Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

The portfolio approach to evaluation

Richard G. Berlach
Department of Teaching and Curriculum Studies
Churchlands Campus, Edith Cowan University
Much has been written about the Portfolio Approach to evaluation in education. This method revolves around presenting students with a list of requirements at the commencement of a semester, which need to be completed by a stipulated date and submitted for evaluation in the form of a compilation, or portfolio. Requirements are varied and attempt to broadly sample the objectives of the unit. In semester two of 1996, it was decided to replace the major assignment (worth 40% of the total marks for the unit) with a portfolio exercise, for the fourth year BEd unit "Self-concept in the Classroom". Fifteen students were enrolled in the unit. Portfolio activities included collecting and analysing samples of children's work; administering and analysing a self-concept test; completing a relevant worksheet; interviewing other professionals; completing a review of an article; reacting to videoed material; and evaluating the content of an audio-cassette. At the completion of the exercise, students were asked to consider the usefulness of the Portfolio Approach as an evaluation tool. The students' perceptions are reported here.

Portfolio Evaluation Procedures in Profile

Portfolio presentation as evidence of skill and performance has a long and rich history. In times past, this evaluation tool tended to reside more with design and technology people, musicians and artisans - those on the technical and/or creative edge of the formal educative process. Presenting an art or design portfolio for evaluation, for example, has always been quite acceptable; however, a mathematics, physics, or writing portfolio ...well, such areas were better assessed by the tried and true method of formal testing...everyone knew that!

In more recent times, however, the traditionalists have been so captivated by the growing popularity of the portfolio approach to evaluation, that this tool has been given bona fide status in areas such as writing (Martin, 1988; Sheldon, 1995), mathematics (Ferguson & Maples, 1992), English (Allen, 1992), and history (Tierney, et al., 1993). Only time will tell whether this tool for evaluating curriculum areas such as these has enduring value or whether current interest will prove to be ephemeral.

Portfolios have been variously defined. While in the business world a portfolio normally refers to investment variety (Ternent, 1989), in the world of education, it typically refers to a selection of contributions which show that the student has worked at, understood, and integrated a specific curriculum related to a particular discipline. The contributions for presentation may come from the student, the teacher, or both. A portfolio is usually seen as a process as well as a product. With regard to the former, some researchers (e.g., Hauser, 1993; Paulson and Paulson, 1994) see the compilation of the portfolio in developmental terms as the collection grows from relatively simple exercises to more cognitively complex "stories of knowing". The product - the compilation (portfolio) itself - thus becomes the evidence that the process has lead to greater understanding. It is this evidence which allows the portfolio to be used as an evaluation tool.

Many advantages of utilising the portfolio approach have been reported. First, it engenders the student with a sense of ownership (Deming & Valeri-Gold, 1994). Second it provides the student with a sense of accomplishment as the work presented is more substantial than completing a number of unintegrated minor tasks. Third, it allows for the exhibition of greater variety and creativity than may be possible by traditional multiple-choice tests, essays and examinations. Fourth, it provides opportunity for far greater reflection and integration of content than the more traditional forms of evaluation (Shannon, et al., 1995). Fifth, as Parker (1995) points out, it emphasises the social and human-side of learning by allowing individuals to work with others, at their own pace. Sixth, discrete activities can be distributed over time which makes for more effective consolidation. Seventh, relevant activities drawn from personal interest can be included. Such activities would be highly motivating for students. Eighth, with the increasing emphasis on portfolio presentations for promotion in educational environments, the portfolio procedure provides a good training-ground for putting together a professional and employment portfolio (Aitken, 1994; Doolittle, 1994). Ninth, putting together a portfolio may be less stressful for many students than completing a formal test or sitting for an examination. Even where such procedures are required, the proportion of marks allocated to an examination can be reduced, thus potentially reducing student anxiety. Finally, portfolios, although time-consuming to mark, provide greater interest for the assessor than marking dozens of similar essays on the same topic.

Experimenting with the Portfolio Approach

The fourth year Bachelor of Education unit Self-concept in the Classroom was selected for partial evaluation by portfolio presentation. The unit is described in the guide as follows:
This unit explores the relevance of the self-concept construct for the classroom practitioner. It is divided into three modules which include the theoretical underpinnings of the self-concept debate; the relevance, for children, of self-concept vis-a-vis other factors such as gender, academic achievement and popularity; and the power and place of self-concept in the overall profile of the teacher. Practical implications and applications pertaining to an understanding of self-concept are stressed in class sessions as well as via evaluation procedures.
It was felt that such a unit lent itself to portfolio evaluation because a complex construct such as self-concept would probably best be understood when explored in a multifaceted way. The normal evaluation consisted of a multiple choice test (20%); a major essay (40%); and an examination (40%). The portfolio was to take the place of the major essay, however, as this was the first trial of such an instrument, students were permitted to opt for either a major essay or a portfolio presentation. All but one student from the group (n = 14) opted for the portfolio form of evaluation. The class consisted of approximately equal numbers of full-time and part-time students.

Attention to eight tasks would complete the portfolio. It was considered that these tasks, together, would provide the students with valuable insights into the self-concept construct. Students were provided with the following information:

The final 'task' provided the data which allowed the lecturer to gauge reaction to, and receptivity of, the portfolio form of evaluation for the selected unit. Analysis consisted of reading responses and highlighting both positive as well as negative perceptions. Overall, student responses were very favourable with the greater majority agreeing that: Negative comments were relatively minor and both received from the same student: Earlier, ten advantages of utilising the portfolio approach in evaluation were reported. The overwhelming majority of opinion from the present study seems to indicate that learning was enhanced in nine out of the ten areas considered as a result of having interacted with unit content via portfolio presentation (Table 1).

Table 1
Table 1

Summary Statement and Conclusion

In summary, it can be argued with confidence that the portfolio form of evaluation utilised in the unit under consideration confirmed the advantages reported in the literature. It is also concluded that the vast majority of students found this form of evaluation to be more satisfying and relevant than the completion of a major assignment. As a result, this form of evaluation will be retained into the foreseeable future. It is also noted, however, that as students need to practise a variety of skills, evaluation in this unit ought to remain multi-modal in nature. Hence, both the test as well as the end of semester examination will be retained. Finally, further feedback will be sought in subsequent semesters to ascertain the strength of the receptivity of the portfolio approach with other cohorts undertaking the same unit. In this way, a profile of the overall value of such an evaluation tool can be effectively gauged.


Aitken, J. (1994). Assessment in specific programs: Employment, program, and course student portfolios in communication studies. Paper presented at the Speech Communication Summer Conference, Alexandria, VA. [ED373376]

Allen, M. (1992). Assessment and invention. Roundtable report presented at the Northwest Missouri State University. [ED346457]

Doolittle, P. (1994). Teacher portfolio assessment. ERIC clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation, Washington, DC. [ED385608}

Ferguson, S., & Maples, C. (1992). Windows on learning. Portfolios Part II: Zeroing in on math abilities. Learning, 21(3), 38-41.

Hauser, J. (1993). College student portfolios: A representational format for "best profile" dimensions. Paper presented at the meeting of the International Reading Association's Panel of Speakers, San Antonio, TX. [ED362090]

Martin, W. (1988). Dancing on the interface: Leadership and the politics of collaboration. Writing-Program-Administration, 11(3), 29-40.

Parker, E. (1995). Speaking of portfolios: Contrasting images. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, Washington, DC. [ED390047]

Paulson, L. & Paulson, P. (1994). A guide for judging portfolios. Measurement and Experimental Research Program, Multnomah Education Service District, Portland, OR. [ED377210]

Shannon, D., et al., (1995). Implementing a portfolio-based evaluation system for preservice teachers. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, CA. [ED386468]

Sheldon, D. (1995). Using portfolios to complement the whole language program in a third grade classroom. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Nova Southeastern University. [ED381792]

Ternent, W. (1989). Applying portfolio evaluation concepts to educational program screening. Paper presented at the "Evaluation '89" Conference of the American Evaluation Association , San Francisco, CA. [ED311975] Tierney, R., et al. (1993). Portfolio evaluation as history: A report on the evaluation of the history academy for Ohio teachers. An Occasional Paper delivered for the National Council for History Education, Westlake, Ohio. [ED371978]

Please cite as: Berlach, R. G. (1997). The portfolio approach to evaluation. In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p38-43. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/berlach.html

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