Portfolio assessment is an evaluation tool used to document student learning through a series of student-developed artifacts. Considered a form of authentic assessment, it offers an alternative or an addition to traditional methods of grading and high stakes exams. Portfolio assessment gives both teachers and students a controlled space to document, review, and analyze content leaning. In short, portfolios are a collection of student work that allows assessment by providing evidence of effort and accomplishments in relation to specific instructional goals (Jardine, 1996). At its best, portfolio assessment demands the following: clarity of goals, explicit criteria for evaluation, work samples tied to those goals, student participation in selection of entries, teacher and student involvement in the assessment process, and self-reflections that demonstrate students' metacognitive ability, that is, their understanding of what worked for them in the learning process, what did not, and why. These elements enhance the learning experience and the self-understanding of the student as learner.


Portfolio assessment is not defined by a single procedure, nor is there a single best way to use portfolios. However, the following components are generally assumed integral. The portfolio itself is a container of some sort, for example, a folder, crate, file, or virtual space for online portfolios. The selected contents should demonstrate student accomplishments over time. All selections and parts are authentic in that the included pieces provide evidence that the goals and objectives of the curriculum have been met, with added student reflections that review the process and /or products of learning. Participants in the portfolio assessment process (instructors, students and parents or administrators, if applicable), should be aware of assessment standards in advance. Depending on the type of portfolio, the contents may vary widely. Possible contents include writing samples that may vary in genre, content, and style, laboratory reports, journals, taped performances, recordings, art, research papers, projects, photos, interviews, conferences, tests, quizzes, observations, and reflections.

In some schools, material from a semester's or year's portfolio is digitalized and stored for future reference as a record of student accomplishments over a specified time. Colleges requiring licensure for a profession may require students to keep evidence of each standard met in an online or physical portfolio, ensuring ready access to reviewers or accrediting agencies that all work has been completed. Because a portfolio contains a variety of artifacts that provide evidence of work completed, it is particularly useful in these assessment circumstances.


Clear criteria for evaluation, including what must be included in the portfolio and rubrics for evaluation, are vital to successful portfolio assessment. When teachers develop unambiguous assessment criteria, they necessarily use a shared discourse, clarify beforehand any unfamiliar vocabulary (Rodgers, 2002), and assure that they and students have a mutual understanding regarding the theoretical foundations of the task before it takes place. Understanding these criteria can help reduce or eliminate criticism about subjectivity or unfairness of grading, a common criticism of those who prefer standardized assessments. The use of comprehensive rubrics that present structured information about organization, required components, length and content of entries and reflections, in addition to any specific assignment rubrics that clearly outline the goals, obligations, and constraints of particular entries, are valuable. The more precise and comprehensive the rubric, the more objective the assessment. Through explicit direction, instructors should make clear all guiding principles or policies for what may or may not be included in the portfolio.

Reflective pieces require students to articulate and review components of the portfolio and are a part of a comprehensive assessment. Reflections allow students the time and space to analyze their achievement in relation to class standards, evaluate their final products, and determine growth as well as needs (Fernsten & Fernsten 2005). The metacognitive exercise of figuring out how they know what they know about the learning that has taken place can be an invaluable learning tool and helps participants take responsibility for their own learning.


There are a variety of portfolio types, each designed to help assess either the process or the products of learning.

Showcase portfolios. Showcase portfolios highlight the best products over a particular time period or course. For example, a showcase portfolio in a composition class may include the best examples of different writing genres, such as an essay, a poem, a short story, a biographical piece, or a literary analysis. In a business class, the showcase portfolio may include a resume, sample business letters, a marketing project, and a collaborative assignment that demonstrates the individual's ability to work in a team. Students are often allowed to choose what they believe to be their best work, highlighting their achievements and skills. Showcase reflections typically focus on the strengths of selected pieces and discuss how each met or exceeded required standards.

Process portfolios. Process portfolios, by contrast, concentrate more on the journey of learning rather than the final destination or end products of the learning process. In the composition class, for example, different stages of the process—an outline, first draft, peer and teacher responses, early revisions, and a final edited draft—may be required. A process reflection may discuss why a particular strategy was used, what was useful or ineffective for the individual in the writing process, and how the student went about making progress in the face of difficulty in meeting requirements. A process reflection typically focuses on many aspects of the learning process, including the following: what approaches work best, which are ineffective, information about oneself as a learner, and strategies or approaches to remember in future assignments.

Evaluation portfolios. Evaluation portfolios may vary substantially in their content. Their basic purpose, however, remains to exhibit a series of evaluations over a course and the learning or accomplishments of the student in regard to previously determined criteria or goals. Essentially, this type of portfolio documents tests, observations, records, or other assessment artifacts required for successful completion of the course. A math evaluation portfolio may include tests, quizzes, and written explanations of how one went about solving a problem or determining which formula to use, whereas a science evaluation portfolio might also include laboratory experiments, science project outcomes with photos or other artifacts, and research reports, as well as tests and quizzes. Unlike the showcase portfolio, evaluation portfolios do not simply include the best work, but rather a selection of predetermined evaluations that may also demonstrate students' difficulties and unsuccessful struggles as well as their better work. Students who reflect on why some work was successful and other work was less so continue their learning as they develop their metacognitive skills.

Online or e-portfolios. Online or e-portfolios may be one of the above portfolio types or a combination of different types, a general requirement being that all information and artifacts are somehow accessible online. A number of colleges require students to maintain a virtual portfolio that may include digital, video, or Web-based products. The portfolio assessment process may be linked to a specific course or an entire program. As with all portfolios, students are able to visually track and show their accomplishments to a wide audience.


Portfolio assessment research substantiates the idea that students greatly benefit from assessments that go beyond simple letter grades and involve participants in the evaluation process. By taking part in the development of their portfolios, analyzing the criteria for what constitutes good work, and learning to evaluate their own work through guided reflective practices, students grow and develop in their knowledge and understandings. Portfolio assessment is part of a substantial body of research documenting the student benefits that emerge from an awareness of the processes and strategies involved in learning. (Hamp-Lyons & Congdon, 2000; Martin-Kniep, Cunningham, Feige, 1998)

The benefits of portfolio assessment are numerous. To begin with, they are a more individualized way of assessing students and have the advantage of demonstrating a wide range of work. They may also be used in conjunction with other types of required assessments, such as standardized or norm referenced tests. Often, portfolio contents are selected collaboratively, allowing students an opportunity to make decisions about their work and encouraging them to set goals regarding what has been accomplished and what needs further work, an important skill that may serve them well in life endeavors.

Portfolio assessment can promote a dialog between teacher and students about the individualized nature of the work. Too often, students may have papers or projects returned with a number or letter grade only and fail to understand what might be necessary for improvement. Required reflections in conjunction with conferencing reduce the possibility that students will be unclear about the assessment or what must be done to make improvements. This one-to-one aspect is an additional bonus for those students who may be too shy to initiate conversations with instructors as well as for those who enjoy speaking about their work and may better understand what worked and what did not through a verbal exchange.

Most importantly, portfolio assessments provide an authentic way of demonstrating skills and accomplishments. They encourage a real world experience that demands organization, decision making, and metacognition. Used in a thoughtful, carefully planned way, portfolio assessment can foster a positive outlook on learning and achievement.


Fernsten, L., & Fernsten, J. (2005). Portfolio assessment and reflection: Enhancing learning through effective practice. Reflective Practice 6(2), 303–309.

Hamp-Lyons, L., & Condon, W. (2000). Assessing the portfolio: Principles for practice, theory, and research. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Jardine, A. S. (1996). Key points of the authentic assessment portfolio. Intervention in School and Clinic, 31(4), 252–253.

Martin-Kniep, G.O., Cunningham, D. & Feige, D. M. (1998). Why am I doing this?: Purposeful teaching through portfolio assessment. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Rodgers, C. R. (2002). Voices inside schools, seeing student learning: Teacher change and the role of reflection. Harvard Educational Review 72(2), 230–253.