Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Gian S. Pagnucci, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

Bennett Rafoth, Ed.D.

Third Advisor

David Schaafsma, Ph.D.


This study investigates how first-year composition teachers use portfolio-based assessment groups as opportunities for interdepartmental conversation and collaboration about teaching, probing of pedagogical belief systems and evaluation of teaching practices and as refuges to explore new instructional methods. The study was conducted at Grand Valley State University (GVSU) where freshman writing instructors meet weekly in portfolio grading groups to evaluate student writing; however, these assessment meetings have evolved into something more complex and important. They have become unofficial teaching circles in which teachers reflect on their own teaching and that of their colleagues in order to more effectively negotiate the difficulties of teaching first-year composition. In these "faculty learning communities" teaching becomes "more public" and "community building" occurs (Cox, 1999, p. 41). Research in composition studies supports the idea that portfolio groups enrich the process of assessing writing, the teaching of writing, and curriculum and faculty development in a writing program (Elbow & Belanoff, 1997; Hamp-Lyons & Condon, 2000; Broad 2003). The study was designed to answer these research questions: * What is the context in which these portfolio assessment groups occur? * How do teachers talk about teaching within the context of portfolio assessment groups? * How does this group talk impact teachers' pedagogical beliefs? * How does this group talk impact teachers beyond pedagogy? The study used an ethnographic design and employed multiple methodologies (i.e., observation, journals, field notes, interviews and cultural artifacts) to fully explore how portfolio assessment groups function as more than a method for grading student writing. The major findings of the study indicate that teacher participants used the portfolio grading groups to make their teaching more public, to dialogue with colleagues about good professional practice, to develop as teachers, gauge their effectiveness as instructors, and try new pedagogical approaches. Additionally, the findings confirm that the assessment groups also serve as an antidote to teacher isolation, promote collegiality, motivate department community-building, contribute to a healthier workplace, and act as a department equalizer for teachers in the study.