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Student Portfolios: An Alternative Way of Encouraging and Evaluating Student Learning

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Student portfolios are an alternative authentic assessment method that invites active student learning and provides an opportunity for instructors to tailor assessment strategies based on student-learning outcomes.


The posting below looks at the use of student portfolios as an evaluation tool. It is from Chapter 5, Student Portfolios: An Alternative Way of Encouraging and Evaluating Student Learning by Carmel Parker White, in the book, Alternative Strategies for Evaluating Student Learning, Michelle V. Achacoso, Marilla D. Svinicki (eds.). It is Number 100, Winter 2004, of the New Directions for Teaching and Learning series, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. Copyright ? 2005 Wiley Periodicals, Inc., A Wiley Company. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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Student Portfolios: An Alternative Way of Encouraging and Evaluating Student Learning

Carmel Parker White


The course in which I first used student portfolios was a general education course that required students to learn and apply theories. As is typical for many general education courses, not every student saw the relevance of the course for his or her life and future career. After portfolios were introduced into the course, students took more responsibility for their learning, and I was able to assess their learning and determine if the student learning outcomes had been achieved.

In the first section of this chapter, I describe a student portfolio and how it can be used. Next, I discuss the underlying philosophical approach of student portfolios. In the third section, I outline where the student learning occurs. Students not only learn about a content area and how to apply theories to that content area, but also, and more important, they learn about the process of learning. Finally, I describe the assessment measures I use when grading portfolio assignments. Where relevant, I include comments from classroom research that I have conducted on student portfolios.

Overview of Student Portfolios

Student portfolios, also referred to as learning portfolios (Zubizarreta, 2004), may be used in almost any discipline, may be tailored to fit the needs of many different learning outcomes, and may be in various formats (for example, electronic portfolios are becoming more common). Portfolios can be used to document an entire curriculum or for a specific course. However portfolios are used, it is important to intentionally design assignments to reflect the student learning outcomes of the course or curriculum.

In the general education course that I teach, students work in collaborative learning groups to select a content area to study across the semester. Some portfolio assignments vary from semester to semester, and others are consistent across semesters. Portfolio assignments that I consistently use include locating a scholarly journal article, reviewing that article, completing and reflecting on an experiential or community-based learning opportunity, and preparing a group presentation on the topic. Assignments that I have varied across semesters include a critique of an Internet site; an example of what mass media is communicating about this topic; a paper that describes contextual variables that may be influencing this content area, such as one's culture, developmental age, or public policies; a set of survey or research questions that the student is interested in learning more about after being involved in this content area; and a theory-integration paper where students consider the content area in light of a theory or a reflection paper that requires students to integrate their learning across the semester. At the conclusion of the semester, students assemble each portfolio assignment into an attractive package.

Student comments about the assignments I require each semester are included below:

Scholarly article and review. "I think that locating and writing a [review] on the scholarly article was a great way to start the entire portfolio. It made us get out and get started as soon as possible."

Experiential or community-based learning. "I feel that the experiential or community-based learning part of the portfolio gave me the best experience because I was able to understand the applications of my topic (Family Medical Leave Act) on both the employer and employee."

Presentation. "The group presentation provided me with the greatest amount of learning because after we had sifted through the information, decided what was most useful, and prepared the presentation, I really knew the information."

Overall portfolio. "I honestly think every component of the portfolio was helpful and beneficial; especially bringing them all together to present to you."

Underlying Philosophy

Four perspectives have influenced my use of student portfolios. First, the concept of scaffolding, where a more knowledgeable individual holds up or scaffolds the performance of a less knowledgeable individual (Bruner, 1983), thus raising the performance of the less knowledgeable one (not the "sage on the stage" but rather, the "guide on the side"), has greatly affected how I structure portfolio assignments. I find that many students are unsure how to proceed with the task of learning deeply about a specific content area. With each portfolio assignment and my assessment of the assignment, I can guide students through the process of understanding what is a quality journal article, how to critique the main points of a journal article, ideas to think about when participating in experiential or community-based learning, and important issues to be addressed in their presentation. I have included two student comments that support this notion of scaffolding:

The scholarly article was the stepping-stone for getting my research started and let me know what kind of quality information that you wanted. The review of the article also let me know what style [of information you wanted].

I think that each portfolio contributed to my learning of [the content area]. Each tied in with one another, gradually increasing my knowledge about the topic.

Another philosophy that has affected student portfolio use in my classroom is the notion that students who select their own content area to research and are allowed to solve problems and discuss issues in an interdisciplinary collaborative learning group are more motivated to learn than they would be if topics were assigned, if they worked in isolation, or if they did not focus on solving problems. For example, one student stated, "We took a subject that I was interested in (one girl in my group had even been exposed to it) and presented an abundance of knowledge to the class."

A third concept that as informed my use of portfolios is that of student metacognition-that is, helping them acquire an understanding of what they know and what they do not yet know about the process of learning. As Halpern (2003) says, "We always need to remember that we are teaching toward some time in the future when we will not be present-and preparing students for unpredictable real-world 'tests' that we will not be giving-instead of preparing them for traditional midterm and final exams" (p. 38). The following questions become relevant when students complete portfolios: Do students understand what they need to know about the topic and how to gather that information? Are students able to organize a body of information into a meaningful report? Can students reflect and integrate their learning across a body of knowledge? Portfolio assignments can encourage students' metacognitive understanding, as illustrated by this student's comment: "I felt the reflection paper was very helpful. It allowed me to go back over the semester and think about the things I had been involved in, and how I had learned from them."

Finally, the philosophy of authentic assessment has been important in my development of portfolio assignments and corresponding assessments. Authentic assessments are "nearly identical in content and context to the situation in which the information to be learned will be used?What is missing from most authentic situations-and from most real-life situations as well-is systematic and corrective feedback about the consequences of various actions" (Halpern, 2003, p. 40, emphasis added). Three student comments reinforce the concept that portfolio assignments allowed for authentic assessment:

I feel that having to go out and collect an article that is from a reputable source and is still relevant to the chosen topic was a good experience. It is something that will be used in the future.

Just seeing?all the different ways I could take the information I collected and put it into different contexts and still learn a lot about our topic. Plus, it teaches us to be professional.

I feel that the observation part was where I learned the most. It was the first time I saw firsthand what I had been researching and experienced a real-life situation.

Learning That Occurs

Initially the portfolios were designed to allow students an opportunity to explore deeply a content area and consider how theories could apply to this area. I believe this type of learning does occur, and students realize how much they have learned from different portfolio assignments. For example, one student reported, "Overall, I really enjoyed every single assignment. Every assignment taught me new and valuable lessons about my topic."

However, other types of learning occur while students are working in collaborative learning groups on portfolio assignments, including peer collaboration, application of content area, and research skills. Indeed, this type of learning may be more important in preparing students for future employment. As Sterngold (2004) stated, "Acquiring strong research?skills may be more important to students' future careers than acquiring subject-matter expertise that may become outdated soon after the students graduate or that may become irrelevant when students shift jobs and careers" (p. 19). The following comments reflect students' perception of non-content-related skills that are developed:

Research and Library Skills

The whole process for the portfolio was very helpful. In my major as a Speech Language Pathologist, I will have to research all the time, and this assignment showed me how and where to get the information.

Learning how to use a large library was the most helpful part of the portfolio. I am a junior, and this is the first class I have been in that I have had to look up journal articles. That's pathetic.

Application of Content Area

I thought the experiential or community-based learning component allowed me to learn the most. I liked being able to see what we had been learning and reading about in a hands-on situation.

I think the experiential or community-based learning at [social service site] had the most impact on me this semester. To be honest, I've never really been around a lot of "less-fortunate" kids like that.

Peer Collaboration Skills

The group presentation, because my group worked together. we all learned a little so the whole learned a lot. It helped me reach more sources than I could have on my own.

I believe that I learned and received the most from the group presentation. Having others depend on my work made me be more thorough and do a better job.

Assessment Measures

I employ both formative and summative assessment measures on student portfolio use. For formative assessment, I encourage students to provide feedback on their perception of the learning that occurred with portfolio assignments. I collect this type of indirect assessment of student learning at the end of the term about every other semester. The student comments that I have provided throughout this chapter are examples of the formative feedback I have obtained. I use this information to fine-tune the specific portfolio assignments that I use in subsequent semesters and to capitalize on the students' perceptions of what worked well and what could be improved.

The summative assessment measures of student portfolio assignments are the means whereby I assign student grades and provide information to students about the appropriateness of their work for the final portfolio. For each portfolio assignment, I have developed a rubric that outlines the criteria and whether a student's performance is exemplary, good, adequate, or inadequate for each criteria. The following criteria are used for the required portfolio assignments:

Scholarly article. Article is from reputable source, is closely linked to group's content area, and has significant content (substance) to allow you to contribute to your group.

Review of scholarly article. Review demonstrates excellence in grasping key concepts from the article, clearly demonstrates the link between this article and your group's narrowed content area, briefly critiques the article, and may offer alternative interpretations of information presented in the article. Ideas are expressed clearly, concisely; uses appropriate vocabulary.

Experiential or community-based learning. Learning experience must be at least four hours in length, be documented with contact information and signature of an individual at the site, and describe what you have learned with specific reference to course theories and readings.

Presentation. Each group presentation should contain clearly stated learning objectives for the presentation; have information that is current, in-depth, and well organized; use at least one theory to discuss the content; and be presented in a professional manner.

Overall portfolio. All portfolio assignments should be included and be presented in a manner that would impress a future employer.

These rubrics allow me to assess quickly and intentionally each portfolio assignment and provide corrective feedback to students (Halpern, 2003). For example, if the initial scholarly article does not appear to be from a reputable source or have enough content for the student to use, I require the student to find another article before he or she begins the review of the article.

I have found that student portfolios allow me to assess student learning in an authentic way while intentionally focusing on student learning outcomes for each assignment. Overall, I have been pleased with the quality of learning that is present in student portfolios and what students report that they have acquired in research and peer-collaboration skills.


Bruner, J.S. Child's Talk: Learning to Use Language. New York: Norton, 1983.

Halpern, D.F. "To the University and Beyond: Teaching for Long-Term Retention and Transfer." Change, 2003 (July/Aug.), pp. 37-41.

Sterngold, A. "Confronting Plagiarism: How Conventional Teaching Invites Cyber-Cheating." Change, 2004 (May/June), pp. 16-21.

Zubizarreta, J. The Learning Portfolio: Reflective Practice for Improving Student Learning. Boston, Mass.: Anker, 2004.