Portfolio Work and Portfolio Assessment

Portfolio Work and Portfolio Assessment: First Steps

Working with portfolios has changed my role as a teacher dramatically. In portfolio classes my students feel actively involved in the learning process. They are more aware of their strengths and weaknesses and have learned to set their own goals. At the end of the semester they are proud of their progress and achievements.

Let me explain the basic principles of portfolio work, and make you interested in this multi-dimensional form of assessment.

What is a portfolio?

A reading-writing portfolio is an organized and purposefully selected collection of work that shows a student’s achievements, effort, growth and attitudes in the area of reading and writing. The portfolio includes a statement of the portfolio purpose (Letter to the Reader), a variety of writing samples, reasons or criteria for the selection of each piece and examples of self-reflections on the student’s work.

What does this mean in everyday school-life?

When looking at a student portfolio you will typically find the following contents:

  • a personally designed title page and folder
  • a letter to the reader
  • a table of contents
  • a variety of samples showing different achievements and skills
  • reflections and reasons for choosing  each of these samples
  • assessment and feedback (self-assessment, peer-assessment, teacher-assessment and feedback)

Let us look at each of these in turn.

Folders and Title Pages

When looking at student portfolios you will first notice the wide variety of title pages that the students produce. Students must understand that “a Portfolio is a window into the writer’s mind”[1]

In their portfolios they try to present themselves, their personalities, their interests, thoughts and attitudes. This can already be seen in the title pages and folders that they design.

Table of Contents

Good organizational and structuring skills are very important, especially in open teaching environments. Students must learn to organize their materials clearly for themselves as well as for others. In portfolio work students have to collect their work in the course of the semester and eventually present samples of their work in the portfolio. Students choose these samples to prove that they have acquired certain skills and mastered specific teaching objectives. In the portfolio they present these samples in a clearly organized way. This obviously includes a table of contents. Very often students also choose to use additional structuring techniques, such as colored paper for reflections, headings, dividing sheets etc. to help the readers find their way through the portfolio.

Letter to the Reader

The heart and soul of every portfolio is the letter to the reader, which usually follows the table of contents. In this letter the student states the portfolio purpose and reflects upon her development and learning process in the course of the semester or year. The letter to the reader is the first item we read, but it is the last item that the student writes. It can only be written after choosing the samples of work that exemplify the student’s progress and achievements. In the letter to the reader the students reflect upon their special strengths and interests, the different teaching objectives of the class and their level of achievement, their growth and improvement in certain areas, factors that have contributed to this growth or have hindered them, their effort and motivation, their reading and writing preferences or problems… These letters focus on the students’ meta-cognitive awareness of their own working strategies, habits and progress.

I have experienced that students who take time to reflect upon these aspects of their work develop a much stronger goal orientation and will be much more focused in the next semester. They see what has helped or hindered their development, they feel proud of their achievements or see the reasons for their bad results in certain areas. This awareness is the best starting point for future improvements.

Text Samples and Reasons for Choice

At the end of the semester or after a period of about 2-3 months students collect and discuss all the teaching objectives that the class has so far dealt with. We usually collect these goals in a brainstorming session and also discuss the criteria that show that a student has mastered a certain goal. Students have practiced self- and peer-evaluation in the course of the semester and should at this point have a clear understanding of quality criteria in different areas. This knowledge enables them to choose samples from their work that prove that they have reached certain goals.

In these portfolio sessions students are asked to bring all their past work to class.

In the course of the semester students have collected samples of their work such as stories, essays, letters, projects, poems, reading diaries, grammar work, error work, vocabulary work…

Using their lists of goals and objectives they go through their work and choose relevant examples. To make this process even more tangible let us look at a short list of objectives that my students came up with in their second year of English. We first brainstormed the objectives and topics and then discussed the criteria and ways to show these skills.

Topics and teaching objectives

Criteria and ways to show that I have reached this goal
writing a spooky story
spooky words
spooky setting where you can see, hear, feel with the characters,
use lots of spooky words

good motivation for the characters’ actions (they must have a good reason to act as they do)

surprise ending

using the present perfect tense for experiences and achievements
and the past tense for past events
I could include some grammar exercises to show that I have learned the correct forms
I could include my text “What grade I have earned” or “My favorite star” to show that I can use the forms independently.
summarizing and paraphrasing information I could include one of my magazine texts and copy a page from the sources that I have used. I can show how I have used my own words and how I have picked out the most important information.
giving constructive feedback criteria: have my comments helped my friend improve his/her text?
I could include a feedback sheet that I wrote for a friend and ask her whether this was helpful
time-management I cannot prove this in my portfolio but I can write a reflection about our magazine work. Did we always have our texts ready at the deadlines, how did we cope with time problems?…

This is only a short extract of possible goals and criteria. The list will always depend on the age and level of the students and the main focus of the teacher.

Usually it is fairly difficult for students to narrow down the number of samples. Especially eager, highly motivated students want to include too many pieces. I usually limit the samples to about five and explain that students can use one and the same sample to showcase different qualities. They can, for example, include a story and show different story writing skills such as good vocabulary, good description of the setting, lively characters, correct use of the past tense (simple and progressive), good revising and text improvement strategies (by including the drafts, peer-comments and final version)… I do not recommend to use one text for too many purposes, however. Students usually focus on one to three skills or teaching objectives in one sample.

Reflections about each piece

After choosing a sample students write a “Reason for choice” or “Reflection” explaining why they have chosen the piece and what they want to show with it.

These reflections (including the letter to the reader) are the key and most essential “ingredients” of a portfolio. They distinguish a portfolio from a writing folder or a collection of the best pieces of a year. It is these reflections that make portfolio work so effective in fostering motivation, pride and awareness of one’s own strengths and weaknesses.

Let me warn you of two very common mistakes of teachers who begin to introduce portfolios in their classes: One common error is to leave out or reduce the importance of reflections. Meta-cognitive skills are usually not very well developed in classes and need some practice and training to develop. It will usually take one or two portfolio rounds until the majority of students have mastered this skill at an age-appropriate level. It will also depend on the teacher’s experience in this area. I have noticed that my present students pick up these skills much faster than the students I taught four years ago. My own understanding and awareness in this area has grown and I have learned to communicate these more effectively. Even very simple and basic reflections can be very helpful for the students. Their awareness will grow rapidly with a little experience.

The second very common error is to define the portfolio contents for the students in too much detail.  (e.g.: Your portfolio must include: …) Students will repeatedly ask you what they should include. Answering this question for them is taking away their chance to become active and aware of their goals and learning process. It is another trap that would reduce portfolios to mere inventories or writing folders. The process of selecting the right samples is one of the most important parts of portfolio work.

Portfolio Assessment

There are several ways of assessing portfolios. One common way is to evaluate the portfolio as such and include this evaluation in the calculation of the final grade (next to test grades, class participation, homework etc). This is a safe way for teachers who are starting to work with portfolios.

After several years of portfolio experience I started to experiment with a more comprehensive, goal-oriented form of assessment. If the student’s aim in  the portfolio is to prove her level of achievement with respect to certain teaching objectives, then this information should be used more directly for final assessment.  The assessment table below includes both, the portfolio and other information I have collected about a student’s performance. Let me explain the assessment process in more detail:

1. Peer evaluation

At the end of the semester students bring their finished portfolios to class. We spend two hours (one double period) reviewing and assessing portfolios in groups. Students work in groups of three (they choose classmates they trust but are encouraged not to work with their best friends) and quietly read each other’s portfolios. Younger students are given peer reflection forms with the following cues:

  • My favorite part of your portfolio is… because…
  • I notice you are good at…
  • I notice one of your weaker points is…
  • I suggest you…
  • Moreover I’d like to tell you…

As mentioned before, giving feedback is an art that students have to learn. Cues like these help the students to give constructive feedback rather than negative comments or meaningless praise. We discuss that feedback is meant to help the writer to improve her performance. Most students pick up this notion very quickly and give very helpful tips for improvement.

If I see that students find many little flaws in each other’s portfolios and are highly motivated to correct them I give them an extra day to revise their work before handing in the portfolios.

Students who have had more experience in giving feedback and assessing portfolios do not need any peer reflection forms. They write long letters to their friends discussing the different aspects of the portfolios. These feedback letters very often cover exactly the same areas the teacher would have commented upon. Due to the fact that fellow students do not give grades, these comments are usually accepted more easily than the teacher’s comments that are inevitably linked to the idea of marks.

2. Self evaluation

Finally students fill in a copy of the assessment sheet for the semester. This sheet includes both the portfolio and other work they have done during the semester. Students have received a copy of the assessment criteria at the beginning of the year and have been reminded of the different categories and goals at several times during the semester. Tests do not appear as an extra category on this sheet, they are seen as examples of written work where students prove that they have reached certain goals.  Oral and listening skills make up a fairly small part of the final grade. This is typical of our bilingual school where oral skills are obviously very good and do not need as much structured practice as in regular language classes.

Students include their self-assessment in the back of the portfolios. They color the number of columns on the right and thus get a very clear profile of their strengths and weaknesses. Many students also write short comments (reasons for good or bad performance, likes, dislikes, resolutions for next term…) in the content boxes on the left.

3. Assessment by the teacher

In my final assessment I look at each of the categories on the assessment sheet, keeping in mind the specific teaching objectives and goals of the class. I also include my notes on the students’ performance during the semester (including tests, homework, project work, presentations, etc.)  In order to make assessment transparent and understandable for the students I write short verbal comments for each category. After marking the level of achievement in the respective columns I compare my assessment with the student’s self-assessment. Interestingly most students tend to be stricter on themselves than  I am. In case of major disagreements I would discuss the matter and explain my view. Assessment will always have a washback effect on teaching and learning. If it is not fully understood and accepted by the students they will feel like victims rather than active partners in their own learning process.

Summary: Advantages of Portfolio-work

Let me conclude by summing up the major advantages of portfolio work:

  • Students see their progress and  take over responsibility for their learning
  • Students are proud of their work (intrinsic  motivation)
  • Portfolios foster self-confidence
  • By choosing relevant pieces and reflecting on their work students become aware of their strengths and weaknesses. This awareness makes further growth possible.
  • Personal growth counts (not only the class norm)
  • Correcting and revising become meaningful
  • Parents and future employers learn more about the students strengths and abilities
  • Portfolios make assessment transparent and encourage communication between student and teacher
  • Dynamic skills can be shown and evaluated in portfolios
  • Teachers become coaches in the learning process
  • Portfolios encourage goal-oriented teaching
  • Portfolios are very well suited for open teaching methods (independent study, project work…)

[1] Marjorie Frank, Using Writing Portfolios to Enhance Instruction and Assessment

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