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A portfolio is a collection of artefacts (such as posters and video clips) produced at different stages across a course of study (course or programme). The portfolio may be designed to assess a student’s disciplinary knowledge and understanding, but some elements may also be designed to meet the requirements of professional bodies. The primary assessment may focus on the portfolio as a product, but some marks may be awarded for the student’s ability to demonstrate critical thinking/reflection in an introduction to the portfolio and a conclusion that summarises what the student feels they have learnt. Assessment by portfolio can provide a great deal of flexibility to the course/programme designer. Throughout the process of compiling the portfolio, the student’s understanding of the assessment requirements needs to be checked. Providing these checks are in place assessment by portfolio encourages independent and self-directed learning and enables students to demonstrate time and task management skills.

Advantages of portfolios

  • A portfolio can be used to document how a student actually performs a task.

  • Compiling a portfolio can give students experience of documenting and presenting their achievements – an important communication skill.

  • A portfolio can provide evidence of ‘real-world’ capabilities that students can re-version to gain future study/employment opportunities.

  • Students may view assessment by portfolio as a fairer form of assessment in that they represent work produced over a sustained period and requires a greater range of skills.

  • It is possible to ‘design in’ opportunities for formative assessment that students can see clearly relates to the summative assessment.

Challenges of portfolios

  • Assessing portfolios can be time-consuming, especially if they are designed to generate evidence of skills gained in addition to disciplinary knowledge and understanding.

  • The format of portfolio needs to be outlined in detail and communicated to the students at the beginning of the course of study.

  • There can be a tension between allowing for student choice and creativity and the need to ensure that the assessment of the portfolio is consistent and reliable.

  • The course/programme team may need to supervise the process more closely to ensure that students are engaging continuously with the portfolio production.

  • The potential to over-assess students if the various elements are not balanced

How students might experience portfolios

Producing a portfolio for assessment requires students to invest a considerable amount of time if the student is not to sabotage their chances of success. As such, it is unlikely that students would find this assessment method engaging if the artefacts produced simply replicate more traditional forms of assessment (essays, short answer questions). It would be useful if students were provided with an overview of what kinds of artefacts that might provide the necessary evidence for their portfolios and deadlines by which they should be produced. This overview could take the form of a checklist that students are required to bring with them to seminars/classes for discussion at key points in the course. Where online systems are used to support portfolio production students may be concerned about their technical capabilities and/or the reliability of the systems used. Advice and guidance for teachers on technological affordances of online portfolio production is available from the Eden Digital team. This advice and guidance needs to be communicated to students clearly and at regular intervals throughout their studies.

Reliability, validity, fairness and inclusivity of portfolios

Given the flexibility offered by portfolio assessment it is vital that requirements are linked explicitly to intended learning outcomes. These outcomes need to be operationalised both in terms of criteria and standards. Ideally a comprehensive rubric will be used both to support student assessment literacy and standardise marking. Students can then be required to map the contents of their portfolio to the criteria/outcomes, using a grid or table. The students should then be required to write claims outlining explicitly how they believe their work provides evidence that they have met the criteria or achieved the learning outcomes. Ensuring that students engage in this kind of critical reflection ensure that this mapping exercise is not simply a ‘tick-box’ exercise or descriptive account of portfolio contents. Marking criteria should not only outline minimum requirements, but should place some restrictions on the maximum number/range of components that can be assessed. This is useful in two ways – less time-consuming for assessors and does not discriminate against students who are ‘time poor’ due to circumstances beyond their control. Flexibility in terms of the range of skills that might be assessed and formats of artefacts that might be included means that assessment by portfolio is inherently more inclusive that many other forms of assessment.

How to maintain and ensure rigour in portfolios

Assessors need to be made familiar with portfolio assessment and, ideally, collaborative marking systems should be used to enable greater consistency.   Individual markers should take steps to avoid the problems which affect batch marking, including, for example, the 'halo' effect where one or two positive characteristics of a student overly influence the marker. Rigour can also be maintained through the clarity of weighting/marking criteria of various elements of the portfolio and of the portfolio as a whole.

How to limit possible misconduct in portfolios

Portfolio components (written, oral, graphic etc.) can be linked to learning activities such as groupwork, online contributions or discussions with teachers. Portfolios allow for the development of work that is formatively assessed in draft form. Assessors are able to track the development of the work making it very difficult to include work that has been plagiarised, especially if an element of critical reflection on the development is required.

LSE examples

Further resources

An overview of the literature and research projects relating to the use of e-portfolios from JISC https://www.jisc.ac.uk/guides/e-portfolios

Baume, D. (2003). Supporting portfolio development. Continuing professional development series No. 3, LTSN Generic Centre, UK Higher Education Academy. Available online: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/id295_supporting_portfolio_development.pdf

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