In principle, a portfolio is an easy to understand and intuitively attractive concept: students keep the work they produce. The real challenge of a portfolio is what you do with it. Without a clear vision of how the tool will be used, it can easily end up being a little like a child’s art box of works produced in art class in school over the years—just a repository of things we hold on to for no specific reason other than sentimental attachment. We might pull these works out to look at them from time to time, but they are not a clear record of achievement, nor can they help inform future learning decisions. The central function of a quality portfolio is to clearly provide evidence of growth and to “…engage students in assessing their growth and learning” (Berger, Rugen & Woodfin, 2014, pg. 261). Specifically what growth depends on the goals of the course or program. When a course or program has clear goals, a portfolio can have a formative or summative role in demonstrating a learner’s achievement or progress toward achieving those goals. There are also practical/logistical constraints on portfolio deployment. What artifacts should be included, how many should be included, where should the artifacts be stored, and how will the portfolio be assessed and by whom, are all important decisions. The results of these decisions can greatly impact the success of a portfolio as a learning tool.
Conceptualizing a portfolio
A portfolio is not simply a repository file. It must serve as a record of progress that is used to assess learning by the learner him/herself or by others. All decisions on its structure and deployment must start with this basic understanding. The design of the portfolio itself, and its integration into the syllabus (i.e., how it will be used on a regular basis) must aim to make it as easy as possible to record progress/achievement, to make visible evidence or patterns progress/achievement in the collected data. For this reason, not only student-produced academic work (essays, presentations, tests), but also documents that make progress and achievement salient should be kept in a portfolio. Such documents may include introductory statements, target-setting plans, records of times on tasks, assignment rubrics, progress charts, and reflection reports.
The importance of goals
In order to be effective, the portfolio must be closely aligned to the goals of the course or program and be able to show progress toward or achievement of those goals. In other words, it must be able to provide specific evidence of progress in achieving the target competencies in a way that is clear and actionable. It must also do so in a way that makes the most effective or efficient use of time. These goals can include knowledge goals, skill goals, or learning goals for constructs such as responsibility, autonomy, revision, collaboration, service and stewardship (to name a few). Without clear goals (usually arranged in a clear sequence), effective use of a portfolio cannot be possible. Without clear goals, the formative and reflective functions of a portfolio cannot be leveraged in a clear and actionable way. However, if students know what they are aiming for and can compare their work in how it meets the target competencies (using the descriptions and rubrics that define the goals/competencies), portfolios can be a powerful tool for reflection and formative feedback.
The importance of regular portfolio conversations
“In order for portfolios to be a tool for student-engaged assessment, including formative and summative assessments, they must be a regular part of the classroom conversation, not a static collection of student work” (Berger, Rugen & Woodfin, 2014, pg. 268). The portfolio must be a tool of measurement, like a bathroom scale, and can only be effective if it is used regularly. Students must regularly enter data into it (more on what kinds of data in the next section), and they must use it to look for patterns of success and gaps in learning/performance and strategy use. For this reason, providing clear guidelines and time to enter data into portfolios, facilitating the noticing of patterns and gaps, and giving opportunities for students to discuss their progress in groups, are all necessary. This will require classroom time, but also some scaffolding so students can understand how to work with data. Student-led conferences (mini presentations on progress done in groups in class) can be a useful tool. In groups, students can practice talking about learning, but also compare their progress and efforts with those of their classmates. Counselor conferences can also make use of portfolios, and if students have practiced beforehand in groups, time with counselors can be economized. Finally, to truly leverage the power of portfolios, passage presentations (public presentations where students explain and defend their learning accomplishments to groups of teachers, parents, or other concerned parties) can be particularly powerful since they are public and official. If a passage presentation system is in place, it will serve to make the portfolios more meaningful, greatly enhancing the effort students will put into entering and analyzing data and the amount of time they spend analyzing and practicing explaining their learning. Passage presentations and counselor conferences can transform student-led conferences into the role of practice for “the big games.”
Portfolio contents Pt. 1: What are we trying to develop?
Let us review our key points so far. It must be easy to enter meaningful data into the portfolio and notice trends or gaps. Noticing the trends and gaps in performance requires an understanding of the goals of the course/program, so they must be clear. The portfolio should be used regularly: students should use it to monitor their learning; and students should be able to refer to it when explaining their learning to others (groups, counselors, or others). These points are all concerned with usability, making the experience of using a portfolio as simple and smooth and effective as possible. What we actually put into the portfolio must be concerned with our learning targets. As mentioned earlier, any program or course will have multiple targets for knowledge and skill acquisition, but also for constructs such as digital literacy, critical thinking, problem solving, responsibility, autonomy, revision, collaboration, service and stewardship, and possibly others. Therefore, it is important for portfolios to contain finished work and evidence of the process of improving work through working with others, checking and revising work responsibly, and helping others to do so, too. Portfolios should also contain records of learning activities and times on tasks as evidence of autonomy and tenacity.
Portfolio contents Pt. 2: Portfolios for language learners
As part of English language courses, there are usually weekly classroom assignments for writing and presentation. There may also be other writing assignments, or other speaking assignments. As for other constructs, the following have been shown to be important for successful language learning and therefore should be part of the curriculum:
- Time on task
- Time management (efficient use of time)
- Commitment to improvement/quality (accountable for learning)
- Critical evaluation of learning strategies
- Collaboration (accountable to others)
- Seeking feedback and incorporating feedback (revision)
If we try to build these into our portfolio system along with our language and culture target competencies while still managing the volume of the content, I believe that we must include the following elements, in addition to a general goal statement:
- Drafts and final products for a limited number of assignments, including a reflection sheet with information about the goals of the assignment (and a copy of the rubric for the assignment), time spent on the assignment, attempts at getting feedback and comments on how that feedback was included;
- Weekly reflection sheets (including a schedule planner) in which students can plan out the study plan for their week before it happens, and then reflect upon the results afterward. There could also be sections where students can reflect upon strategy use and explain their attempts to reach certain goals;
- Self-access tracking charts in which students list up the reading, listening, or other self-access activities students engage in. Several of these charts can be made available to students (extensive reading charts, extensive listening charts, TOEFl/TOEIC test training, online conversation time, etc.) and students can include the charts relevant to their personal goals (though extensive reading will be required for all students).
As you can see, there is much to be decided: specifically which assignments and how many will be included; also the various forms need to be designed and created; and, for the English classes, whether completing the portfolio and discussing learning is something that we want to scaffold learners to be able to do (something that I personally think is very important).
This post is part of a series considering ways to add more focus and learning to EFL classrooms by drawing on ideas and best practices from L1 classrooms.
Part 1 looked at the importance of goals.
Part 2 looked at using data and feedback.
Part 3 looked at the challenges and benefits of academic discussions
Berger, R. Rugen, L., and Woodfin, L. (2014). Leaders of their own learning: transforming schools through student-engaged assessment. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass.
Greenstein, L. (2012). Assessing 21st century skills: a guide to evaluating mastery and authentic learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.