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Developing Portfolios to Assess Student Learning

Metacognition is an awareness of one's own thought processes. As such, it involves an almost simultaneous, concious degree of self-awareness. "This is how I approach or think about a situation"; "this is how I might best approach this particular concept in order to more fully understand it"; "this is how I am thinking about this issue and it is or is not effective"; "these are other possible approaches I might take instead" (Courts and McInerney, 1993 p.57)

Portfolios Defined

Portfolios are personalized long term documentation of student mastery of course material. An essential element of portfolios are student reflections on their own learning and progression towards the mastery of the material documented in the portfolio. As such, portfolios are windows on the metacognitive process of students.

Types of Portfolios

In order to be useful as assessment tools the portfolio should include entries that demonstrate a progression of student understandings and ultimately mastery of the concepts. Huba and Freed (2000) identify two different portfolio types.
  • All-Inclusive Portfolios that contain a complete record of all work done by a student in a course or program.
  • Selection Portfolios that are focused on documenting the achievement of mastery of specific course goals/objectives set by the course instructor.

Assessment Using Portfolios

Because portfolios are by their nature long term records of student progress and achievement they can be used to assess programs, courses or projects. Although the aspect of long-term change in student content content knowledge and metacognition may not be as marked when portfolios are used to assess courses, the process of portfolio development tends to focus students on deciding what the essential elements of learning are and what samples of their work best display these elements. In Chapter 5 of [Palomba and Banta, 1999] they discuss three critical elements of student portfolios in promoting and supporting student learning. These are:
  • Student involvement in the selection of entries
  • Student preparation of written reflections about learning
  • Continuing discussion with faculty regarding written reflections

Timothy Slater's portfolio website (more info) provides an in depth discussion of the use of portfolios in introductory science courses, including an example for an Introductory Environmental Science course.

Click on the following link to learn how portfolios are used in an on-line Earth Systems Science course, or see the resources below for more on portfolios and other assessment tools.


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