NO MORE PAPERCUTS—Once funding is obtained, the transition to digital e-portfolios will eliminate paper copies and provide server space for students to store and back up their portfolio files.

Graduating seniors are breathing a sigh of relief now that their learning portfolio, a graduation requirement since fall 2004, is finished.

But each year, some students still wait until the last minute to complete their portfolios. To them, it is not a work in progress—just busy work without a grade.

“Since it’s not tied to any particular class, it’s easy for students to blow it off,” Jennifer Hemmingsen, internship and assessment coordinator for the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said. “But that’s where students start to get themselves into trouble. We need students to understand that this is valuable, that this is not going anywhere and that it’s going to be a complete nightmare for them if they wait until two weeks before it’s due.”

The portfolio was designed as an independent project. It is a learning tool for students—to help them focus the core concepts they have learned, evaluate their abilities and apply their talents to a career in journalism.

The Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (ACEJMC) requires schools seeking accreditation to have a way to monitor and measure student learning within the program, such as a standardized test or a capstone project. The results at the end of each year are then used to improve the curriculum.

The J-MC School developed the portfolio to meet accreditation standards and also to prepare new graduates in their job search.

A poll was sent to the J-MC School listserv to give students the opportunity to anonymously express their opinions about the learning portfolio. Approximately 74 percent of the respondents were seniors who completed the requirement.

Students indicated that they felt pressured to write a career scenario despite being unsure of their career path after graduation. A few students admitted fabricating their goals just to satisfy the requirement.

They also said it was difficult to incorporate the Iowa Dozen, a set of professional values and competencies fundamental to journalism, in their work sample descriptions and self-analysis. Students are required to be aware of, to understand and to apply these principles in their portfolio work but expressed rarely having used or discussed them in class.

And approximately 90 percent of the students answered no when asked whether or not they had received or asked for help to edit and review the pieces in their portfolios before beginning the review process.

“It [the learning portfolio] has been a little bit of a PR struggle,” Hemmingsen said. “The way students get most of their information is from each other. That’s also where they get most of their misinformation.”

Despite the increasing number of students turning their learning portfolios in earlier this semester than the March 5 deadline, Hemmingsen recognizes procrastination from students as a challenge.

“The biggest mistake that I see students making is putting off [their career] decision,” she said. “It’s making yourself sit down and be honest about what you want to do. It’s ok to try different things and change your mind, but problems start to happen when you refuse to make that decision.”

The J-MC School allows students to take courses that do not focus on one area of interest, something that might attribute to why students say they have a difficult time finding a career direction.

“The strengths of our program are that you get to chose what you want to do,” Hemmingsen said. “That makes it difficult for us to do a running requirement like this [the learning portfolio] because there are no tracks. You don’t have to take Magazine I, Magazine II, Magazine III. Some other programs have tracks and the benefit of that is that everybody gets the same education. The drawback is that there is absolutely no room for your creativity.”

During the first half of their final semester, students are required to meet with a faculty member and a professional in the area of their choice for a final review of their work.

“The reason that we have a professional and a faculty member both look at it is, well for you, but also for us,” Hemmingsen said. “Our faculty understands our curriculum better than professionals but professionals can give an objective perspective because they are looking only at your work.”

Because of the emphasis to include school requirements, like the Iowa Dozen, career scenario and self-analysis, students see a conflict of interest during their professional review. The J-MC School recognizes that these elements are not found in a job portfolio but are things that students should be thinking about prior to an interview. The reason these are required writing pieces is to show that this preparatory work is being done.

“Some of the things I can comment on are writing skills, presenting material and doing research,” Tina Owen, editor of the Iowa Alumni Magazine, said. “I think maybe the problem with [an outside reviewer trying to assess students' understanding of] the Iowa Dozen is that they are core principles that aren't as obvious in your work. It’s going to be obvious to me if you can or can’t write but whether or not you can use media technologies appropriately, I don’t have anything physically to show me that you know this. I assume that this is where the professors come in.”

Owen has reviewed students’ learning portfolios since the requirement was first instituted.

“A lot of [the learning portfolios] really look professional,” she said. “You could turn that in as an application for a job. Some of them weren’t quite as good and that’s really, I think, where the portfolio review is useful, a kind of real world checkup. I think it’s good to help students focus, to figure out what they want to do and how they do it. And also it was a good chance to do a practice run with an interview.”

But as an employer, Owen noted a lack of internships and a lack of focus as a problem for some students she reviewed, something that could keep them from advancing in a future job interview.

“I know that it’s difficult for students to get internships but I think there are other options that they can and should explore, even if they do it for free,” she said. “There are plenty of charity volunteer organizations around here that would jump at the chance to have someone write press releases for them, or help them put their newsletter together. That just shows that you’re capable of doing what the employer wants, even though it’s only the basics at this point, but you actually know how to carry a job through from start to finish.”

For those students working on their learning portfolios, Owen provides them with some advice to help them make the most out of their college education and in preparing for a career.

“Internships, internships, internships,” she said. “Get some good clips and try to find out more about the kinds of jobs you say you want. So if you say I want to be an editor, well find out what an editor does. Go and talk to somebody. Talk to faculty and your advisors and find out what exactly is involved. And think about narrowing down your prospects a little bit more.”

The portfolio is a learning process for both the students and the J-MC School. The system is not expected to change and for those students struggling with the requirement, changing their approach and finding a focus earlier in their education might help them define a more solid career path.