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When I was a senior in high school, our AP Government teacher chose not to give us a final exam for the end of the first semester. Instead, we would create our own portfolios. Our portfolios had to include what we had learned and what questions we still had. Our teacher asked us to reflect on both the finished products and the learning process. We would then need to end with our goals for the upcoming semester. Beyond that basic set of criteria, students had the freedom to design their portfolios in a way that reflected their creative voice.

I created a highly visual portfolio book in a style that fell somewhere between journal, scrapbook, and a choose-your-own-adventure book. I drew cartoons on the side and included sketchnotes of core concepts I had learned. I chose a chronological approach. A friend of mine created a website on Geocities and it was everything you would imagine with flashing .gifs and low resolution scanned photos of his work. My twin brother was the only one who chose an audio option. He recorded an NPR spoof called Stale Air, where he did his best to create a breathy, toned-down NPR voice as he interviewed himself reflecting on his work. My brother spent hours splicing together the audio and creating various accents for the news reports, fake interviews, and the David Bianculli-inspired review of his work.

Things have changed since then. Students can craft digital portfolios with embedded multimedia rather than relying on flashing .gifs. They can craft a portfolio podcast without splicing together audio on dual tape decks. It is easier than ever for students to create authentic portfolios where they share their work and reflect on their learning.

And yet, for all the changes in the technology, portfolios are essentially timeless. I may not need to make tacky websites with heavily pixilated .gifs but I continue to reflect on my learning and set goals for the future. I continue to share my learning journey.

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The Power of Student Portfolios

When we think of assessment, it’s easy to imagine a test or a rubric attached to a letter grade and a point value. However, in many industries, from art to engineering to marketing, people demonstrate their proficiency with portfolios. These portfolios demonstrate the creative craftsmanship and unique skills people have attained. However, these portfolios can also tell a story about one’s journey in learning a particular craft. While transcripts and resumes provide a list of accomplishments, a portfolio includes direct, tangible evidence that people can explore when choosing a team or hiring a new employee.

Similarly, students can craft portfolios to showcase their work, reflect on their learning, and set goals for the future. In doing so, they have the opportunity to own the assessment process:

The portfolio process helps students reflect on their learning, set goals for the future, and plan their next steps. This can help improve their metacognition. We know that metacognition is vital for learning. It’s what happens when we analyze tasks, set of goals, implement strategies, and reflect on what we’re learning. But how does metacognition actually work? Well, the authors of How Learning Works describe it as a cycle.

Students can also gain confidence as they share their work with the larger world. A portfolio can be an opportunity to say, “This is my creative voice and I am not afraid to be known.” In some classes, students might share their portfolio with their teacher and their family. Other times, they might share their portfolio with the larger classroom community. In a virtual or hybrid course, you might ask students to present in small groups or run a larger virtual community celebration.

However, you might ask students to share their portfolio with the larger world.  This can help students develop iterative thinking as they improve in their work. This can help students develop a growth mindset. Often, students gain confidence and learn to take creative risks. As they listen to feedback from the larger community, students become more empathetic and humble.

Five Ways to Get the Most Out of Student Portfolios

The following are five ways to get the most out of student portfolio projects. I’ve also created a sketch video on this topic. You can check it out below.

  1. Let students choose the platform. Some students might prefer a blog because of the ability to create multiple tags and to organize things topically and chronologically. A blog has the additional advantage of allowing comments. However, others might prefer a website for the clarity and simplicity it offers. Still, others might create a blog post and share their reflections as they go. In this case, the portfolio is more of an ongoing record rather than a summative assessment. Another variation of this might be a video series where students walk the viewer through their work with voice overs, screencasts, and “talking head” style videos. Still, others might take snapshots of their work and do an annotated slideshow. Although these are all digital options, students might create a physical portfolio or a scrapbook and then present a digital variation of the physical artifact. In some cases, students might blend together elements from different platforms. Here, a student might do a portfolio blog with video and audio reflections embedded. The key thing is for students to decide on which platforms work best for them. This isn’t a “learning style” issue. Research has demonstrated that there is no such thing as a visual learner or auditory learner. Instead, this is about empowering students to select a style and approach that fits with their personal preferences.
  2. Encourage students to own the organizational structure. Students might organize things topically or chronologically. Or they might create a chronological portfolio that they break down into different categories, including best work, growth, and next steps. As a teacher, you might want to find exemplars from outside the K-12 domain and encourage students to assess the pros and cons of different organizational structures before developing their own structure. This process works well for secondary students but for primary grade students it might work best to create the organizational structure for the students at first.
  3. Have students reflect on both the learning process and the final products. While we tend to think of portfolios as a chance to demonstrate one’s best work, it’s also an opportunity to tell a story. Students can share examples of growth and improvement. They might reflect on the strategies they used, the problems they solved, and the challenges they faced along the way. As the teacher, you might provide students with sample questions they can use to guide the reflection process.
  4. Choose a variety of work. Students might include their best work, their favorite work, and the work that demonstrated the most growth. Another option might be for students to select key works from different weeks in the semester and use that as a way to explain their mastery and reflect on their growth.
  5. Don’t wait until the end of the year to start the portfolio process. Integrate the portfolio project into your unit plans. Carve out time on certain days to have students select work and create reflections. This might seem challenging in a virtual environment. However, it’s the kind of activity that students can do asynchronously. Later, they might explain the items they selected in small group conversations via the breakout room function in a video chat. The goal should be to use portfolios as a part of the formative self-assessment process rather than waiting to do portfolios at the end of the year or the end of the semester.

Portfolios should not feel like a chore or a hoop that students have to jump through. Instead, they are a celebration of student learning and a chance to reflect on their learning. The more they can own this process, the more likely they will be to engage in deeper reflection and put in the mental effort of analyzing their work and planning out next steps. Teachers can facilitate this process with a Digital Portfolio Project.

Digital Portfolio Projects

The following is a sample structure for creating digital portfolios. I wrote about it in my most book Empowered at a Distance. For this type of portfolio, I encourage students to think about the product and the process through a lens of growth and mastery. Students also look at what they learned along the way and what future steps they want to take.

Time Frame:

I have found that three to five class periods tend to work well. I prefer taking a whole week if it is a yearlong class and taking three days (combining page 1 with 4 and 5, see below) for a semester-long course.

Technology Platform:

Students can create this on an online website creator or a blog. However, they could also take these same components and create video portfolios as well. You might encourage students to select a platform they prefer.

Part 1: Home

The goal of a home page is to introduce who you are, along with the purpose of the portfolio. The following are a few things you might want to include:

  • a photo or snippet of one of your works
  • a short description of who you are, including a few of your interests
  • a list of skills you have gained in this field or subject
  • a description of the purpose of the portfolio (showing your growth and your best work)
  • a short description of your learning journey (What projects did you do? Who did you work with?)

Part 2: Growth

Begin with an introduction sharing how you have grown from the start of the course to the end of the course. Afterward, select at least two before and after examples (a total of four). The following questions might help guide you:

  • Why does this newer work represent an area of growth for you? Cite specific examples of how you have improved.
  • What were the hardest areas for you to master and why?
  • In general, how has your work changed from start to finish?
  • What obstacles did you face? How did you get past those obstacles? How did you grow as a result of facing those obstacles?
  • Which standard or standards does this work connect to? In what ways does it prove you grew in this standard?

Part 3: Best Work

Begin an introduction sharing what part of this course or subject you are currently excelling in. Afterward, select your top three examples of your best work. The following questions might help guide you:

  • Why is this an example of your best work?
  • What aspects of this work make you feel proud? What makes this work stand out?
  • Which standard or standards does this work connect to? In what ways does it prove you are exceeding the standard?
  • Did you find this work to be easy or hard to do? Why is that?
  • What skills did you use in order to create this? In what ways can you build on these skills in the future?
  • What strengths or skills did you discover about yourself?

Part 4: What I Learned

Begin with an introduction to some of the basic skills you have learned. If possible, cite specific standards and your level of mastery. The following questions might help you along the way:

  • What problems did you solve along the way?
  • What skills have you learned? How can you apply these to other subjects?
  • What concepts did you figure out?
  • How did you contribute to group projects? What were your roles? What collaborative skills did you learn along the way?
  • What did you learn about yourself in the process?

Part 5: Next Steps

Share what you plan to do next. The following questions might help you along the way:

  • What are some areas that are still weaknesses for you? What will you do to continue to grow in these areas?
  • What future goals do you have connected to this subject or topic? List the goals and keep them specific.
  • How do you plan to use this in life? Cite actual examples.

Getting Started with Digital Portfolio Projects

When portfolios are an everyday part of the learning process, students can showcase their best work, reflect on their growth, and set new goals for learning targets. Here, students improve their metacognition as they determine where they are in their mastery and what steps they need to take in the future. Ultimately, this leads to deeper thinking and better learning.

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Note: I originally wrote this blog post in 2012 and expanded it again in 2020. This is a more updated version in 2022.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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