Portfolios as a Type of Assessment

e-Portfolios as a Type of Assessment
Dr. Terry Powell

e-Portfolios are hardly a new instrument of assessing learning. The history of portfolios as a form of assessment and their popularity in classroom-based learning suggest that portfolios exemplify a unique, complex, and extremely effective mechanism of assessing students’ progress towards their learning objectives. This, in turn, raises the question of appropriate portfolio use in higher education and their potential usability in distance education. This is why a detailed review of literature can expose the main benefits of portfolio assessments in different learning settings and identify possible uses of portfolios as a form of assessment.

Portfolios are believed to have far-reaching implications for learners’ self-efficacy and comprehension. Here, special attention should be paid to the place which portfolios occupy in the contemporary visions of learning as a constructive activity. The relationship between portfolios, constructivism, self-efficacy and comprehension needs professional attention. Theories of Albert Bandura (1986), Jean Piaget (1967), Vygotsky (1978) and Mezirow (1981) should both create the basis and serve an analytical lens for the present study. All these theories used to be extremely popular among earlier researchers, especially in the self-efficacy and comprehension domains. The task of this review is to link earlier findings to the study of portfolio assessments. Undoubtedly, portfolio assessments have a great future in distance education, but systemic knowledge of research findings can ensure that the assessment and learning potentials of portfolios are utilized to the fullest.



History of portfolio assessments. The history of portfolio assessments is inseparable from the history of assessment, in general. The history of assessment in U.S. education dates back to the middle of the 19th century, when assessment emerged in K-12 education (Buzzetto-More, 2007). At that time, Horace Mann, a pioneer of assessment, used the first written examinations to measure learners’ progress in Massachusetts (Buzzetto-More, 2007). By the 1920s, a broad scientific movement emerged, leading to the development and implementation of large-scale testing which, by the middle of the 1960s, transformed into the National Assessment of Education Progress (Buzzetto-More, 2007). In higher education, the movement to develop accreditation mechanisms for higher education institutions coincided with and drove the first models of measuring educational outcomes (Buzzetto-More, 2007). Even today, electronic portfolios are used for accreditation purposes, from the unit to institutional levels (Meyer & Latham, 2008). Here, Buzzetto-More (2007) suggests that Northeast Missouri State University and Alverno College were the first to develop assessment models to meet the evaluation needs of outcome-based instruction. Today, assessment is considered as an integral piece of higher education processes and a mechanism that ensures that students achieve their learning goals (Buzzetto-More, 2007). The goals of assessment in present day higher education include: (1) improve student learning; (2) help students to identify their strengths and weaknesses; (3) review and improve the quality of instructional and teaching strategies; (4) improve teaching effectiveness; (5) review and improve curricula activities and programs; (6) provide administrative data to support decision making; and (7) develop effective communication channels with stakeholders (Buzzetto-More, 2007). Since portfolios are an important type of assessment, all these goals and procedures also apply to them.

According to J.O. Brown (2001), portfolios were first used in higher education 25 years ago and, since then, tens of thousands of adult learners have developed their own learning portfolios to get college credits and successfully complete their degrees. The term “portfolio” originates from the graphic arts, where portfolios were used to collect evidence to confirm that the act of learning has taken place (Snadden & Thomas, 1998). Today, portfolios are being extensively used in almost all disciplines, to document the learning progress (Snadden & Thomas, 1998). Portfolios may include records of experiences and events, critical reviews of articles, descriptions of teaching sessions attended by adult learners, projects in which adult learners participated, etc. (Snadden & Thomas, 1998). Portfolios enable adult learners to identify and reflect on the weakest and strongest sides of their learning progress, describe what they have learned and what they still need to learn, as well as possible ways to deal with new learning (Snadden & Thomas, 1998). However, Snadden and Thomas (1998) note that portfolio assessments work best when they are implemented and operate through continuous interactions between learners and instructors. Interactivity is the main prerequisite for turning portfolio assessments into a driver of continuous learning (Snadden & Thomas, 1998).

The history of portfolio use in American education is integrally linked to the name of John Dewey, who is often considered to be one of the first proponents of reflective thinking in education (Snadden & Thomas, 1998). Dewey’s contribution to popularization of portfolio assessments can hardly be overstated. Portfolio assessments were developed specifically to enhance, motivate and encourage reflection in education (Snadden & Thomas, 1998). Today, portfolios can be defined as “a purposeful collection of student work that exhibits the student’s efforts, progress and achievements in one or more areas” (Snadden & Thomas, 1998, p.193). However, like everything else in education, portfolios are susceptible to the effects of technological advancement. The term “electronic portfolio” is gradually replacing traditional forms of portfolio assessments. Batson (2002) writes that the term “ePortfolio” has already become commonplace. ePortfolio is essentially the same as traditional portfolio assessments, but it makes the entire process of learning much more convenient for learners and, simultaneously, meets the changeable demands of the technological reality (Batson, 2002). Based on what Batson (2002) writes, ePortfolios expand learners’ reflective capabilities, through the inclusion of graphic content, audio and video instruments, and even animation. This is probably why ePortfolios are becoming so popular in higher education.

Common use of portfolios. A wealth of research has been completed to identify the best and most appropriate ways of using portfolio assessments. In the context of the present study, portfolio assessments in higher education present the issue of the major concern. Klenowski et al. (2006) write that, as of today, portfolio assessments can be found in virtually all phases of professional education and development. In higher education, portfolios are often used for the purpose of summative assessment (Klenowski et al., 2006). However, the body of research regarding the use of portfolios in formative assessment is increasingly scarce (Klenowski et al., 2006). Nevertheless, in higher education, as well as in other learning environments; portfolio development and use is underpinned by the constructivist and dialogic theoretical constructs (Klenowski et al., 2006). The emphasis on knowledge construction in all fields of adult development and learning emphasize the value of portfolios as a form of summative assessment.

Portfolio assessments are being extensively used in health and medical education. Grant et al. (2007) explored students’ perceptions of event analysis and portfolio assessment in medical learning. Driessen, Tartwijk, Vermunt and Vleuten (2004) analyzed the use of portfolios in undergraduate medical training and confirmed that portfolio assessments could become a unique and extremely useful supplement to traditional assessment models. Plaza et al. (2007) analyzed how reflective portfolios could be used in health sciences education and concluded that, despite the considerable advantages offered by portfolio assessments, the fundamental issues of their validity and reliability remained. By contrast, Kuper, Reeves, Albert and Hodges (2007) assert that reflective portfolios fit perfectly well in the purpose and nature of medical education, as there is growing understanding that medical education is better delivered through a set of social constructs. Medical education, as well as education in general, is no longer an individual process but, rather, a product of continuous interactions between two or more individuals and groups (Kuper et al., 2007). In social sciences, ideas about how people act are always culture- and context-specific, and only portfolio assessments can give professional educators a chance to understand the nature and implications of these behaviors (Kuper et al., 2007). Additionally, portfolios have been used and analyzed in postgraduate education (Tochel et al., 2009), as a tool of reflective learning in initial teacher education (Chetcuti, 2007), as well as the instrument of literacy assessment (Walsh, 2009) and a useful tool of assessing second language learning (Cummins & Davesne, 2009).

In today’s learning environments, the use of web-based portfolio assessments is becoming a popular topic of professional discussion. As education, including higher education, is moving towards online spaces, professional educators are becoming preoccupied with the task of developing web-based assessment forms. Chang and Tseng (2009) analyzed the effects of web-based portfolio assessments on students’ performance in junior high school and found that online portfolios improved students’ reflection, goal setting and problem solving capabilities. Barbera (2009) further supported those results, by stating that e-portfolios and netfolios offered students a better understanding of the learning process, learning objectives, through self-revision and participation in peer assessment.

In the qualitative analysis of electronic portfolios by Fitch, Peet, Reed and Tolman (2008), students reported that portfolios helped them to organize their thoughts, tie initially separated elements of their learning experiences into a coherent body of learning, make sense of other classes, although the electronic nature of portfolios made it difficult for many students to work with them. It seems that portfolios can be universally applied across a variety of learning contexts, although certain problems and limitations should not be disregarded. For example, Lucas (2007) writes that portfolio assessments represent an interesting self-evaluation scheme that enables students with various linguistic problems to address the existing deficiencies, through self-autonomy and learned independence, but only when portfolio assessment instruments are properly developed and appropriately applied. According to Lucas (2007), the process of developing portfolios consists of four stages: collection, selection, reflection and projection. However, whatever the nature and application of the assessment instrument, it is always rooted in the constructivist learning framework and reflects the growing urgency of comprehension constructs in higher education.

Portfolio assessments and self-efficacy. Portfolio assessments are rooted in the constructivist philosophy (Klenowski et al., 2006). Portfolios as an instrument of assessing learning reflect “a shift from a stress on individual responsibility for learning to a more collaborative view, allowing learners to identify issues in their organization and society which affect their learning and well-being” (Klenowski et al., 2006, p.269). It is through the prism of the constructivist philosophy that the link between portfolio assessment and students’ self-efficacy can be better understood. Researchers offer an insight into the effects of portfolios on self-efficacy in learning.

Understanding the relationship between self-efficacy and portfolio assessments is important, since higher learner self-efficacy beliefs are fundamental to the professional maturation of students (Jones, 2009). Learner self-efficacy further predetermines higher motivation and better learning outcome expectations (Jones, 2009). Self-efficacy in learners is closely related to personal responsibility, effective goal setting and transformations: Jones (2009) suggests that self-efficient learners are transformative learners, who assume personal control over their learning progress. Through the prism of Bandura and Mezirow’s theories, self-efficacy drives the rapid transformation of the learning process, turning learners into both producers and products of their social environment (Jones, 2009).

Students construct their perceptions of self-efficacy through the nature and form of assessments used to evaluate their learning progress (Brown & Hirschfield, 2008). Students perceive assessment in four different ways: they may feel that assessments make them accountable; they may think that assessment is unfair and, therefore, irrelevant; they may perceive assessment as a good way to improve learning; or they may experience the sense of joy about particular forms of assessment. According to Strivens (2007), students feel that e-portfolio systems support formal learning, overall development, summative assessment, and transition to a different learning environment. In other words, portfolio assessments drive student’ self-efficacy, by creating a reflective dialogue between students and instructors and letting students express their achievements and concerns openly and constructively (Hayatdavoudi & Ansari, 2011).

Portfolio assessments have the potential to drive students’ self-efficacy, since they create an atmosphere of learner-driven education; the latter is the foundational ingredient of the constructivist philosophy (Sajadi & Khan, 2011). Portfolios are fully compatible with the principles of active learning, which represents learners as those who have capability to realize mental processing through creativity and exploration (Sajadi & Khan, 2011). In this sense, the benefits of using portfolios to assess learners’ knowledge cannot be ignored. Portfolios have proved to be extremely effective in the construction and analysis of learning in ADHD students (Sajadi & Khan, 2011). Specific to ADHD students Mayer (2001) stated, “humans can process information into different channels of auditory/verbal and pictorial/visual” (p. 659 as cited in Sajadi & Khan, 2011). In other words, by creating a portfolio, ADHD students or participants of this study now have a visual aid of their work in progress. Portfolios raise students’ self-efficacy by reducing their anxiety in writing (Ozturk & Cecen, 2007). As an instrument and medium of storytelling, portfolios play an important role in the development of learners’ literacy (Wan & Tanimoto, 2008). Students using portfolios to assess their knowledge experience greater satisfaction, being active participants of the learning process and able to reflect upon their progress (Wang & Liao, 2008). In these constructivist learning environments, portfolios help learners to manage learning and foster the evolution of lifelong learning priorities and skills (Little, 2009).

Loyens and Gijbels (2008) claim that there is still a huge gap between the constructivist philosophy and educational practices. The fact that constructivism manifests in a number of ways and has more than one theoretical position makes it difficult to narrow the gap between educational practice and theory (Loyens & Gijbels, 2008). Despite these difficulties, constructivism remains the dominant educational philosophy, and portfolio assessments look like a perfect element fitting in the constructivism atmosphere of knowledge delivery in higher education.

Portfolios and comprehension. As previously mentioned, comprehension remains one of the most problematic elements of portfolio analysis in research, due to the fact that its meaning is often interpreted in quantitative terms. However, given the topic of this study, the relationship between portfolios and comprehension has to be better understood. Recent studies highlight the crucial role of portfolio assessments in driving students’ comprehension in different learning settings. As always, comprehension is understood in terms of Bloom’s taxonomy and implies the process of translating and interpreting new knowledge, through project participation and presentations, demonstrations and explanations, as well as criticism (Todorova & Mills, 2007). Here, the body of literature covering the relation of portfolio assessments to comprehension can be roughly divided into two categories: first, whether or not portfolios improve comprehension and, second, how exactly portfolio assessments can drive better comprehension of the learning material.

Here, Conrad (2008) recognizes the potential of portfolio assessments to enhance the quality of learning and students’ progress. Taking Dewey’s educational philosophy as the basis, portfolio assessments promote real-world learning and help adult learners in distance education to master the new knowledge through reflective learning (Conrad, 2008). From the viewpoint of Mezirow’s theory, portfolio assessments emphasize educators’ role in learning as helping students to engage in reflective thinking and helping them to redefine their understandings and insights (Conrad, 2008). Portfolio assessments are also recognized as a unique instrument of building collaborative ties and building schoolwide comprehension instruction (Au, Raphael & Mooney, 2008). Kariman and Moafi (2011) emphasize the positive effects of portfolio assessments on comprehension in prenatal training for midwives. Ha (2010) discovered that portfolio assessment improved learners’ self-expression capability in English learning. An important question is how exactly portfolio assessments improve comprehension.

Several ways are possible. Fox, White, Kidd and Ritchie (2008) write that examining portfolio contents brings both students and educators towards better understanding of students’ learning practices and decisions. The results of portfolio assessments can further inform instructional and curriculum decisions in higher education (Fox et al., 2008). Brown and Hirschfield (2007) further suggest that portfolio assessments keep students accountable for their own learning progress, loading students positively to seek achievement. Based on the self-regulation theory, students who assume responsibility for their learning have greater chances to attain to the desired learning objectives (Brown & Hirschfield, 2007). Leu et al. (2009) contend that the Internet expands learning frontiers and defines new boundaries of learning and literacy in the twenty-first century; this being said, it is possible to assume that e-portfolios will become the defining feature of learning assessments in the digital age.
Yet, the link between portfolio assessments and comprehension is not without controversy. Lafontaine and Monseur (2009) suggest the presence of a serious gender gap for open-ended questions used to measure comprehension through portfolio assessments. Another question is whether the responsibility and self-regulatory learning through portfolio assessments benefits learners. Settlage, Southerland, Smith and Ceglie (2009) make an interesting suggestion that not confidence but self-doubts are the basic driver of self-efficacy and comprehension in learning. Settlage et al. (2009) further claim that the importance of self-doubts in learning comprehension confirms the soundness of Dewey’s assumptions that uncertainty is the fundamental element of knowing and learning.

In summary, portfolio assessments have a long history. Portfolios are becoming increasingly popular in learning, including higher education. Originating from graphic arts courses, portfolios slowly transcend to cover other learning settings and environments. Portfolios are used in medical education, health and language learning. If properly developed and implemented, portfolio assessments have the potential to raise self-efficacy and improve comprehension in all groups of learning, through reflective thinking, responsibility and self-control.


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