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Reflection in the First Year: A Foundation for Identity and Meaning Making

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The electronic Personal Development Plan (ePDP) is scaffolded into the curriculum of the first-year seminar at IUPUI so as to allow students to build a solid foundation for meaningful college experiences. The seven sections of the portfolio lead students through guided reflection prompts that ask them to consider who they are, why they are in college, and how the college experience will support and enhance their future goals. This initial portfolio is intended to be updated throughout the college experience so that the student is engaged in recursive planning, documenting, and reflection on their personal and intellectual growth throughout college.


Catherine A. Buyarski
Executive Assistant Dean, University College

Practice Identifiers

Location: The first-year seminar is required of all beginning students who enter with 17 or fewer credit hours. Seminar sections range from one to three credits and may have a disciplinary focus.

Scale: As of Fall 2013, approximately 50 percent of first-year seminar sections use the ePDP as part of the course, resulting in about 1,200 students completing the ePDP in their first semester of enrollment.

High Impact Practices: First-year seminars have been identified as a High Impact Practice, particularly when students are asked to engage in intellectual and practical competencies through such pedagogies as frequent writing and critical inquiry. Both practices are incorporated in the ePDP. Like other High Impact Practices, the First-Year Seminar fosters the key student behaviors associated with HIPs, including:

  • investing time and effort,
  • interacting with faculty and peers about substantive matters,
  • experiencing diversity,
  • responding to frequent feedback,
  • reflecting and integrating learning, and
  • discovering relevance of learning through real-world applications.

We believe that ePortfolio pedagogy itself constitutes a High Impact Practice, largely because developmental portfolios such as the ePDP also elicit the same key student behaviors. The ePDP intensifies the impact of these practices and provides a space where much of the reflection, peer feedback, and interaction can continue to reside and remain available for future reflection and integration.

Practice Description

The Practice Step by Step

In summer 2008, a team of IUPUI faculty and staff attended the AAC&U Greater Expectations Institute and recommended that the campus implement “My IUPUI Experience” as an overarching developmental framework for curricular and co-curricular learning that would define the distinctive character of an IUPUI Undergraduate Experience.

graphic of initial PDP goalsA key component of the “My IUPUI Experience” framework is the electronic Personal Development Plan (ePDP), which allows students to more effectively plan for how to utilize the array of college experiences offered through the curriculum and co-curriculum to support their personal, intellectual, and career development. The ePDP is the result of a reflective and engaged planning process that enables each student to understand, implement, and chart progress toward their degree and college goals. By articulating how the IUPUI Principles of Undergraduate Learning (PULs) will frame their learning and through beginning to plan educational experiences, such as those in the “RISE to the IUPUI Challenge” initiative, students are empowered to take charge of their education through a process that facilitates integrative learning and meaning-making.

Students develop the ePDP in their first-year seminar with the guidance of their instructional team (faculty member, academic advisor, and student mentor). Faculty members structure the ePDP within their curriculum so as to use it as a progressive activity rather than a single final course assignment. Guided reflection prompts are provided for faculty use, but they may be adjusted to provide more depth or attention to a priority of the seminar. Faculty are also provided rubrics based on Bloom’s Taxonomy and Paul and Elder’s Model of Critical Thinking for sharing with students as challenges to engage in advanced levels of critical thinking and for use in grading.

Advancing Student Learning through Reflection

The reflective process infused throughout the ePDP parallels the Catalyst framework of Inquiry-Reflection-Integration as well as most of the Dewey/Rogers model of reflection. In this case, it is the students who use reflection as a form of connection in developing their capacity for integrative learning across curriculum, co-curriculum, and lived experience. Reflection in response to the ePDP prompts is systematic and inculcates a disciplined approach to reflection and learning. And certainly, the ePDP uses reflection to support growth and personal change as a core element of student development.

As students complete the ePDP, reflective prompts assist them in bringing narrative to their lives and aspirations. The content of the ePDP is, in essence, the student’s self and understanding of self. Sections of the ePDP are ordered so as to help students build their reflective narrative. The About Me section provides the foundation for Educational Goals and Plans, which in turn leads the student to development of Career Goals. The student is firmly at the center of this narrative, thereby embedding the learning around critical thinking, reflection, and integration of experiences within the student’s sense of self and lived experience.

The structure of the ePDP, reflection prompts, and curricular scaffolding are all guided by a conceptual model developed to clarify the purpose(s) of the ePDP, to provide consistency in use across multiple course sections and student experiences, and to guide assessment. As shown in the model, reflection is the key pedagogy tying outcomes together and building the foundation for meaning-making and integrated learning.

ePDP conceptual model

Evidence of Impact on Student Learning

Because not all first-year seminars are utilizing the ePDP, we are able to compare course outcomes between sections using the ePDP and those who are not. Based on responses to an end-of-term survey, students who completed the ePDP showed higher outcomes of statistical significance on items including Use reflective writing to understand my experiences, Understand my personal goals, and Understand my motivations for attending college. Complete results are presented in Table 1.

Connections to Other Sectors of the Catalyst

Professional Development

All faculty choosing to use the ePDP in their first-year seminar are required to attend a four- to six-hour professional development session that focuses primarily on scaffolding and the use of reflection as a practice for enhancing learning. Starting with a conversation about the terms “reflection” and “critical reflection,” participants are encouraged to make explicit their definitions and expectations for student reflection so that students understand the process. Faculty are also provided examples of class activities that allow students to build the knowledge and voice needed to successfully complete sections of the ePDP.

Outcomes Assessment

As the campus moves forward with implementation of a new general education core curriculum, it is anticipated that work developed in the first year of college will be archived and used as evidence in the assessment of student learning across time.


The ePortfolio platform used by IUPUI, Sakai, has two major components: a matrix and a presentation maker. This project began by using the matrix for course work and then assisting students to transfer the materials in the matrix to the presentation maker. It quickly became apparent that students were more engaged in the process of building their identity through the ePDP if they did so directly in the presentation maker so that they could see the portfolio as a visually appealing  and engaging piece of work. Students are able to customize backgrounds, fonts, and images and to upload photos, videos, and audio files–all of which allow for a personalized, visual story to emerge.

ePDP Matrix

ePDP matrix screenshot

ePDP Presentation

designed ePDP screenshot

Scaling Up

As part of our involvement in the Connect to Learning project, we have launched three pilot programs designed to build on the work students complete in their first-year seminar. The Department of Psychology has embedded the ePDP in its first-year seminar “Introduction to a Major in Psychology” using the structure and guided prompts provided for the general ePDP. In the sophomore or junior year, students majoring in psychology revisit their ePDP in a course designed to help students clarify and take action on their career goals. Finally, the ePDP is used in the senior capstone course. A second project is under way in the Life-Health Sciences Internship Program, which provides opportunities for 60 sophomores and juniors to conduct research with faculty members. Throughout the year-long internship, students use the ePDP to reflect on what they are learning and to integrate that with their classroom experiences. Reflective prompts also ask students to articulate how the internship has affected their career goals and preparation. In the third project, students of color participating in a co-curricular program used the ePDP to deepen and enhance the reflective narrative they submitted for their first-year seminar by adding dimensions from their co-curricular learning. These three pilot programs have built a foundation for continuing use of the ePDP. We will take the lessons learned and best practices forward in scaling up use of the ePDP to meet the vision articulated in the “My IUPUI Experience” framework.

Attachments and Supporting Documents

Sample course syllabi for the First-Year Seminar with the ePDP can be found at:


Prompts for each section of the ePDP can be found at:


Sample classroom activities that support a section of the ePDP can be found at:


Rubrics for assessing each section of the ePDP can be found at:


More student portfolios can be viewed at:


Conclusion and Next Steps

The use of the ePDP in our first-year seminar has proven to be a challenging but high-impact pedagogy. Assessment results show that students who complete the ePDP have higher outcomes on course objectives including using reflection and writing to better understand themselves, how to build educational and career plans, and how to make a smooth transition to college. The success of the practice is highly dependent on faculty members’ comfort and understanding of critical reflection and how to help  new college students engage in associated levels of thinking and writing. We have learned that this is best accomplished through in-class activities that scaffold students’ experience with reflective writing so that they experience success when completing their portfolios. Overall, the High Impact Practice of first-year seminars has been strengthened through the inclusion of the ePDP.


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