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The Advantage of a Portfolio

Many professionals use portfolios. Think artists, models, digital marketers, and writers, for example. Resumes tell prospective employers about who you worked for and what you did. Portfolios showcase examples of your work. Having a professional portfolio can sometimes help you stand out from other candidates.

How does the idea of a professional portfolio relate to using a portfolio assessment in the K-12 classroom? Well according to Jim Popham (2018), “A portfolio is a systematic collection of one’s work… An important feature of portfolios is that they must be updated as a person’s achievements and skills grow.” The biggest difference between a professional portfolio and an educational portfolio is that while the professional version showcases the best of an individual’s skills, the educational portfolio represents the range of a learner’s skills, from the beginning to the best.

Using a portfolio assessment, teachers have the opportunity to engage learners in assessing their progress towards meeting learning goals. Student self-assessment skills are one of the goals of using portfolios. This collaborative approach creates a link between assessment, teaching and learning. Rather than the flurry before family/teacher conferences to collect samples of student work, the ongoing use of portfolios allows students to collect, review, evaluate, and continually chart their learning progress so they can discuss where they are as learners.

Using portfolios makes the most sense when they are an integral aspect of instruction. Learners complete a personal appraisal of their work, then meet with the teacher for a portfolio conference. Comparing early work to later work helps learners identify growth and challenges, providing fodder for new goals.

Popham (2018) outlines key ingredients in classroom portfolio assessment. The portfolio assessment starts with learners needing to “own” their portfolios. It’s important to teach students what portfolios are and aren’t. Talking about what gets graded and doesn’t and teaching learners to self-assess will be critical to building ownership.

  • Decide what kind of work samples to collect. Making this a collaborative conversation with learners can go a long way towards building their ownership of the process and their portfolio.
  • Determine criteria to use when evaluating portfolio work samples. Collaboratively with students, establish a set of criteria to use in determining what work goes into a portfolio. (Don't be surprised if you end up with something like a rubric.)
  • Establish a routine where learners evaluate their portfolio products on an ongoing basis. Using the established criteria learners can regularly appraise their work (and growth). Making these routine self-assessments an integrated part of classroom practice helps build students' muscles when it comes to self-assessment and looking for growth.
  • Schedule (and conduct) portfolio conferences. While these conferences take time, they provide an opportunity for you and your students to evaluate their work. Both of you get to hone students’ self-evaluation skills.
  • Involve family in the portfolio assessment process. Make sure your students' families understand the portfolio assessment process – the what, why and how of the process. Encourage families to review students' portfolios and listen to their learner explain the self-assessment of their work.

Portfolios allow teachers and learners to 1) document the student learning process, 2) showcase the learner’s progress, and 3) evaluate the learner’s accomplishments. Teachers need to decide which of these will be the focus of portfolios in their classroom. It is equally important to remember that some content lends itself more readily to portfolios than others.

Effective communication (written and oral) and being able to self-assess are survival skills in both school and the world of work. Portfolio assessment provides a safe, collaborative way in supporting learners to learn, practice and increase these skills.


Classroom Assessment: What Teachers Need to Know: Popham, W.