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Learning Portfolios: Defined and Explored

Learning Portfolios: Defined and Explored

Using a purposeful collection of student work and student reflection upon that work to stimulate critical thinking

What exactly is a learning portfolio?

A learning portfolio is a collection of student work samples (e.g., a three-ring binder, CD-ROM or web site) and some form of reflection by the student upon that work. As part of what some call "authentic" assessment (Sunstein, 2000), portfolios can give more robust evidence of student learning than can, say, a multiple-choice test. Recently, many have discovered that electronic platforms like Blackboard can be an efficient way for students and instructors to organize and exchange portfolio information, thereby limiting the back-and-forth exchange of clunky objects like three-ring binders and enabling collaboration portfolios (Liu, 2007).

Product portfolios vs. Process portfolios

Product portfolios are used for end-of-term evaluation with students choosing to showcase the best versions of the work samples required. After a class is finished, these can be used to show future employers the student’s specific capabilities and experiences in the subject, a feature which is particularly appealing to professional schools (e.g., business, journalism, architecture and education).

Process portfolios document a student's growth across the semester, and are often required to be turned in to the teacher several times during a semester, with the teacher reviewing the updated contents and returning them to the student. The process portfolio can become a place where the teacher has a private, written "conversation " with the student about their work and its progress, which can be a satisfying experience for both teachers and students. In their research, Rickards and Guilbal (2009) identified three continua along which students reflections upon their work unfold as a course elapses:

1. From concrete and narrow to complex and interpretive
2. From demonstrating an outcome to probing the meaning of an ability
3. From exploring their personal narrative in a field of study to seeing their future self in a wider context such as a professional and citizen

The extra dimensions of learning enabled by portfolios

Fink (2003) developed a Taxonomy of Significant Learning Experiences, built upon the three main components of instructional design: learning goals, teaching and learning activities, and feedback and assessment methods. Each of these components is comprised of several elements, fair descriptions of which would be beyond the scope of this brief introduction. Important here is Fink's emphasis on the power of the learning portfolio to "integrate and promote all three of the main components of instructional design" (p.118).

Five virtues of portfolios and five warnings about them

Schulman (1998, pp.34-35) identified five virtues of portfolios and five dangers. First, the virtues:

  1. Portfolios are not snapshot assessment - Because they require content of many kinds and usually reflection upon it, portfolios can capture deep learning across time. (Also described by Coleman, Rogers, and King, 2002)
  2. Portfolios reconnect process and product - They allow for a valuable integration of the course experience.
  3. Portfolios "institutionalize norms of collaboration, reflection, and discussion" - Conversations about the ongoing portfolio assignment can help students connect more meaningfully with the teacher, the content and one another.
  4. Portfolios can serve as a "portable residency" - Being able to show what a student has done can be much more effective than the student trying to tell someone the same thing.
  5. Portfolios put responsibility on the learner - By deciding what exactly to include in their portfolio (within assigned requirements), each student must by necessity take ownership of the learning experience the portfolio documents.

However, Schulman also identified five dangers of portfolios which lead to the following warnings:

  1. Beware "lamination" - When the focus of the portfolio becomes a slick, glossy, advertisement for one's self, the learning process suffers.
  2. Consider the amount of work for the teacher - Because they are individualized, evaluating a portfolio from each student can take a great deal of time.
  3. Avoid trivialization - Requiring every scrap of student work be included in a portfolio can detract from the material that does deserve reflective attention.
  4. Stay loose to avoid "perversion" - Rubrics can be very helpful for communicating expectations to students and evaluating a portfolio’s multi-dimensional content. However, if the rubrics become too exacting, they can "end up objectifying what's in a portfolio to the point where the portfolio will be nothing but a very, very cumbersome multiple choice test" (p.35).
  5. Consider the chance for misrepresentation - In product portfolios, the emphasis of showing the best of the best of a student's work might lead to a collection of materials that do not accurately reflect the student’s level of day to day ability.
  6. Teaching with portfolios

    When a class uses portfolio assessment, students are told at the beginning of the semester what kinds of things to collect, in their portfolio and what to expect for evaluation of the portfolio.  Some teachers let students pick a theme for the learning they are going to document with the portfolio, and many who teach inquiry classes use portfolio assessment because of the personalized nature of the portfolio.  These teachers sometimes require students to fill out a learning contract to specify the details of their inquiry, and portfolios almost always contain some form of reflection assignment


    Coleman, H., Rogers, G., & King, J. (2002). Using portfolios to stimulate critical thinking in social work education. Social Work Education, 21(5), 583-595.

    Fink, L.D. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Liu, E. (2007). Developing a personal and group-based learning portfolio system. British Journal of Educational Technology, 38(6), 1117-1121.

    Rickards, W.H. & Guilbault, L. (2009). Studying student reflection in an electronic portfolio environment: An inquiry in the context of practice. In Cambridge, D., Cambridge, B. & Yancey, K.B. (Eds.), Electronic Portfolios 2.0: Emerging Practices in Student, Faculty, and Institutional Learning (pp. 17-28). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

    Shulman, Lee (1998) "Teacher Portfolios: A Theoretical Activity" in N. Lyons (ed.) With portfolio in hand. (pp. 23-37) New York: Teachers College Press.

    Sunstein, B.S. (2000). Be reflective, be reflexive, and beware: Innocent forgery for inauthentic assessment. In Sunstein, B.S. & Lovell, J.H. (Eds.) The portfolio standard: How students can show us what they know and are able to do. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.