Note: My focus will be on portfolios of student work rather than teacher portfolios or other types.
Student portfolios take many forms, as discussed below, so it is not easy to describe them. A portfolio is not the pile of student work that accumulates over a semester or year. Rather, a portfolio contains a purposefully selected subset of student work. "Purposefully" selecting student work means deciding what type of story you want the portfolio to tell. For example, do you want it to highlight or celebrate the progress a student has made? Then, the portfolio might contain samples of earlier and later work, often with the student commenting upon or assessing the growth. Do you want the portfolio to capture the process of learning and growth? Then, the student and/or teacher might select items that illustrate the development of one or more skills with reflection upon the process that led to that development. Or, do you want the portfolio to showcase the final products or best work of a student? In that case, the portfolio would likely contain samples that best exemplify the student's current ability to apply relevant knowledge and skills. All decisions about a portfolio assignment begin with the type of story or purpose for the portfolio. The particular purpose(s) served, the number and type of items included, the process for selecting the items to be included, how and whether students respond to the items selected, and other decisions vary from portfolio to portfolio and serve to define what each portfolio looks like. I will describe many of the purposes and characteristics in the sections below.
Some suggest that portfolios are not really assessments at all because they are just collections of previously completed assessments. But, if we consider assessing as gathering of information about someone or something for a purpose, then a portfolio is a type of assessment. Sometimes the portfolio is also evaluated or graded, but that is not necessary to be considered an assessment.
Are portfolios authentic assessments? Student portfolios have most commonly been associated with collections of artwork and, to a lesser extent, collections of writing. Students in these disciplines are performing authentic tasks which capture meaningful application of knowledge and skills. Their portfolios often tell compelling stories of the growth of the students' talents and showcase their skills through a collection of authentic performances. Educators are expanding this story-telling to other disciplines such as physical education, mathematics and the social sciences to capture the variety of demonstrations of meaningful application from students within these disciplines.
Furthermore, in the more thoughtful portfolio assignments, students are asked to reflect on their work, to engage in self-assessment and goal-setting. Those are two of the most authentic skills students need to develop to successfully manage in the real world. Research has found that students in classes that emphasize improvement, progress, effort and the process of learning rather than grades and normative performance are more likely to use a variety of learning strategies and have a more positive attitude toward learning. Yet in education we have shortchanged the process of learning in favor of the products of learning. Students are not regularly asked to examine how they succeeded or failed or improved on a task or to set goals for future work; the final product and evaluation of it receives the bulk of the attention in many classrooms. Consequently, students are not developing the metacognitive skills that will enable them to reflect upon and make adjustments in their learning in school and beyond.
Portfolios provide an excellent vehicle for consideration of process and the development of related skills. So, portfolios are frequently included with other types of authentic assessments because they move away from telling a student's story though test scores and, instead, focus on a meaningful collection of student performance and meaningful reflection and evaluation of that work.
The previous section identifies several valuable goals that make portfolios attractive in education. The sections that follow emphasize that identifying specific goals or purposes for assigning a portfolio is the first and most critical step in creating such an assignment. Just as identifying a standard guides the rest of the steps of developing an authentic assessment, identifying the purpose(s) for a portfolio influences all the other decisions involved in producing a portfolio assignment. I will list several of the most common purposes here, and then I will elaborate on how each purpose affects the other decisions in the section below.
Why might you use a portfolio assignment? Portfolios typically are created for one of the following three purposes: to show growth, to showcase current abilities, and to evaluate cumulative achievement. Some examples of such purposes include
1. Growth Portfolios
2. Showcase Portfolios
3. Evaluation Portfolios
The growth portfolio emphasizes the process of learning whereas the showcase portfolio emphasizes the products of learning. Of course, a portfolio may tell more than one story, including more than one category above. For example, a showcase portfolio might also be used for evaluation purposes, and a growth portfolio might also showcase "final" performances or products. What is critical is that the purpose(s) is clear throughout the process to student, teacher and any other pertinent audience. To elaborate on how the purpose affects the portfolio assignment let me answer the question...
I think of most tasks as problems to be solved, or questions to be answered. So, I find it useful to approach how to do something by thinking of it as a series of questions to be answered. Thus, I will attempt to offer a possible answer to the question above by answering a series of questions that need to be addressed when considering the design of a portfolio assignment. Those questions are:
1. Purpose: What is the purpose(s) of the portfolio?
2. Audience: For what audience(s) will the portfolio be created?
3. Content: What samples of student work will be included?
4. Process: What processes (e.g., selection of work to be included, reflection on work, conferencing) will be engaged in during the development of the portfolio?
5. Management: How will time and materials be managed in the development of the portfolio?
6. Communication: How and when will the portfolio be shared with pertinent audiences?
7. Evaluation: If the portfolio is to be used for evaluation, when and how should it be evaluated?
As mentioned above, before you can design the portfolio assignment and before your students can begin constructing their portfolios you and your students need to be clear about the story the portfolio will be telling. Certainly, you should not assign a portfolio unless you have a compelling reason to do so. Portfolios take work to create, manage and assess. They can easily feel like busywork and a burden to you and your students if they just become folders filled with student papers. You and your students need to believe that the selection of and reflection upon their work serves one or more meaningful purposes.
Selecting relevant audiences for a portfolio goes hand-in-hand with identifying your purposes. Who should see the evidence of a student's growth? The student, teacher and parents are good audiences to follow the story of a student's progress on a certain project or in the development of certain skills. Who should see a student's best or final work? Again, the student, teacher and parents might be good audiences for such a collection, but other natural audiences come to mind such as class or schoolmates, external audiences such as employers or colleges, the local community or school board. As the teacher, you can dictate what audiences will be considered or you can let students have some choice in the decision.
Just as the purposes for the portfolio should guide the development of it, the selection of audiences should shape its construction. For example, for audiences outside the classroom it is helpful to include a cover page or table of contents that helps someone unfamiliar with the assignment to navigate through the portfolio and provide context for what is found inside. Students need to keep their audiences in mind as they proceed through each step of developing their portfolios. A good method for checking whether a portfolio serves the anticipated audiences is to imagine different members of those audiences viewing the portfolio. Can each of them tell why you created the portfolio? Are they able to make sense of the story you wanted to tell them? Can they navigate around and through the portfolio? Do they know why you included what you did? Have you used language suitable for those audiences?
As you can imagine, the answer to the question of content is dependent on the answers to the questions of purpose and audience. What should be included? Well, what story do you want to tell? Before I consider what types of items might be appropriate for different purposes, let me make a more general point. First, hypothetically, there is no limit as to what can be included in a portfolio. Paper products such as essays, homework, letters, projects, etc. are most common. But more and more other types of media are being included in portfolios. Audio and videotapes, cd-roms, two- and three-dimensional pieces of art, posters and anything else that can reflect the purposes identified can be included. Some schools are putting all the artifacts onto a cd-rom by videotaping performances, scanning paper products, and digitizing audio. All of those files are then copied onto a student's cd-rom for a semester or a year or to follow the student across grades as a cumulative record. Realistically, you have to decide what is manageable. But if the most meaningful evidence of the portfolio's goals cannot be captured on paper, then you may consider including other types of media.
Obviously, there are a considerable number and variety of types of student work that can be selected as samples for a portfolio. Using the purposes given above for each type of portfolio, I have listed just a few such possible samples of work in the following tables that could be included in each type of portfolio.
In addition to samples of student work and reflection upon that work, a portfolio might also include a table of contents or a cover letter (both typically composed by the student) to aid a reader in making sense of the purposes, processes and contents of the portfolio. This can be particularly useful if the portfolio is to be shared with external audiences unfamiliar with the coursework such as parents, other educators and community members.
One of the greatest attributes of the portfolio is its potential for focusing on the processes of learning. Too often in education we emphasize the products students create or the outcomes they achieve. But we do not give sufficient attention to the processes required to create those products or outcomes, the processes involved in self-diagnosis and self-improvement, or the metacognitive processes of thinking. As a result, the products or outcomes are not as good as we or the students would like because they are often unsure how to get started, how to self-diagnose or self-correct or how to determine when a piece of work is "finished."
Although a variety of processes can be developed or explored through portfolios, I will focus on three of the most common:
Once again, identifying the purpose(s) for the portfolio should drive the selection process. As listed in the tables above, different samples of student work will likely be selected for different purposes. Additionally, how samples are selected might also differ depending on the purpose. For example, for an evaluation portfolio, the teacher might decide which samples need to be included to evaluate student progress. On the other hand, including the student in the decision-making process of determining appropriate types of samples for inclusion might be more critical for a growth portfolio to promote meaningful reflection. Finally, a showcase portfolio might be designed to include significant input from the student on which samples best highlight achievement and progress, or the teacher might primarily make those decisions.
Furthermore, audiences beyond the teacher and student might have input into the content of the porfolio, from team or department members, principals and district committees to external agencies to parents and community members. External audiences are most likely to play a role for evaluation portfolios. However, it is important to remember there are no hard rules about portfolios. Anything can be included in a portfolio. Anyone can be involved in the processes of selection, reflection and evaluation of a portfolio. Flexibility applies to portfolios as it does to any authentic assessment. That is, you should be true to your purpose(s), but you should feel no constraints on how you meet them with a portfolio assignment.
What I will describe below are just a few of the many possible avenues for selecting which samples will be included in a portfolio. But these examples should give you a good sense of some of the choices and some of the decisions involved.
Many educators who work with portfolios consider the reflection component the most critical element of a good portfolio. Simply selecting samples of work as described above can produce meaningful stories about students, and others can benefit from "reading" these stories. But the students themselves are missing significant benefits of the portfolio process if they are not asked to reflect upon the quality and growth of their work. As Paulson, Paulson and Meyer (1991) stated, "The portfolio is something that is done by the student, not to the student." Most importantly, it is something done for the student. The student needs to be directly involved in each phase of the portfolio development to learn the most from it, and the reflection phase holds the most promise for promoting student growth.
In the reflection phase students are typically asked to
Probably the most common portfolio reflection task is the completion of a sheet to be attached to the sample (or samples) of work which the reflection is addressing. The possibilities for reflection questions or prompts are endless, but some examples I have seen include
As mentioned above, students (or others) can respond to such questions or prompts when a piece of work is completed, while a work is in progress or at periodic intervals after the work has been collected. Furthermore, these questions or prompts can be answered by the student, the teacher, parents, peers or anyone else in any combination that best serves the purposes of the portfolio.
In addition to reflection sheets, teachers have devised a myriad of means of inducing reflection from students and others about the collection of work included in the portfolio. For example, those engaging in reflection can
Good skill development requires four steps:
Reflection itself is a skill that enhances the process of skill development and virtually all learning in innumerable settings. Those of us who are educators, for example, need to continually reflect upon what is working or not working in our teaching, how we can improve what we are doing, how we can help our students make connections to what they are learning, and much, much more. Thus, it is critical for students to learn to effectively reflect upon their learning and growth.
As a skill, reflection is not something that can be mastered in one or two attempts. Developing good reflective skills requires instruction and modeling, lots of practice, feedback and reflection. As many of you have probably encountered, when students are first asked to respond to prompts such as "I selected this piece because..." they may respond with "I think it is nice." Okay, that's a start. But we would like them to elaborate on that response. The fact that they did not initially elaborate is probably not just a result of resistance or reluctance. Students need to learn how to respond to such prompts. They need to learn how to effectively identify strengths and weaknesses, to set realistic goals for themselves and their work, and to develop meaningful strategies to address those goals. Students often have become dependent upon adults, particularly teachers, to evaluate their work. They need to learn self-assessment.
So, the reflection phase of the portfolio process should be ongoing throughout the portfolio development. Students need to engage in multiple reflective activities. Those instances of reflection become particularly focused if goal-setting is part of their reflection. Just as instruction and assessment are more appropriately targeted if they are tied to specific standards or goals, student identification of and reflection upon strengths and weaknesses, examples of progress, and strategies for improvement will be more meaningful and purposeful if they are directed toward specific goals, particularly self-chosen goals.
Once opportunities for reflection (practice) take place, feedback to and further reflection upon student observations can be provided by conversations with others. Conferencing is one tool to promote such feedback and reflection.
With 20 or 30 or more students in a classroom, one-on-one conversations between the teacher and student are difficult to regularly arrange. That is unfortunate because the give and take of face-to-face interaction can provide the teacher with valuable information about the student's thinking and progress and provide the student with meaningful feedback. Such feedback is also more likely to be processed by the student than comments written on paper.
Conferencing typically takes several forms:
As appealing as the process of students developing a portfolio can be, the physical and time constraints of such a process can be daunting. Where do you keep all the stuff? How do you keep track of it? Who gets access to it and when? Should you manage paper or create an electronic portfolio? Does some work get sent home before it is put in the portfolio? Will it come back? When will you find the time for students to participate, to reflect, to conference? What about students who join your class in the middle of the semester or year?
There is one answer to all these questions that can make the task less daunting: start small! That is good advice for many endeavors, but particularly for portfolios because there are so many factors to consider, develop and manage over a long period of time. In the final section of this chapter (Can I do portfolios without all the fuss?) I will elaborate on how you can get your feet wet with portfolios and avoid drowning in the many decisions described below.
How you answer the many management questions below depends, in part, on how you answered earlier questions about your purpose, audience, content and process. Return to those answers to help you address the following decisions:
By the nature of the purposes of portfolios -- to show growth, to showcase excellence -- portfolios are meant to be shared. The samples, reflections and other contents allow or invite others to observe and celebrate students' progress and accomplishments. A portfolio should tell a story, and that story should be told.
Students should primarily be the ones telling their stories. As students reflect on the balance of their work over some period of time, there is often a great sense of pride at the growth and the accomplishment. By telling their own stories students can take ownership of the process that led to the growth and achievement. Assessment is no longer something done to them; the students are playing an active role through self-assessment.
Furthermore, others will be able to recognize and celebrate in the growth and accomplishment of the students if their work is communicated beyond the borders of the classroom. A portfolio provides a unique vehicle for capturing and communicating student learning. Parents tend to learn more about their children's abilities and propensities through a portfolio than they do through the odd assignment that makes it home and into the parents' hands. Moreover, other interested members of the school and local community can recognize and celebrate the accomplishment.
Finally, the portfolio can provide an excellent tool for accountability. Parents, educators and community members can learn a great deal about what is happening in a classroom or school or district by viewing and hearing about the contents of these stories. Perhaps more importantly, the student and teacher can uncover a vivid picture of where the student was, where she has traveled to, how she got there and what she accomplished along the way -- a fascinating and enlightening story.
Of course, deciding how to tell the story will be influenced by the intended audience. For example, presenting a collection of work to a teacher who is already familiar with much of the content will likely require a different approach than presenting that work as part of a college application.
In some classrooms, a portfolio is used much like other assignments as evidence of progress towards or completion of course or grade level goals and standards. In such cases, the only audience might be the teacher who evaluates all the student work. To effectively communicate with the teacher about a body of work, the student may be asked to write a brief introduction or overview capturing her perceptions of the progress (for a growth portfolio) or accomplishments (for a showcase portfolio) reflected in the collection of work. Teachers who assign portfolios not only want to see student work but want to see students reflect upon it.
As a classroom assessor, the teacher also has the benefit of communicating face-to-face with each student. Such conferences take a variety of forms and vary in their frequency. For example,
Additionally, classmates can serve as an audience for a portfolio. Particulary for older students, some teachers require or encourage students to present their portfolios to each other for feedback, dialogue and modeling. For example,
As students hear themselves tell each other about the value and meaning of their work it will become more valuable and meaningful to them.
As many of us have experienced with our own children, parents sometimes only receive a small, fragmented picture of their children's school work. Some work never makes it home, some is lost, some is hidden, etc. It can be even harder for parents to construct a coherent picture out of that work to get a real sense of student growth or accomplishment or progress toward a set of standards.
Portfolios provide an opportunity to give parents a fuller glimpse of the processes and products and progress of their children's learning. Many teachers intentionally involve the parents in the development of the portfolio or make parents an audience or both.
For example, to involve parents in the process,
To share the portfolio with parents,
A Portfolio Night also provides an opportunity for other members of the school or larger community to view student portfolios. The portfolios may simply be on display to be sampled, or students might guide other audiences through their work.
Similarly, during the school day students can share their portfolios with students from other classes or with school personnel.
An external audience for student work can serve to motivate students to give more attention to and take more seriously their performance. First, it may give more legitimacy to assigned work. If the work is to be externally reviewed, it suggests that it is not simply "busy work" that provides a grade but that it is something authentic valued outside the walls of the classroom. Second, some students may take more care in their work when they believe a new, different, and perhaps expert audience will be viewing it.
To extend the audience beyond the classroom, school and family, teachers have adopted a variety of approaches, including
Just as we do not expect children to write or speak well without considerable instruction and practice, it is not reasonable to expect students to effortlessly and effectively share their stories without some help. Teachers have devised a number of strategies to prepare students to communicate with the target audience. Some such strategies include
As with all of the elements of portfolios described above, how and when evaluation is addressed varies widely across teachers, schools and districts. Take, for example,
Evaluation refers to the act of making a judgment about something. Grading takes that process one step further by assigning a grade to that judgment. Evaluation may be sufficient for a portfolio assignment. What is (are) the purpose(s) of the portfolio? If the purpose is to demonstrate growth, the teacher could make judgments about the evidence of progress and provide those judgments as feedback to the student or make note of them for her own records. Similarly, the student could self-assess progress shown or not shown, goals met or not met. No grade needs to be assigned. On a larger scale, an evaluation of the contents within the portfolio or of the entire package may be conducted by external bodies (e.g., community members, other educators, state boards) for the purpose of judging completion of certain standards or requirements. Although the evaluation is serious, and graduation might even hinge on it, no classroom grade may be assigned.
On the other hand, the work within the portfolio and the process of assembling and reflecting upon the portfolio may comprise such a significant portion of a student's work in a grade or class that the teacher deems it appropriate to assign a value to it and incorporate it into the student's final grade. Alternatively, some teachers assign grades because they believe without grades there would not be sufficient incentive for some students to complete the portfolio. Ahh, but
Nothing. Some teachers choose not to grade the portfolio because they have already assigned grades to the contents selected for inclusion.
The metacognitive and organizational elements. But the portfolio is more than just a collection of student work. Depending on its purpose, students might have also included reflections on growth, on strengths and weaknesses, on goals that were or are to be set, on why certain samples tell a certain story about them, or on why the contents reflect sufficient progress to indicate completion of designated standards. Some of the process skills may also be part of the teacher's or school's or district's standards. So, the portfolio provides some evidence of attainment of those standards. Any or all of these elements can be evaluated and/or graded.
Completion. Some portfolios are graded simply on whether or not the portfolio was completed.
Everything. Other teachers evaluate the entire package: the selected samples of student work as well as the reflection, organization and presentation of the portfolio.
Most of the portfolio assignments I have seen have been evaluated or graded with a rubric. A great deal of personal judgment goes into evaluating a complex product such as a portfolio. Thus, applying a rubric, a tool which can provide some clarity and consistency to the evaluation of such products, to the judgment of quality of the story being told and the elements making up that story makes sense. Moreover, if the portfolio is to be evaluated my multiple judges, application of a rubric increases the likelihood of consistency among the judges.
What might a portfolio rubric look like? If the focus of the grading is primarily on whether the samples of student work within the portfolio demonstrate certain competencies, the criteria within the rubric will target those competencies. For example,
Or, Completing requirements
Evaluating the portfolio as a whole
Oh, what fun would that be! Actually, the answer is a qualified "yes." Portfolios do typically require considerable work, particularly if conferencing is involved. But with most anything, including assessment, I recommend that you start small.
Here's a quick, easy way to get started if any of the above thoughts has either encouraged you or not discouraged you from considering assigning portfolios in your little world. The following describes just one possible way to get started.
Step 1. Depending on the age of your students and other considerations, have students select two pieces of their work over the course of a quarter (or three or four over a semester). Decide (with your students or without) upon one or more criteria by which the selection will be guided (e.g., their best work). To limit management time, don't wait for the end of the quarter for students to make those selections. Otherwise, all their work will have to be collected along the way. Instead, if you want to keep it simple, tell your students ahead of time that they will be selecting two or more pieces matching certain criteria, and that you will ask them to do it at the point each sample is completed.
Step 2. At the time a student selects a sample to be included in his portfolio, require the student to complete a brief reflection sheet and attach it to the sample.
Step 3. Depending on the age of your students, ask your student to save that sample and the attached reflection sheet until the end of the quarter or semester, or collect it and store it yourself at that point.
Step 4. At the end of the quarter or semester, ask your students to reflect upon the samples one additional time by describing what they liked best about their work, or by identifying strengths and weaknesses, or by setting one or two goals for the future.
There, that wasn't too painful. Okay, you ask, that was relatively simple, but did it really accomplish anything? Good question. If you don't think so, don't do it. On the other hand, it could possibly have a few benefits worth the effort. First, if nothing else it gave you some experience working with portfolios. If you want to pursue portfolios in a more elaborate manner, at least you are now more familiar with some of the issues involved. Second, if you think developing self-assessment skills in your students is a worthwhile goal, you have also begun that process. Even a little reflection on your students' part may be more than some of them typically give to their work. Finally, you may have opened, even if it is just a little bit, a new avenue for you and your students to communicate with their parents about their performance, their strengths and weaknesses, and their habits. Any of those reasons may be sufficient to try your hand at portfolios. Good luck!
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Copyright 2012, Jon Mueller. Professor of Psychology, North Central College, Naperville, IL. Comments, questions or suggestions about this website should be sent to the author, Jon Mueller, at firstname.lastname@example.org.