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Crushing the “Skills Gap” with a Killer Online Portfolio

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Optimize a College Portfolio for Depth to Prove Job Readiness

So, your department or program requires that your students complete a capstone college portfolio. It’s easy to just tell your students to pick out the best work they have been collecting in their Chalk & Wire ePortfolio accounts over the years. However, the focus of this requirement should be reflective learning, eliminating the notion of a skills gap by proving that the students are job ready.

A college portfolio is students’ best opportunity to show graduate schools, employers, and credentialing agencies what they know, how they will act and how they will address real-world problems. A robust academic portfolio can quickly provide confirmation that students have the knowledge and skills they claim. However, without forethought and guidance on choosing the right evidence, students may end up creating a worthless academic portfolio.

Often right before their portfolio is due, students pick through their work to find the items for which they received the best grades and compile those artifacts into a new collection. There is no reflective learning or justification of the selected items, though this method does quell the conception of an academic career skills gap. However, if the faculty is on board with seeing this task as a valuable job readiness online portfolio, this assignment can be turned on its head and made meaningful and valuable for students. By engaging in thoughtful preparation of the college portfolio, your students will also have developed quality responses to the hardest interview questions they will ever get – the ones that ask what they would do in unfamiliar situations – those questions without one “right” answer.

There is nothing easy about this kind of job readiness reflection. Research at the University of Queensland (2015) found that even if students had studied abroad, worked as mentors locally, or participated in leadership development outside of the classroom, they were highly unlikely to connect “an experience to employability, especially as the experiences were largely non-work related.”

The selection of work samples for this portfolio is critical and the relevance of the evidence is more important than the grade received. Tasks developed for grades are invariably discipline-specific applications rather than authentic and quite often are too limited in scope. For job readiness reflection, students must be taught to look beyond the class assignment and find the deeper meaning of the experience and how it may be connected to a real-world problem. This type of metacognition is personal and demanding.

Here’s how to make an academic portfolio a huge win for your students.

Rather than a recap of semesters of work, this exercise is really all about proving the student is career ready. An employer does not care about your star student’s A+ grade on a research paper. They want to know about research skills and her ability to analyze data, synthesize information and draw well-reasoned conclusions. This skills gap is the critical transition from the academic world to the career world.

As the instructor, you have a significant role to play. First and foremost, your students need to be able to show they have successfully engaged in reflective learning during their academic career and a well-crafted academic portfolio can demonstrate that. It is these “AH HA!” moments that resonate with the external audience. The interviewer wants to know that the candidate is always learning from his or her experiences.

Instructors should be on the lookout for attempts to please with stock learning reflection phrases like “I realized…” and “I feel…” unless they are followed by statements that illustrate the relationship between the completed work and the potential meaning of it to an employer. The University of Queensland developed the following scaffold you might try to help your students structure their thinking. It is called the SEAL Method:

S = Situation
What happened during the event, incident, activity or task?

E= Effect
What were the new experiences or challenges you faced, and what impact did they have on you?

A = Action
What actions did you take or strategies did you employ to deal with the challenge(s)? And why did you take those actions?

L = Learning
What did you learn from the experience? What can you now do as a result and/or what do you need to do to handle a similar situation in the future? How has the experience added to the ones you have already had in terms of your development? Can you identify specific skills or attributes that you drew on in this situation that are related to workplace performance?

For Students –

Ten Tips for Creating a Killer College Portfolio

1. Include actual evidence of the work you did to solve a problem. Often, it’s not the paper or the presentation, but the plan developed to create the work that is interesting.

2. If you use group work, make sure that you highlight areas of the work for which you were responsible or where your actions or thinking made the task successful. What if the task was a huge failure? No problem! This can be even better as you can then talk about what went wrong and what you would do differently in the future.

3. Video is a great way to show action, but no one wants to watch you for more than 3-4 minutes at a time. Take a cue from popular YouTube practices. Grab a clip or two that illustrate the insights discussed in the narrative reflection, then explain why those were selected and what they show.

4. Work in progress is acceptable. Most people begin their job search before their academic program has concluded. Discussions and images of works-in-progress are great, especially if they capture changes in strategy or tactics needed to accomplish a goal.

5. Write in the style of the career field. Use the language of the profession. Find examples of that sort of writing style. If you cannot find something like this, show how you improved your work based on expert feedback. This proves you can learn from supervisors and are open to criticism. This is why, revising and resubmitting work for comment alone (even if the grade was acceptable) is helpful as it shows initiative and willingness to strive to improve. Ask your instructors if they will let you do this.

6. How good are you at extemporaneous speech? Can you give a short presentation and take questions from your peers posing as experts? Look for opportunities to speak “off the cuff” during class. Record these sessions and then reflect on your performances. A short audio of an ad-libbed presentation done with confidence says volumes about how you will be a resourceful and adaptable addition to the workplace.

7. Answer the question. Sometimes there are known questions from the employer. Make sure you provide the required information. Be concise and to the point.

8. Keep the design of your college portfolio simple and professional. You may be tempted to get very creative and to use objects that animate or appear slick, but this is best saved for work samples, not the overall site. Gimmicky visual effects in an online portfolio distract from the main message – what you can do. Use a simple structure with easy navigation. The audience needs to be able to get to the message on one topic quickly and then bounce to another. A viewer may spend less than five minutes reviewing an academic portfolio – you need to make that time count.

9. Sharing a college portfolio with a prospective employer shows that you are forward-thinking, comfortable with technology and flexible. Remember that some prospective employers may prefer a traditional resume. Develop a conventional resume and include it on the first screen as a downloadable file in PDF format.

10. Simple doesn’t mean boring! Just because it isn’t flashy, doesn’t mean it must be dull. Do personalize your home page, but in a professional way. Include a photograph of yourself dressed in business attire, rather than a selfie in your dorm room. The homepage could also include a customized cover letter designed for a specific audience. You can easily create versions of your online portfolio for specific employers. Also, create a shortened URL (tinyurl or bitly) for the secure link in your email or online application so that it can be quickly clicked, copied and pasted, forwarded or saved locally.

Although a thoughtful and well-planned college portfolio may seem like a lot of work, it may well be the most important work of the student’s university experience. After all, getting that “dream job” is one of the most important life goals of each of your students. Engaging in the development of a polished academic portfolio could make all the difference.

Reference: Reid, A 2015, ‘Translating experience: A framework for developing graduate employability’, AARE Conference proceedings, November, University of Notre Dame.

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