Portfolios, and electronic portfolios (also known as “e-portfolios or e-folios”) in particular, are fast becoming the ideal way to formatively assess student understanding of concepts in today’s K-12 classroom. Key concepts that need to be defined in order to thoroughly understand this process include portfolios and e-portfolios, along with their relevance to constructivism. After initial investigation of these central ideas, we will look at concrete examples of e-portfolio use in K-12 classrooms.
A portfolio is a collection of artifacts that document student progress toward one or more instructional goals in one or more courses. Elements that are often included in a portfolio include drafts of student work, student self-assessment, parent and/or teacher assessment, finalized written products, photographs of artwork, sewing projects, industrial technology creations, or other hands-on coursework, and recordings of musical or theatrical performances, along with sections dedicated to personal and career goals, educational “paperwork” such as attendance, discipline, and grades, and awards/honors in and outside of school that demonstrate a student’s leadership, character, scholarship, or community service.
Oftentimes, the portfolio consists of a three-ring binder or box that holds the artifacts. An e-portfolio works on the same principles discussed above, except that all items that are selected are organized, summarized, and shared digitally. These can then be viewed online either through an intranet or internet connection, depending on the level of privacy desired by the stakeholders.
Regardless of the contents in the particular portfolio, the student must participate “in selecting contents, the criteria for selection, [and] the criteria for judging merits” (Roach, 2001). Otherwise, the portfolio is just another group of assignments dictated and judged by the teacher, whereby no critical thinking or decision-making rights have been given to the student. It is imperative to make this distinction because the true goal of portfolios fully aligns with constructivist thought when it “involve[s] students in their own education so that they can take charge of their personal collection of work, reflect on what makes some work better, and use this information to make improvements in future work” (OERI, 1993). Students will construct more enduring knowledge when they are the driving force behind the learning and the teacher promotes the process by helping them “collect, select, reflect, and connect” (Epstein, 2009).
Collection involves determining what academic and non-academic artifacts should be collected, how they are to be collected (scanned, typed, photographed, digitally recorded, etc.), how they will be organized ,and ensuring that students “habitually document and collect their work” (Epstein, 2009).
Selection takes into account the purpose of the portfolio and the audience to whom it is directed. A question that needs to be address is whether or not the portfolio should contain only the student’s best work or show progress made over a given time period. Will the portfolio be used for grade promotion, graduation, student-led conferences, or as a tool to get a job? Criteria needs to be set as to how often material is selected for the portfolio and which stakeholders besides the student (parent/teacher/administrator/community members) have a say in the contents, and to what degree their say matters.
Critical thinking skills are intrinsically flexed in the process of portfolio development as students reflect upon their selected portfolio pieces in concerted metacognitive exercises (Roach, 1993). Reflection is essential to “developing and understanding criteria for good efforts, in coming to see the criteria as their own, and in applying the criteria to their own…work.” (OERI, 1993). Students can reflect on how or why they chose particular artifacts, the skills and knowledge needed to produce them, and strengths and weaknesses evident in each of them. Students benefit more when there is attention paid to awareness of the processes and strategies that underlie effective performance. In this way, they can fully learn, understand, and transfer the skill or knowledge to new contexts.
Connection is the part of the portfolio that can make the process real for many students. Students can demonstrate their proficiencies and learning growth by presenting or exhibiting the portfolio to an authentic audience. E-portfolios lend themselves perfectly to this real-world exhibition because they can be uploaded to a web site or simply browsed on a desktop kiosk. When students know that their work is going to be “published” or viewed by people other than themselves and the teacher, pride of ownership becomes an issue. They want to show their best efforts when they know other students, parents, community members, college admissions officers, and/or possible employers will be looking.
E-portfolio creation serves a variety of purposes, while supporting students’ multiple intelligences and providing a structure to working collaboratively in “socially mediated activities that provide the social and cultural context for the transition from other-directed to self-directed behavior and growth [in their own] strengths, needs, and modes of learning and achieving.” (Roach, 2001). Portfolio assessment shines through its focus on regular, ongoing authentic assessment, artifact selections, teacher-student dialogues, and timely information gleaned from student reflection about their strengths and needs that inform both individual and whole-group instruction.
K-5th Grade: A very clear, thorough example of portfolio use in an elementary classroom that includes a description of Student Objectives, the Portfolio, Self-Assessment, Self-Reflection, Teacher Response, Points to Keep in Mind, Suggestions for Portfolio Comments, Entry Slips, Writing Inventories, and Parent Communication can be found on Pomperaug Regional School District 15's web site at . This standard portfolio can easily be made into an e-portfolio by digitizing the contents using a word processing application, a scanner, and a digital camera.
6-8th Grade: An excellent example of a 7th & 8th grade portfolio description that "includes best work showing growth over time, addresses state achievement standards, illustrates experiences as a learner, shows evidence of reflection, helps students find depth and gain new perspectives, represents the uniqueness of the individual student, [while providing for an opportunity to demonstrate] Basic technology literacy...(word processing, internet research,multimedia presentations, etc.)" can be found on Expeditionary Learning Schools Outward Bound's web site at 
9-12th Grade: In this example, the portfolio is used as criteria for academic eligibility for students who want to participate in non-academic public school activities who are not enrolled in public school in Idaho. The document includes the requirements to demonstrate proficiency in various subject areas and a corresponding analytic scoring guide. See  The document does not designate a particular format for the portfolio, but the situation lends itself to the e-portfolio because students from all over the state can digitize the contents of their portfolios using a word processing application, a scanner, and a digital camera, thereby expediting the process of submitting the finished product to the state activities association for review.
Epstein, A. (n.d.) Designing and Implementing a Portfolio Program. Synapse Learning Design. Retrieved April 7, 2009 from 
Johnson, L. & Lamb, H. (2007). Electronic Portfolios: Students, Teachers, and Life Long Learners. Teacher Tap. Retrieved April 2, 2009 from 
North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL). (2004). Portfolios. Pathways. Retrieved April 4, 2009 from 
Office of Research, Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) of the U.S. Department of Education. (1993). "Student Portfolios: Classroom Uses," Office of Education Research Consumer Guide, Number 9. Retrieved April 7, 2009 from ADPRIMA Information for New & Future Teachers' web site: 
Roach, V. (2001). K-12 Electronic Portfolios: Digital or Electronic Portfolios as Process to Support Different Ways of Knowing. Retrieved April 7, 2009 from 
Teague, H. (2005). "Building Student Portfolios Online." OOPS (Our Overnight Planning System). Retrieved April 7, 2009 from 
Directions: Write concise answers to the following questions.
1. Define the term portfolio, and list at least two items that can often be found in a K-12 student portfolio.
2. Electronic portfolios are known by at least two other nicknames, name them.
3. Give one reason why the portfolio process can be considered authentic assessment.
4. List two reasons (other than #3 above) why portfolios fit into the constructivist way of thinking.