Using Portfolios in Program Assessment

On this page:

  1. What is a portfolio?
  2. Portfolios as a data-collection method for assessment
  3. Advantages and disadvantages
  4. Creating and designing portfolios
  5. Questions to ask before adopting portfolios
  6. E-Portfolios
  7. Links: universities implementing portfolios; online portfolios
  8. E-portfolio software and review

1. What is a portfolio?

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A portfolio is a systematic collection of student work that represents student activities, accomplishments, and achievements over a specific period of time in one or more areas of the curriculum. There are two main types of portfolios:

Showcase Portfolios: Students select and submit their best work. The showcase portfolio emphasizes the products of learning.
Developmental Portfolios: Students select and submit pieces of work that can show evidence of growth or change over time. The growth portfolio emphasizes the process of learning.

STUDENTS’ REFLECTIVE ESSAY: In both types of portfolios, students write reflective essays or introductory memos to the faculty/assessment committee to explain the work and reflect on how the collection demonstrates their accomplishments, explains why they selected the particular examples, and/or describes changes in their knowledge/ability/attitude.

2. Portfolios as a data-collection method for assessment

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Portfolios can be created for course assessment as well as program assessment. Although the content may be similar, the assessment process is different.

Course Portfolio Program Portfolio
Course portfolios contain products of student learning within a course, within a single term. Program portfolios draw from several courses, extracurricular activities, internships, and other experiential learning related to the program. Program portfolios can serve the same purpose as an exit exam: provide evidence of the cumulative effect of the program.
Students include items from a single course. Students select items from multiple courses and may be required to submit items from co-curricular activities, internships, employment, etc.
Students write a reflective essay or cover memo to explain the portfolio and their learning. Students write a reflective essay or cover memo to explain the portfolio and their learning.
All students in a single course participate. All students in the program participate.
Course instructor scores portfolio by using a scoring rubric(s). Multiple faculty members, not the instructor, score the portfolio by using a scoring rubric(s).
Usually every item and every student’s portfolio is scored. Either all portfolios or a sample of portfolios is scored. In some cases, particular items are scored from the portfolio.

3. Advantages and disadvantages

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Advantages of a portfolio

  • Enables faculty to assess a set of complex tasks, including interdisciplinary learning and capabilities, with examples of different types of student work.
  • Helps faculty identify curriculum gaps, a lack of alignment with outcomes.
  • Promotes faculty discussions on student learning, curriculum, pedagogy, and student support services.
  • Encourages student reflection on their learning. Students may come to understand what they have and have not learned.
  • Provides students with documentation for job applications or applications to graduate school.

Disadvantages of a portfolio

  • Faculty time required to prepare the portfolio assignment and assist students as they prepare them. Logistics are challenging.
  • Students must retain and compile their own work, usually outside of class. Motivating students to take the portfolio seriously may be difficult.
  • Transfer students may have difficulties meeting program-portfolio requirements.
  • Storage demands can overwhelm (which is one reason why e-portfolios are chosen).

4. Using portfolios in assessment

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Showcase portfolio: Consider starting with one assignment plus a reflective essay from a senior-level course as a pilot project. A faculty group evaluates the “mini-portfolios” using a rubric. Use the results from the pilot project to guide faculty decisions on adding to or modifying the portfolio process.
Developmental portfolio: Consider starting by giving a similar assignment in two sequential courses: e.g., students write a case study in a 300-level course and again in a 400-level course. In the 400-level course, students also write a reflection based on their comparison of the two case studies. A faculty group evaluates the “mini-portfolios” using a rubric. Use the results to guide the faculty members as they modify the portfolio process.

Suggested steps:

  1. Determine the purpose of the portfolio. Decide how the results of a portfolio evaluation will be used to inform the program.
  2. Identify the learning outcomes the portfolio will address.Tip: Identify at least 6 course assignments that are aligned with the outcomes the portfolio will address. Note: When planning to implement a portfolio requirement, the program may need to modify activities or outcomes in courses, the program, or the institution.
  3. Decide what students will include in their portfolio. Portfolios can contain a range of items–plans, reports, essays, resume, checklists, self-assessments, references from employers or supervisors, audio and video clips. In a showcase portfolio, students include work completed near the end of their program. In a developmental portfolio, students include work completed early and late in the program so that development can be judged.Tip: Limit the portfolio to 3-4 pieces of student work and one reflective essay/memo.
  4. Identify or develop the scoring criteria (e.g., a rubric) to judge the quality of the portfolio.Tip: Include the scoring rubric with the instructions given to students (#6 below).
  5. Establish standards of performance and examples (e.g., examples of a high, medium, and low scoring portfolio).
  6. Create student instructions that specify how students collect, select, reflect, format, and submit.Tip: Emphasize to students the purpose of the portfolio and that it is their responsibility to select items that clearly demonstrate mastery of the learning outcomes.
    Emphasize to faculty that it is their responsibility to help students by explicitly tying course assignments to portfolio requirements.

Collect – Tell students where in the curriculum or co-curricular activities they will produce evidence related to the outcomes being assessed.
Select – Ask students to select the evidence. Instruct students to label each piece of evidence according to the learning outcome being demonstrated.
Reflect – Give students directions on how to write a one or two-page reflective essay/memo that explains why they selected the particular examples, how the pieces demonstrate their achievement of the program outcomes, and/or how their knowledge/ability/attitude changed.
Format –Tell students the format requirements (e.g., type of binder, font and style guide requirements, online submission requirements).
Submit – Give submission (and pickup) dates and instructions.

  1. A faculty group scores the portfolios using the scoring criteria. Use examples of the standards of performance to ensure consistency across scoring sessions and readers.Tip: In large programs, select a random sample of portfolios to score (i.e., do not score every portfolio).
  2. Share the results and use them to improve the program.

5. Questions to consider before adopting a portfolio requirement

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  • What is the purpose of the portfolio requirement? To document student learning? Demonstrate student development? Learn about students’ reflections on their learning? Create a document useful to students? Help students grow through personal reflection on their personal goals?
  • Will portfolios be showcase or developmental?
  • When and how will students be told about the requirement, including what materials they need to collect or to produce for it?
  • What are the minimum and maximum lengths or sizes for portfolios?
  • Who will decide which materials will be included in portfolios- -faculty or students?
  • What elements will be required in the portfolio- -evidence only from courses in the discipline, other types of evidence, evidence directly tied to learning outcomes, previously graded products or clean copies?
  • Will students be graded on the portfolios? If so, how and by whom?
  • How will the portfolios be assessed to evaluate and improve the program?
  • What can be done for students who have inadequate evidence through no fault of their own? (E.g., transfer students)
  • What will motivate students to take the portfolio requirement seriously?
  • How will the portfolio be submitted–hard copy or electronic copy?
  • Who “owns” the portfolios–students or the program/university? If the program/university owns them, how long will the portfolios be retained after the students graduate?
  • Who has access to the portfolios and for what purposes?
  • How will student privacy and confidentiality be protected?

6. E-portfolios (electronic portfolios)

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Traditional portfolios consist of papers in a folder. Electronic or “e-portfolios” consist of documents stored electronically. Electronic portfolios offer rich possibilities for learning and assessment, with the added dimension of technology.

  • Critical considerations
    • What about an electronic portfolio is central to the assessment?
    • Who is the audience for the portfolio? Will that audience have the hardware, software, skills, time, and inclination to access the portfolio electronically?
    • Does the institution have the hardware and software in place to create portfolios electronically? If not, what will it cost and who will install it? Does the institution have the IT/technical staff to support e-portfolios?
  • What is the current level of computer skills of the students and faculty members involved in this project? Who will teach them how to use the technology necessary to create and view electronic portfolios?
  • E-Portfolio Advantages:
    • Easy to share with multiple readers simultaneously.
    • Allows for asynchronous use for both students and faculty.
    • Allows for multi-media product submissions.
    • Offers search strategies for easy access to materials.
    • Makes updating entries easier.
    • Creating navigational links may help students see how their experiences interrelate.
    • Provides students the opportunity to improve as well as demonstrate their technology skills.
    • Allows faculty to remain in touch with students after graduation if the portfolio can become students’ professional portfolio.
  • E-Portfolio Disadvantages:
    • Time is needed to master the software. Students may not have sufficient computer skills to showcase their work properly.
    • Faculty and students may be reluctant to learn a new software program.
    • Requires IT expertise and support for both students and faculty.
    • Cost associated with developing an in-house platform or the purchase of a commercial product may be expensive.
    • Cost associated with maintaining portfolio software. Ongoing support and training are necessary.
    • An external audience may not have access to proprietary software. Proprietary software may hinder portability.
    • Requires large amounts of computer space.
    • Privacy and security. Who will have access to the portfolio?

7. Links to universities implementing portfolios

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Truman State University:

Penn State:

University of Denver:

8. Electronic portfolio software

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Laulima Open Source Portfolio. Laulima has an Open Source Portfolio (OSP) tool option. Contact UH ITS for information about turning on this tool.

List of E-Portfolio Software & ToolsePortfolio-related Tools and Technologies wiki.

Sources Consulted: