Number one for English language teachers

Assessment matters: Portfolios

Type: Article, Reference material

Adrian Tennant explains how student portfolios can be organized and maintained, and outlines some of the advantages and disadvantages of using them for assessment.

What is a portfolio?

When I studied art at school, many moons ago, we used to keep a 'portfolio' of our work. Basically, it was a collection of everything we’d done over a two-year period. The idea was that rather than being assessed on a one-off exam where we might perform exceptionally well, or incredibly poorly, we would be assessed on a body of our work. Portfolios are intended to show development and progress and so should not simply contain the latest or best pieces, but rather a cross-section of work.

How can it be organized and maintained?

The Common European Framework suggests that a portfolio should consist of three parts: a passport, a language portfolio and a dossier.

The passport should be an overview with personal information, plus a record of any assessment carried out. This should clearly indicate when any assessment took place; what the assessment was, i.e. a test, written homework, project, etc; who assessed the work, i.e. peers, self-assessment, teacher assessment, etc; and the result.

The language portfolio is a reflection and planning tool to aid learning. In it, students should look back at the work they have done, make comments and think about how they could improve on it. They could also set themselves learning targets, e.g. I think I need to improve my vocabulary. To do this I’m going to read more and keep a vocabulary record.

Finally, the dossier is a collection of work illustrating the development of the student. It is good to decide on the number of pieces to be included, e.g. three tests, four pieces of homework and three pieces of classwork. These pieces of work should span the entire period and should not be simply the work produced towards the end of the course. One way to organize this is to divide the period into three or four ‘blocks’ and suggest that there be an example of homework, classwork and one test from each ‘block’.

Ultimately, the best people to look after portfolios are the students themselves. However, to start with, the idea behind them needs to be clearly explained and a set of criteria regarding the selected work needs to be agreed.

How can it help with assessment?

If we agree that assessment is about seeing the progress our students make and not simply looking at where they are at one particular point of a course (usually the end), then a portfolio becomes a very useful tool. It gives a clear record of the progress a student has made and also allows a student a degree of control over what is assessed. We could even go as far as to say that it gives the student some responsibility for their own learning.

What are the advantages?

The first advantage is that the assessment becomes both fairer and also more accurate. Reliable and valid are two key terms often used when discussing assessment, and a portfolio meet both of these requirements. Portfolios are reliable (more so than some more traditional modes of assessment) because they give a broader picture of what a student is capable of doing. They are valid, in that they aim to look at progress; by giving the student the opportunity to include work from across a period of time, portfolios are more likely to achieve this aim than a single exam.

The second advantage of a portfolio is that it can, and should, give a clearer indication of the progress a student is making. It shows a record of learning and working processes rather than simply a one-off final product.

Thirdly, by giving students responsibility for maintaining their own portfolio it encourages learner independence and autonomy, both things that are seen as positive. It gives students an opportunity to look back over their own work and learn from their own mistakes. It encourages reflection and focuses on the idea of learning as a process that takes time.

And disadvantages?

Are there any? Well, yes. As with anything there are potential weaknesses that could result in portfolios being less effective than intended.

For example, unless the criteria is absolutely clear as to what portfolios are and what they should contain, they could become simply a collection of bits of students' work, or just the best pieces. Some people are worried about including pieces of work that aren’t their best. This can lead to only the latest pieces being included, which in turn devalues the portfolio as a record of progress and development.

There is also a danger that some students might not put the effort into keeping their portfolios up-to-date. This would then not be an accurate record of the student’s ability, work or progress, although there is an argument that it does reflect their attitude and effort, which are also important factors that need to be considered in an assessment.

Another disadvantage is that some students may expect the teacher to update the portfolio for them, leading to an increased workload for the teacher. However, in my experience most students take pride in their portfolios and the sense of ownership actually prevents this from occurring too frequently.

Finally, on a practical level there is a question of storage. If students are to keep them at home this will mean carrying them back and forth and will increase the possibility that work will be lost or damaged. However, keeping the portfolios in the classroom may not be feasible as they can take up a considerable amount of space in addition to the issue of access and security. One answer to this is to store students' work digitally (non-digital work could be photographed or scanned). However, where these digital files are stored and who has access to them is a question that needs to be thought through before portfolios are introduced.

Conclusion

Portfolios are only one assessment tool among many. I would not advocate an approach which only used portfolios as a way of assessing students, but I do think that they can be extremely useful. I also think it is important to highlight that portfolios can include other forms of assessment work as part of the passport and dossier. In other words, any tests that are carried out can be recorded in the passport even if they are not included in the dossier. Including the work or recording the mark in the portfolio does not preclude the teacher from keeping their own record.

So, if you haven’t tried portfolios out, why not give them a go and see what you, and your students, think of them after a year or so.

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