Portfolios for the 21st Century

What Is a Portfolio?
One of the best assessment tools to help students become more self-directed and reflective is a portfolio—a collection over time of student work and reflections. As you probably know, there are two main kinds of portfolios: showcase portfolios that show a student’s best work and working portfolios that document a student’s learning. Some schools and school districts also require portfolios that demonstrate student learning and are passed on from teacher to teacher. Here, I’m going to be writing about working portfolios.

Working portfolios contain samples, or artifacts, of student work that show what and how students are learning. These collections evolve as artifacts are removed and added to illustrate new learning. The artifacts are not necessarily examples of a students’ best work, but are, instead, examples of work that challenged them or that prompted them to invent new processes, tread in unfamiliar territory, or take risks.

Some examples of possible portfolio artifacts are:

  • An experiment with a new strategy for dealing with a difficult group member, organizing notes from research, or time management.
  • A project that incorporates a new technology
  • Drafts of a product that changed significantly due to peer- or self-assessment
  • A piece of work that required significant self-motivation to complete

The artifacts in a working portfolio are accompanied by reflections where students describe the reasons for the selection and what that artifact represents about their learning.

What Do You Do with a Portfolio?
Although creating a portfolio is an individual task, the process is not complete until the portfolio is shared and discussed. During a student-teacher conference, a teacher can prompt a student to higher levels of reflection and goal-setting for further portfolio work. Portfolios can also be used to communicate student learning to parents and school or district administrators.

Going Digital with Portfolios
Even the most low-tech and inexpensive kind of portfolio, a manila folder with samples of student work and reflections, can have a great impact on student learning, so if that’s all you can do, portfolios are still a great idea.

However, there are some problems with paper-based portfolios. First, they must be stored, and they can pile up fast, especially if students carry them from year to year or from teacher to teacher. Second, they simply cannot contain much of the kinds of work that students do in the 21st century. If you have virtual storage space and relatively easy access to computers, scanners, and other technology, digital portfolios can be a great learning tool.

Digital Portfolio Tools
Digital portfolios can take a variety of forms. Generally, portfolio formats fall into one of the following four categories, each with advantages and disadvantages. Deciding on a particular format depends on your students’ access to technology equipment, Internet connectivity, who will use the portfolio, and cost.

  • Folders containing digital artifacts and documents with reflections
  • Readily available software, such as word processing or multimedia presentation
  • Web 2.0 tools, such as wikis, blogs, and online documents
  • Special portfolio software

Online Resources
The following Web sites can help get you started using digital portfolios with elementary and secondary students.

Edutopia: Digital Portfolios: The Art of Reflection
An important look at how portfolios facilitate student reflection

Electronic Portfolios
Dr. Helen Barrett’s Web page with extensive information about implementing digital portfolios with students

Edutopia: 4 Free Tools for Student Portfolios
A nice article with resources for digital portfolios

A comprehensive collection of links to Web resources about student portfolios

In December 2015, Peggy Grant joined our extended network of alumni.