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'Policy portfolio' helps students develop wide-ranging skills

19 December 2012

Oliwia Berdak, winner in the Postgraduate Teaching Assistant (PGTA) category of the 2012 Provost’s Teaching Awards, tells us how her policy portfolio project helped improve students’ key skills and academic abilities.

The UCL portico on a sunny day
Oliwia Berdak

What did you win your Provost’s Teaching Award for?

I think it was for the MyPortfolio project I developed. I started teaching on the ‘Introduction to Politics’ course at SSEES [the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies] two years ago, and I felt that some elements of the course’s formative assessment weren’t working. Students were being asked to write two non-assessed essays in their first year but they were unsure how to develop their skills in that area.

Because the course was very general, I designed a policy portfolio scheme in which students could pick a policy area, from something broad like public health to a more specific area such as housing benefit, then work on it, see what sort of policy aspects were involved, which key institutions and policies had been developed as part of this and so on, so they could apply their theoretical knowledge to very practical questions. They then did just one formatively assessed essay in order to practise their academic writing in preparation for the second and third years.

Did students create these portfolios in groups or individually?

It was done in groups over the course of a year. I asked them to pick a policy area they were interested in and get into groups of three based on that, then they had to collaborate together via the electronic platform MyPortfolio, which allowed them to upload whatever they wanted, comment on each other’s work, and develop a Facebook-style website for this project.

Were the students able to choose what they added to the website?

I devised a structure for them, but it was quite broad as I wanted them to find their own way with this and explore the areas that most interested them. One group focused on accountability in the NHS, looking into the different lobbying bodies and associations and how they became involved in the development of this policy, and researching different political parties’ policies in the medical area.

What form did the assessment and feedback take?

The policy portfolio was continually assessed in the sense that the groups presented their work to the class every couple of weeks. I gave them feedback on that as well as the material they were uploading to their websites.

Were the students enthusiastic about the policy portfolio idea?

I must admit that it was a bit of a learning curve: I was obviously very enthusiastic about the idea and thought the students would be too. But they were a little sceptical at first because they tend to arrive at university very goal-driven; they don’t think about learning in terms of skills development, they just want to achieve high marks. The concept took a bit of explaining, but once I’d talked them through the benefits not only to their academic lives but future careers, most of them got into it. 

So what sort of skills did the project teach them?

Unlike an essay, which some students might choose to spend only a week on, the policy portfolio required continuous development throughout the year, so they had to learn time management. It also taught them analytical skills – they had to set their own questions and choose what area they wanted to look at and which aspects of it. They developed research skills, because they had to find their own statistics, sources, lobbying groups and so on, and also presentation skills and teamwork. Finally, they developed their writing skills, as they had to submit the policy portfolio as a written document at the end of the course.

How did it feel being a PGTA who was changing an existing course?

I had worked on the course with the coordinators two years previously, but that was my first ever teaching experience so I didn’t dare change anything. But two years on I felt more confident in talking to them about it and they were very helpful; they asked what I wanted to do and they allowed me the freedom to implement it. Most of the other PGTAs teaching the same course also chose to adopt the policy portfolio system.

What was it about MyPortfolio that made you think it was the right software to use?

Actually I didn’t initially like MyPortfolio, I wanted to use UCL wiki. However, I talked to another colleague who had successfully used it for an economics course and she said that for her it worked as students working on a big project could upload material and keep coming back to it – so in the end I decided to go for it.

What are the advantages to using MyPortfolio?

It looks quite similar to MySpace and Facebook – you can upload, write comments, choose whether things are public or private, view other people’s pages – so it’s a very familiar-feeling platform for the students. I found it relatively easy to use, having read the manual and talked to colleagues, but in the future I think I would spend more time explaining how it all works to the students.

Why do you think formative assessment is so important?

I think it’s very important to let students know from early on how they can improve and what aspects of their learning and skills they need to work on. I think using a mixture of various assessment methods throughout the year is useful for looking at different skills separately. Continuous feedback is really important.

What advice would you give to a PGTA or teacher in a different department if they wanted to start a project similar to yours?

It’s very important to talk to your superiors and course coordinators – people are more supportive than I had initially anticipated. It’s good to think about what you haven’t liked about your teaching in the past, because very often you know what doesn’t work and the course coordinators know it too, they just don’t necessarily have the time to improve the course. I think they value the initiative and input of people who have everyday interaction with students, as a lot of course coordinators don’t actually have much contact with students. It’s very important to listen to students and to trust yourself to know what’s working and what’s not working then be creative with that.

What initially led you to become a PGTA?

I found working on my research quite lonely and not very engaging or interactive. I needed to feel that my work made sense and was important, and sharing it with students – because I could frequently draw on my own research whilst teaching – made it more real for me somehow. I also think it’s really important to get some teaching experience for your career progression.

How did you feel about winning a Provost’s Teaching Award? I was very honoured. I was also quite surprised – the person who won the PGTA award last year did something really amazing, and I didn’t quite think that my own work was equally impressive! However, it’s a very prestigious award and I feel proud that I won it. I hope others will recognise that it’s a good achievement. I would really like to thank all of the colleagues who were involved. As I mentioned, some of the other PGTAs adopted the policy portfolio and it wouldn’t have made such an impact without them, so I’m grateful that they were so open-minded. It’s very important to have people who are inspiring but also supportive around you, and I really had that in SSEES.

Further information

Oliwia Berdak is now a Research Fellow at Edinburgh University.

Interview by Ele Cooper.

Page last modified on 19 dec 12 15:50


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