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The Portfolio Organizer: Succeeding with Portfolios in Your Classroom

by Carol Rolheiser, Barbara Bower and Laurie Stevahn

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Determining the Basics of Student Portfolios

Key Ideas

  • Establishing the goals and overall purpose of the portfolio
  • Choosing a type of portfolio
  • Considering the audiences for the portfolio
  • Determining the time frame for maintaining the portfolio


The material in this chapter helps you make decisions about the use and purpose of portfolio assessment in your classroom, school, or district. Focusing on and clarifying your educational goals is crucial groundwork for all other decisions. To define those goals, you'll work through an activity that is designed to identify the purpose of the portfolio. Once the purpose of the portfolio has been determined, a particular type of portfolio—either growth or best work—can be chosen, and the time frame for portfolio maintenance can be set. Through another activity you'll think about the different audiences for students' portfolios and plan to address their various needs. Use the figures to help you make and record key decisions about the purpose, type, audiences, and time frame for your students' portfolios.

Establishing Goals and Purposes

Beginning with your broader educational goals will help you focus decision making about the implementation of portfolios in your educational setting and clarify the purpose of the portfolios. Goals often emerge from an external source (state, provincial, or district guidelines) or an internal source (personal philosophy). Goals that are determined by external guidelines usually form the initial basis for classroom instruction and assessment; however, teachers tend to merge these external goals with personal goals that reflect their philosophical and pragmatic orientations. Activity 1 will help you articulate your ”dream goals“ for students. See Figure 1.1 for examples of dream goals, or responses, to Activity 1.

Activity 1. Identifying Dream Goals

Whether you are implementing portfolio assessment for personal or external reasons, identifying your dream goals will help you and your students maintain focus, direction, and motivation. Use the following steps to think about and share dream goals with other professionals. Samples of responses are shared in Figure 1.1.

  • Form groups of three teachers. Teacher A serves as the interviewer, B the responder, and C the recorder.
  • Teacher A interviews Teacher B, while Teacher C records the response to these questions:
    • What are some things you would like your students to achieve this year?
    • What is your dream goal for your students and why is it important?
  • Teachers rotate roles after each interview, until each teacher has been interviewed. (Allow 3–5 minutes for each interview.)
  • Discuss how your dream goals will influence instructional and assessment choices.
  • Responses can also be shared in a large group.

Figure 1.1. Sample Responses to Activity 1 (Dream Goals)

The following thoughts are from teachers who identified dream goals for their students. Use their responses to Activity 1 to prompt your thinking as you consider your personal goals. 

Winnie's Dream Goals  

My dream goal for my students is that they begin to take responsibility for their own learning. I teach middle school students and I often think they come to school expecting to be told what they have to know and learn. My goal is to help them find relevance in their learning and recognize the importance of their own ideas, feelings, and questions. I want them to start making connections between what they are learning in school and who they are as individuals. To accomplish this goal, I need to find out for myself what is important to them and give them opportunities to reflect on what they are learning. I also need to provide experiences that are meaningful to them, that excite them, and that tap into their interests and needs. 

Portfolios can certainly help me understand my students better and come to know where their interests are, what their goals are, and what kinds of experiences they enjoy the most. Portfolios also give them a way to think about what they are learning and connect that with their own lives. 

Barb's Dream Goals  

I would like my high school students to be self-directed learners who are able to identify their own strengths and weaknesses and are able to set realistic goals for themselves. I have always understood that kids know themselves better than anyone else, yet I haven't always tapped into that knowledge appropriately. It is usually pretty easy to tell students how they need to improve, but it is so much more powerful if they can articulate that themselves. My dream goal this semester is for my kids to say, “These are things I am good at, these are things I am not good at, and this is how I am going to improve.” Then they can work toward their goals as I assist them in that process. 

My dream goal will influence my instructional and assessment choices because I need to teach my students how to self-evaluate more effectively as they acquire the knowledge and skills necessary for each class. My assessment approaches will have to include giving students many opportunities to practice self-evaluation and I will have to share some of the “power” in the overall assessment and evaluation process. My students' judgments must count for something if they are going to become more self-directed in their learning. 

Helping students “develop a love of learning,” “become self-directed learners,” and “have a positive sense of self” are often identified by teachers as the most important goals to achieve with their students. When teachers articulate these or other personal goals, they are better able to select instructional and assessment approaches that will help them and their students achieve both personal goals and external goals. Portfolio assessment enables teachers to meet both personal and external goals because the process of developing a portfolio and the product created can target a variety of goals.

Identifying the purpose of the portfolio is an essential decision that will influence many facets of organizing the portfolio. Given the importance of this decision, think carefully about the fundamental reasons you are considering the implementation of portfolio assessment. Here are some questions you may want to consider:

  • Why am I implementing portfolio assessment? Is it mandated by an external body or is it a personal choice?
  • Why do I want to involve students in collecting and evaluating their own work?
  • How will portfolios help me achieve my personal goals with my students?
  • Is my purpose to show the process and product of work or just the product itself?
  • Is my purpose to have students accumulate a sampling of “best work” for admission to a particular program or for employment?
  • Is my purpose to carry out large-scale assessment or to report progress and inform instruction at the classroom level?
  • Is my purpose to evaluate overall student performance or to target specific areas?

Your answers to these questions will be influenced by the control that you have within your educational setting and will determine the overall purpose of the portfolios. The more that you are able to incorporate your personal goals into the portfolio model, the more ownership and motivation you will feel throughout the process.

Types of Portfolios

After identifying the reasons for using portfolio assessment, you need to determine what type of portfolio best suits your needs. The literature on the types, or categories, of portfolio assessment shows many different ways that portfolios have been conceptualized. For example, Danielson and Abrutyn (1997) identify three major types of portfolios: working portfolios, display portfolios, and assessment portfolios. Seely (1996) identifies four types of portfolios: showcase, documentation, evaluation, and process. Burke, Fogarty, and Belgrad (1994) discuss three major categories for portfolios: personal, academic, and professional. Campbell, Cignetti, Melenyzer, Nettles, and Wyman (1997) elaborate on a working and a presentation portfolio in their discussion of portfolios.

Although the conceptualizations of these authors are different, the common theme in determining the type of portfolio to use is that “it is important for educators to be clear about their goals, the reasons they are engaging in a portfolio project, and the intended audience for the portfolios” (Danielson & Abrutyn, 1997, p. 1). To simplify your decision making, think about portfolio types by focusing on two major classifications: best work portfolio and growth portfolio.

Best Work Portfolio

This type of portfolio highlights and shows evidence of the best work of learners. Frequently, this type of portfolio is called a display or showcase portfolio. For students, best work is often associated with pride and a sense of accomplishment and can result in a desire to share their work with others. Best work can include both product and process. It is often correlated with the amount of effort that learners have invested in their work. A major advantage of this type of portfolio is that learners can select items that reflect their highest level of learning and can explain why these items represent their best effort and achievement. Best work portfolios are used for the following purposes:

Student Achievement. Students may select a given number of entries (e.g., 10) that reflect their best effort or achievement (or both) in a course of study. The portfolio can be presented in a student-led parent conference or at a community open house. As students publicly share their excellent work, work they have chosen and reflected upon, the experience may enhance their self-esteem.

Post-Secondary Admissions. The preparation of a post-secondary portfolio targets work samples from high school that can be submitted for consideration in the process of admission to college or university. This portfolio should show evidence of a range of knowledge, skills, and attitudes, and may highlight particular qualities relevant to specific programs. Many colleges and universities are adding portfolios to the initial admissions process while others are using them to determine particular placements once students are admitted.

Employability. The audience for this portfolio is an employer. This collection of work needs to be focused on specific knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary for a particular job or career. The school-to-work movements in North America are influencing an increase in the use of employ-ability portfolios. The Conference Board of Canada (1992), for example, outlines the academic, personal management, and teamwork skills that are the foundation of a high-quality Canadian workforce. An employability portfolio is an excellent vehicle for showcasing these skills.

Growth Portfolio

A growth portfolio demonstrates an individual's development and growth over time. Development can be focused on academic or thinking skills, content knowledge, self-knowledge, or any area that is important in your setting. A focus on growth connects directly to identified educational goals and purposes. When growth is emphasized, a portfolio will contain evidence of struggle, failure, success, and change. The growth will likely be an uneven journey of highs and lows, peaks and valleys, rather than a smooth continuum. What is significant is that learners recognize growth whenever it occurs and can discern the reasons behind that growth. The goal of a growth portfolio is for learners to see their own changes over time and, in turn, share their journey with others.

A growth portfolio can be culled to extract a best work sample. It also helps learners see how achievement is often a result of their capacity to self-evaluate, set goals, and work over time. Growth portfolios can be used for the following purposes:

Knowledge. This portfolio shows students' growth in knowledge in a particular content area or across several content areas over time. This kind of portfolio can contain samples of both satisfactory and unsatisfactory work, along with reflections to guide further learning.

Skills and Attitudes. This portfolio shows students' growth in skills and attitudes in areas such as academic disciplines, social skills, thinking skills, and work habits. In this type of portfolio, challenges, difficult experiences, and other growth events can be included to demonstrate students' developing skills. In a thinking skills portfolio, for example, students might include evidence showing growth in their ability to recall, comprehend, apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information.

Teamwork. This portfolio demonstrates growth in social skills in a variety of cooperative experiences. Peer responses and evaluations are vital elements in this portfolio model, along with self-evaluations. Evidence of changing attitudes resulting from team experiences can also be included, especially as expressed in self-reflections and peer evaluations.

Career. This portfolio helps students identify personal strengths related to potential career choices. The collection can be developed over several years, perhaps beginning in middle school and continuing throughout high school. The process of selecting pieces over time empowers young people to make appropriate educational choices leading toward meaningful careers. Career portfolios may contain items from outside the school setting that substantiate students' choices and create a holistic view of the students as learners and people. This type of portfolio may be modified for employment purposes.

Considering the Audiences

At one time teachers were the sole participants in assessment decisions, and students and parents were viewed as the recipients of those decisions (Shaklee, Barbour, Ambrose, & Hansford, 1997). Today, however, educators are more actively engaging a wide array of audiences in the assessment process. These audiences are not only rich sources of ongoing information, but also bring diverse perspectives to students' learning. Portfolio assessment is a valuable tool for building bridges and creating partnerships with many audiences, or stakeholders, resulting in better learning opportunities for all students. As Shaklee and colleagues note, “The cast of stakeholders may vary from program to program or from teacher to teacher and from time to time. The important factor is that teachers and students define a series of multiple stakeholders in order to provide a broad panorama of the students' abilities” (1997, p. 44).

Many different audiences, or stakeholders, may have a role in the portfolio assessment process. Audiences vary, depending on your particular setting, goals, and purposes. Primary audiences usually include students, parents, teachers, and administrators. Knowing the assessment, evaluation, and grading needs and concerns of these groups will help you implement a portfolio process that is aligned with the needs of your audiences. Activity 2 will help you assess each group's needs; Figure 1.2 captures the needs and concerns generated by a parent while participating in Activity 2.

Activity 2. Identifying Needs and Concerns of Audiences

What audiences will your students' portfolios reach? What are their needs and concerns? How can you and your students meet those needs? Use this activity to anticipate the needs and concerns of the various audiences that may participate in the portfolio process.

  • Form groups of four participants, including teachers and administrators when possible.
  • For each group, divide a piece of paper into quarters to use as a recording sheet. Use one label for each section: students, parents, teachers, and administrators.
  • Ask each participant to record the group's ideas for one section.
  • Allow about 3 minutes to brainstorm and record ideas in each of the four sections. The ideas should be focused on the needs and concerns of each audience (students, parents, teachers, and administrators), regarding assessment, evaluation, and grading. For example, the recorder can ask the group the following questions:
    • What are the needs and concerns of [students] regarding assessment (gathering data)?
    • What are the needs and concerns of [students] regarding evaluation (judging merits)?
    • What are the needs and concerns of [students] regarding grading (assigning values to symbols for reporting)?
  • At the end of the group process, facilitate a whole-group discussion to identify key ideas related to each audience. The following questions may guide discussion:
    • What are the common concerns and needs across all audiences?
    • How do the concerns and needs differ across the audiences?
    • What potential contributions could each audience make to the portfolio process?

Figure 1.2. Sample Response to Activity 2 (Needs and Concerns)

When you think about portfolios, you must also consider the audiences your students' portfolios will reach. The following comments from a parent illustrate a few of the needs and concerns that may emerge from the discussion outlined in Activity 2

A Parent's Needs and Concerns  

As my children progressed through elementary school and high school, I always worried that the assessments they faced did not demonstrate their unique strengths, talents, or weaknesses. Of course, every mother believes that her son or daughter is wonderful and hopes that the teacher will see what she sees. It can be easy to feel that a test or a prescriptive assignment doesn't allow your child to really demonstrate what he can do. I worry that busy teachers will not have the time to really get to know my child. Some children are very forthcoming about what they like, what they are good at, or what scares them. But others are much more reticent. I want teachers to get to know who my children are as individuals. 

Potential audiences may vary according to the purpose and type of portfolio used. For example, the student creating a best-work employability portfolio needs to consider employers as a primary audience. On the other hand, a growth portfolio focused on academic skills might involve peers in the classroom, other teachers (e.g., a resource teacher), and parents. Ways that teachers can engage a variety of partners in the portfolio process, including creative ways for students to share their learning, will be explored in Chapter 7.

Time Frame

The time frame of portfolio maintenance is a key factor influenced by decisions about goals, purposes, and type of portfolio. For example, if a growth portfolio is being used to document learning across the entire curriculum, then a full-year time frame may be most appropriate. For a high school teacher using a best work porfolio focused on algebra and problem-solving skills, however, a term or semester portfolio may be adequate. For teachers just beginning to experiment with portfolios, a shorter time frame may be advisable (e.g., a best work portfolio in social studies for six weeks). A short-term experience can build eraly success for the teacher and can help build confidence for future refinement and expansion.

As you select a time frame, consider student's familiarity with portfolio assessment. Students who have had experience creating portfolios will allow the teacher to proceed quickly through the initial stage of portfolio introduction because they understand many of the concepts related to portfolio use. Students with some portfolio experience will also be able to handle long-term portfolios because they are more comfortable with self-directed learning.

Use Planner A on pp. 8–9 to record your decisions as you work through this chapter. Keeping a log or journal of the decision-making process can help you implement portfolio assessment in your classroom and assist you in evaluating and modifying your portfolio assessment plans.

Planner A. Summarizing Portfolio Decisions

Use this figure to record the decisions you have made about your students' portfolios. This summary of your planning will guide your next steps.

Educational Goals

List documents that contain mandated educational goals. Specifically check school, district, and state or provincial documents.


List personal dream goals that you generated in Activity 1. Add additional goals, as appropriate.



Based on your educational goals, what are the key purposes of the portfolio?



What type of portfolio have you chosen?

___Best work portfolio ___Growth portfolio

What is the focus of the portfolio (e.g., a particular subject area, a unit of content, work habits)?


Record your reasons for choosing the type and focus of the portfolio.



List key audiences that may be part of your portfolio assessment process. Summarize the concerns and issues for each audience and any ideas you have to address these concerns and issues.


Time Frame

Decide the time frame for maintaining the portfolios. For example, do you intend the portfolio to be focused on a unit that will stretch over a few weeks or the entire school year? Record your decision.

___ Unit (___ weeks) ___ Semester or term ___ Full year ___ Multiyear

Other (specify: _____________________________________________)

Table of Contents

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