student portfolios

Out-of-the-Box Assessment with Student Portfolios

Make assessment meaningful to your students with the use of student portfolios instead of relying only on summative grades in your classroom.

What comes to mind when you hear about a student portfolio? Many would say this is simply a folder that houses exemplars of a student’s work. While this may hold true, student portfolios can be so much more, especially in STEM. Student portfolios have moved away from being a final showcase of student work, evolving into a means of performance-based assessment. This includes formative assessment, summative assessment, and student reflection. If this wasn’t enough to entice you, student portfolios also provide opportunities for students to use the all-important 21st century skills of critical thinking, creativity, and communication. Read on to learn how you can bring student portfolios into your next unit.

What are student portfolios?

A student portfolio is a compilation of student work that provides evidence of learning. The work included in a portfolio can be collected over an entire year, semester, or even just within a single unit. In the STEM classroom, unit portfolios are great tools for assessing understanding of content while providing students with time to reflect and evaluate their own understanding.

For example, consider a unit on cells. A student portfolio should showcase their understanding of cells, cell parts, cell processes, cell theory, or whatever content you decide is essential. Students then collect evidence of this learning from a list that you determine, or one they decide themselves. This may include a lab report, a model, a writing prompt, project, or other assignment. As these pieces are gathered, students can take time to reflect and revise their work in order to provide the best evidence of understanding possible.

How are student portfolios graded?

student portfoliosOnce a student portfolio is generated, you can evaluate it to meet your objectives. Some educators use portfolios solely as a formative tool and do not give them a grade, while others use portfolio as a means of summative assessment. Whichever approach you choose, assessing portfolios can be tricky given their subjective nature.

It is recommended to assess student portfolios using a rating scale or rubric that can be combined with a checklist for each piece. This means rating each piece in the same fashion on a predetermined scale. Perhaps a 3 means they mastered the content, ranging down to a 1, which means they have some misconceptions. This will allow you to assess a variety of different items in the same manner. If you are still worried about subjectivity, grade portfolios as a PLC.

Why should I use student portfolios?

While student portfolios are more work than giving students a multiple choice test, they are worth it. As you know, paper and pencil forms of assessment do not work for all students, especially in STEM. Performance-based assessments allow students to show their knowledge in a way similar to what takes place in the real world. This develops important skills needed for the workplace. Students take a second look at their work, critically consider pieces to include, reflect on each, and revise them, rather than turning in assignments to only then forget them moments later. In addition, students can see their growth over time, which can improve confidence and student mindset.

How do I get started?

student portfolios• Determine your objective. Ask yourself what kind of data you are aiming to collect. Consider not only the length of time, but also what elements could be included and content standards that need to be met.

• Decide how it will be assessed. Do you want the portfolio to be a project grade, or no grade at all? Create your checklist, rating scale, or rubric.

• Consider how will it be collected. Student portfolios are traditionally paper, but with the increased use of technology, portfolios can also be digital. Tools such as Google Classrooms or Evernote can be used to create an electronic portfolio.

• Get students involved. Before the unit begins, explain how the portfolio will be used, along with your checklist or rubric. You can also increase buy-in by allowing student choice. When you are just beginning, allow students to choose one or two pieces. As they gain experience you could even have them pick all of the pieces for the portfolio.

Student portfolios are a great way to engage your students in the assessment process while improving both their understanding of the content and their 21st century skill set. Before you start your next unit, consider using a student portfolio for formative assessment. As the year progresses and your confidence grows, portfolios can become a summative measure for your course. However used, student portfolios are bound to be a valuable addition to your classroom.

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Alexandra D. Owens

Alexandra Owens is a STEM Education consultant based in Charleston, SC. She taught middle school science for many years and is now completing her doctorate in STEM Education at Texas Tech University.
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