know, as well as what they do not know as a way of strategizing where to learn next.  Without this agency and ability to take control of their learning, students can “swirl” while in school and this can continue into their working life (Batson and Watson, 2011). Documenting learning in an ePortfolio, then, is a way for learners to explore and reflect on their knowledge by asking critical questions about where and how their knowledge was derived and what to learn next.  As Cambridge puts it, “ePortfolios provide a lens for examining these questions and a means to put the answers into practice” (ix). The process of reflecting on and questioning knowledge while mindfully articulating next steps is important for all types of learners whether they are individual student learners, faculty members, administrators or even entire institutions.”

The excerpt above that I wrote for my forthcoming book on using ePortfolios for documenting learning, is a good framework for understanding my teaching philosophy.  My work in teaching and learning development over the past 12 years has taught me that our greatest successes happen when we are able to make connections between what we know and what is new to us.  If we cannot make sense of new knowledge and how it applies to what we already know, we cannot learn.  Therefore, in order to be successful, it is crucial to know where you started – we need to identify benchmarks in our thinking in order to build on existing and/or construct new knowledge.  I design my courses so that students have the opportunity to identify both what they already know and gaps in that knowledge.  They then work with me and their peers to explore how new content and approaches either fit within their existing knowledge structures, build on them, or require new frameworks altogether.  A large part of this process is enabling students to know themselves – where their ideas and perspectives come from – and how those perspectives shape how they take in and process information from a wide variety of disciplinary perspectives.

Central to understanding diverse content and materials is the process of reflection. Reflection is the cornerstone of deep learning and reflection provides opportunities for students to integrate their knowledge from different contexts.  Yet students need time and space for that reflection so that they can integrate learning from different contexts.  As Mary Huber and Pat Hutchings note, “learning that helps develop integrative capacities is important because it builds habits of mind that prepare students to make informed judgments in the conduct of personal, professional, and civic life…”[1] This integrative approach, it seems to me, suggests that we need to encourage students to take responsibility for documenting and demonstrating their own abilities over time and, as such, we need to scaffold the learning of skills and abilities in our programs to provide opportunities for that learning.  At the same time, we need to find ways to allow students to demonstrate their knowledge in a variety of formats.  This makes learning more authentic.

My approach to teaching translates into more powerful learning experiences because it encourages students to view learning as a life-long process that happens in multiple contexts (academic, workplace, and community), rather than just something that happens in individual courses.  This holistic approach is one I try to employ for my own learning as well.  I regularly seek out feedback on my teaching and ideas for learning activities from colleagues, whether that is at conferences, in the hallway after our classes, or by seeking out structured feedback from instructional developers.  This external feedback is crucial for my own development, just as the students in my classroom require feedback on their own learning from me.

For me, effective teachers need to also be effective learners.  They need to model the type of thinking they want to inspire in their students.  I seek to “practice what I preach” because this communicates to learners that I am not asking them to do something I would not do myself.  Perhaps most important to me today is finding ways to engage today’s learners that will inspire them to make change in the world – we have a moral imperative in education to ensure that our students have the skills and abilities necessary to move in our ever-changing world.  Teaching that inspires students to get involved, not only in the knowledge construction necessary to understand disciplinary and interdisciplinary practices, but also in the “real-world” is a requirement of higher education today. At the heart of what I seek to do in the classroom is the desire to set students up to be successful as they use their knowledge, skills and abilities to make change – this is the value of education.

[1] Mary Huber and Pat Hutchings, Integrative Learning: Mapping the Terrain, Washington D.C.: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2004, p. 4.