The use of portfolios in higher education is not a new phenomenon – at least in some fields. Having students create portfolios to present their ideas and accomplishments to prospective clients or employers has been standard practice for art departments, journalism schools, marketing programs, and the like, for decades. These portfolios are a means of demonstrating the quality and range of work produced by the student, just as a working artist’s or an advertising executive’s portfolio showcases the quality and range of work he or she has produced.
In other fields, however, the use of portfolios is much more recent. As educators in academe have realized that the portfolio concept is not just for artistic work, they have come to use various types of portfolios as assessment tools in many areas of the curriculum. Portfolios can provide a professor with a body of student work that shows growth in performance, illustrates a range of quality, or demonstrates achievement of specific skills. Three basic forms of portfolios in use in higher education are working portfolios, showcase portfolios, and assessment portfolios.
Working portfolios are designed to be ongoing interchanges between you and your students. Based on specific learning objectives, they serve as “holding tanks” for student work. By frequently examining their working portfolio, you can diagnose students’ strengths and weaknesses and provide guidance for the students in how to improve or perfect their work. Working portfolios can also show you what you might need to emphasize in your teaching. Term papers or research projects are ideal candidates for inclusion in a working portfolio.
However, the main audience for the working portfolio is the student. With feedback from you, students can develop their reflective skills and learn to be self-evaluative by working on the projects within the portfolio. The substance of a working portfolio is specific content related to course learning objectives. As students complete their projects, they can move some of the pieces from the working portfolio to a showcase portfolio, discussed below.
Working portfolios allow for iterative processes of instruction. That is, students complete an assignment, get feedback from you, make alterations, and resubmit the assignment for your input. This cycle can be repeated as often as necessary within your given time constraints. Ideally, each cycle increases the students’ learning and their perceptions of their learning, both of which are important. Students usually view this iterative process as much more personalized than grades on a test or general statements made during a class about writing skills, grammatical errors, paper organizations, and so on.
As you might imagine, going over working portfolios with students is a time-consuming process and this must be taken into account prior to implementing this form of alternative assessment. I recommend that you use the working portfolio first with a very small class or with a subset of a class who wants to explore this level of interaction and feedback. As with so many instructional techniques, this one will become easier as you gain experience with it.
Compiling a showcase portfolio is an especially rewarding experience for students involved in ongoing creative work. Including their best work in a showcase portfolio enables students to define who they are in terms of their culture, learning, experiences, and beliefs. Showcase portfolios can be used in just one class or an entire program. The latter case allows students to have a collection of their best work developed over several months or years. A program showcase portfolio can serve as a culminating activity for the program in lieu of, or in addition to, comprehensive examinations.
The audience for showcase portfolios includes the student, the faculty, and potential employers. The content may include projects created in class as well as projects done outside of the classroom environment, maybe for a part-time job or a volunteer experience. The main advantage of a showcase portfolio is that the students can select their best work from a variety of experiences to demonstrate their skills and learning.
In addition to sharing showcase portfolios with potential employers, you can, with students’ permission, display them to potential donors, prospective students and their families, or accrediting agencies. In imagining how to demonstrate what students in a program have learned, contrast the impact of displaying a showcase portfolio to that of displaying student test scores. You can see the difference.
A third type of portfolios is the assessment portfolio. The primary purpose of an assessment portfolio is to document what the student learned during the course. Items in an assessment portfolio must be designed to help the student manifest learning related to specific course objectives defined in the syllabus. Assessment portfolios can be used to demonstrate mastery of both skills and content. The specific audience for the assessment portfolio is the teacher. The items in the portfolio must show that the student has achieved the intended learning outcomes of the class. An assessment portfolio can include lab activities, notes taken in class, artwork, drafts, book reviews, audio/video productions, or whatever else the teacher and student together feel serves to document learning of the course objectives.
The following three steps need to be followed when using assessment portfolios:
- Identify what forms of procedural knowledge will be assessed through the portfolio process;
- Design assessment tasks for the identified learning objectives;
- Identify the criteria for each assessment task.
As with all types of assessment in the strategic classroom, students need to know the target, that is, they need to know what your standards are and how their work will be measured against those standards.
Through portfolio assessment, students gain a more positive perception of themselves as learners, as individuals, and ultimately as professionals, ready for the world of work. As you examine individual portfolios, you get a more complete picture of your students as persons who are unique and who have lives “beyond the classroom.”
Another important benefit of portfolio assessment is that, since students are participants in their own assessment, they share in the responsibility for their learning. In this age of accountability, this shared practice is a must. In the long run. And when they are assuming more of the responsibility for their learning, you can devote more time and energy to other aspects of your instruction.
Note: Portfolio assessment is labor-intensive and time-consuming, so you may want to start on a small scale. Once you become comfortable with the process, you can expand your portfolio activities. It is much better to grow with the process than to start on a large scale, become frustrated, and then vow never to try it again. It is too valuable an assessment tool to avoid.