Focus on portfolios: 4 advantages of alternative assessment

I’m happy to say that my school is currently dipping its toes into alternative assessment in the form of writing portfolios. Although I’m a big fan, it is the norm to view portfolios as a ‘non-traditional’ approach to judging performance. Nevertheless, portfolios, and alternative assessment methods in general, are frequently used in education to evaluate students based on objectives tailored to their learning needs. In contrast, traditional assessments such as multiple-choice exams estimate a learner’s improvement in content knowledge against other exam takers. As the sole criterion of improvement and/or competence, traditional testing can create faulty comparisons and overlook achievements. So, what exactly are the benefits of alternative assessment and portfolios in particular?

Path by the river
‘Path by the river’ by @ALiCe__M from ELTPics

1. A body of work vs. a one off performance

The portfolio process reviews a comparatively large body of a learner’s work, rather than a one off performance, to evaluate performance over a course of study. In other words, this is a qualitative – rather than quantitative – assessment tool which we can use to identify ‘progress’ and ‘development’ during the time frame represented by the work in the portfolio.

In ELT, research indicates that the portfolio process is beneficial when compared to traditional assessment, because its emphasis is on learners’ strengths as opposed to their weaknesses. The portfolio process is considered a more holistic and equitable approach than traditional quantitative testing methods, which receive criticism as the sole criterion for evaluating performance, in that it encourages self-esteem and the motivation to continue developing.

2. Alternative assessment is truly authentic assessment

Unlike traditional testing methods, alternative assessment techniques are in general performance-based reviews that focus on real-world tasks to display ability. Learners are evaluated based on observing performance of activities that demonstrate essential skills or knowledge. In other words, there is a practical point to evaluating the extent to which a learner can do the task.

Methods such as utilizing learner portfolios rely on direct observation, using checklists and rubrics. This can, therefore, be thought of as authentic assessment, in that this is a more individual evaluation approach that replicates the real world. Furthermore, we, in our role as the assessors, are able to avoid communication problems that arise in traditional testing modes.

3. Student involvement and engagement is high

Alternative assessment methods such as portfolios by and large necessitate the active participation of learners in the evaluation process. This naturally translates into greater interaction between learners and teachers. Another benefit is that learners become more engaged in the learning process, as well as building up a more intimate understanding of the particular skills and critical knowledge being appraised.

By increasing the involvement of learners in the evaluation process, they gain a better understanding of their personal strengths and weakness.

4. For those who love traditional assessment techniques, why not try a combination?

As we’re aware, we constantly feel the need to evaluate our learners’ performance. The good news for those of us who love gap fill is this: don’t ditch them! The use of both alternative assessment and traditional evaluation methods can provide educators a more wide-ranging and all-inclusive representation of a learner’s ability than either testing method might provide if used alone.

When deciding which category of assessment to use, it is important for us to remember that there is no definitive right or wrong assessment tool. Instead, our use of alternative and traditional assessment methods should be based on the needs of our particular learners.

How is it going?

As I mentioned at the start, this is the first time in many years that I’ll be assessing my learners using a form of alternative assessment. I plan to keep you informed and discuss the merits – and otherwise – of portfolios as the situation progresses this year.

A few links

If you’re interested in alternative assessment and portfolios, please come back soon, as I will be writing more about this again soon. Meanwhile, here are a few useful links:

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