ePortfolios in Undergraduate Biology Research: Transcribing Data, Translating Learning

The Central Dogma of Molecular Biology states that cellular information is stored in DNA, converted into mRNA to leave the nucleus, and finally turned into proteins. These processes make sense of the stored information in order to do the actual work of the cell. All the while the cell is sending and receiving signals from both its internal and external environment that drive these processes.

Learning in the biology laboratory can be likened to this in that our students will rely on their knowledge, knowledge gained from the scientific literature, and guidance from their mentor to generate, analyze, and place their results into the bigger picture driving scientific discovery. Novel questions are addressed through the process of the scientific method – a recursive experience with no finish, only more questions. Communication between mentor and student is critical. Communication between the lab and the greater scientific community is also critical. Often overlooked, though, is the necessary communication between the student and themselves. Making sure these dialogs are rich and meaningful can be a challenge when research takes place at the undergraduate level.

How can we facilitate this multi-modal communication to develop critically thinking experiential learners that work towards solutions for the problems they have set out to solve?

                                    Enter the e-portfolio.

Mentors communicate with students

Our student researchers spend only a short time, when compared to students in graduate programs, investigating research questions in our laboratories. Their energies are also spread out in many ways: classes, athletics, and oftentimes jobs. As such their ability to grow in the lab setting is less than if their focus were solely on research full time. However, for the undergraduate student who does not conduct research full time there are less obvious opportunities to interact and provide regular feedback. E-mail is helpful, but not an ideal strategy. Specifically, there needs to be an ongoing dialogue with each student about the progress and pitfalls of their project and email is not setup to meet this need. Through e-portfolios we do have the ability to have regular dialogue with students and the technology can be set to alert us to any student initiated changes, generally the addition of questions, data tables or figures. With this centralized site we are able to review their work in a timely fashion and not have to sort through clogged email inboxes to figure out where the information is. Students progress and benefit as we can catch errors in procedure early and correct them. Posting questions to students has also facilitated a deeper understanding on their part as they can reflect on our questions prior to answering when asked ‘on the spot’ in the lab.

Students talk to themselves

The role metacognition, or the awareness and analysis of one’s own thinking, plays in deepening student learning is well-established. A simple exercise in self-reflection can be implemented into the undergraduate research experience to deepen students’ conversations with themselves about what they know and don’t know. Through regular reflection and posting to the e-portfolio, research students can visualize a time-stamped progression of their learning. They can more easily identify the missing pieces and work to determine why they think what they think. In-turn, this leads to more meaningful interpretations of data, linking their findings to the big picture, and articulating to their mentor (knowingly or unknowingly) gaps in understanding making it easier for mentors to mentor. Students’ critical reflections are essentially conversations with themselves and demonstrate the learning experience unique to each student. This experience, in itself, better prepares students to have these same conversations with others (e.g. in interviews or future collaborative work).

Archive and pass the baton

In research labs students are taught to keep all of their data in a laboratory notebook. This is ideal to ensure nothing is lost, but challenging to sort through after students have left and we need a specific image or data table that we think a particular student generated. With the e-portfolio we can encourage them to archive the ideal images and final versions of data tables that are based on what is added to a notebook on a day to day basis. This obviously facilitates data retrieval after the fact, which is the norm with the pace of data collection. Current students are supplementing or creating protocols that will live on the e-portfolio site allowing each future user access from any internet portal. This is ideal as we can lock down editing on a master version and have students work from a copied version on their portion of the site. This allows us to preserve an original and note additions and deletions added for individual projects.

Benefits to current students may be obvious, but to the next student we think they are even greater. When we open access to the site to a new student they are given existing protocols and can see how data should be archived thus reducing the learning curve and hopefully ensuring more productivity than in the past. This ‘passing of the baton’ from one student to the next also ensures we have an obvious record of who contributed what to any one project.

Share with others

Whether our research students are building upon a shared e-portfolio for the laboratory, or generating their own unique sites, they are exercising their communication skills. They will have virtual conversations with us as their mentors that allow for deeper learning, more rapid identification of “teachable moments”, and self-correction. The use of the e-portfolios is also ideal for future considerations about authorship, or acknowledgements, in publications. Finally, the records are permanent scholarly showcases that Fisher students can maintain for free even after graduation.

Links to Biology students’ e-portfolios

These students have given permission for us to share their work.


Written by Kristin Picardo and Ed Freeman, Biology Department



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