Learning Portfolio

The Learning Portfolio for Improvement and Assessment of Student Learning: A Primer

The learning portfolio is a rich, convincing, and adaptable method of recording intellectual growth and involving students in a critically reflective, collaborative process that augments learning as a community endeavor and refines their educational experience. It is a concept that can be custom tailored to suit many disciplinary, pedagogical, programmatic, and institutional needs.

The concept of the student portfolio has been widely known and implemented for some time in academic fields such as writing, communications, and the fine arts. Another popular application has been to provide a device for demonstrating the value of experiential learning or assessing credit for prior learning. Also, in business and teacher education, portfolios have been used commonly as effective tools for career preparation. Some portfolios are shared by students and faculty advisors for the purpose of academic and career advising.

Similarly, portfolios have been a staple form of documentation of performance skills in the fine arts, providing students and teachers in the arts disciplines with a method for displaying and judging evidence of best practice and samples of the full range of talent. In other areas such as business, leadership, or teacher education, portfolios have been useful in supplying a mechanism for demonstrating a representative breadth of acquired skills for professional success.

Often, however, what is left out of the formula in student portfolios is an intentional focus on the learning piece, the deliberate and systematic attention not only to skills development but to a student’s self-reflective, metacognitive appraisal of what was learned, how was it learned, when was it learned best, and, more importantly, why learning has occurred. This is not to assert, of course, that learning does not happen at all when portfolios are used only as collection and organizing devices, that a student does not benefit simply from the thoughtful act of choosing representative samples of accomplished work and making sense of the materials as a display. But more enriched learning is likely to occur if the student is encouraged to come to terms self-consciously over the duration of an academic endeavor—for example, a semester course, a teacher training program, the achievement of general education goals, a field or lab experience, an internship, or the completion of a degree—with key questions about learning:

  • How have such products as those collected in a portfolio over time contributed to higher-order learning?
  • What has the student learned from the process of generating the work?
  • How does the work fit into a larger framework of life-long learning which goes beyond simply completing graded assignments?
  • Why was the work valuable in the student’s overall cognitive development?

Such probing of the sources, coherence, and worth of learning—especially when combined with the power of collaboration and mentoring in making learning a recorded, shared, community endeavor—is sometimes missing from the model of the student portfolio as simply an individual repository of selected artifacts. Such a model is useful, but reflection and collaboration are key to reaping the full benefits of learning portfolios.

Most commonly, student portfolios have been used to collect and evaluate students’ work at key points in their progress, usually at the end of an academic endeavor. Campbell, Melenyzer, Nettles, & Wyman (2000, p. 14)—writing about portfolios with “a focus on product” for the purpose of certification in teacher education—make the strong point that in a well-managed portfolio students should realize that their effort is not simply to construct “a scrapbook of college course assignments and memorabilia” (p. 2). Instead, a learning portfolio should stress that the product is also a process, an “organized documentation of growth and achievement that provides tangible evidence of the attainment of professional knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Each portfolio is goal-driven, original, and reflective” (p. 13). The intrinsic merit of learning portfolios is that they involve students in the power of reflection, the critically challenging act of thinking about their learning and making sense of the learning experience as a coherent, unified developmental process. Such thinking is the linchpin of life-long, active learning, the key to helping students discover and understand what, how, when, and why they learn.

The portfolio approach to gauging student accomplishments and growth in learning—while not entirely new in higher education—has received more attention in the K-12 arena. In English and a few other disciplines in college classes, portfolios and journals have been employed with some regularity, but remarkably higher education has lagged behind the grade schools in innovating and refining such powerful learning tools. Today, following the groundswell of interest in teaching, course, and institutional portfolios, learning portfolios are beginning to attract significant attention in college and university settings. In addition to many print resources, numerous web sites exist for online information on portfolios, offering rich and diverse models especially of how electronic or digital portfolios are used worldwide for multiple purposes. Learning portfolios are clearly now mainstream in higher education.

The value of portfolios in improving student learning resides in engaging students not just in collecting representative samples of their work for assessment, evaluation, or career preparation but in addressing vital reflective questions that invite systematic inquiry:

  • What have I learned? Why did I learn?
  • When have I learned? In what circumstances? Under what conditions?
  • How have I learned or not, and do I know what kind of learner I am?
  • How does what I have learned fit into a full, continual plan for learning?
  • What difference has learning made in my intellectual, personal, and ethical development?
  • In what ways is what I have learned valuable to have learned at all?

Obviously, many more questions come to mind as one begins to fashion a strategy for reflection.

Such reflection is facilitated best not by leaving students individually to their own devices in thinking about their learning but by utilizing the advantages of collaboration and mentoring in making learning community property. Learning is enhanced by recognizing its relational values, by helping students connect individual pieces of gained knowledge to a larger puzzle of learning with ever-widening intellectual, material, ethical, social, even spiritual implications. In other words, dissemination of facts and delivery of knowledge are acts of instruction which serve an important but hierarchically lower purpose in how we think and learn. Higher-order teaching and learning are the shared acts of a reflective discourse community, a dynamic collaborative of living ideas that transform both teacher and learner.

Engaging students not only in collecting selected samples of their work for assessment, evaluation, and career development but also in continuous, collaborative reflection about the process of learning is a powerful complement to traditional measures of student achievement. The learning portfolio, then, is a flexible, evidence-based tool that engages students in a process of continuous reflection and collaborative analysis of learning. As written text, electronic display, or other creative project, the portfolio captures the scope, richness, and relevance of students’ learning. The portfolio focuses on purposefully and collaboratively selected reflections and evidence for both improvement and assessment of students’ learning.

A useful model for the learning portfolio involves a concise, reflective narrative plus selected evidence in a series of appropriate appendices. Such an approach parallels successful models for professional teaching (Seldin 1997; Zubizarreta 1995, 1997) and administrative (Seldin & Higgerson 2002) portfolios. The role of the collaborative mentor (a teacher, an advisor, or peer) is to help the writer keep the portfolio manageable, current, accurate, and relevant to one’s purpose. As new materials are added, old ones are removed, keeping the act of revision active and refreshing, continually informing the learning process.

What are the contents of a learning portfolio? There is no right or complete answer. Portfolios vary in purpose, and different purposes determine the diverse contents. Generally, the learning portfolio consists of a carefully reasoned, reflective narrative that, depending on purpose, captures the scope, progress, and value of learning, complemented by an equally representative compilation of concrete evidence. A popular alternative is a number of short reflections on separate or grouped items of evidence, though I prefer the coherence and unity of reflective analysis required in a single reflective statement and overview with keyed references to evidence in an appendix. Here is a generic table of contents, organized by broad categories and certainly not prescriptive or exhaustive. The table is meant to be suggestive, inviting multi-disciplinary ideas of what the actual, complex contents of a student portfolio might be; remember the caveat that purpose will drive final decisions about both reflection and documentation:

Table of Contents

  1. Philosophy of Learning (reflective narrative on learning process).
  2. Achievements in Learning (transcripts, course descriptions, résumés, honors, awards, internships, tutoring).
  3. Evidence of Learning (research papers, critical essays, field experience logs, creative displays/performances, data/spreadsheet analyses, course listserv entries).
  4. Assessment of Learning (instructor feedback, course test scores, exit/board exams, lab/data reviews, research project results, practicum reports).
  5. Relevance of Learning (practical applications, leadership, relation of learning to personal and professional domains, ethical/moral growth, affiliations, hobbies, volunteer work, affective value of learning).
  6. Learning Goals (response to feedback; plans to enhance, connect, and apply learning).
  7. Appendices (selected documentation).

The general categories of the table, again, are suggestive; each portfolio project will define specific contents in different ways, depending on purpose and learning objectives. But note that the categories reflect a logical pattern, one that essentially mirrors sound practice for both improvement and assessment. The flow parallels this order of reflective analysis, complemented by documentation in the appendix:

  • What, how, when, why did I learn?
  • What have I accomplished with my learning?
  • What products, outcomes do I have to demonstrate learning?
  • What measures and accounting do I have of my learning?
  • What difference has learning made in my life?
  • What plans do I have to continue learning?
  • Type, amount, and location of evidence supporting portfolio?

A brief reflective section of a few pages, plus appendices, is a practical investment for the student, who benefits from the portfolio’s efficacy in bolstering learning. The teacher, too, gains a multi-faceted means of appreciating, understanding, and assessing a student’s learning.

Recognizing that student portfolios take many forms, depending on purpose and individual or programmatic design, I propose a simple model for the learning portfolio predicated on three fundamental components:

1) Reflection 2) Documentation 3) Collaboration

The result is a compact, strategically organized document that evolves qualitatively to reflect the dynamic nature of engaged learning.

The learning portfolio is a concept that is strongly suited to enhancing learning. It is both process and document, encouraging reflection, collaborative mentoring, and emphasis on documentation of learning through detailed outcomes. It is a powerful way of providing evidence of learning tied to students’ reflections on the content, scope, and value of their learning. While portfolios provide teachers with diverse, multi-source information about learning for the purposes of assessment and evaluation, the final recipient of the learning portfolio’s benefits is the student, an appropriate and worthwhile achievement in higher education.


Campbell, D. M., Melenyzer, B. J., Nettles, D. H., & Wyman, R. M., Jr. (2000). Portfolio and performance assessment in teacher education. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Seldin, P. (2004). The teaching portfolio: A practical guide to improved performance and promotion/tenure decisions (3rd ed.). Bolton: Anker.

Seldin, P. & Higgerson, M. L. (2002). The administrative portfolio: A practical guide to improved administrative performance and personnel decisions. Bolton: Anker.

Zubizarreta, J. (1995). Using teaching portfolio strategies to improve course instruction. In P. Seldin & Associates, Improving college teaching. Bolton: Anker.

Zubizarreta, J. (1997). Improving teaching through teaching portfolio revisions: A context and case for reflective practice. In J. K. Roth (Ed.), Inspiring teaching: Carnegie professors of the year speak. Bolton, Anker.

Adapted from The Learning Portfolio: Reflective Practice for Improving Student Learning (Anker, 2004).

© John Zubizarreta, 2004