Portfolio assessments

Authors: Nicky Guard, Uwe Richter and Sharon Waller


Portfolios have been around for a long time, either as collections of artefacts in an artist's portfolio or as documentation of teaching practice and staff development in a teaching or professional portfolio. However portfolios are finding a wider application as a form of educational assessment, especially in the USA. Even though they may vary in format, educational portfolios distinguish themselves from other portfolios by including reflective elements. They are therefore not merely a collection of best practice or artefacts but are also intended to document the learning process and involve students in actively reflecting on their learning. This article begins with a brief introductory overview of portfolios, followed by a look at the portfolio model which emerged from the TransLang project. We conclude with a summary of some findings which were common to our individual case studies elsewhere in this volume.

Table of contents

1 Definition and issues

1.1     Definition

Definitions for portfolios focus on different aspects. Hartman (1995:35) emphasises learning aspects:

Portfolios encourage active student involvement and invite students to apply known principles and generalisations to new problems and situations; to think creatively; to gain skills in using materials, tools, and technology germane to the subject; and to prepare for transfer, graduate school, or employment. They also commit students to personal achievement (empowerment) and encourage them to develop realistic self-evaluative skills. Finally the portfolios illustrate the students' depth of knowledge and skills.

Hartman also makes the point that portfolio assessment and instruction interact and can be used to document and evaluate teaching effectiveness. Others, such as Forgette-Giroux and Simon (2000:2), place more emphasis on the structure, design and process of portfolio assessment, defining it as a cumulative and ongoing collection of entries that are selected and commented on by the student, the teacher and/or peers, to assess the student's progress in the development of a competency.

Besides the student learning process and the structural and design issues (see 1.2 below) there are also aspects of the learning environment such as the institutional context and educational policies that play a role in the use and delivery of portfolio assessments. The San Diego County Office of Education (4/1994:1) defined what it called a"portfolio culture" as a classroom in which:

  • Collaboration is common;
  • Students revisit and revise their work;
  • Students and teachers reflect on the work of individuals and the class as a whole;
  • Students understand and use explicit standards for judging the quality of their own and others' work;
  • Students take pride in their work, polishing it for performance, publication, and exhibition.

They also acknowledge that portfolio assessments can create tensions between established assessment cultures and portfolio assessment if they are opposing each other. This was certainly an aspect evidenced in our case studies, where some students found it difficult to be assessed by portfolio rather than by a specific number of closed and open assessments with which they were more familiar.  Therefore for these students, the use of a portfolio assessment involved a considerable change of attitude towards assessments and the need to embrace the continuous active involvement in and reflection on their learning process which was required.

1.2     Design issues

Epstein (undated), Danielson and Abrutyn (1997), and Barrett (2000; 2001) describe portfolio assessment as a process of different progressive stages:

  1. Collection of artefacts and materials. This stage can also include a needs analysis or project proposal.
  2. Selection -collected materials are reviewed and evaluated for inclusion in the portfolio. This can involve different evaluation methods including pre-set criteria and parameters, tutor feedback and peer evaluation. In some cases this and the next stage is documented by including first drafts, feedback and a revised draft.
  3. Reflection and Projection - this stage consists of reflecting on the "why" of which particular items should be included (rather than the "what" of the selection stage), the comparison of materials with others, evaluation criteria or performance indicators and the active interaction with instruction, tutors or peers in discussing meaning, concepts and good practice.
  4. Connection of the portfolio to students' needs and/or the outside world to add value such as employability and transferable skills and to enhance students' motivation by making the portfolio relevant to them. This may include a presentation to audiences such as the class, the educational community or employers.

Many authors, such as Akar (2001); Cooper (1996); Drury and Tweedell (2000); Epstein (undated); San Diego County Office of Education (4/1994), also emphasise that learners should be guided by clear criteria, parameters and performance indicators in what they are expected to do and how their work will be marked. These measures are also important in order to increase the inter-rater reliability of portfolio assessments. Portfolio assessments are often employed to increase the autonomy of learners in their learning process or as assessments in flexible delivery courses by motivating creativity and critical self-reflection. This freedom of thinking needs to be balanced with the more prescriptive measures mentioned above, which give scaffolding to the learning process and ensure comparable and more objective marking.

1.3     Learning with portfolios

Because of the different development stages that a portfolio undergoes in its creation, different learning processes are involved progressing from surface to deep learning. Depending on the objectives of a particular portfolio three areas of learning can be identified:

  • Skills
  • (Applied) Knowledge
  • Attitudes or behavioural changes

Some of the transferable skills acquired in the production of a portfolio are presentation, including word processing, power point and other IT skills, structuring a portfolio; documentation, which may involve digitisation of media for digital portfolios (Barrett 2000, 2001); and selection or evaluation skills. Knowledge is acquired in the various stages of reflection in choosing items for inclusion in a portfolio, reflecting on and responding to peer feedback and on the learning process as a whole. Finally, attitudes and behaviour can be changed by increasing the learners' awareness of how they learn, their weaknesses and strengths as well as developing their ability to work collaboratively. However the ability to change attitudes may depend on the educational or institutional culture the learners are accustomed to and which may conflict with the learning strategies necessary for portfolio assessments. Akar (2001) speculates that some of the resistance of her Turkish students to working collaboratively on the portfolio assessment was rooted in the competitive nature of the Turkish university system. Similar issues were raised by Forgette-Giroux and Simon (2000) and the research notes from the San Diego County Office of Education (1994), focussing on the Canadian and US school systems respectively.

It appears that the more the above mentioned stages are included in portfolio design, the more likely it is that knowledge reflecting higher order thinking will be constructed:

Building knowledge upon previous knowledge helped learners recognise and reinforce their ability to think critically and construct new information (Akar 2001:20).

However the depth and kind of learning taking place in a portfolio assessed course depends on the educational culture and the objectives and nature of the portfolio. Epstein (undated) distinguished between process-oriented and product-oriented portfolio types. A process-oriented portfolio focuses on the process of learning and the development process of a product or products. This process may involve sub-phases with first draft, reflection on the development process, problems encountered and skills learned as well as a revised draft. A product-oriented portfolio would emphasise the accomplishment of a task or product guided by contents, range and quality criteria. Thus the learning outcome and the extent to which the learner can apply the necessary learning strategies may differ depending on the type of portfolio being applied.

1.4     Pros and cons of portfolio assessments

Portfolio assessments are not without controversy. The holistic method of assessing students’ abilities and knowledge is often linked to the difficulty of marking portfolios objectively. The greater focus on students’ needs and learning styles and their active participation in the learning process may also result in some critique of the instruction, curriculum and the educational environment when these are not able to adapt to students’ requirements or cater for their needs. Therefore a need may arise to restructure the curriculum and adapt teaching methods to match the continuous and reflective nature of portfolio assessments. Educational systems for instance that are driven by ranking such as league tables and standardised tests will encounter problems with the less score based and mathematically accountable outcomes of portfolio assessments. However in an education system that embraces life-long learning (Learning to Succeed - White Paper (June 1999)) portfolios with their potential for the development of transferable skills and self-reflective, autonomous learners have to be a welcome alternative to the more rigid forms of assessment which do not always require the students to indulge in higher order thinking. Nevertheless portfolio assessments come with a price. Their development, facilitation and marking often requires more time from the tutor than conventional assessments and the collection and storing process can raise a number of logistical questions (Forgette-Giroux and Simon, 2000).

Overall portfolios are seen as a positive form of assessment as they develop a learner in a more holistic and integrative way.  They enable students to become life-long learners by developing their transferable skills, self-reflection and learner autonomy. The possibility of individualising a portfolio and making it relevant and meaningful beyond the narrow scope of conventional assessments is a highly motivational factor for learners.  This strong intrinsic motivation encourages students to take ownership of their learning and to produce work of a higher calibre than that achieved through traditional, often less-meaningful forms of assessment.

2 Lessons from individual case studies

From our three case studies elsewhere in this volume a number of common points arose, as well as practices which we found recommendable or worth developing further.

2.1     Balance between prescription and student choice

Each of the authors of this article adopted for their own classes a more prescriptive model of portfolio assessment than that originally disseminated by the TransLang project (Pilkington 2000). Clear guidelines for tasks, criteria for development stages and teacher correction as well as peer feedback are important means of guiding and supporting the learning process. They are also ways of ensuring more objective and comparable marking. However we feel that a balance has to be struck between prescription and space for student choice and creativity. While clear criteria and parameters are important for students to develop their product(s), making choices and being creative are essential motivational factors. They foster students' ownership of the learning process and encourage deep learning through reflection. Thus comparability and fairness should be ensured through assessment criteria rather than a common content prescribed to all students.

2.2.     Scaffolding as steps towards autonomous learning

By structuring the learning process, a portfolio can provide steps towards autonomous learning.  There is a need to scaffold to ensure that students do not fail but also because students differ in their degree of learner autonomy at the outset of a given learning process. Thus we would recommend a model which starts with a higher level of support and then gradually withdraws scaffolding: This would also involve an initially higher teacher workload changing to a higher student workload towards the end.

2.3.     Workload and students’ responsibility for learning

Workload has been a concern raised in all case studies and a problem frequently cited in the literature. Solutions depend on aspects as such as subject area, the institutional context, and learner autonomy. The latter can be developed as described above and thus lower the workload for students and teacher. Some of the skills involved in learner autonomy are students’ ability to manage time, to gain confidence in their abilities and to evaluate their performance. Time management skills can be taught by structuring the portfolio along a time-line or task grid. Learning therefore becomes a conscious process with a beginning (formulation of expectations, evaluation of prior knowledge and skills) and an end (reflection on learning in relation to the expectations at the beginning) and divided into development stages with evaluation loops (first draft, feedback, revised draft). These development stages with their feedback cycles involve much work from tutors who traditionally give the feedback. We found the use of peer feedback connected to quantitative marking a way to reduce the marking load. It also made students more aware of their own performance and trained them in error recognition and correction, which are valuable autonomous learning skills. However peer feedback is not possible in all subject areas. Another possibility is to give students the choice of how many tasks out of a given number they do while setting a minimum number that the tutor will mark (e.g. 5 tasks out of 10). Thus students can practice more, have a choice of tasks to submit and the teacher will not be swamped by marking. Feedback is crucial for progression in a learning process. Thus developing students' self-evaluation skills as part of their learner autonomy can be seen as way towards decreasing the workload on tutors and increasing students' responsibility for their learning process. Nevertheless a need for balance between quantitative and qualitative assessment needs to be found.

2.4     "Real world" connections.

A further crucial motivational factor was the need for connections to the "real" world. The work students undertake as part of a portfolio is more motivating if they can to some extent choose their own topics so that the tasks relate to the world of the students and have meaningful processes and outcomes. Student choice of topics, realistic scenarios and case studies, relevance for and involvement with the working world are examples of connecting the assessment to student reality.

2.5     Cultural and intercultural issues

However, we found scaffolding, connecting to student choice and developing autonomous learning skills not always easy to translate into the design of a portfolio unless we have a fairly clear picture of who our students are. Our three case studies were not only set in different subject areas, but were also to a certain extent interdisciplinary: IT skills were taught to sociologists, project management to computer scientists and writing skills to business students. Furthermore, within a class we often find students from different educational backgrounds, (secondary, FE, HE, other national education systems, etc.), cultural backgrounds, and social backgrounds, which greatly influence their attitude towards learning and their ability to learn autonomously. These cultural and intercultural issues are closely linked with learner autonomy.

3 Endword

Portfolios have the potential to give tutors a powerful, multi-facetted assessment tool which allows students to develop according to their personalities and abilities within a solid support system. However, we found that effectiveness depends on recognising and defining for the target student group the many factors we have identified in this chapter and tailoring portfolio design to fit that audience.


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