What is a portfolio for the classroom?

Molly McCracken
May 4, 2020

When you look at your students, you don’t see their mid-term grade or the percentage they got on their last essay. You see the whole picture; a collection of what makes each student unique. You see their assignments and tests, but you also see their growth and their potential far beyond your class.

A portfolio allows everyone else to see that too.

A portfolio is a body of student work

At its core, a portfolio is a body of student work. In the classroom, a portfolio serves as a space for students to add content that demonstrates their learning in a variety of ways.

A portfolio takes a variety of formats

Portfolios can be digital or physical. They can be personal or shared. They can be class-based, project-based, or unique to the student.

These individual collections of work help students document their learning and reflect on progress over time, facilitate effective assessment for teachers, and/or create a final showcase of their strongest work.

A portfolio offers opportunities to showcase growth, reflection, and accomplishment

As there are many different ways to use portfolios to capture and communicate learning, it’s important to consider that a student portfolio can be different from a professional portfolio.

When using portfolios as a teaching tool, they do not always need to be used to showcase highlights or final versions. On the contrary, a portfolio could be used to engage students in capturing the journey, failures, and reflections that lead to meaningful learning.

A portfolio for the classroom is a body of student work that can take on a variety of formats and showcase growth, reflection, and accomplishment.

Take a look at the three most common approaches to using a portfolio in the classroom.

Three ways to use portfolios in the classroom

There are three key ways to use portfolios to show learning in the classroom:

Show the Process: Students collect and store evidence of learning and reflect on the process in a continuous cycle.

Show the Progress: Students document growth and changes on their work over time to show development or improvement.

Show the Product: Students curate projects, learnings, and evidence into a final “polished” product.

This concept isn’t new. In fact, in 1997, Charlotte Danielson and Leslye Abrutyn (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) outline their three categories as working portfolios, display portfolios, and assessment portfolios, in An Introduction to Using Portfolios in the Classroom.

What is new, however, is the improvements in technology that allow teachers and students to meaningfully and collaboratively apply this practice at scale.

In the classroom, you can combine all three types over the course of a term or school year, or focus on one area, depending on your goals for the portfolio.

Process

One way a portfolio is used in education is to document learning. Similar to a journal, students capture daily activities and write a reflection on what they learned or how they felt.

Instead of just uploading an assignment, a portfolio can be used to combine an assignment with a probing question to get the student to think about a challenge, key takeaway, or consider what they’d do differently next time.

As Danielson and Abrutyn mention when describing a working portfolio, this is often the stage where every artifact is collected and can later be moved and shared into a portfolio used for assessment or showcase purpose.

The main focus of using a portfolio this way is to have students reflect on their approaches, feelings, and learning over time.

Progress

Student working on portrait of her pet dog

A portfolio can also be used to demonstrate progress, such as overall growth or mastery of a concept. Metaphorically, this is a space where the student shows the steps they took to go from a blank slate to a final masterpiece.

When using portfolios to evaluate progress, you can integrate a number of modern assessment practices that can be more effective and meaningful to students than a grade or score.

Portfolios make evaluation more of a conversation. Teachers can use the collection of work to conduct formative assessments with ongoing comments and feedback, rather than simply assigning a final grade.

Likewise, teachers can ask students to set their own expectations and conduct self-assessments as they progress.

Product

A student and teacher looking at a portfolio on a laptop

Perhaps the most popular use for a portfolio out in the world is the portfolio as a product.

A product portfolio is a final, culmination of work, where the student has selected each artifact thoughtfully and curated a story with the content.

Unlike the portfolio as a formative assessment tool, teachers may challenge students to curate and polish a final “product” for a standalone evaluation of their progress, such as their summative biology assessment, World War 2 history assignment, or their final capstone project. Outside of school, portfolio submissions are increasingly common additions for college admissions and job applications.

Molly McCracken

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