I work with a lot of brilliant students. I’m sure you do, too – students who are articulate, creative, curious, innovative changemakers who will create huge ripples in the world. Annie started the Gender and Sexuality Alliance, Richie volunteered to build a CNC machine for the engineering center, Dannie launched a website to raise awareness and money to combat human trafficking, and Gabe kick-started his clothing business. None of these students had a 4.0 GPA or SAT scores that would put them anywhere close to being considered for the most competitive Universities. 

Numbers are not an accurate representation of learning. Test scores cannot tell a story about a student. Only students can tell their own stories, and portfolios are a way to facilitate that.

What is a Portfolio?

In the broadest sense, a portfolio is a collection of student work. However, done effectively, portfolios can be so much more. Most importantly, students need to be at the center of the process. They will tell their own story by determining what a successful portfolio looks like, deciding how many artifacts should be included, and carefully curating those artifacts to be the best representation of who they are as learners. 

The benefits of portfolios are endless.


With all of these factors in mind, the first step that teachers and schools need to take when beginning to implement portfolios is to decide their purpose.

What is the Purpose of a Portfolio?

There are many types of portfolios, but most of them fall into three main categories:

  1. Work in Progress Portfolio – a place for students to gather all of their current work, along with reflections on that work. 
  2. Growth Portfolio – a student-curated collection of work that shows improvement on each specific skill or standard over time.
  3. Exit Portfolio – a student-curated collection of work that provides evidence of the student’s mastery of the content or competencies by the end of the school year.

You may also choose to have some blend of these as you engage in the portfolio process.  Making this choice is crucial to beginning conversations about the success criteria for an effective portfolio.

What Artifacts Should be Included in a Portfolio?

The main criterion for a portfolio artifact is that it should demonstrate learning. As such, you need to make clear to students: what learning they should be able to demonstrate. For example, you ask students to use their portfolios to show mastery of a subset of the content standards. Alternatively, you might have them align their portfolios to competencies, like those in your school’s “portrait of a graduate.” The learning that should be demonstrated must be clear to the students from the beginning. 

From there, anything that a student produces might be included as evidence in their portfolio. Some examples might include (but aren’t limited to):

The most important thing, though, is that the students themselves have a part in deciding the selection criteria and are the ones doing the selection. Collaborate with students to determine: how many artifacts should be included, how often they should be included, and measures of a high-quality artifact.

What is the “Portfolio Process”?

  1. Collection – Get your students into the habit of collecting everything they do and be creative here. You might have them take a video of themselves working through a lab procedure, record their voice while giving a speech or a verbal explanation to a peer, or even save a piece of scratch paper they used while working on a complex problem. Anything can be evidence of learning. Store all this evidence in your classroom or digitally in a carefully organized set of folders.
  2. Selection – Students will sort through their collections and choose the artifacts of learning that best meet the success criteria of the portfolio that you determined together.
  3. Reflection – Students will reflect on their choices, answering the questions, “Why did you choose this artifact? What makes this the best representation of your learning? What learning does it demonstrate?” 
  4. Connection – This is the student’s opportunity to connect the artifact not only to learning done in that class but also to other content areas. It is their chance to transfer their learning to another context.

Portfolio Presentations and Conferences

One way for students to present their portfolios is through portfolio conferences. Instead of parent-teacher conferences throughout the year, students can talk to their parents and teacher about their portfolios. They’ll present their evidence of learning and the progress they have made in addition to owning the work they still need to do. 

At the culmination of the year or before graduation, students can also give an exit portfolio presentation. In these presentations, students will share their learning story with a panel of teachers, parents, administrators, and other students. They talk their audience through each artifact, its meaning and context, and how it demonstrates their learning or growth. 

How do you use portfolios in your practice? What questions do you have about implementing portfolios? Do you have an example of a student portfolio to share? 

We would love to hear from you! Find us on Twitter @masteryforall.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *