Portfolios for assessing students’ writing have been around a long time, but I believe it’s worth another visit, particularly given the tools we now have available online for collecting and sharing our work.
What Is a Portfolio?
A portfolio is a collection of documents accompanied by the collector’s reflection on what those documents show about their learning or work. Much literature on teaching with portfolios emphasizes the three-step process in portfolio creation: collect, select, reflect.
Students collect documents and other artifacts they have created, select those that best illustrate what they have learned, and reflect on why they chose those artifacts and what they show about their learning as writers. Though many teachers expect their students to keep their coursework together, without the element of reflection, this collection is simply a binder (or computer folder) accumulating paper (or files).
Course portfolios are a common form of assessment in writing and language teacher education programs. Students collect their drafts and final papers; to create a portfolio, they then select texts from that collection that represent their growth as writers across the term. Portfolios sometimes include a capstone reflection that summarizes students’ learning as documented in the entire portfolio; other portfolios may have reflections as cover sheets for each selected artifact.
Guidelines for what students should put in a portfolio may include some of these:
- All the drafts of one assignment, from your brainstorming notes to the final draft, including feedback you received from your teacher and peers.
- A paper that represents your best work in the class.
- A paper that shows how much you have improved your writing. This could be a paper that did not receive a high score from your teacher, but which you have revised since you received that score.
- Samples of writing created for different audiences or purposes.
- A reflection about your writing process (this might be included with documentation of all the drafts of an assignment).
- A reflection on how you think you will use the writing you learned in this course in your future studies or career.
Importance of Reflection
Writing portfolios can show not only what a student writer is able to do, but also what they understand about writing and themselves as writers (Murphy & Smith, 1992). As noted in the previous section, reflection is what differentiates a portfolio from merely a collection of students’ writing. Lam and Lee (2010), for example, describe a course portfolio wherein Hong Kong students selected two of their best writing texts from across an entire semester and wrote “a reflective journal to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses in writing at the end of the portfolio programme” (p. 56). Through the portfolio selection and reflection process, the students were able to see how much they had learned about writing and commented that they felt empowered by having choice of which texts to include. Without these reflections, evaluators may not have known students’ reasons for selecting particular texts.
Program portfolios document accomplishments across multiple courses toward a program-level goal. My MA in TESOL from the SIT Graduate Institute culminated with a portfolio aligned to the Vermont Standards for Teacher Licensure, which required that I select artifacts that showed what I had done in my coursework and student teaching to meet the standards. For each standard, I wrote a reflection that explained what I had learned from the activity represented by the artifact as well as what I saw as areas where I still needed to develop more.
As another example in teacher education, the e-portfolio my colleagues in Chile developed (which I presented at several conferences over the past year) is meant to document students’ progress across all 5 years of the English teacher education program. In each year, students select a few artifacts that represent their learning of particular program competencies. They write reflections about their choice of artifacts as well as broader reflections on their reasons for becoming English teachers and later their philosophies of teaching.
In our digital world, portfolios have also moved online. In contrast with paper portfolios, which require writers to keep printed copies of all their drafts and to make sure the documents are all in one place, e-portfolios reside on the internet, where writers can continue to upload documents and write reflections even as their teachers have access to the files. Another benefit of e-portfolios is that they can be designed with a wider audience in mind, allowing student writers to think about how to present their work in ways that would be accessible to people beyond their teachers.
Kevin Knight’s 2014 TESOL Blog post discusses how e-portfolios can be used in English for specific purposes (ESP) contexts, where students may be developing career-focused dossiers of their work. Knight lists several platforms as potential hosts for e-portfolios. In a 2016 TESOL Blog post, Tara Arntsen described SeeSaw, a platform that facilitates student-driven e-portfolios where teachers and parents can access files that students have selected from among videos, written texts, and other modes of representation. Not all commercial platforms can meet all program needs. The e-portfolio my Chilean colleagues developed is based in a purpose-built platform that was designed specifically for their program.
An advantage of portfolios is that they shift teachers’ role from being purely an assessor to being a collaborator or coach (Elbow & Belanoff, 1986; Murphy & Smith, 1992). Though teachers can still assign grades to individual assignments, they may choose to make those grades placeholders, where students can revise texts and submit them for reevaluation through the portfolio. The teacher of the course Lam and Lee (2010) described opted not to grade students’ texts at all while they worked through the writing process, only assigning grades to the two pieces the students selected for their portfolios. Students commented that this approach encouraged them to focus on improving their texts rather than raising their grades. Another option is to weight the portfolio such that it counts for a greater percentage of the term grade than individual assignments, but a proportion of the portfolio grade comes from the quality of revised texts and from reflection.
Grading portfolios can be more time-consuming than grading individual assignments, but the process can be integrated into any writing program with multiple sections and teachers to share the responsibility. Elbow and Belanoff (1986), for example, described a writing program-wide portfolio process where teachers met midsemester to give preliminary feedback (so students have a sense of how they’re doing), and then teachers grade each other’s students’ portfolios at the end of the year. This process allowed teachers to step back from the stress of evaluating their own students’ work and rather act in support of the students’ development.
Have you had experience with portfolio assessment in places where you’ve taught or studied? How did it work? What suggestions do you have for teachers wishing to implement portfolios in their programs?
Elbow, P., & Belanoff, P. (1986). Portfolios as a substitute for proficiency examinations. College Composition and Communication 37, 336–339. doi: 10.2307/358050
Lam, R., & Lee, I. (2010). Balancing the dual functions of portfolio assessment. ELT Journal, 64(1), 54–64.
Murphy, S., & Smith, M. A. (1992). Looking into portfolios. In K. B. Yancey (Ed.), Portfolios in the writing classroom: An introduction (pp. 49–60). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.