Portfolios Research Paper Starter


(Research Starters)

Portfolios are one form of authentic assessment which instructors can use to track their students' progress over the course of a term, a year, or entire education. Portfolios can center on a single subject, or allow students the chance to integrate concepts across subject areas; they can include samples of students' best work, or show the development of a piece of work over time. When implementing a portfolio program, instructors should be sure that students understand how to assemble a portfolio, make sure grading methods and criteria are clear to students and evaluators, and that portfolio contents meet curricular objectives.

Keywords Assessment; Assessment Portfolios; Authentic Assessment; Critical Thinking; Electronic Portfolios; High-Stakes Testing; No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB); Peer Review; Portfolio; Reflection; Rubric; Writing Portfolios



Portfolios are collections of individual students' work which document their performance and growth over a period of time. They are used to support an instruction approach that emphasizes student participation, understanding, and engagement. Unlike traditional assessments, which are given at a particular point in time, the cumulative nature of portfolios provides instructors with a well-rounded, holistic look at student performance. They also give students the chance to practice peer review, and, when they are passed on through grade levels, can familiarize instructors with their new students before the school year even begins, enabling them to better prepare their course of instruction (Lankes, 1998).

Portfolios can be used at any grade level and for any curriculum. However, the grade level should determine how each portfolio is developed. Younger students may need more hands-on assistance and direction, while older students are more apt to be able to soundly judge the quality of their work as well as participate effectively in peer reviews. Older students are also better at charting their progress, staying on track with their projects, and supplementing their portfolios with non-required pieces.

Depending on the purpose of a portfolio, it may include samples of a student's best work alongside self-evaluations, or it may contain projects that have not yet been completed. Additionally, a portfolio may focus on one subject area - such as art, writing, geography, mathematics, and science - or it can integrate competencies across curricular lines. Portfolio contents can and should be adapted to correspond with state standards, school district initiatives, or classroom expectations. Portfolios are also very effective presentation tools for parent-teacher conferences because they can show parents what their children have been working on, how they are progressing, where their strengths lie, and which capacities they still need to develop (Sweet, 2000b).

There is no one right way to develop portfolios. However, if portfolios are going to be used to evaluate achievement across classrooms or schools, then standards need to be developed that decide specifically which types of work will be part of the criteria that will be utilized as reference in order to assess the work. The specifications should also detail how much instructor and/or peer involvement is permissible when revising work and selecting pieces.

Ultimately, all portfolio programs should require students to collect, select, and reflect on their work. It may take a little time for students to become familiar with the process, but improvement should occur over time. It is important that instructors provide students with clear guidelines, examples, or checklists until students become comfortable with the selection and reflection processes. There should also be ample time for discussion and consultation before the reflection and selection processes so that students are well prepared for the processes (Sweet, 2000b). A portfolio program also requires time to plan and develop strategies, as well as resources such as folders, computer disks, appropriate computer programs, file drawers for storage, access to a copy machine, printers (Sweet, 2000b).


Types of Portfolios

There are many different types of portfolios that can be used in an educational setting. The type of portfolio selected depends upon what the portfolio is expected to accomplish. Below is a sampling of different types of portfolios and their potential uses (Lankes, 1998).


Developmental portfolios can be used by instructors who want to document students' progress in a particular subject throughout the school year. This type of portfolio contains samples of students' work as well as their self-evaluations of specific assignments. Developmental portfolios provide specific documentation that can be used for evaluating students, and determining students' strengths and weaknesses. They can also be helpful for parent conferences. Through these portfolios, parents and teachers can see what individual children are learning in a class, how they progressing, what they need to work on, and what they have mastered.


Proficiency portfolios are used to prove mastery in a specific subject area. If properly done, these portfolios can be used as an alternative to high-stakes testing to meet No Child Left Behind Act standards. Some schools require their students to complete multiple portfolios, which demonstrate their competency in a variety of subject areas. A panel of administrators, instructors, parents, and students then uses a set of performance standards and rubrics to evaluate the portfolios.


Showcase portfolios document a student's best work during a school year, over a number of grades, or throughout their entire education. This type of portfolio contains different types of artwork, writing samples, experiments, presentations, or any other work that best represents a student's skills and abilities.

College Admission

This is a type of showcase portfolio which some colleges require of their applicants to give admissions officers a more holistic view of applicants' capabilities as they determine their eligibility for admission. Instructors can help students choose the items most appropriate for this type of portfolio.

Employment Skills

This type of portfolio demonstrates an applicant's job readiness to prospective employers. The contents should reflect a student's problem-solving skills, critical thinking abilities, and proficiency in writing reports and presentations.

Writing Portfolios

Writing portfolios were one of the first uses of portfolios in education. Instructors should create checklists for students to ensure that all required elements are included and in proper order. For example, some checklist questions an instructor might ask of upper elementary or middle school students might be:

• Are all pieces dated and in a logical order?

• Are drafts and revisions clearly documented to show the writing process leading up to the final piece?

• Are examples of different types of writing included?

• Are too many examples or not enough included?

• Are too many pieces representative of the same genre?

• Does the portfolio show how instructor suggestions were incorporated?

• Is a list of current writing strengths and weaknesses included? (Manning, 2000).

Electronic Portfolios

Electronic portfolios are an alternative way to manage portfolio content. These portfolios are stored on a server or a CD-ROM, rather than in a binder or manila folder like traditional portfolios. This approach may require additional instruction and direction from teachers, who should not assume that all of their students have computer access, or are adept with computers or the necessary software.

The development of electronic portfolios is different from the traditional type of portfolio. As with traditional portfolios, instructors should provide their students guidelines for developing the content. However, electronic portfolios make it easier for students to be creative with their presentation. They can add and integrate illustrations, clip art, photographs, audio or video content, and hyperlinks to Internet sites.

Electronic portfolios should be easy to navigate. Therefore, students need to make...

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