Incorporating Portfolio Assessment

An assessment portfolio is a purposeful collection of student work designed to showcase a student's progress toward, and achievement of, course-specific learning objectives.  Portfolios are considered authentic assessment as they provide evidence of what a student can actually DO.  Like many authentic assessments, portfolios contain information from a range of sources, through multiple methods, and over various points in time.  Typically, a portfolio includes evidence of learning selected by the student, self-reflections on the learning process, and criteria for selecting portfolio entries.  Portfolios have the advantage over traditional assessments and tests in that they allow instructors to monitor the growth and development of student understanding.  In addition, they encourage students' active participation in the assessment process as students' self-assessments and reflections are documented as part of the portfolio.  With the emphasis on student involvement, a portfolio is a collaborative process between the student and instructor.

Like all quality assessments, portfolios are guided by the instructional goals and learning objectives of a specific course.  While portfolios are typically seen as assessment devices, they are also effective instructional tools.  The reiterative process of creating a portfolio creates a range of instructional opportunities for teachers and students to work in individualized settings.  Just as portfolios provide information to the instructor on student progress, the feedback received from portfolio reviews provides valuable information to guide student development.

Portfolios promote the assessment of complex, higher-order learning outcomes and encourage the assessment of programs that have flexible or individualized goals.  Thus, portfolios are particularly effective for examining the integration of knowledge, enlarging the scope of understanding, and fostering metacognitive reflection.  In contrast to assessments that provide a snapshot of student understanding at a single point in time, portfolio assessment provides a reliable, valid source of information concerning students’ ability to master course-specific learning objectives.

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Types of Assessment Portfolios:

Portfolios can take on many forms depending on the purpose and goal of the assessment.  Typically, portfolios can be divided into three types: documentation, process, and product.

Documentation - The goal of documentation portfolios (also known as working portfolios) is to highlight development and improvement over time.  Documentation portfolios showcase the process of learning by including the full progression of project development.  Often, documentation portfolios will contain a range of artifacts from brainstormed lists to rough drafts to finished products.

Process - The purpose of process portfolios is to document all stages of the learning process.  Like documentation portfolios, process portfolios include samples of student work from throughout the entire educational progression.  The difference is that process portfolios expand on the information in a documentation portfolio by integrating reflections and higher-order cognitive activities.  In addition to showcasing the students' work, process portfolios emphasize metacognitive functioning and encourage students to become active participants in understanding their own learning.  As such, process portfolios include documentation of reflection such as learning logs, journals, or documented discussions.

Product - The goal of product portfolios (also called showcase portfolios) is to highlight a student's best work by showcasing the quality and range of student accomplishments.  Typically, product portfolios are utilized as a means of summative assessment to evaluate mastery of learning objectives.  Since the focus is on final product, there is no reflection on the learning process, but students may want to include a justification explaining criteria for artifact selection.

Stages of Portfolio Development:

1. Planning - Initially, instructors need to determine the function, type and design of the portfolio.  During the planning stage, instructors communicate to the students the purpose of the portfolio and the assessment criteria.  Generally, the planning phase should also include attention to details such as the organization and presentation of materials as well as portfolio maintenance and storage.

2. Collection - In the collection stage, students are responsible for assembling meaningful artifacts that reflect their own educational progress.  While it is not possible for students to collect and/or document ALL their course work, collection can be facilitating by remembering the purpose of the portfolio, students' personal goals, content of the course, and evaluation criteria.  Generally, students will need assistance in documenting their work and generating appropriate artifacts.

3. Selection - The selection stage is a decision-making process in which collected artifacts are sorted and selected for inclusion in the portfolio.  The purpose of the assessment and the kind of portfolio being developed guide selection decisions.  While students are typically responsible for selecting their own work, instructor or peer reviewers may assist them.  The selection process is facilitating by ensuring that course requirements produce a wide variety of learning artifacts.

4. Reflection - The reflection stage is often considered the most important step in portfolio development; the metacognitive process of students reflecting on their own learning differentiates a portfolio from a simple collection.  During the reflection process, students justify their selections, highlight important learning gains, explain relevant skills and knowledge, and identify areas for improvement.  To be most effective, students should be responsible for their own reflections. Reflections may be communicated via learning logs, journals, or documented discussions.

5. Connection - In the connection stage, students expand on their reflections to connect acquired knowledge and skills with course goals and learning objectives.  The purpose of the connection stage is to gain an understanding of the value of learning within the broader curriculum and the real world.  A key aspect of portfolio assessment is the presentation of portfolios to outside reviewers.  This type of external evaluation promotes the integration of classroom-based knowledge with valuable life skills.

Elements of a Portfolio:

While the specific goals and objectives of the assessment will dictate the contents of the portfolio, the following components are viewed as central to most portfolio assessments:

Personal Statement (or Cover Letter) - The personal statement should include one or two paragraphs highlighting relevant personal goals and experiences of the student in relationship to the goals and purposes of the portfolio.  The personal statement should also summarize evidence of students' learning and progress in understanding.

Table of Contents - To ensure the portfolio is functional and readable, include a table of contents with numbered pages.

Entries - The type and purpose of the portfolio will provide guidance in determining the entries to be included.  Core or required entries should be selected based on portfolio guidelines and assessment criteria.  Core items provide a common base for the comparison of various portfolios.  If appropriate, optional entries may also be included to highlight students' uniqueness and creativity.  Since selection is a key factor in the development of a portfolio, optional entries should only be included if portfolio guidelines specifically request them.  Each entry should include dates and related feedback.

Reflections - Reflections may either appear with each entry or following all entries.  Depending on the type of portfolio, reflections can highlight students' thoughts in relation to their own learning, identify strengths/weaknesses, examine progress, provide self-assessment, or explain a rationale for including each entry.

Characteristics of an Effective Portfolio:

  • Effective portfolios are continuous and ongoing, providing both formative and summative opportunities for monitoring students' progress toward achieving learning objectives.  Quality portfolios will highlight growth and development over time.  In addition, portfolios should reflect the interactive nature of learning that occurs through feedback and revision.

  • Portfolios should be multidimensional and reflect a wide variety of artifacts.  The range of entries should highlight various learning processes, skills, and abilities.  Essentially, a good portfolio will provide a comprehensive profile of the students' abilities.

  • Reflections are an essential part of an effective portfolio.  Quality reflections include insight on individual thinking processes, metacognitive introspection, thoughts on problem-solving, decision-making skills, and observations on intellectual strengths and weaknesses.

  • Portfolios should clearly reflect learning objectives as identified in the course curriculum.  In addition, portfolios should provide a match between instructional activities, student experiences, and assessment.

  • Effective portfolios provide evidence of performance-based learning experiences as well as students' understanding of course-specific knowledge and skills.

  • Portfolios are a targeted selection of student work; avoid haphazard collections without purpose, rationale, or justification.  The selection process is as important as the quality of the selected entries.

  • Quality portfolios must contain an element of self-assessment.  By reflecting on their own learning experiences, students can identify their personal strengths and weaknesses.  The self-assessment process can be used as a basis for forming personal improvement goals.

  • Evaluation criteria for selecting and assessing the portfolio contents, as well as the overall portfolio goal, must be clear to both the instructor and students prior to developing the portfolio.

  • Portfolios should highlight the depth of a student's knowledge and skills.  In contrast to a traditional test, portfolios showcase the quality of work that can be accomplished with adequate resources, and without pressure or time constraints.

  • While portfolios should be structured to ensure they meet the goals and purposes of the assessment, it is important to allow a degree of freedom for students to express their own individuality and personal strengths.

Tips for Utilizing Portfolios as a Means of Classroom Assessment:

  • While instructors provide the portfolio guidelines and requirements, the student should complete the bulk of portfolio development.  Essentially, portfolio development is a collaborative process with instructors serving as consultants or mentors to assist students in selecting and assembling their portfolio.

  • Items for inclusion in the portfolio are limited only by the creativity and ingenuity of the student.  Possible portfolio entries may include examples of written work, journals, learning logs, standardized tests, videotapes of student performances or presentations, audiotapes of student presentations, cognitive maps, group reports, quizzes, charts, graphs, readings list, peer review, artwork, instructor feedback, self-evaluations, etc.

  • The reiterative nature of portfolio development can be facilitated through peer-reviews, self-assessment, or instructor-student dialogues.  Feedback is essential to the development of a quality portfolio.

  • Encourage students to actively reflect on their own work by providing structured guidelines for self-evaluation.  Once students are comfortable with the process of reflecting on their own learning, they can be given more freedom in the form of self-assessments.

  • Keep portfolios in a location that is easily accessible to both instructor and students.  Recent advances in technology are allowing the efficient use of electronic portfolios that can be accessed via the Internet.

  • Since most students are not familiar with portfolio assessment, provide clear guidelines as well as ongoing assistance in portfolio development.  Be prepared to modify portfolio requirements to match the demands of both learning objectives and student preferences.

Review Checklist:

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Resource Links:

Student Portfolios: Classroom Uses

Portfolio Assessment

Portfolio Assessment: Introduction

Portfolio Assessment


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