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A page within CATL Teaching Improvement Guide

Brief Description

Portfolios serve as a comprehensive record or snapshot of one's efforts and achievements throughout a course, program or career. Typically, portfolios showcase three types of performance:

  1. Academic growth and development
    (i.e. progress towards achieving course or program outcomes)
  2. Mastery of learning outcomes or competencies
    (essential for program or general education assessment)
  3. Accomplishments or professional competence (for job seeking, career development, promotion or annual review)

Portfolios are especially valuable for program-level or General Education assessment. As culminating projects they provide evidence for the attainment of knowledge, skills and dispositions (attitudes) in accordance with organizational standards or competencies. Students don't simply announce, "hello world, this is what I've done," they document the development of expertise over a period of time in relation to expectations set by the instructor, program, university or a community of practitioners (e.g. accrediting agency or professional society).

Portfolios used for educational purposes are often called learning portfolios, in contrast to teaching or career portfolios. Helen Barrett, a pioneering advocate for learning portfolios, advocates their use as a "reflective story of deep learning." Through self-reflection and self-assessment, as documented in their portfolios, students develop strategies for improving their own learning (metacognitive understanding).

Self-Reflection, Assessment and Metacognition

The rise in the use of portfolios is closely associated with authentic assessment (Wiggins) and metacognition (Chick). Modeling the reflective practice of experts, portfolios encourage students to engage in deliberate, purposeful self-improvement through continual self-assessment. Through an emphasis on self-reflection and self-assessment, portfolios help students understand their own learning (see also the Teaching Improvement Guide on Metacognition).

As a teacher, you can ask students to add to their portfolios either evidence of performance (samples of projects or assignments, often called "artifacts") or reflections on their performance or preparation (i.e. study habits and strategies). Ideally, portfolios engage students in an ongoing process of self-reflection and discovery towards the achievement of course or program outcomes.

Essential to a significant learning experience, instructors can offer feedback and guidance as students make connections between accomplishments, metacognitive understanding and application of course principles and skills to the real world. Barrett (2007) characterizes the process of portfolio learning (i.e. documenting evidence of assessment FOR learning) by the formula:

Evidence = Artifacts + Reflection (Rationale) + Validation (Feedback)

Sadly, many faculty regard reflection as mere new-age nonsense. One instructor recently remarked that he had no interest in his students "getting in touch with their feelings." Educational reflection is not about feelings or emotional reassurance; rather, the process represents a metacognitive strategy designed to help students think hard about their learning, connect the dots of all that they have learned, and apply core concepts and skills to the real-world or future careers (or life in general).

Such thoughtful contemplation can serve as a powerful, perhaps even transformational, learning experience. At a minimum, reflection helps students focus on understanding course goals and objectives, rather than on memorizing facts out of context of the big picture (i.e. learning outcomes). Metacognition and reflection comprise an internal type of formative assessment, which teachers can prompt by asking students to identify their biases, errors, intentions and perspectives. Documenting self-reflections and self-assessments can ultimately lead to deep, significant learning.


  1. First, decide on the purpose of your students' portfolios. Is the goal to support personal growth and development (learning); document assessment results (for a grade or program review); or showcase content mastery for employment or marketing purposes?

  2. If used to support learning, ask students to address in their portfolios questions like the following, preferably at least twice during the term:
    • What have I learned in this course that is memorable?
    • How do I feel about the learning outcomes of this course (i.e. do they seem difficult, easy, or irrelevant)?
    • How have my expectations and personal goals about this course changed since week 1?
    • How can I improve my study habits and learning strategies to better achieve course outcomes (i.e. how can I study smarter)?
    • What is still unclear or confusing about the course that I might understand after more research or study?
    • How can I apply what I've learned in this course to life after graduation (e.g. facts, methods, or perspectives on the way the world works)?
  3. Encourage students to reflect on and suggest strategies for improving their performance and achievement of course or program outcomes.

  4. Standardize a common tool for portfolio documentation and share examples. Online students can use Desire2Learn's ePortfolio or a free web-based tool like Google Sites, Weebly or Wordpress.

Tips to Implement Portfolios Effectively

  • Be sure to prompt students to address the process of connecting evidence and relections to learning outcomes and the improvement of learning (arguably the most critical, and often overlooked, component of a portfolio or learning log).
  • Continuously encourage students to reflect on course outcomes and their own learning processes.

  • Encourage students to maintain either a formal portfolio (with both reflections and artifacts) or a less formal learning log (reflective journal or document). If you don't expect students to create complex or multimedia artifacts consider a less formal learning log or journal. Students can create these as a simple Word document, Blog or static web page.

  • To provide guidance, offer examples of exemplary and inadequate portfolio entries.

  • Encourage students to continuously add and reflect on new materials (artifacts) as they create them. This will prevent last minute busy work to submit a final version for review without the essential process of connecting performance to outcomes. Likewise, students should jot down their reflections immediately after a lesson or assignment, while experiences and impressions are fresh in memory.

  • Provide a rubric to clarify and model the process of creating, selecting, collecting, and connecting.

  • D2L's ePortfolio tool has the advantage of seamless integration throughout a course or program, as long as your students use the learning management system. Though not as powerful or functional as a dedicated portfolio tool, like Taskstream, the D2L ePortfolio is easy to use and provides quick access from the Dropbox, Discussion Board and other tools (students simply click on a "Reflect in ePortfolio" button and post a reflection).


Schankman, L. (2015). Portfolios. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from