Authentic Assessment Toolbox
created by Jon Mueller

What is Authentic Assessment? Why Do It? How Do You Do It?













What is a Portfolio?

Why use Portfolios?

How do you Create a Portfolio Assignment?

Can I do Portfolios Without all the Fuss?


Portfolio: A collection of a student's work specifically selected to tell a particular story about the student


What is a Portfolio?

Note: My focus will be on portfolios of student work rather than teacher portfolios or other types.

Student portfolios take many forms, as discussed below, so it is not easy to describe them. A portfolio is not the pile of student work that accumulates over a semester or year. Rather, a portfolio contains a purposefully selected subset of student work. "Purposefully" selecting student work means deciding what type of story you want the portfolio to tell. For example, do you want it to highlight or celebrate the progress a student has made? Then, the portfolio might contain samples of earlier and later work, often with the student commenting upon or assessing the growth. Do you want the portfolio to capture the process of learning and growth? Then, the student and/or teacher might select items that illustrate the development of one or more skills with reflection upon the process that led to that development. Or, do you want the portfolio to showcase the final products or best work of a student? In that case, the portfolio would likely contain samples that best exemplify the student's current ability to apply relevant knowledge and skills. All decisions about a portfolio assignment begin with the type of story or purpose for the portfolio. The particular purpose(s) served, the number and type of items included, the process for selecting the items to be included, how and whether students respond to the items selected, and other decisions vary from portfolio to portfolio and serve to define what each portfolio looks like. I will describe many of the purposes and characteristics in the sections below.

Are Portfolios Authentic Assessments?top

Some suggest that portfolios are not really assessments at all because they are just collections of previously completed assessments. But, if we consider assessing as gathering of information about someone or something for a purpose, then a portfolio is a type of assessment. Sometimes the portfolio is also evaluated or graded, but that is not necessary to be considered an assessment.

Are portfolios authentic assessments? Student portfolios have most commonly been associated with collections of artwork and, to a lesser extent, collections of writing. Students in these disciplines are performing authentic tasks which capture meaningful application of knowledge and skills. Their portfolios often tell compelling stories of the growth of the students' talents and showcase their skills through a collection of authentic performances. Educators are expanding this story-telling to other disciplines such as physical education, mathematics and the social sciences to capture the variety of demonstrations of meaningful application from students within these disciplines.

Furthermore, in the more thoughtful portfolio assignments, students are asked to reflect on their work, to engage in self-assessment and goal-setting. Those are two of the most authentic skills students need to develop to successfully manage in the real world. Research has found that students in classes that emphasize improvement, progress, effort and the process of learning rather than grades and normative performance are more likely to use a variety of learning strategies and have a more positive attitude toward learning. Yet in education we have shortchanged the process of learning in favor of the products of learning. Students are not regularly asked to examine how they succeeded or failed or improved on a task or to set goals for future work; the final product and evaluation of it receives the bulk of the attention in many classrooms. Consequently, students are not developing the metacognitive skills that will enable them to reflect upon and make adjustments in their learning in school and beyond.

Portfolios provide an excellent vehicle for consideration of process and the development of related skills. So, portfolios are frequently included with other types of authentic assessments because they move away from telling a student's story though test scores and, instead, focus on a meaningful collection of student performance and meaningful reflection and evaluation of that work.


Why use Portfolios?top

The previous section identifies several valuable goals that make portfolios attractive in education. The sections that follow emphasize that identifying specific goals or purposes for assigning a portfolio is the first and most critical step in creating such an assignment. Just as identifying a standard guides the rest of the steps of developing an authentic assessment, identifying the purpose(s) for a portfolio influences all the other decisions involved in producing a portfolio assignment. I will list several of the most common purposes here, and then I will elaborate on how each purpose affects the other decisions in the section below.


Why might you use a portfolio assignment? Portfolios typically are created for one of the following three purposes: to show growth, to showcase current abilities, and to evaluate cumulative achievement. Some examples of such purposes include

1. Growth Portfolios

a. to show growth or change over time

b. to help develop process skills such as self-evaluation and goal-setting

c. to identify strengths and weaknesses

d. to track the development of one more products/performances

2. Showcase Portfolios

a. to showcase end-of-year/semester accomplishments

b. to prepare a sample of best work for employment or college admission

c. to showcase student perceptions of favorite, best or most important work

d. to communicate a student's current aptitudes to future teachers

3. Evaluation Portfolios

a. to document achievement for grading purposes

b. to document progress towards standards

c. to place students appropriately

The growth portfolio emphasizes the process of learning whereas the showcase portfolio emphasizes the products of learning. Of course, a portfolio may tell more than one story, including more than one category above. For example, a showcase portfolio might also be used for evaluation purposes, and a growth portfolio might also showcase "final" performances or products. What is critical is that the purpose(s) is clear throughout the process to student, teacher and any other pertinent audience. To elaborate on how the purpose affects the portfolio assignment let me answer the question...


How do you Create a Portfolio Assignment?top

I think of most tasks as problems to be solved, or questions to be answered. So, I find it useful to approach how to do something by thinking of it as a series of questions to be answered. Thus, I will attempt to offer a possible answer to the question above by answering a series of questions that need to be addressed when considering the design of a portfolio assignment. Those questions are:

1. Purpose: What is the purpose(s) of the portfolio?

2. Audience: For what audience(s) will the portfolio be created?

3. Content: What samples of student work will be included?

4. Process: What processes (e.g., selection of work to be included, reflection on work, conferencing) will be engaged in during the development of the portfolio?

5. Management: How will time and materials be managed in the development of the portfolio?

6. Communication: How and when will the portfolio be shared with pertinent audiences?

7. Evaluation: If the portfolio is to be used for evaluation, when and how should it be evaluated?


Purpose: What is the purpose(s) of the portfolio?

As mentioned above, before you can design the portfolio assignment and before your students can begin constructing their portfolios you and your students need to be clear about the story the portfolio will be telling. Certainly, you should not assign a portfolio unless you have a compelling reason to do so. Portfolios take work to create, manage and assess. They can easily feel like busywork and a burden to you and your students if they just become folders filled with student papers. You and your students need to believe that the selection of and reflection upon their work serves one or more meaningful purposes.

Audience: For what audience(s) will the portfolio be created?top

Selecting relevant audiences for a portfolio goes hand-in-hand with identifying your purposes. Who should see the evidence of a student's growth? The student, teacher and parents are good audiences to follow the story of a student's progress on a certain project or in the development of certain skills. Who should see a student's best or final work? Again, the student, teacher and parents might be good audiences for such a collection, but other natural audiences come to mind such as class or schoolmates, external audiences such as employers or colleges, the local community or school board. As the teacher, you can dictate what audiences will be considered or you can let students have some choice in the decision.

Just as the purposes for the portfolio should guide the development of it, the selection of audiences should shape its construction. For example, for audiences outside the classroom it is helpful to include a cover page or table of contents that helps someone unfamiliar with the assignment to navigate through the portfolio and provide context for what is found inside. Students need to keep their audiences in mind as they proceed through each step of developing their portfolios. A good method for checking whether a portfolio serves the anticipated audiences is to imagine different members of those audiences viewing the portfolio. Can each of them tell why you created the portfolio? Are they able to make sense of the story you wanted to tell them? Can they navigate around and through the portfolio? Do they know why you included what you did? Have you used language suitable for those audiences?

Content: What samples of student work will be included?

As you can imagine, the answer to the question of content is dependent on the answers to the questions of purpose and audience. What should be included? Well, what story do you want to tell? Before I consider what types of items might be appropriate for different purposes, let me make a more general point. First, hypothetically, there is no limit as to what can be included in a portfolio. Paper products such as essays, homework, letters, projects, etc. are most common. But more and more other types of media are being included in portfolios. Audio and videotapes, cd-roms, two- and three-dimensional pieces of art, posters and anything else that can reflect the purposes identified can be included. Some schools are putting all the artifacts onto a cd-rom by videotaping performances, scanning paper products, and digitizing audio. All of those files are then copied onto a student's cd-rom for a semester or a year or to follow the student across grades as a cumulative record. Realistically, you have to decide what is manageable. But if the most meaningful evidence of the portfolio's goals cannot be captured on paper, then you may consider including other types of

Obviously, there are a considerable number and variety of types of student work that can be selected as samples for a portfolio. Using the purposes given above for each type of portfolio, I have listed just a few such possible samples of work in the following tables that could be included in each type of portfolio.

Growth Portfolios: What samples might be included?
Some possible inclusions
a. to show growth or change over time
  • early and later pieces of work
  • early and later tests/scores
  • rough drafts and final drafts
  • reflections on growth
  • goal-setting sheets
  • reflections on progress toward goal(s)
b. to help develop process skills
  • samples which reflect growth of process skills
  • self-reflection sheets accompanying samples of work
  • reflection sheets from teacher or peer
  • identification of strengths/weaknesses
  • goal-setting sheets
  • reflections on progress towards goal(s)
  • see more detail below under Process below
c. to identify strengths/weaknesses
  • samples of work reflecting specifically identified strengths and weaknesses
  • reflections on strengths and weaknesses of samples
  • goal-setting sheets
  • reflection on progress towards goal(s)
d. to track development of one or more products or performances
  • obviously, drafts of the specific product or performance to be tracked
  • self-reflections on drafts
  • reflection sheets from teacher or peer




Showcase Portfolios: What samples might be included?
Some possible inclusions
a. to showcase end-of-year/semester accomplishments
  • samples of best work
  • samples of earlier and later work to document progress
  • final tests or scores
  • discussion of growth over semester/year
  • awards or other recognition
  • teacher or peer comments
b. to prepare a sample of best work for employment or college admission
  • cover letter
  • sample of work
  • reflection on process of creating sample of work
  • reflection on growth
  • teacher or peer comments
  • description of knowledge/skills work indicates
c. to showcase student perceptions of favorite, best or most important
  • samples of student's favorite, best or most important work
  • drafts of that work to illustrate path taken to its final form
  • commentary on strengths/weaknesses of work
  • reflection on why it is favorite, best or most important
  • reflection on what has been learned from work
  • teacher or peer comments
d. to communicate a student's current aptitude
  • representative sample of current work
  • match of work with standards accomplished
  • self-reflection on current aptitudes
  • teacher reflection on student's aptitudes
  • identification of future goals




Evaluation Portfolios: What samples might be included?
Some possible inclusions
a. to document achievement for grading
  • samples of representative work in each subject/unit/topic to be graded
  • samples of work documenting level of achievement on course/grade-level goals/standards/objectives
  • tests/scores
  • rubrics/criteria used for evaluation of work (when applied)
  • self-reflection on how well samples indicate attainment ofcourse/grade-level goals/standards/objectives
  • teacher reflection of attainment of goals/standards
  • identification of strengths/weaknesses
b. to document progress towards standards
  • list of applicable goals and standards
  • representative samples of work aligned with respective goals/standards
  • rubrics/criteria used for evaluation of work
  • self-reflection on how well samples indicate attainment ofcourse/grade-level goals/standards/objectives
  • teacher reflection of attainment of goals/standards
  • analysis or evidence of progress made toward standards over course of semester/year
c. to place students appropriately
  • representative samples of current work
  • representative samples of earlier work to indicate rate of progress
  • classroom tests/scores
  • external tests/evaluations
  • match of work with standards accomplished
  • self-reflection on current aptitudes
  • teacher reflection on student's aptitudes
  • parent reflection on student's aptitudes
  • other professionals' reflections on student's aptitudes


Other Content

In addition to samples of student work and reflection upon that work, a portfolio might also include a table of contents or a cover letter (both typically composed by the student) to aid a reader in making sense of the purposes, processes and contents of the portfolio. This can be particularly useful if the portfolio is to be shared with external audiences unfamiliar with the coursework such as parents, other educators and community


Process: What processes will be engaged in during the development of the portfolio?

One of the greatest attributes of the portfolio is its potential for focusing on the processes of learning. Too often in education we emphasize the products students create or the outcomes they achieve. But we do not give sufficient attention to the processes required to create those products or outcomes, the processes involved in self-diagnosis and self-improvement, or the metacognitive processes of thinking. As a result, the products or outcomes are not as good as we or the students would like because they are often unsure how to get started, how to self-diagnose or self-correct or how to determine when a piece of work is "finished."

Although a variety of processes can be developed or explored through portfolios, I will focus on three of the most common:

  • selection of contents of the portfolio;
  • reflection on the samples of work and processes;
  • conferencing about the contents and processes.


    Selection of Contents

Once again, identifying the purpose(s) for the portfolio should drive the selection process. As listed in the tables above, different samples of student work will likely be selected for different purposes. Additionally, how samples are selected might also differ depending on the purpose. For example, for an evaluation portfolio, the teacher might decide which samples need to be included to evaluate student progress. On the other hand, including the student in the decision-making process of determining appropriate types of samples for inclusion might be more critical for a growth portfolio to promote meaningful reflection. Finally, a showcase portfolio might be designed to include significant input from the student on which samples best highlight achievement and progress, or the teacher might primarily make those decisions.

Furthermore, audiences beyond the teacher and student might have input into the content of the porfolio, from team or department members, principals and district committees to external agencies to parents and community members. External audiences are most likely to play a role for evaluation portfolios. However, it is important to remember there are no hard rules about portfolios. Anything can be included in a portfolio. Anyone can be involved in the processes of selection, reflection and evaluation of a portfolio. Flexibility applies to portfolios as it does to any authentic assessment. That is, you should be true to your purpose(s), but you should feel no constraints on how you meet them with a portfolio

How might the selection take place?

What I will describe below are just a few of the many possible avenues for selecting which samples will be included in a portfolio. But these examples should give you a good sense of some of the choices and some of the decisions involved.


  • when a sample of work is completed -- at the point a piece of work is ready to be turned in (or once the work has been returned by the teacher) the student or teacher identifies that work for inclusion in the portfolio;
  • at periodic intervals -- instead of selecting samples when they are completed, the samples can be stored so that selection might occur every two (three, six or nine) weeks or once (twice or three times) every quarter (trimester or semester);
  • at the end of the ... unit, quarter, semester, year, etc.


    By whom?

  • by the student -- students are the most common selectors, particularly for portfolios that ask them to reflect on the work selected. Which work students select depends on the criteria used to choose each piece (see below).
  • by the teacher -- teachers may be the selector, particularly when identifying best pieces of work to showcase a student's strengths or accomplishments.
  • by the student and teacher -- sometimes portfolio selection is a joint process involving conversation and collaboration.
  • by peers -- a student might be assigned a "portfolio partner" or "portfolio buddy" who assists the student in selecting appropriate pieces of work often as part of a joint process involving conversation and collaboration. A peer might also provide some reflection on a piece of work to be included in the portfolio.
  • by parents -- parents might also be asked to select a piece or two for inclusion that they particularly found impressive, surprising, reflective of improvement, etc.


    Based on what criteria?

  • best work -- selection for showcase portfolios will typically focus on samples of work that illustrate students' best performance in designated areas or the culmination of progress made
  • evidence of growth -- selection for growth portfolios will focus on identifying samples of work and work processes (e.g., drafts, notes) that best capture progress shown on designated tasks, processes or acquisition of knowledge and skills. For example, students might be asked to choose
    • samples of earlier and later work highlighting some skill or content area
    • samples of rough drafts and final drafts
    • work that traces the development of a particular product or performance
    • samples of work reflecting specifically identified strengths and weaknesses
  • evidence of achievement -- particularly for showcase and evaluation portfolios, selection might focus on samples of work that illustrate current levels of competence in designated areas or particular exemplars of quality work
  • evidence of standards met -- similarly, selection could focus on samples of work that illustrate how successfully students have met certain standards
  • favorite/most important piece -- to help develop recognition of the value of the work completed and to foster pride in that work, selection might focus on samples to which students or parents or others find a connection or with which they are particularly enamored
  • one or more of the above -- a portfolio can include samples of work for multiple reasons and, thus, more than one of the above criteria (or others) could be used for selecting samples to be included


Reflection on Samples of Work

Many educators who work with portfolios consider the reflection component the most critical element of a good portfolio. Simply selecting samples of work as described above can produce meaningful stories about students, and others can benefit from "reading" these stories. But the students themselves are missing significant benefits of the portfolio process if they are not asked to reflect upon the quality and growth of their work. As Paulson, Paulson and Meyer (1991) stated, "The portfolio is something that is done by the student, not to the student." Most importantly, it is something done for the student. The student needs to be directly involved in each phase of the portfolio development to learn the most from it, and the reflection phase holds the most promise for promoting student growth.

In the reflection phase students are typically asked to

  • comment on why specific samples were selected or
  • comment on what they liked and did not like in the samples or
  • comment on or identify the processes involved in developing specific products or performances or
  • describe and point to examples of how specific skills or knowledge improved (or did not) or
  • identify strengths and weaknesses in samples of work or
  • set goals for themselves corresponding to the strengths and weaknesses or
  • identify strategies for reaching those goals or
  • assess their past and current self-efficacy for a task or skill or
  • complete a checklist or survey about their work or
  • some combination of the above

    Reflection sheets

Probably the most common portfolio reflection task is the completion of a sheet to be attached to the sample (or samples) of work which the reflection is addressing. The possibilities for reflection questions or prompts are endless, but some examples I have seen includetop

Selection questions/prompts

  • Why did you select this piece?
  • Why should this sample be included in your portfolio?
  • How does this sample meet the criteria for selection for your portfolio?
  • I chose this piece because ....

Growth questions/prompts

  • What are the strengths of this work? Weaknesses?
  • What would you work on more if you had additional time?
  • How has your ______ (e.g., writing) changed since last year?
  • What do you know about ______ (e.g., the scientific method) that you did not know at the beginning of the year (or semester, etc.)?
  • Looking at (or thinking about) an earlier piece of similar work, how does this new piece of work compare? How is it better or worse? Where can you see progress or improvement?
  • How did you get "stuck" working on this task? How did you get "unstuck"?
  • One skill I could not perform very well but now I can is ....
  • From reviewing this piece I learned ....

Goal-setting questions/prompts

  • What is one thing you can improve upon in this piece?
  • What is a realistic goal for the end of the quarter (semester, year)?
  • What is one way you will try to improve your ____ (e.g., writing)?
  • One thing I still need to work on is ....
  • I will work toward my goal by ....

Evaluation questions/prompts

  • If you were a teacher and grading your work, what grade would you give it and why?
  • Using the appropriate rubric, give yourself a score and justify it with specific traits from the rubric.
  • What do you like or not like about this piece of work?
  • I like this piece of work because ....

Effort questions/prompts

  • How much time did you spend on this product/performance?
  • The work would have been better if I had spent more time on ....
  • I am pleased that I put significant effort into ....

Overall portfolio questions/prompts

  • What would you like your _____ (e.g., parents) to know about or see in your portfolio?
  • What does the portfolio as a whole reveal about you as a learner (writer, thinker, etc.)?
  • A feature of this portfolio I particularly like is ....
  • In this portfolio I see evidence of ....

As mentioned above, students (or others) can respond to such questions or prompts when a piece of work is completed, while a work is in progress or at periodic intervals after the work has been collected. Furthermore, these questions or prompts can be answered by the student, the teacher, parents, peers or anyone else in any combination that best serves the purposes of the

Other reflection methods

In addition to reflection sheets, teachers have devised a myriad of means of inducing reflection from students and others about the collection of work included in the portfolio. For example, those engaging in reflection can

  • write a letter to a specific audience about the story the portfolio communicates
  • write a "biography" of a piece of work tracing its development and the learning that resulted
  • write periodic journal entries about the progress of the portfolio
  • compose an imaginary new "chapter" that picks up where the story of the portfolio leaves off
  • orally share reflections on any of the above questions/prompts

    Reflection as a process skill

Good skill development requires four steps:

  • Instruction and modeling of the skill;
  • Practice of the skill;
  • Feedback on one's practice;
  • Reflection on the practice and feedback.

Reflection itself is a skill that enhances the process of skill development and virtually all learning in innumerable settings. Those of us who are educators, for example, need to continually reflect upon what is working or not working in our teaching, how we can improve what we are doing, how we can help our students make connections to what they are learning, and much, much more. Thus, it is critical for students to learn to effectively reflect upon their learning and

As a skill, reflection is not something that can be mastered in one or two attempts. Developing good reflective skills requires instruction and modeling, lots of practice, feedback and reflection. As many of you have probably encountered, when students are first asked to respond to prompts such as "I selected this piece because..." they may respond with "I think it is nice." Okay, that's a start. But we would like them to elaborate on that response. The fact that they did not initially elaborate is probably not just a result of resistance or reluctance. Students need to learn how to respond to such prompts. They need to learn how to effectively identify strengths and weaknesses, to set realistic goals for themselves and their work, and to develop meaningful strategies to address those goals. Students often have become dependent upon adults, particularly teachers, to evaluate their work. They need to learn self-assessment.

So, the reflection phase of the portfolio process should be ongoing throughout the portfolio development. Students need to engage in multiple reflective activities. Those instances of reflection become particularly focused if goal-setting is part of their reflection. Just as instruction and assessment are more appropriately targeted if they are tied to specific standards or goals, student identification of and reflection upon strengths and weaknesses, examples of progress, and strategies for improvement will be more meaningful and purposeful if they are directed toward specific goals, particularly self-chosen goals.

Once opportunities for reflection (practice) take place, feedback to and further reflection upon student observations can be provided by conversations with others. Conferencing is one tool to promote such feedback and reflection.


    Conferencing on Student Work and Processes

With 20 or 30 or more students in a classroom, one-on-one conversations between the teacher and student are difficult to regularly arrange. That is unfortunate because the give and take of face-to-face interaction can provide the teacher with valuable information about the student's thinking and progress and provide the student with meaningful feedback. Such feedback is also more likely to be processed by the student than comments written on paper.

Conferencing typically takes several forms:

  • teacher/student -- sometimes teachers are able to informally meet with a few students, one at a time, as the other students work on some task in class. Other times, teachers use class time to schedule one-on-one conferences during "conference days." Some teachers are able to schedule conferences outside of class time. Typically such conferences take only a few minutes, but they give the teacher and the student time to recap progress, ask questions, and consider suggestions or strategies for improvement.
  • teacher/small group -- other teachers, often in composition classes, meet with a few students at a time to discuss issues and questions that are raised, sharing common problems and reflections across students.
  • student/student -- to conserve time as well as to give students the opportunity to learn how to provide feedback along with receiving it, teachers sometimes structure peer-to-peer conferencing. The focus might be teacher-directed (e.g., "share with each other a sample of work you recently selected for your portfolio") or student-directed (e.g., students use the time to get feedback on some work for a purpose they determine).



Management: How will time and materials be managed in the development of the portfolio?

As appealing as the process of students developing a portfolio can be, the physical and time constraints of such a process can be daunting. Where do you keep all the stuff? How do you keep track of it? Who gets access to it and when? Should you manage paper or create an electronic portfolio? Does some work get sent home before it is put in the portfolio? Will it come back? When will you find the time for students to participate, to reflect, to conference? What about students who join your class in the middle of the semester or year?

There is one answer to all these questions that can make the task less daunting: start small! That is good advice for many endeavors, but particularly for portfolios because there are so many factors to consider, develop and manage over a long period of time. In the final section of this chapter (Can I do portfolios without all the fuss?) I will elaborate on how you can get your feet wet with portfolios and avoid drowning in the many decisions described below.

How you answer the many management questions below depends, in part, on how you answered earlier questions about your purpose, audience, content and process. Return to those answers to help you address the following decisions:

Management Decisions
Possible Solutions
Should the portfolio building process wait until the end or should it occur as you go?
  • The easiest solution is to collect work samples along the way but save the selection and reflection until the end, keeping selection simple and limiting the amount of reflection.
  • The more involved (and more common) approach is for participants to periodically make selections and to engage in reflection throughout the process. This gives the student time to respond to identified weaknesses and to address goals set.
Will the portfolios be composed of paper or stored electronically (or both)?
  • Paper Portfolio: As you know, the most common form of portfolios is a collection of paper products such as essays, problem sets, journal entries, posters, etc. Most products produced in classrooms are still in paper form, so it makes sense to find ways to collect, select from and reflect upon these items.
  • Hybrid Portfolio: Other forms of products are increasingly available, however, so teachers are adding videotapes, audiotapes, 3-D models, artwork and more to the containers holding the paper products.
  • Electronic Portfolio: Since many of the paper products are now first created in an electronic format, it makes sense to consider keeping some samples of work in that format. Storage is much easier and portability is significantly increased. Additionally, as it becomes easier to digitize almost any media it is possible to add audio and video examples of student work to the electronic portfolio. A considerable amount of work can be burned to a CD or DVD or displayed on a website. An electronic compilation can be shared with a larger audience and more easily follow a student to other grades, teachers and schools. Copies can be made and kept.
Where will the work samples and reflections be kept?

Obviously, the answer to this question depends on your answer to the previous question about storage format. The possible solutions I describe below will assume that you have chosen an option that includes at least some paper products.

  • A common model for portfolio maintenance is to have two folders for each student -- a working folder and a portfolio folder. As work samples are produced they are stored in the working folder. Students (or other selectors) would periodically review the working folder to select certain pieces to be included in the portfolio folder. Usually reflection accompanies the selection process. For example, a reflection sheet may be attached to each piece before it is placed in the portfolio.
  • In addition to manilla or hanging folders, portfolio contents have also been stored in pizza or laundry detergent boxes, cabinets, binders and accordian folders (Rolheiser, Bower & Stevahn, 2000).
  • For older students, some teachers have the students keep the work samples. Then they are periodically asked to select from and reflect upon the work. Students might only keep the working folders while the teacher manages the portfolio folders.
  • As a parent, I know I also would like to look at my child's work before the end of the semester or year. So, some teachers send work home in carefully structured folders. One side of a two-pocket folder might be labeled "keep at home" while the other side might be labeled "return to school." The work likely to end up in the portfolio would be sent home in the "return to school" pocket.
Who will be responsible for saving/storing them?
  • Typically the teacher keep the contents of the portfolio as they are usually stored in the classroom.
  • Older students (and sometimes younger ones) are also given the responsibility of managing their portfolios in the classroom, making sure all samples make it into the appropriate folders/containers, remain there, are put back when removed, and are kept neatly organized.
  • As mentioned above, older students sometimes are required to keep track of their work outside the classroom, bringing it to class on certain days for reflection and other tasks.
  • For electronic portfolios, it usually depends on teacher preference and whether or not students have access to storage space on the network or can save samples locally, or burn them to CDs or DVD, or add them to websites.
Who will have access to it, and when?

Who? Again, that depends on the purposes for the portfolio.

  • Usually the teacher and student will have access to the working folder or the final samples.
  • But, for some types of showcase portfolios, only the teacher might have access because she is constructing the portfolio about the student.
  • For older students, the teacher might only have limited access as the student controls the portfolio's development.
  • Parents might have access and input as samples of work are sent home.
  • Other educators might also have access to final portfolios for larger evaluative purposes.


  • Typically, students and teachers contribute samples to a working folder as they are created. Access to a portfolio folder is gained on a more regular schedule as times for selection and reflection are scheduled.
  • Parents or other educators might have access at certain intervals depending on the purpose of the portfolio and the process that has been chosen.
How will portfolio progress be tracked?
  • A checklist sheet is sometimes attached to the front of a folder so that the teacher or the student can keep track of when and which samples have been added, which have been removed (temporarily or permanently), when reflections have been completed, when conferences have taken place, and whether or not any other requirements have been completed.
  • The teacher might just keep a schedule of when selections, reflections or conferences are to take place.
  • Older students might be required to keep track of the process to make sure all requirements are met.
What will the final product look like?

Once again, this depends on the purposes and audiences for the portfolio, as well as the type of contents to be included.

  • Showcase portfolios will typically have a more formal and polished presentation. A cover letter or introduction along with a table of contents might be included to provide context for a potentially wide range of readers, and to give the student or teacher a chance to more fully flesh out the student's story.
  • Growth or evaluation portfolios might have a less formal presentation, unless the evaluation is part of a high stakes assessment. If the student and teacher are the primary readers, less context is needed. However, if parents are the primary or a significant intended audience, more explanation or context will be needed.
What if students join your class in the middle of the process?
  • Obviously, one advantage of choosing to build the portfolio at the end of a period of time rather than build it along the way (see the first question) is that transient students can still easily participate. They have less work to consider, but they can still engage in the selection and reflection process.
  • If selection and reflection occur as work is being produced, the new student can simply join the process in progress. Some adaptation will likely be necessary, but the student can still demonstrate growth or competence over a shorter period of time.
  • If the portfolio is also to be evaluated, further adjustment will need to be made.


Communication: How and when will the portfolio be shared with pertinent audiences?

Why share the portfolio?

By the nature of the purposes of portfolios -- to show growth, to showcase excellence -- portfolios are meant to be shared. The samples, reflections and other contents allow or invite others to observe and celebrate students' progress and accomplishments. A portfolio should tell a story, and that story should be told.

Students should primarily be the ones telling their stories. As students reflect on the balance of their work over some period of time, there is often a great sense of pride at the growth and the accomplishment. By telling their own stories students can take ownership of the process that led to the growth and achievement. Assessment is no longer something done to them; the students are playing an active role through self-assessment.

Furthermore, others will be able to recognize and celebrate in the growth and accomplishment of the students if their work is communicated beyond the borders of the classroom. A portfolio provides a unique vehicle for capturing and communicating student learning. Parents tend to learn more about their children's abilities and propensities through a portfolio than they do through the odd assignment that makes it home and into the parents' hands. Moreover, other interested members of the school and local community can recognize and celebrate the accomplishment.

Finally, the portfolio can provide an excellent tool for accountability. Parents, educators and community members can learn a great deal about what is happening in a classroom or school or district by viewing and hearing about the contents of these stories. Perhaps more importantly, the student and teacher can uncover a vivid picture of where the student was, where she has traveled to, how she got there and what she accomplished along the way -- a fascinating and enlightening story.

Considering the audience

Of course, deciding how to tell the story will be influenced by the intended audience. For example, presenting a collection of work to a teacher who is already familiar with much of the content will likely require a different approach than presenting that work as part of a college application.

Audiences within the classroom

In some classrooms, a portfolio is used much like other assignments as evidence of progress towards or completion of course or grade level goals and standards. In such cases, the only audience might be the teacher who evaluates all the student work. To effectively communicate with the teacher about a body of work, the student may be asked to write a brief introduction or overview capturing her perceptions of the progress (for a growth portfolio) or accomplishments (for a showcase portfolio) reflected in the collection of work. Teachers who assign portfolios not only want to see student work but want to see students reflect upon it.

As a classroom assessor, the teacher also has the benefit of communicating face-to-face with each student. Such conferences take a variety of forms and vary in their frequency. For example,

  • A teacher might review a portfolio at one or more intervals, and then prepare questions for the face-to-face conversation with each student;
  • A student might run the conference by taking the teacher through her portfolio, highlighting elements consistent with the purpose of the portfolio;
  • A "pre-conference" might occur in which teacher and student discuss how the portfolio should be constructed to best showcase it or best prepare it for evaluation.

Additionally, classmates can serve as an audience for a portfolio. Particulary for older students, some teachers require or encourage students to present their portfolios to each other for feedback, dialogue and modeling. For example,

  • Pairs of students can review each other's work to provide feedback, identify strengths and weaknesses, and suggest future goals;
  • Sharing with each other also provides an opportunity to tell a story or just brag;
  • Students can always benefit from seeing good (or poor) models of work as well as models of meaningful reflection and goal-setting.

As students hear themselves tell each other about the value and meaning of their work it will become more valuable and meaningful to them.

Audiences within the family and school community

As many of us have experienced with our own children, parents sometimes only receive a small, fragmented picture of their children's school work. Some work never makes it home, some is lost, some is hidden, etc. It can be even harder for parents to construct a coherent picture out of that work to get a real sense of student growth or accomplishment or progress toward a set of standards.

Portfolios provide an opportunity to give parents a fuller glimpse of the processes and products and progress of their children's learning. Many teachers intentionally involve the parents in the development of the portfolio or make parents an audience or both.

For example, to involve parents in the process,

  • teachers make sure parents view most student work on a consistent basis; for example,
    • some teachers require students to get much of their work signed by parents to be returned to school;
    • some teachers send work home in a two-pocket folder in which one pocket contains work that can stay home and the other pocket contains work that can be viewed by parents but should be returned to school, each pocket carefully labeled as such;
    • some teachers use a three-pocket folder in which the third pocket is a place parents can pass along notes or comments or questions;
  • teachers also invite parents to provide feedback or ask questions about student work; for example,
    • a reflection sheet, perhaps similar to the ones students complete, can be attached to some of the pieces of work sent home inviting parents to make comments, ask questions or provide evaluation;
    • parents might be invited to provide a summary reflection of work they have seen so far;
    • or simply identify one or two pieces of work or aspects of their children's work that they most like or are most surprised about.

To share the portfolio with parents,

  • many schools host Portfolio Nights, at which students often guide their parent or parents through the story of their work. Having the Night at school allows the student to more easily share the variety of two- and three-dimensional work they have created.
  • after teacher evaluation of the portfolio (if that is done), the complete portfolio might be sent home for the parents to view and possibly respond to. This might occur once at the end of the process or periodically along the way.

A Portfolio Night also provides an opportunity for other members of the school or larger community to view student portfolios. The portfolios may simply be on display to be sampled, or students might guide other audiences through their work.

Similarly, during the school day students can share their portfolios with students from other classes or with school personnel.

Audiences beyond the classroom, school and family

An external audience for student work can serve to motivate students to give more attention to and take more seriously their performance. First, it may give more legitimacy to assigned work. If the work is to be externally reviewed, it suggests that it is not simply "busy work" that provides a grade but that it is something authentic valued outside the walls of the classroom. Second, some students may take more care in their work when they believe a new, different, and perhaps expert audience will be viewing it.

To extend the audience beyond the classroom, school and family, teachers have adopted a variety of approaches, including

  • expanding the audience at Portfolio Nights to include a larger community, perhaps even authors, or scientists or other professionals relevant to the work in the portfolio;
  • inviting professionals or experts in a particular field to come listen to presentations of the portfolios;
  • inviting professionals or experts to serve as one of the reviewers or evaluators of the portfolios;
  • encourage or require students to share their work with a larger audience through the Web or other media. Publishing on the Web also allows students to solicit comments or questions.

    Preparing the student to share

Just as we do not expect children to write or speak well without considerable instruction and practice, it is not reasonable to expect students to effortlessly and effectively share their stories without some help. Teachers have devised a number of strategies to prepare students to communicate with the target audience. Some such strategies include

  • pairing up students in class ("portfolio partners") to practice presenting their work to each other;
  • pairing up the author of the portfolio with an older student a few grades above. The younger student would practice presenting her work as if she is presenting it to the intended audience (e.g., parents at a Portfolio Night). Both students can benefit as the older student provides feedback and encouragement and may increase her own self-efficacy for the task through modeling and tutoring the younger student.
  • providing models. Teachers provide models of good portfolios that illustrate how the product itself can effectively communicate with an audience through the way it is constructed. Teachers can also model the process of communication by walking through how he or she would share a portfolio with a specific audience.


Evaluation: If the portfolio is to be used for evaluation, how and when should it be evaluated?

As with all of the elements of portfolios described above, how and when evaluation is addressed varies widely across teachers, schools and districts. Take, for example, …

Evaluation vs. Grading

Evaluation refers to the act of making a judgment about something. Grading takes that process one step further by assigning a grade to that judgment. Evaluation may be sufficient for a portfolio assignment. What is (are) the purpose(s) of the portfolio? If the purpose is to demonstrate growth, the teacher could make judgments about the evidence of progress and provide those judgments as feedback to the student or make note of them for her own records. Similarly, the student could self-assess progress shown or not shown, goals met or not met. No grade needs to be assigned. On a larger scale, an evaluation of the contents within the portfolio or of the entire package may be conducted by external bodies (e.g., community members, other educators, state boards) for the purpose of judging completion of certain standards or requirements. Although the evaluation is serious, and graduation might even hinge on it, no classroom grade may be assigned.

On the other hand, the work within the portfolio and the process of assembling and reflecting upon the portfolio may comprise such a significant portion of a student's work in a grade or class that the teacher deems it appropriate to assign a value to it and incorporate it into the student's final grade. Alternatively, some teachers assign grades because they believe without grades there would not be sufficient incentive for some students to complete the portfolio. Ahh, but …

What to Grade

Nothing. Some teachers choose not to grade the portfolio because they have already assigned grades to the contents selected for inclusion.

The metacognitive and organizational elements. But the portfolio is more than just a collection of student work. Depending on its purpose, students might have also included reflections on growth, on strengths and weaknesses, on goals that were or are to be set, on why certain samples tell a certain story about them, or on why the contents reflect sufficient progress to indicate completion of designated standards. Some of the process skills may also be part of the teacher's or school's or district's standards. So, the portfolio provides some evidence of attainment of those standards. Any or all of these elements can be evaluated and/or graded.

Completion. Some portfolios are graded simply on whether or not the portfolio was completed.

Everything. Other teachers evaluate the entire package: the selected samples of student work as well as the reflection, organization and presentation of the portfolio.

How to Grade/Evaluate

Most of the portfolio assignments I have seen have been evaluated or graded with a rubric. A great deal of personal judgment goes into evaluating a complex product such as a portfolio. Thus, applying a rubric, a tool which can provide some clarity and consistency to the evaluation of such products, to the judgment of quality of the story being told and the elements making up that story makes sense. Moreover, if the portfolio is to be evaluated my multiple judges, application of a rubric increases the likelihood of consistency among the judges.

Examples of Portfolio Rubrics

What might a portfolio rubric look like? If the focus of the grading is primarily on whether the samples of student work within the portfolio demonstrate certain competencies, the criteria within the rubric will target those competencies. For example,

Evaluating competencies

Or, Completing requirements

Meeting standards

Evaluating the portfolio as a whole

The more we can involve students in the assessment process, the more likely they will take ownership of it, be engaged in it, and find it worthwhile. So, it makes sense to involve students in the evaluation process of their portfolios as well. They have likely engaged in some self-assessment in the reflection or goal-setting components of the portfolio. Additionally, students are capable of evaluating how well their portfolio elements meet standards, requirements, or competencies, for their own portfolios or those of their peers. Furthermore, older peers could make excellent judges of the work of younger students. Cross-grade peer tutoring has demonstrated how well the older and younger students respond to such interactions.

Obviously, the classroom teacher, other educators, review board members, community members, etc. can all serve as judges of student work. If multiple judges are used, particularly if they are not directly familiar with the student work or assignments, training on a rubric should be provided before evaluation proceeds. The evaluators should be familiar with and clear on the criteria and the levels of performance within the rubric. A calibration session, in which the judges evaluate some sample portfolios and then share ratings to reach some consensus on what each criteria and level of performance within the rubric means, can provide a good opportunity for judges to achieve some competence and consistency in applying a rubric.


Can I do Portfolios Without all the Fuss?

Oh, what fun would that be! Actually, the answer is a qualified "yes." Portfolios do typically require considerable work, particularly if conferencing is involved. But with most anything, including assessment, I recommend that you start small.

Here's a quick, easy way to get started if any of the above thoughts has either encouraged you or not discouraged you from considering assigning portfolios in your little world. The following describes just one possible way to get started.

Step 1. Depending on the age of your students and other considerations, have students select two pieces of their work over the course of a quarter (or three or four over a semester). Decide (with your students or without) upon one or more criteria by which the selection will be guided (e.g., their best work). To limit management time, don't wait for the end of the quarter for students to make those selections. Otherwise, all their work will have to be collected along the way. Instead, if you want to keep it simple, tell your students ahead of time that they will be selecting two or more pieces matching certain criteria, and that you will ask them to do it at the point each sample is completed.

Step 2. At the time a student selects a sample to be included in his portfolio, require the student to complete a brief reflection sheet and attach it to the sample.

Step 3. Depending on the age of your students, ask your student to save that sample and the attached reflection sheet until the end of the quarter or semester, or collect it and store it yourself at that point.

Step 4. At the end of the quarter or semester, ask your students to reflect upon the samples one additional time by describing what they liked best about their work, or by identifying strengths and weaknesses, or by setting one or two goals for the future.

There, that wasn't too painful. Okay, you ask, that was relatively simple, but did it really accomplish anything? Good question. If you don't think so, don't do it. On the other hand, it could possibly have a few benefits worth the effort. First, if nothing else it gave you some experience working with portfolios. If you want to pursue portfolios in a more elaborate manner, at least you are now more familiar with some of the issues involved. Second, if you think developing self-assessment skills in your students is a worthwhile goal, you have also begun that process. Even a little reflection on your students' part may be more than some of them typically give to their work. Finally, you may have opened, even if it is just a little bit, a new avenue for you and your students to communicate with their parents about their performance, their strengths and weaknesses, and their habits. Any of those reasons may be sufficient to try your hand at portfolios. Good luck!




Home | What is it? | Why do it? | How do you do it? | Standards | Tasks | Rubrics| Examples | Glossary

Copyright 2018, Jon Mueller. Professor of Psychology, North Central College, Naperville, IL. Comments, questions or suggestions about this website should be sent to the author, Jon Mueller, at