3 Reasons to Use Portfolios in Education

Recently, I had the joy of working with a group of colleagues on a task force about portfolios in education, especially as we are finding different groups at the University electing to use different software packages. While our task was largely focused on providing advice on policy and practice in reviewing and selecting portfolio software options, we also took the time to revisit the different reasons why people use portfolios. There are plenty of online resources that review and suggest different electronic portfolio solutions, but I’d like to take time to step back and consider the why of portfolios in education.

Use of portfolios in education has waxed and wanted for decades. Yet, I see three persistent reasons why educators and schools keep coming back to them. While these three reasons are related in that they provide direct evidence of learning and accomplishments, they have three distinct ultimate ends.

Starting in the late 1970s and early 1980s, American K-12 and higher education institutions began to consider the benefits of looking at the potential benefits of portfolios, especially as a tool for nurturing writing. A portfolio of student writing is a way for students to demonstrate progress and development as a writer. It might include early drafts all the way to a refined essay. Add a series of essays and a portfolio serves as a rich source of insight into one’s writing ability and development. The same thing is true for many crafts and skills that one might develop over time. It is helpful to not only know where a person’s skill is at the moment, but also how and to what extent that skill has developed over days, weeks, months, and years.

At the same time, the idea of portfolios has been used in the art and design world, far beyond school settings. If you want a job as a designer, it is one thing to show up with a resume and evidence of some credentials. It is yet another to bring a portfolio of what you have actually designed. Such a portfolio provides direct evidence of your work, skips the middle man of a teacher’s assessment, and gives opportunity for your prospective client or employer to judge for themselves whether your work is a good fit for what they are seeking.

Then, as the role of licensure and standards have developed over the decades, there has been yet another interest in the role of portfolio. This time it was less about progress or even providing direct evidence for a future employer. Instead, the portfolio was about providing direct evidence that you met or meet a set of standards often established by some outside body. A future teacher, for example, might take classes, do observations in schools, and gain direct experience teaching. To be a licensed teacher, this student must show that she meets all the standards established for licensure in a given state. A portfolio has become one way that schools are getting at some of this. Students gather work from courses and teaching experiences to show how they are meeting the standards, often including a narrative with each artifact that explains or defends how a given artifact is evidence of meeting a given standard.

The three paragraphs above represent three distinct uses of portfolios in the past and present.

Portfolios in Education Reason #1 – Show Your Work in Progress

The first is about showing growth and progress. As such, there are often early through final drafts, perhaps including feedback from peers and teachers. It doesn’t just show where you are now. It shows where you have been.

For those educators seeking to see and help learners see their growth over time, this type of a portfolio is a good option.

Portfolios in Education Reason #2 – Show Your Work

The second is a showcase of what you can do. It is less for some assessor in a school and more about building a collection that you can share with others, demonstrating your knowledge, skill and ability. In the digital age, this is often done online, even making it possible for people to discover your work. As we are seeing with LinkedIn and more broadly online, sometimes employers are finding and coming to you instead of the other way away. And as Austin Kleon wrote, “Work, then put it where people can see it…Show your work.” As we show our work to the public, people are more likely to discover it and discover us. This is part of preparing people to take advantage of life and work in a connected world.

This type of portfolio is a great option for any school or educator interested in helping students prepare for life after school.

Portfolios in Education Reason #3 – Show That You Meet the Standards

Then there is that third type of portfolio. This is one where you have a set of standards that you need to meet. You might take tests, write papers, complete projects, have experiences and reflect on them, learn through work and service, design something, or progress through some sort of educational adaptive learning software. You gather the evidence from these disparate sources and put them in a portfolio, showing how the different “artifacts” show that you meet the various standards.

This is a good option for standards-based programs and anyone interested in helping the students own their learning and see how what they are doing aligns with the overall standards.

The three approaches above are also nicely explained as working, showcase, and assessment portfolios in this helpful ASCD article. Or, you can find more about the process portfolio here.