Using Portfolios to Enhance the Learning Process in High School

Student portfolios provide teachers and parents with clear evidence of student learning. Work samples are an excellent indicator of student ability. Further, work gathered over a period of time helps teachers profile a student’s entire learning experience. When students reflect upon their portfolios, they begin to understand the scope and sequence, the scaffolding, of the courses which they record. Teachers, too, can use student portfolios. A collection of portfolios enables individual teachers to gauge how effective their teaching has been not only over time, but across their student population.

In order to be an effective learning tool, the portfolio should be assembled according to benchmarks that the teacher considers vital to reaching specific course outcomes. Suppose, for example, that a required outcome for a middle school writing course is that students be able to write a five-paragraph persuasive essay. What benchmarks might the teacher want students to meet?

The teacher might begin with exercises in sentence building. Students might be required to identify and correct sentence fragments. It is simply common sense to assume that some students will become proficient in this sooner than others. The teacher should simply collect representative work samples that show continued attempts towards meeting this benchmark. Meanwhile, the course moves forward – towards, say topic sentences, and from there onto individual paragraphs, and then essays of varying paragraph length

The idea that portfolios should include only examples of the students best work is misguided. Failure is as much a component of success as success, itself. Collecting work samples throughout an entire year, and periodically reviewing portfolios, will help remind students of where they have come from, and will reinforce the fact that they are actually learning.

A portfolio centered around, say, the construction of five-paragraph persuasive essays, should record the entire spectrum of student success and failure in achieving the final goal. In the end, the portfolio should be able to be read almost like a book. It should show the step-wise progression, including the mis-steps, the student made while working towards ultimate course objectives.

When viewed this way, a portfolio is much like a diary, and like a diary, it is always available for review and reflection. Such personalized review and reflection is the source of much learning, and isn’t that the goal of all teaching?