9 Ways to Use Portfolios with Students

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A Show Case of Learning

As a teacher, I began having students create portfolios as a way to show what they were doing in class. The first portfolios were Show Case portfolios in which students would included their best work. Each student would select a number of assignments which they thought demonstrated their best work and during Student Led Conferences,  would show these to their parents and talk about the work they were doing. Over time, and with the introduction and access to technology, I began to experiment with different types of portfolios using a wiki with different pages for subjects, a set of linked documents and finally a webpage that students created. Students would embed images of their work. However, this was still a variation of the Show Case Portfolios just in digital format.

I was also experimenting with my own variations of portfolios, trying different formats to see how I could begin to develop my own work for others to see. I realized that I was limiting myself by only focusing on education related items. There was more that I was doing but wasn’t including. Thus began a long journey that continues today of trying to find my own voice as a person.

The Next Stage

As technology changed and it became easier to collect and manage the different items in a portfolio, I began to have students not just show their best work but also started to expand the use of the portfolio to include  drafts of work so they could show the progress of their learning and began to include a reflection portion to the portfolio to have students discuss what they learned and what they might want to add.

Today portfolios can include any number of different types of items from images and documents to sound recordings and videos. All these items can be incorporated to show the growth of student learning. But what if these portfolios were to include not just what the student was doing in school? What if portfolios were include items from outside of school? How might this change how students define their learning?

As you begin to look at portfolio use with students, here are some questions that I believe are important to answer before you embark:

Why use portfolios?

What is the purpose of creating the portfolio?

Who will “own” it? Will it be assessed? How?

What will be included?

Who will decide what is to be included?

Who can access the portfolio?

Can it “move” with the student and beyond?

I know that I didn’t think of many of these things and had to do a lot of backtracking and adjusting in the process.

9 Ways to Use Portfolios with Students

  1. Helping students Digital Fluency skills  – the ability to communicate, collaborate, connect, create. critique and collate – using digital tools is important for students. Students can use portfolios to practice and develop these skills not only for school work but for the different passions they have in their lives and bring them together in one place. Have students include drafts and changes as they work through the process of refining the work they are doing.
  2. Encourage curiosity and ask questions – asking questions that drive learning takes practice. A portfolio can become more than just a place where Show Case items are stored. By helping students develop their ability to ask questions, teachers can support a process of learning, differentiating the support students need as they learn and grow.  Have students include questions they have about a topic or inquiries they have about ideas and concepts. Include mindmaps and brainstorming sessions as processes of developing ideas. Get students to include I Wonder statements and What If ideas.
  3. Engage an authentic audience – through connecting with others, students can receive feedback and assistance as they explore different ideas and create work that has meaning for them. By creating for an audience other than themselves and their teacher, connect what they are doing with what is happening outside of school through interactions with others. Have students connect with other students for feedback and input. Get students to comment on the work of others and offer guidance to providing constructive feedback. Look for ways to connect students work with others through social media and provide opportunities for students work to get beyond the school by sharing with parents.
  4. Develop their own unique voice – In his book Louder Than Words, Todd Henry  discusses how “brilliant contributors commit to the process of developing their authentic voices through trial and error, by paying attention to how they respond to the work of peers, heroes, and even their antagonists, by playing with ideas, by cultivating a sharp vision for their work , and ultimately by honing their skills so they have the ability to bring that vision to the world”. Portfolios provide a place for students to begin this process of developing their own unique voice through practice, failure, reflection and retrying. Have students share stories, videos, podcasts and other work as they practice finding their own authentic voice.
  5. Explore different passions – instead of just including school-related items, students can include the different passions they have and explore different ideas over time. What might be of interest today may not be tomorrow but in a week or month become interesting again. Students have the ability to reflect on what they have done in the past and make connections to where they are now as learners. Have students include what they are doing outside of school. Have them include pictures and videos of things they are doing and talk about them.
  6. Explore multiple ways of expressing their learning and understanding – a portfolio allows students to include all sorts of items which they can use to demonstrate their learning. Videos, podcasts, music, writings, drawing, pictures – all these can be used as part of demonstrating their learning. Have students create different items and explore different ways of expressing their ideas and include reflections of what they did well and areas they see where they need to improve or find more information.
  7. Get feedback from multiple people – students can reach out to different audiences to get feedback and input about the work they are doing. Have them connect with other classes or individuals for feedback and input on what they are doing. Have them explain what they did or what they were hoping to accomplish and receive feedback from different people.
  8. Engage experts in a field through connecting – having the ability to connect with experts in a field provides students with access to knowledge they might not have access to otherwise. Feedback and insight from people who are experts provides students with an opportunity to push beyond the confines of the school. By developing a Personal Learning Network, students have access to support and assistance whenever they need it, taking learning beyond the confines of the school walls.
  9. Develop a cycle of learning – by building a body of work that continues to grow and change, students can develop reflective and generative habits of learning which apply to all areas of their lives. Instead of learning being what is done at school, students can incorporate their learning and the different things they are creating and receive feedback and input from various sources both in school and out of school. Have students identify things they want to learn about – both in the context of school and in other areas of their lives and build reflective practices as they progress.

These are just some of the ways that portfolios can be used with students. I created a personal Portfolio as an example of different types of portfolios and some of the tools that are available to create portfolios. If you click on the highlight with the SMYA presentation it will take you to my examples. Instead of learning being something that happens at school, it becomes connected to all areas of life, where what they do outside of school becomes part of their learning experience in school.


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I am a husband, father, son.... I am currently working on my PhD in Education - Curriculum and Instruction. My focus is teacher professional development and social media integration. I have a beautiful, supportive wife who has been my partner for 25 years. We have 8 wonderful children who are amazing individuals. Together, we are exploring the world around us, sharing our stories, and enjoying the journey!