Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

Using portfolios to assess first year student placements

Trudi Cooper
Lecturer in Youth Work
Edith Cowan University


In 1996 we introduced portfolio based assessment for the placement components of the Youth work degree course. This decision was made primarily as a response to dissatisfactions with the current teaching and learning strategies as they related to the practical aspects of the course. A secondary consideration concerned problems with moderation and quality control of existing assessment procedures. The main factors which prompted change were

Underpinning pedagogy to our use of portfolio based assessment

Portfolio assessment can be appended to many different pedagogical positions. We assume the following principles

Structural frameworks

The course operates within the following structural constraints


The biggest challenge with the first year placement unit is to prepare students to take an active role whilst on placement when there is only a relatively short preparation period. The main issues for student prior to the start of their placement are Our priorities in preparing students are The format for the session has been a one hour 'lecture' with the whole group (usually 35-45 students). The 'lecture' has different formats but may include structured warm up games to help student get to know each other, short inputs followed by structured exercises in small groups, individual quizzes, group discussions or activities or group work on problem solving followed by a plenary session to draw ideas together. Towards the end of the semester guest speakers from different types of agency are invited to discuss the type of work which their agency does. The 'lecture' is followed by workshops and tutorials in smaller groups where the tutor can take a more active role with the group. Readings are short and offer opportunities to follow up on ideas which have been presented in class.

The content of the rest of the semester is concerned with examining issues of stereotyping, developing relationships with young people, identifying and maintaining boundaries in appropriate professional conduct, understanding the role of the government bodies in the youth field, understanding the role of non-government bodies in the youth field.


At the end of the semester, we employed an independent researcher to evaluate the responses of students and agency supervisors to the portfolio assessment process. The findings from the surveys and interviews are summarised below.

The student questionnaire investigated the general question of how well they felt that the unit had prepared them for their placement experience and then specifically, how they felt about portfolio assessment. The responses showed that students felt that overall, they had been adequately prepared for the placement, (54% responded positively, 32% gave a neutral response and 14% replied negatively). When asked a similar question about portfolios 48% responded positively, 28% responded neutrally and 24% responded negatively. The overall response rate was 73%.

The follow up survey took place about six weeks after the initial survey and after the students had received feedback on their portfolios. This survey indicated that all six of the students still felt that the placement a useful learning experience, however all except one had some reservations about the preparation process. Two of the students felt that they needed more time in class to discuss the placement and the portfolio use; one felt there were too many objectives (each student should have had six objectives relating to core skills); one student stated that they felt that the objectives were not clearly defined before going on placement; one student felt that they needed more support from the Youth Work staff.

A questionnaire was sent to the placement supervisors in the youth work agencies. (Response rate 61%, (14)). Because the sample was small, the effects of the responses of individuals are marked. The responses indicated that one supervisor was unhappy with the performance of the two students who had been placed at her/his agency. This singular response was at odds with the responses received from the remaining supervisors. The unstructured comments from the disaffected supervisor indicate that their main concerns were that the students who were placed with them were too young (they were 17 years old, as were about one third of the students in this group) did not have sufficient maturity, were unclear about their commitment to youth work and were not able to contribute significantly to the work of the agency. By contrast, most supervisors 86% (12) were satisfied that students understood what they were supposed to be doing and had clear learning objectives, 79% (11) and had some ideas about how to achieve their learning objectives (70%). Again, the majority felt that students had been adequately prepared for their placement. (70%). Of the fourteen supervisors who responded to the survey, eight had previously supervised first year students from the youth work course at Edith Cowan University, and two felt that the students were better prepared for the placement, five felt that they were similar, and one felt that the student preparation was worse. The unstructured comments generally supported the assertion that students had been adequately prepared and had been able to become involved in the work of the agency. Other comments related to the attitudes and enthusiasm of particular students. One respondent said they did not think that the students were clear enough about their role.

Discussion of findings

The most positive aspect of the findings was that for almost all students the placement was perceived as a learning experience. Student difficulty with objective setting was expected. We feel that this is a skill which needs to be introduced early in the course, but one that for some students may take time to develop. The first assignment for this unit focussed on the development of placement objectives, strategies and performance indicators and indicated that there was great diversity in the extent to which these skills had been absorbed by students. The student survey indicates that this is something which we should try to follow up more effectively. It is interesting to note that despite the fact that half the students in the follow up survey were feeling that they were not well enough prepared in terms of identifying their learning objectives, the survey found that all the students felt that the objectives were relevant to the placement. This finding is consistent with the experience of staff that, especially for the first placement, some students will never feel well enough prepared before they begin their placement. It is also interesting to note that of the students interviewed more fully, all considered that their portfolio would be either useful or very useful to them in seeking future employment and as a record of their personal learning.

None of the students mentioned that they felt that producing a portfolio had been an unduly time consuming exercise (it replaced an academic assignment). Most felt that the portfolio reflected their learning (67%), though most also felt that some aspects of their learning were not reflected in the portfolio (67%). The findings of the follow up survey and the assessment of the portfolios indicate that it might be useful to spend more time in class in discussion of portfolio building, on the differences between resource files and portfolios and on how to write commentaries on the evidence presented in the portfolios.

The result of the surveys of agency supervisors were in many ways more positive than we had anticipated. Some of these comments reflect the motivation levels of different students and the degree to which they had made a firm decision about entering the youth work field. Most dissatisfactions seemed to relate issues which are beyond our sphere of influence. Government funding arrangements have required, in some years, that places are offered to school leavers in preference to mature age entrants and certainly do not permit us to exclude young people below a certain age (as was the policy when the course first started in 1984). This change in composition of the student intake has resulted in some changes to the ways in which we prepare students for placement and changes in the issues which are likely to arise for students, for example younger female students are more likely to face sexual harassment than other students.

Our learning: About teaching and learning

It was apparent on marking the portfolios that a significant number of students had not understood the purpose of producing a portfolio. There was a tendency for students to include a huge amount of documentation without any guide to its relevance. In terms of the implications for teaching and learning this highlights a tension between a mode of teaching which is prescriptive about the structure, organisation and content of portfolios and a mode of teaching which is not prescriptive on these issues but which focuses on understanding of purpose. If we had been more prescriptive about the structure and organisation of the portfolios then students might have been more discerning about the information which was included. However, it seemed that several students had not really grasped the concept that we were looking for evidence of their skills.

On this issue probably the biggest change that we will make is to examine how we can be more effective in helping students to develop active skills in initiating and documenting their own learning. We will probably do this through individual work with students during placement visits and through more 'clinic' sessions during tutorial times.

Our learning: About organisational arrangements

The introduction of portfolio assessment has made it necessary to keep more complex records on student placements. At the moment we have developed a manual system to cope with the changes. We also realise that other staff involved in placement visits need better briefing so that they can offer advice to individual students at the time of their visit. Finally, we realise that we need better coordination of the ways in which portfolio assessment is used in each of the different practicum units. In the short term we will do this by giving responsibility for all these units to those staff who have been involved in the development of portfolio assessment.

Our learning: About curriculum

At the time when we adopted portfolio assessment for the placement units, the course was at a cross roads in terms of its future direction and development. The abolition of non HECS bearing practicum units led some courses to abolish the practicum requirement altogether. Other courses absorbed the placement preparation into existing academic units. However, where this was done without considering the special nature of the assessment requirements of practical learning, there was a danger that learning from practice could be marginalised by the academic. To avoid this, we restructured the course to enable the new units to provide suitable skills development combined with academic content. We have strengthened the emphasis on practical skills, strategic thinking in relation to practice and the application to youth work of theoretical concepts about young people, society and social change. Portfolio assessment provided us with a means of strengthening the use made of practicum experiences whilst fitting the practicum related units into an academic structure.

About values: competency and portfolios

Links to competency based assessment, but avoids unhelpful aspects of reductionism.

Allow course to remain dynamic in the face of external change whilst indicating identifying key skill areas for practical focus.

Because the overall size of the degree course has reduced, this has meant the loss of some of the more general policy, sociological and political theory units. It has been a difficult to make these decisions, but they accord with the broader policy within the university towards rationalisation of courses.

This project is supported by the Edith Cowan Innovations in Teaching and Learning Project.

Please cite as: Cooper, T. (1997). Using portfolios to assess first year student placements. In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p68-72. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/cooper.html

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