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Using portfolios to assess learning

Paulson et al (1991) provide a useful definition to start our thinking about the value of portfolios as a means to assess student achievement:

a purposeful collection of student work that exhibits the student’s efforts, progress and achievements in one or more areas. The collection must include student participation in selecting contents, the criteria for selection, the criteria for judging merit and evidence of student self-reflection.


There are several important messages in the definition that will form themes of this briefing paper:

  • purposeful: as with all methods of assessment the purpose is to evidence the learner’s achievement of the intended learning outcomes
  • collection: portfolios should include many different forms of evidence of attainment: written; posters; artefacts; recordings [video and audio]; photographs; etc. The individual components may focus on particular learning outcomes, whilst the whole should evidence broader outcomes and successLink opens in a new window
  • student participation in selecting
    • contents: many years ago as an external examiner my first experience of a portfolio arrived in a huge box. Everything, including the kitchen sink, appeared to be in there. It seemed that I, as the assessor, was supposed to select which of this myriad of evidence proved achievement / competence. No, that is one of the student’s tasks ….
    • the criteria for selection: one value of portfolio assessment is that we give choices and responsibility to the student / learner. As assessors we provide the boundaries within which the student is working, but they have a say over why they think this particular piece of evidence - this component of the portfolio - satisfies the criteria
    • the criteria for judging merit: we may go further and give, or share, responsibility with the learner about the criteria that will be used to decide achievement
  • evidence of student self-reflection: another value of portfolio assessment is that we can require learners to analyse and reflect on their learning. In this way we are promoting and developing the ability to be self-critical and become autonomous learners; knowing what they know, realising what they need to know and deciding how they will achieve that further learning.

Lastly, in this overview of the method, is format. The portfolio can be (as mentioned above) in physical form as papers, objects, and recorded media, but it can be just as well be electronic: an e-portfolio. Warwick staff and students will have access to Mahara (

What can portfolios assess?

Whilst many of the individual items that are included in a portfolio will be short-term, in that they are produced at a particular stage of the course and capture evidence of achievement at that stage, the portfolio itself will be a long-term, sustained piece of work. Additional values of portfolios are:

  1. that the learner can return to elements of evidence and (based on formative feedback) update and enhance them; and,
  2. review their own learning over a period of time and reflect on their achievement and, ideally, move into double-loop learning (Argyris & Schön, 1974 and Anderson 1997) and think about how they learn as well as what they have learned.

This means that portfolios can be used to assess a wide-range of achievements and abilities but would only be recommended as a mean of assessment if the learning outcomes of the module/programme include the meta-learning/reflective aspects.

As will be noted in the design section below, a portfolio may include aspects that are not submitted for the final assessment, but may be useful for evidence of learning beyond the outcomes of the module and learners could rewrite sections to re-present the evidence to gain future study / employment opportunities or professional recognition.


Whilst here we are particularly concerned with the idea of a portfolio for assessment purposes it is worth thinking, even briefly, of the different types of portfolio and their uses as this background may be a useful means to ‘sell’ the idea to students; portfolios are a lot of work for both assessed and assessors and we need to be able to convince our learners of their value.

Working portfolio: or portfolio in waiting as I prefer to think about it. This is basically the collection / holding tank for all the materials that a learner may accumulate to use; it is work-in-progress. The definition above included student choice over what was presented; this is the wider collection that they are selecting from. This idea also links to the notion of the portfolio containing items that could be used for several purposes as discussed in the previous section. All of the collected work is, of course, linked to the learning outcomes but, after formative feedback, may be revised and selected from to respond to the assessment brief. As already noted, one important aspect of portfolio assessment is reflection across the collection to show what and how learning has taken place. It is during this reflective, double loop stage of the portfolio development that selection should occur.

Showcase portfolio: This is a collection of the best work and may go beyond the particular module / course. A student could collect work from across their degree course to use for job or further study application and / or professional recognition. As Danielson & Abrutyn (1997) say, a showcase portfolio allows a learner to say “Here's who I am. Here is what I can do.” This version of the portfolio is simply a selection from the working portfolio.

Assessment portfolio: the primary function of an assessment portfolio is to evidence what a student has learned and achieved against the intended learning outcomes. Depending on how the portfolio is originally defined this may be all of the work-in-progress portfolio or may be a selection.

How the portfolio is originally defined is the important point here. If the portfolio is defined just to address the outcomes of one module or course then it is likely that the working and assessment portfolios will be very similar; there will be a fairly narrow definition of purpose, content and expectation. If, however, the portfolio is seen to have a longer life then it will be available for the learner to use as all of the above. Many professions now require a portfolio for continuing professional development (CPD) purposes. These long-term records can be started during a first degree and then taken forward as needed; this is certainly a value of an e-portfolio which is transferable and mobile. Some universities now require academic staff members to maintain a portfolio that documents teaching even beyond any early-career development programmes.

Danielson & Abrutyn (ibid) outlined eight steps in designing an assessment portfolio system, building on those we suggest six crucial steps for designing valid portfolio assessment:

  1. determine the curricular outcomes to be addressed through the portfolio; the intended learning outcomes must be clear and broad-reaching including reflective / meta learning aspects to make portfolio assessment valid
  2. determine the decisions that will be made based on the portfolio assessments; will individual elements carry marks / grades or just the complete portfolio or a mixture of both, and in the latter case what are the relative weightings and why
  3. design assessment tasks for the curricular outcomes; constructive alignment must rule here and the tasks must measure the knowledge, skills and approaches / attitudes (at the appropriate level of difficulty / sophistication) that students are expected to attain. This will will ensure the validity of the assessment
  4. define / agree the criteria for each assessment task and the overall portfolio, as appropriate, and establish standards for each criterion
  5. decide formative assessment points and what feedback (judgement) and feed-forward (development) pointers will be given
  6. determine who will assess what: self, peers and staff can all contribute here.


Finally, returning to the requirement that students reflect on their learning through the portfolio:

  • at the most basic level we could require them to map the contents of their portfolio to the learning outcomes using a grid
  • at the next level we could ask that they write claims outlining explicitly how their work provides evidence that they have met the criteria and to what level
  • if we have allowed choice of elements from their (working) portfolio we could also ask that they explain why they have selected certain tasks over others.

These exercises force the student to focus on the content of the portfolio. The next stage is to concentrate on the process of developing the portfolio and require them to analyse their learning - how and what - as a result of undertaking the building of the portfolio, and still further, to reflect on what else they need to do to master the content / skills addressed.

Diversity & inclusion

By including a range of different tasks completed in a range of formats we are enabling all students to exhibit their achievements. Further, by allowing selection from a range of tasks we add to the student control over the process.

Academic integrity

As portfolios are developed over time, we are able to track the development of the work making it very difficult to include work that has been plagiarised. The requirement of critical reflection further ensures that it is difficult to copy /plagiarise. (Click for further guidance on academic integrity.)

By giving students agency and ownership of their learning they become more invested in the output, which can promote academic integrity.

The cumulative nature of portfolio building removes the big bang assessment, one high-stakes task at the end, which often creates stress and assessment bottlenecks which can motivate students to seek other solutions, such as contract cheating, collusion, or other shortcuts which compromise academic integrity.

All text-based assessment can be compromised by the use of AI if the intended learning outcomes address elements that generative AI can produce. Portfolio assessment provide opportunities for more creative, individuated, and ongoing assessment that would be harder to achieve with a one-off use of AI.

Student and staff experience

Portfolios include work that is produced over an extended period and should require a wider range of skills in its production. As a result students may view it as a fairer form of assessment. Given the opportunity to be involved in

  • designing of the individual tasks
  • deciding the criteria to be used
  • selection of content to present
  • peer assessment

and the longer-term opportunities afforded by portfolio assessment all add to the attractiveness of the method.


Deciding on an e-portfolio rather than a paper-based version has further benefits (Madden, 2007) including:

  • cost-efficient means to store a large amount of material, allowing a range of media types to be included
  • easy sharing of the portfolio and, by selecting permissions, selective sharing of content
  • easy to adapt and so use for more than one purpose
  • ease to update, add to and delete from the content
  • developing additional IT skills
  • opportunities to display in a number of ways and so suit different purposes; showcase and assessment roles.



For students

Developing a portfolio is time consuming and if the range of tasks does not go beyond the ‘usual’ (essays, short answers , mcqs etc.) then there will be little motivation to engage and to invest the time. Counter to this, requiring production in a range of formats (audio, video, blogs, etc.) and as an e-portfolio may add time demands as students have to learn how to produce new formats, master editing techniques and gain competence in the use of additional technologies.

All of these concerns can be mitigated by providing advice and guidance on the techniques and underlining the added values of the method.


For staff

  • assessing portfolios can be time-consuming, especially as they can provide evidence of more than the usual disciplinary knowledge and understanding
  • building in student choice, whilst a positive in terms of developing autonomous learners, can be challenging when trying to ensure that the assessment of the portfolio is consistent and reliable
  • over-assessing if we are not careful about weighting elements and making this clear to learners.




Time consuming but has the potential to generate great benefits.

For staff

Time consuming - but all good assessment is. The Strivens (2006) report lists twelve strategies, identified by surveying users of portfolios, to mitigate workload; well worth considering.


Useful resources

Hamp-Lyons, L. and Condon, W. (2000). Assessing the Portfolio: Principles for Practice, Theory and Research. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, Inc.

Klenowski, V. (2002). Developing Portfolios for Learning and Assessment: Processes and Principles. Abingdon UK: Routledge-Falmer

Madden, T (2007). Supporting Student e-Portfolios - The purpose of this guide is to provide a basic introduction to e-portfolios: what they are how they are being used potential benefits and challenges technical implications and how they might be introduced.

Strivens, J. (2006). Efficient assessment of portfolios. The Centre for Recording Achievement. - An account of ways in which portfolios are used efficiently by:

  • describing portfolio practice in a minimum of five professional courses with large student cohorts
  • identifying efficient practices
  • discussing trade-off between educational effectiveness and efficiency
  • providing advice on the design of affordable portfolio assessment.

University of Edinburgh. Institute for Academic Development. - Some further ideas, guidance and sample portfolios