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Portfolios Offer a Better Perspective

Individuals respond differently to evaluations. Some of us use a positive judgment as license to maintain the status quo: the if-I’m-already-good-why-try-to-improve mentality. On the other hand, while some of us may regard a “negative” evaluation as a unique opportunity to learn and to grow, more of us probably react with self-doubt and lowered self-esteem or even hostility and defensiveness. We might even quit!

Fortunately, those of us who evaluate can shape a number of factors that will result in a positive outcome for the individual, the program, and the institution. But, in order to do so, we need to change how we think about evaluations.

Instead of thinking of “an evaluation” as a single entity, we should explore tools or methods as components in a continual process of learning and program revision. No single benchmark of achievement in this ongoing process should be viewed as “the final word.” Instead, the evaluator should use a variety of assessment methods to help him or her discern patterns of strength and weakness, so that training can be designed to address individual needs and broad trends. The docent should be made to understand that his or her success and worth does not rest with the isolated tour evaluation survey instrument.

How to Evaluate

In the field of education, there is a movement toward “Portfolio” assessment. Historically used in visual arts contexts, this method is finding broad application in other disciplines. Traditionally, the portfolio emphasized an end product in that it was an accumulation of finished pieces, ideally showing a progression from earlier to later work. The newer definition of a portfolio has been expanded, encouraging the inclusion of samples of all that informs the educational process. A docent’s “portfolio” or file might include preparatory work such as outlines or notecards, a record of attendance at training sessions, anecdotal observations by the docent coordinator, notes from meetings with the docent, the docent’s “docent journal,” self-evaluations, peer-evaluations, tests (in some programs), videos of the docent “in action,” written evaluations from tour groups, thank-you notes from visitors, and more. This assessment model emphasizes learning as a non-linear process with many interconnected kinds of achievements. By using a portfolio assessment, evaluators are better able to discern and respond to nuances of strengths and weaknesses over time.

Another trend in general education assessment is toward “authentic” assessment. Authentic assessments require an individual to demonstrate an actual competency rather than the ability to answer questions about the competency. Docent programs have been using authentic assessment for a long time — perhaps without knowing its name. Docents are generally assessed by the docent coordinator, teacher, or student on their ability to conduct a successful tour. The emphasis is on a desired end-product. According to the portfolio model recommended above, the results of “authentic assessments” should be included as only one component of the docent’s “portfolio” or file.

What to Evaluate

What to evaluate is very closely linked with how to evaluate when employing the portfolio assessment model. Keep in mind that the point is not to “pass” or “fail” the docent, but to track his or her development in order to better provide the most relevant training experiences.

Analyzing the docent’s outline or notecards for a tour — especially when compared with those from other tours — provides important understanding about how the docent prepares: how he or she processes, condenses, and structures content. Anecdotal observations recorded by the docent coordinator may provide insight into the docent’s preferences in terms of age of visitor, tour format, and types of objects/exhibitions.

For instance, based purely on anecdotal observation, I recently gained important understanding about a docent: she learns best when the content and format is modeled for her, and she resists tour formats which require that she adhere closely to structured time allotments for a variety of guided-looking tasks. These insights provided me with important keys concerning how best to work with her in docent training.

Notes from meetings or conferences with a docent provide opportunities for both the docent and coordinator to discuss issues that might never be addressed through written assessment instruments. Reading docent journal entries and self-evaluations may reveal much about the docent’s “comfort zones” and perceived strengths and weaknesses in relation to different types of groups, activities, and subject matter.

Written tests most often assess factual knowledge and understanding, though they may be designed in such a way as to assess skills and attitudes. A video of a docent conducting tours is a relatively objective demonstration of competencies and skills such as discipline, crowd and voice control, and facility with the inquiry method of teaching. Written evaluations from tour groups offer an indication of whether a given tour met the group’s needs in the opinion of the person(s) completing the survey. However, this individual may have had unrealistically high — or low— expectations and may or may not be constructive with his or her criticism. Thank you notes or cards from grateful visitors are an indication of what was memorable to the participants about a tour, often especially in the realm of affective learning.

Putting the Evaluations to Work

This wealth of information can only provide valuable feedback if the docent coordinator takes the time to analyze the data, shares the results with the docent, and uses the information for continual improvement. When handled as an on-going educational process, evaluation becomes a way of sustaining long and productive docent-coordinator relationships.

However, from time-to-time, the process may also make evident the need to terminate the relationship. “Total Quality Management” philosophy tells us that generally when organizations have problems, the culprit is a system rather than an individual. So, conflict resolution should begin with an examination of the “system.”

If trouble-shooting at the system level does not bring about a satisfactory outcome, the problem may, indeed, lie with the individual. Some grievances can be successfully corrected. Others, due to personality, temperament, attitude, biases, or other factors over which the docent coordinator has little control, may prove that an individual is not a satisfactory “match” for being an docent in your institution. If that is the case, then the docent coordinator must be prepared to take appropriate measures. A portfolio description of the individual’s education progress makes even this unpleasant task more objective and, consequently, less emotional and easier for all concerned.

Betsy Gough-Dijulio is Director of Education for the Contemporary Arts Center of Virginia, in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Ms. Gough-DiJulio is a frequent contributor to The Docent Educator. The most recent of her previous articles to appear in this journal was “What Teens Need and Want from Us’ (Summer 1996).

Gough-DiJulio, Betsy. “Portfolios Offer a Better Perspective,” The Docent Educator 6.4 (Summer 1997): 12-13.


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