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Tiffany Marra, Ph.D.

Best Practices for Connecting Classes to Careers

Bringing Best Practices to Life: Competency Based Learning at the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work

Seelio Best Practice: Define explicit learning outcomes at the beginning of the student experience so that students know from the beginning what they are working toward and can recognize and document mastery of skills along the way.

University of Michigan's School of Social Work on Seelio

We’ve seen this best practice along with many others in our work with the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work (UM SSW). Mary Ruffolo, Ph.D., a UM SSW Professor and Director of the Continuing Education Program, has been using Seelio in her classes for over a year and has invited us into the process of exploring how portfolios can impact student confidence in connecting learning experiences to career goals.

Last summer, we collaborated with Mary to develop a web-based course that UM SSW graduate students could take to build a professional online portfolio to demonstrate the 13 core competencies they develop throughout their master of social work program at UM SSW. The 1-credit web-based course employs online modules, virtual meetings, and virtual group work to support students in developing an integrative learning portfolio.

The course curriculum explicitly focuses on helping students identify their professional goals and develop adaptive expertise, or the ability to draw connections between their studies and experiences as a professional social worker. With self-paced reflective activities, students are challenged to reflect on their key learning experiences, their top skills, and how they want to present those experiences in their upcoming job search. Group feedback through virtual meetings as well as community features on Seelio like comments, likes, and private messages, allow students to share their experiences and gain valuable insights from their peers and advisors.

Validating Our Hypothesis on the Impact of Portfolios on Student Confidence

We hypothesized that this combination of competency-based learning, reflection, and portfolio development would increase students’ confidence in their ability to articulate skills and learning experiences in a professional context. Two rounds of pre- and post-surveys of participating students validated our hypothesis–  students reported increased confidence and optimism in their professional development and their ability to apply competencies from their degree program to their future as social work professionals.

Specifically, across two semesters, students in the web-based course showed significant gains in their:

  • comfort applying facts, theories, or methods to practical problems or new situations (p=.0001);
  • confidence articulating their goals (p=.018) and key learning experiences (p=.049); and
  • confidence presenting their work to potential employers (p=.009).

Hear From Students & Learn More About Our Process

Two students recorded brief video segments to share more about their experience in the course. See what Aaron and Katie had to say. You can also find more details about the course and our work with UM SSW in a presentation we gave at the Online Learning Consortium’s Annual Meeting last October:

At Seelio, we apply these same best practices in our portfolio implementations across our partner programs, collaborating with faculty to identify the best fit for their courses and measuring and evaluating progress at each step along the way. At the end of the day, our goal is to empower students like Aaron and Katie to confidently pursue their professional goals with a digital identity that allows them to easily showcase their 21st century skills.

Learn more about our best practices here, and see examples from UM SSW students in the UM SSW Seelio Showcase.

Helping Our Partners Make Data-Driven Decisions Through Research

EXPLORING THE IMPACT OF PORTFOLIOS THROUGH RESEARCH

Can the experiences, stories, and artifacts that students share in portfolios be an influencer for prospective students’ enrollment decisions?

Many of us are already aware that portfolios can be hugely beneficial to the student learning process. In fact, a growing body of research validates the impact that intentional portfolio programs can have on student engagement, learning outcomes, and reflection.

But can portfolios impact a student’s decision to stick with their course of study, or a prospective student’s decision to enroll in a course of study?

Screenshot of an example portfolio

Addressing Job Skills Expectations By Helping Students Recognize and Apply Skills

Seelio Ed Tips

When I read articles like Job Skills Expectations Unmet (Inside Higher Ed, August 28, 2014), I immediately start to wonder—do students need to develop new job skills or is the challenge that they need to know how to recognize and appropriately apply the skills they already possess?

The article linked above states that:

“Nearly nine in 10 presidents said an emphasis on ‘critical thinking’ skills and personal development is very important throughout college in order for graduates to get jobs. But only about 40 percent of the presidents think their own institution is very effective at providing students with those skills and that kind of development.”

Knowing the structure and nature of college courses, it seems to me that critical thinking is built into the core of most college courses.  This can be evidenced by terms in assignments and syllabi like—assess, evaluate, compare, conceptualize, critique, theorize, reason, etc.  

I think the challenge is that when we ask students to develop those skills, we often forget to teach students how to apply those skills beyond the classroom.

As an example, imagine a class where students are asked to critically assess an article that is core to their field of study.  That is critical thinking.  Now, imagine if the second part of that assignment were to reflect on their assessment of the article and to relate it to their developing philosophy toward their field of study.  That is critical thinking with real life application.

At Seelio, when we work with faculty to integrate portfolios into the curriculum, we emphasize how they can be useful tools for getting students to reflect on their learning as a part of their professional growth.  Portfolios allow for students to constantly take stock of what they have done, to consider what best represents them as a developing professional, and to refine their professional identity over time.

When I look at student portfolios, I find myself gravitating towards those that create connections between their life experiences and what they are learning in the classroom. Just today, I read a profile of a student, Karessa, that starts with…

“College can be extremely tough when you are a full time mom, employee, and wife. Frankly sometimes college can be a big challenge because of those three things.”

And ends with…

“I am very thankful to CTU for helping me to develop not only as a student but also giving me the skills to apply that knowledge to my personal and professional life!”

Students just like Karessa are the ones that make me believe in the value of helping students tell their stories and helping institutions shape their curriculum to make it possible.


Dr. Tiffany Marra is Seelio’s Vice President of Academics & Services. She works closely with Seelio partners to integrate portfolios into curricula so that students are able to make connections across their experiences and prepare for their careers from day one of their college experience. Learn more about her research and background in educational technology: seelio.com/tiffany

Have a topic you would like to see in a future #EdTips post? Let us know at educators@seelio.com