Peer Review

A Metacognitive Approach to Mapping Collaborative Inquiry through E-Portfolios

Over twenty years ago, in his treatise on the pedagogy of cases, Lee Shulman, the former president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, noted that “in all forms of professional education there lurks an overarching goal: to teach the neophyte ‘to think like’ a member of the profession.” Shulman describes this developmental process as extending beyond the usual skills and knowledge that constitute the professional curriculum, pertaining to habits of mind that are more metacognitive than cognitive (Shulman 1992). Indeed, in the past two decades we have continued to examine, unpack, and reconfigure curricula, traditional pedagogies, and modes of assessment to engage our students in cognitive apprenticeships that foster disciplinary or professional thinking.

E-portfolios provide a framework for promoting reflection and integrative thinking. The origin of the word “portfolio” is from the Italian portafoglio, a case for carrying loose papers. An e-portfolio, however, is not merely a collection of “loose” artifacts but is thoughtfully curated to make the pathways of learning visible. As such, the individual learner’s disposition is guided toward valuing processes rather than end products. How then, might we extend individual “folio thinking” (Backlund et al. 2001) to collaborative learning communities that are shaped through reflection and critical engagement with the inquiry process? The developmental pathway of inquiry learning requires iterative, carefully scaffolded open-ended experiences. Such experiences are not neatly contained in distinct disciplinary boxes—authentic inquiry relies on integrative thinking during engagement with novel situations. As institutions consider whether and how we are preparing our students for careers that increasingly depend upon the integration of knowledge domains, what constraints do our curricular structures impose?

Case Study

During my years at the University of New South Wales, a large research university in Sydney, Australia, I taught Fundamentals of Microbiology and Immunology (MICR2201), a large introductory life sciences class, that, over the course of several years, I transformed into a collaborative learning community. Amongst the many challenges of teaching large introductory courses that serve as prerequisites for subsequent courses in the curriculum is the difficulty of integrating substantive, authentic inquiry projects amidst the learning trajectory that sets the critical foundations for one or more disciplinary majors. Yet it is possible to push beyond the boundaries of the traditional syllabus to achieve both breadth and depth and habituate students toward iterative reflection, analysis, and critique of process.

The transformation of MICR2201 centered on “group folio thinking”: mapping the inquiry process over the course of an entire semester for each collaborative laboratory team. Group folio thinking evolved around a collaborative e-portfolio, called the “e-poster.” The e-poster was a venue for making the developmental process of inquiry thinking visible and scaffolded students’ habituation toward disciplinary thinking as individuals and as collaborative learning communities. In a class as large as MICR2201 (280 students), introducing meaningful group projects poses a significant challenge. Essential microbiology laboratory skills are progressively taught in synchrony with the foundational conceptual lecture component of the course. The collaborative learning communities were composed of ten to fifteen students assigned together in the same tutorial and laboratory sections.

Scaffolding Metacognition

Starting from the first week, students embarked on individual inquiry projects that successively built upon their conceptual and practical expertise as the course progressed. The students worked toward developing a methodology to isolate and identify a single bacterial genus from an environmental sample. Each team decided which genus to study, drawing collectively on their initial ideas and background literature research. While each student worked individually on his/her project, the team collaborated throughout the semester by sharing and drawing on the experimental observations and techniques refined through the contributions of each group member. Central to this process was the e-poster, which mapped the evolution of the team’s reflections over the course of collaborative inquiry and the developmental stages of their metacognitive thinking. While science students were familiar with the “conference poster” as a standard format for dissemination of research findings, the e-poster (in contrast to the scientific poster) was not a venue for the presentation of conclusive, often publishable outcomes. Rather, the e-poster encouraged and validated uncertainty, risk taking, and dialogue around preliminary or confusing data and tentative interpretation.

The heart of inquiry thinking lies in the iterative process of critical analysis, comparative discourse, and moments of intrigue or puzzlement that give rise to successive questions. Yet often students perceive the emphasis of inquiry to be focused on the cumulative product, be it a final research paper or essay, in response to what we in the academy appear to reward or value through the design of our courses. In so doing, we risk missing the crucial opportunity to have our students take pause to discover themselves in their learning.

I designed the collaborative e-poster assignment to foster a metacognitive dialogue amongst team members. There are three submissions for the e-poster—at the fifth, tenth, and the final week of the fourteen-week semester—and each submission represents the stage of the team’s developmental trajectory in the inquiry process rather than the products of this process. The students engaged in continuous discussions during the tutorial and laboratory, in informal study groups, and in over 15,000 postings in the course discussion boards. The focus away from outcomes opened up a space for exploratory discourse and an authentic spirit of inquiry. The language that I used in the prompts for the e-poster tacitly validated uncertainty; examples of these are show below, with key phrases italicized:

  • What resources or references have you found so far that might aid you in your investigation? What information in these resources has been relevant to your team discussions so far?
  • What will be your initial approach in this investigation? What are your individual and collective reflections regarding this approach at this point in time?
  • Identify any steps or topics you are unsure of, and how you might seek guidance in clarifying these areas of uncertainty.
    What questions or concerns do you have at this time? What will you do next to address these questions/concerns?
  • Briefly map your group’s progress thus far in your inquiry. Identify any paths or outcomes you are unsure of. How will you investigate or learn from these areas of uncertainty?
  • Reflecting on your research process throughout this course, tell us about your research.

The Emergence of Intrinsic Motivation and the Development of Self-Authorship

As students became comfortable with uncertainty, they transitioned from a task- or assignment-oriented disposition to one that was characterized by introspection and learning for the sake of learning. Their dialogue (as captured in their online discussions) also evolved to reveal their intrinsic motivation as they developed an awareness of their capacity for constructing their own learning frameworks. The students did not limit their discourse to the research projects, but began to create connections through the e-poster to the other elements of the entire course—the lectures, the assignments and papers, and the quizzes and exams. The e-poster became a metacognitive scaffold for the learning community, as the students recognized it as an assessment process for learning rather than of learning.

One student posted

“We should use version 3 of the poster as a learning tool and really focus on bringing it together conceptually. I would even suggest that we have a meeting (in a relaxed atmosphere) where we talk about anything that we are still confused about and help each other sort things out...”

Several teams took the unprompted initiative to create their own original concept maps to document the evolution of their conceptual schema. The added layer of visibility revealed through these maps showed me the pathways by which students applied theoretical understanding toward experimental design, alongside their reflections and critical analyses of dead ends or paths that needed revision. At each stage, the teams continued to focus on what they were learning, rather than on “what they needed to accomplish.”

In some sense, one could say that this iterative, constructive process mirrors, or is the complement to, the “decoding the disciplines” process eloquently articulated by Middendorf and colleagues (Pace and Middendorf 2004, Díaz et al. 2007). Faculty or experts engage in decoding what Middendorf et al. refer to as their “disciplinary unconscious”—the tacit intellectual moves that are automatic for experts of a discipline (see—in order to make the process of disciplinary thinking accessible to learners. In converse, my students were becoming aware of the intellectual maneuvers that gained them entry into new states of understanding. This metacognitive development became possible in the dialogic space that emerged through the e-poster project, and was built upon the disciplinary, cultural and social diversity of the class.

Interestingly, collaborative folio thinking fostered the emergence of self-authorship for individual students. Baxter Magolda defines self-authorship as “the capacity to internally define a coherent belief system and identity that coordinates engagement in mutual relations with the larger world” (Baxter Magolda and King 2004, xxii). It is through this process that students reflect on what they know, their relationship to the construction of knowledge, and the multiple perspectives (including their own) that inform their judgments and philosophies of knowledge. As students developed an epistemological vocabulary centered on the inquiry learning process, their discussions and online postings transitioned into the language of self-authorship. In one of the final team e-posters, the students created a graphical evolutionary timeline of their relationship to “knowledge.” In the beginning, they depicted the textbook, their teaching assistant, and the Internet as relevant “sources of knowledge” for their inquiry. Halfway through this timeline, they moved toward peer-reviewed journal articles that were selectively vetted to represent “valued knowledge,” and finally, toward the end of the semester, they displayed a group photo of their team as “legitimate sources of knowledge” based on their recognition of their experiential development as scholars.

One Student Posted

“We have gained an unbelievably in-depth understanding of the methodology involved from strategic planning, constant modification, and the execution of procedures. The need to adopt a flexible experimental protocol was realized at an early stage of the investigation to accommodate further structural changes ... What we have learned from other groups has been undeniably valuable for our own improvements. Our group has grown to realize the significance of teamwork in overcoming difficult challenges, both in the laboratory, and in the collaboration on the e-posters. We set uncompromisingly high standards for ourselves and this is reflected in our commitment and enthusiasm to this investigation. While there is some disagreement between group members in differing perspectives and ideologies, we believe that we have learned tremendously from each other as a result of the dynamics and the interactivity of the group over the course of this insightful experience. The camaraderie and sharing of knowledge gained are characteristics of our group, which we value highly.”

It was the first time in the many years of teaching this course that I was able to witness what “learning to learn” looks like during a collaborative inquiry process over time. My own lesson was the critical value of creating a forum for validating uncertainty and the time required for nurturing a learning community through transitional phases of self- and group-awareness of learning. Group folio thinking opens up a space for critical engagement and interaction with ideas. Through this process, students charted their own knowledge frameworks while benefiting from collaborative exploration and the creativity that emerges from a community built on trust.

Transfer Beyond E-Portfolios

The opportunity to observe the transitional stages of group metacognition has had continued impact on my work beyond MICR2201. At my current institution, Brown University, I am working with a multidisciplinary team of faculty and chairs across the disciplines through an Association of American Universities-funded project to enhance mathematical literacy in introductory courses in applied math, biology, chemistry, economics, engineering, and physics. Transformation of these courses requires the deconstruction of the disciplinary practices of mathematical thinking to distinguish the purely mathematical intellectual moves from those that are conceptually discipline-based. Group folio thinking does not have to strictly take place within an actual e-portfolio, but can be realized through iterative learning experiences that allow a learning community (which, in this case, includes students working collaboratively in problem-solving sessions throughout the semester) to “see” the developmental progression of their thinking. Our goal, in this instance, is to identify the transitional phases of this process and create appropriate group problems and supporting modules to further enhance this developmental path. While problem sets may in and of themselves not appear to lend themselves to the inquiry-based approach in MICR2201, the key is to encourage questioning and validate engagement with process. This requires the purposeful integration of collaborative dialogic space and facilitation of dialogues to foster metacognition. Feito (2007) has described how allowing the discourse of “not knowing” allows the development of genuine collaborations among students and instructors. In so doing, we can celebrate the true value of questioning and the intrigue of uncertainty as critical elements of scholarly practice.



Backlund, J., et al. 2001. Learning Portfolios: Folio Thinking. Proposal to the Wallenberg Global Learning Network Funding Program.

Baxter Magolda, M. B., and P. M. King, eds. 2004. Learning Partnerships: Theory and Models of Practice to Educate for Self-Authorship. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Díaz, A., J. Middendorf, D. Pace, and L. Shopkow. 2007. “Making Thinking Explicit: A History Department Decodes Its Discipline.” National Teaching and Learning Forum 16 (2).

Feito, J. 2007. “Allowing Not-Knowing in a Dialogic Discussion.” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 1 (1).

Pace, D., and J. Middendorf (eds.). 2004. “Decoding the Disciplines: Helping Students Learn Disciplinary Ways of Thinking.” In New Directions for Teaching and Learning. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Shulman, L. S. 1992. “Toward a Pedagogy of Cases.” In Case Methods in Teacher Education, edited by J. H. Shulman. New York: Teachers College Press.

Kathy Takayama is the executive director of The Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning at Brown University.

Previous Issues