Portfolios are strategic collections of work driven by specific purposes and outcomes. At their best, they exhibit evidence of development, effort, and achievement. They can be used in all subjects and grade levels, including higher education. There are different types of portfolios, depending on the purpose that drives their design. Access to a collection of work, accompanied by reflections on that work, provides teachers and students with rich and nuanced information about students’ learning including thinking processes, dispositions toward learning, and knowledge in use, which are untapped by other assessments.
Student portfolios benefit teachers and students in many ways. They can include rich and multi-faceted evidence of student learning, beyond paper and pencil measures; promote self-evaluative and reflective thinking; support the assessment of growth over time; and increase students’ ownership of their learning. The incorporation of feedback into portfolios deepens self-regulatory processes and promotes continuous learning.
While there is a research/practice gap related to the study of portfolios, existing research suggests that, when portfolios incorporate choice and reflection on the part of learners, portfolios can increase student motivation, understanding of content, attitudes toward subjects and learning, engagement, and sense of responsibility. Studies on the use of portfolios for large-scale accountability, which has been in place since the early 1990s, suggest that portfolios inform teachers’ understanding of students, promote reflecting thinking, motivation, and self-understanding, and improve learning (Aschbacher, 1993; Davies & LeMahieu, 2003). However, the constraints associated with standardizing scoring criteria and limiting teachers’ discretion and student choice compromises their value as assessments that improve instruction and inform student learning (Benoit & Yang, 1996). The costs associated with supporting professional learning for teachers to ensure a shared understanding of scoring guidelines and assessment criteria and promote reliable scoring, have yet to be embraced by policymakers across the United States.
Many of the benefits associated with the use of student portfolios are true for professional portfolios. They foster reflection and inquiry among those who develop and read them. They promote transparency of practice and enable shared access to the accumulated wisdom and expertise of educators and leaders. They contextualize an appreciation for the inherent complexities associated with evaluating teachers and leaders. They also support the processes associated with goal setting, monitoring, and assessment. Professional portfolios can also replace or supplement traditional forms of evaluation or can be used for hiring purposes.