Many argue that grades, especially those based on standardized tests, are limited in the information they provide about a student as a learner. Due to their “snapshot” nature, grades fail to represent a student’s growth over time. In addition, grades tend to be given by a teacher, excluding a student from the assessment process in a manner that can be detrimental to the student’s learning, engagement, willingness to take risks and even self-esteem. The ethical issues of grades aside, summative grades fail to represent the kind of work students do in a Maker Ed. program (STEAM programs in educational settings that employ making or hands on construction). One of the obvious forms of alternative assessment that makers can use to demonstrate competence and growth, is the portfolio. Below is a summary of what I have learned about portfolios in the arts and engineering fields, as well as my experience using portfolios for a 6th grade science course.
Lessons Learned from the 2014 PbS 6 Portfolio Project
For the past two years I have taught 5th and 6th grade science through the lens of problem solving and making in a course called problem based science (or PbS for short) and maker portfolios, grew naturally out of the need to store and curate work my students were completing in their year long deep dive into a problem. I teach my classes in the iLab for Making, a dedicated digital and analog making space at the Hillbrook School in Los Gatos, Ca. Teaching full-time in iLab allows my students access to tools, technology and materials for the purpose of exploring science, math and engineering in a hands-on and self-directed environment. PbS level 5 consists of a game-based curriculum that emphasizes skill building, self-directed learning and teamwork as students solve problems of ever increasing difficulty. PbS 6 is a design thinking course that asks students to focus on a real world problem, which they identify in their environment through a series of active research (interviews, observations, and surveys) as well as passive research (essentially a lit review using the internet or library). Due to the highly differentiated nature of the course, tests were no longer an option for assessment, so for the 2013-14 school year my students agreed that if we ditched the tests, they would dutifully document their course work through a series of self-reflections, prototype logs, written argument essays, and evidence of all the passive and active research they completed. Their portfolio became a record of their inventing, as well a record of the content and skills they gained through their course work.
Around mid-year I noticed that the quality of work my students were accumulating in their portfolios would be a great tool that could be used for the high school application process in 8th grade and student led conferences. In effort to move toward this goal, I am piloting a new elective in the fall of 2014 which is problem based science level 7, introduction to entrepreneurialism. Former PbS 6 students can use the elective time to hone their portfolios while working toward the goal of either publishing their ideas and inventions or learning how to tell the story of their problem solving, a step towards crowdsourced funding for their product idea. In this manner, the process focused portfolio of sixth grade will evolve into the more formal or product focused portfolios more common to the professional world.
What is a Portfolio?
In a 1991 paper by F. Leon Paulson et al. called What makes a Portfolio a Portfolio; eight thoughtful guidelines will help educators encourage self-directed learning, portfolios are defined as a “purposeful collection of student work that exhibits the student’s efforts, progress, and achievements in one or more area.”
Paulson and others further suggest guidelines for best practice using portfolios stating, “The collection [of student work] must include student participation in selecting contents, the criteria for selection, the criteria for judging merit, and evidence of student self-reflection.” (Paulson et. al. 1991)
In summary, a portfolio is an analog or digital (also known as electronic or e-portfolios) collection of student work, which has been intentionally selected to either represent the learners capacity for growth or to highlight a student’s best work for public showcase. If the portfolio functions primarily to document the learning experience (as formative assessment), this is called a working or “process” portfolio. If the portfolio contains only a selection of best work for public sharing (summative assessment), this is called a final portfolio. Public sharing of a portfolio can range from peer-assessment activities, to student-led conferences, to applications to high schools and colleges. (Lombardi 2008)
The Evolution of Portfolios
Portfolios originated as a showcase of work by artists, models, photographers as “tangible evidence of accomplishments and skills that must be updated as a person changes and grows” (Tierney et al 1991). As such, portfolios have been more synonymous with evidence of competency and creativity in ways that tests scores have failed. Outside of art and design schools, learning portfolios experienced an increase in popularity beginnoing in the 1980’s and 1990’s, perhaps as a response to increasing standardized testing in schools. This trend shows up in a surge of articles and academic papers done on the use of learning portfolios in the 1990’s. In a 1997 Edutopia article, Pittsburg teacher Kathy Howard notes the democratic role of using learning portfolios in a writing classroom. "There is a shift in the power base from teacher to students,” says Howard. “Students start looking at models of good writing and setting their own criteria and standards for good work." In the 2000’s, as more electronic portfolio companies have came into existence (see a review of e-portfolio’s here), portfolios are playing a greater role in higher education, including undergraduate and postgraduate medical education (Senger 2012).
Even more recently, and seemingly in time with the Maker Movement overall, a push for engineers to have portfolios has also emerged. Engineering students with portfolios “are able to communicate about their past experiences more clearly, regardless of whether the actual portfolio is needed in a given application process. Also, once they’ve created their engineering portfolio they are able to respond to unexpected opportunities of displaying their work,” states Justin Lai, Invention Education Associate with the Lemelson-MIT program and prior researcher for MIT’s Ideation Lab.
Dale Dougherty and MIT made news when they announced in 2013 that MIT would be accepting maker portfolios as part of their undergraduate admissions process. On the MIT admissions website a maker portfolio is described as “a description of one project completed outside of school, internships, work, or extracurricular activities [which demonstrate] how you learn, create, and problem-solve in an unstructured environment.” Examples of projects listed that would qualify for a maker portfolio include “new origami designs, a chainmail suit, a potato cannon, a knitted fractal, or a computer program/app.” According to MIT admissions gurus, the point of introducing maker portfolios was to give applying students the platform to share what they are passionate about outside of school, to demonstrate a capacity for self-directed learning and competency in areas of fabrication seen desirable by engineering schools, all aspects of a student which SAT scores and essays fail to reveal. It will be interesting to see how many other elite universities follow suit in their own admissions policies in the coming years as “making” becomes a national household term and educational organizations in support of Maker Ed. programs push for evidence of good portfolio use.
One such organization is the Maker Education Initiative, the non-profit off shoot of Make Media (of the famed Maker Faire and Make Magazine). In 2013 the Maker Ed research team began their own nation-wide research project into maker portfolios. This project is called the Open Portfolio Project, or OPP for short. According to the MakerEd.org site “Portfolios will allow for informal and formal education environments to document students’ accomplishments, allowing for more organizations to make a case for the value of making and giving opportunities to students to learn through making.” The OPP will unfold in three phases says Stephanie Chang, director of Youth Engagement at Maker Ed who is overseeing the implementation of the project. Phase one was a complete literature review of portfolios in education to be published on their website. Phase two includes visits to schools and informal making programs currently using maker portfolios with the goal of “develop(ing) a common set of practices for portfolio creation, reflection, sharing, assessment, and technology solutions to create an open, decentralized, and distributed lifetime portfolio system for makers.” Phase three will be a written playbook on maker portfolios to be published by early 2015. Keep checking the MakerEd.org website for their findings.
A Case for Portfolios
In a review of alternative assessments done by Jenna-Lynn Senger in 2012, portfolios are critiqued for their “highly personalized nature.” Lack of objectivity presents a large problem for those seeking assessment that is easy to use and follows a one-size fits all model. Portfolios also take time to construct and evaluate. Measures to justify the time that portfolios require versus grading tests are difficult to find and this lack of evidence “has prevented a more widespread use of this valuable tool,” notes Senger (Senger 2012). Further concerns about portfolio use raised by a study done in 1992 include storage and access for students.
Assuming time, storage and a focus on formative versus summative assessment are not your greatest barriers, portfolios are valuable assessment tools on several levels. For starters, portfolios are a constructivist activity in and of themselves which teach students “assessment literacy.” As the student curates their own growth, they become active judges of what quality is. Assessment is embedded in the creation of the portfolio, as students select projects, writing, etc. to highlight. Unlike grades, portfolios “permit instruction and assessment to be woven together in a way that more traditional approaches do not” (Paulson 1991).
Secondly, involving students in the assessment of their own work allows students to feel in control of evaluating how well they have met a learning goal and what might be needed to learn next (Valencia 1990). Having students actively construct their own portfolio, as well as assess their own work for placement into a portfolio, engages a student in ways that are empowering and educational.
Another feature to the portfolio is that they require a real audience. Whether the audience consists of parents at a student-led conference, peers during a peer critique session, a high school admissions team or potential crowd-sourced investors, portfolios leverage a student’s talents in a manner that is more conducive to storytelling than a test. Portfolios provide a powerful tool for students to communicate with others about their work. A portfolio is a set of artifacts that a student can refer to when creating narratives about their work, obstacles they had to overcome and evidence of their commitment.
I have my students prepare written narratives to add to their portfolio describing their personal connection to the problem they chose to study for the year. We also discuss the many ways in which my students can share their scientific work after they complete the product testing phase of the year long assignment. I reassure my students that even if they are not strong writers, they still need to access their story telling talents when sharing the details of their scientific work. Getting others excited about your work is a major part of working as a real scientist or inventor, states Alan Alda, of the famed M.A.S.H. series, and co-establisher of Stony Brook University’s Center for Communicating Science. In a talk he gave at Stanford entitled, “Helping the Public Get Beyond a Blind Date with Science,” Alda reminds us that the audience we need to be able to communicate with may not be part of the scientifically literate. A push towards narratives and good storytelling is an essential part of getting the public and financial support your ideas and work need.
In summary, portfolios are valuable for a Maker Ed. program because no other form of assessment can chronicle the process of invention, tinkering, researching, self-assessment and making the way a portfolio can. Along with peer-assessments and rubrics, portfolios can be used as a holistic form of authentic assessment in any constructivist educational program with student growth at its center.
- Alda, Alan. “Helping the Public Get Beyond a Blind Date with Science” Talk given at SLAC on October 25, 2013
- Dougherty, Dale. “MIT Welcomes Makers with New Maker Portfolio” Make Magazine; August 16th, 2013
- Edutopia staff, “The Power of Portfolios: A Positive Practice” Edutopia article July 1, 1997
- Edutopia Video: An Introduction to Comprehensive Assessment Performance-based evaluation is a real-world improvement on the artificial measures of paper-and-pencil testing.
- Hall, Bruce W., and Cynthia M. Hewitt-Gervais "The application of student portfolios in primary-intermediate and self-contained-multiage team classroom environments: Implications for instruction, learning, and assessment." Applied Measurement in Education 13.2: (2000) 209-228.
- Johns, Jerry L., and Peggy Van Leirsburg. "How Professionals View Portfolio Assessment." Reading Research and Instruction 32.1 (1992): 1-10.
- Juniewicz, Kit. "Student portfolios with a purpose." The Clearing House 77.2 (2003): 73-77.
- Lombardi, Judy. "To Portfolio or not to Portfolio: Helpful or Hyped?." College teaching 56.1 (2008): 7-10.
- The New School High School Portfolio Guidelines
- Paulson, F. Leon, Pearl R. Paulson, and Carol A. Meyer. "What makes a portfolio a portfolio." (1991) Educational leadership 48.5
- Senger, Jenna-Lynn. "Student Evaluations: Synchronous Tripod of Learning Portfolio Assessment—Self-Assessment, Peer-Assessment, Instructor-Assessment." Creative Education (2012) 03.01: 155-63. file:///Users/loaner/Downloads/CE20120100023_59177921.pdf
- Tierney, Robert J., Mark A. Carter, and Laura E. Desai. Portfolio Assessment in the Reading-writing Classroom. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon, 1991.
- Valencia, Sheila. "Assessment: A Portfolio Approach to Classroom Reading Assessment: The Whys, Whats, and Hows." The reading teacher (1990): 338-340.
- Wendell, Dr. Dawn. “When Makers Apply to College” Film of talk at Maker Faire Bay Area May 2013