What are the advantages and disadvantages of portfolio assessment?

Last month on the blog I mentioned that my school was dipping its toes into formative assessment in the form of writing portfolios.

Overall, I’m very happy with the way it’s going, noting the advantages I discussed in my previous post. Nevertheless, it hasn’t been all plain sailing! With this in mind, I thought a follow up post might be in order, one in which I attempt to balance the pros and cons!

Formative assessment, just to get you all up to speed, covers the range of informal diagnostic tests and techniques, such as learner portfolios, us teachers can use to assist the process of learning by our learners. Prescriptive – by which I mean ungraded – feedback enables learners to reflect on what they are learning and why. The overall aim is to advance performance and achieve successfully achieve objectives. Formative assessment has, therefore, been likened to a chef tasting their food before serving it to a guest. As I said, things seem to be going well so far, but despite its advantages, portfolios aren’t a wonder cure. Let’s take a look at how the whole thing is balancing out in terms of benefits and downsides.

1. Continuous development with visible improvement

One great benefit of portfolio assessment for learning is that it is ongoing. One thing I’ve noticed over the past few weeks is that this allows for incremental feedback that helps us to identify a learner’s problems at an earliest stage. For example, the learner can be made aware of fossilized errors in their writing after one piece of work, and thus have the chance to not continue making the error that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

Summing up why this is good:

As learners work on their writing in classroom tasks, input from the teacher can inform, guide and validate each step of their writing process.

2. Honesty and transparency

Cheating and plagiarism remain significant problems in academic settings. One tactic I admire is to openly teach what it means to plagiarize and then give examples of what is and isn’t cheating. That notwithstanding, compared to graded summative assessments like mid-terms and final exams, I’m noticing that ungraded, formative assessments are reducing instances of cheating.

Summing up why this is good:

Basically, learners are more likely to focus on learning rather than merely obtaining grades.

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3. It is an extremely labor intensive process

Effective portfolio assessment can be difficult to achieve on a school-wide scale. Firstly, it may be logistically impossible to offer detailed descriptive feedback for every learner in a large class. I’m giving such feedback to only twelve of my students at present, and that’s more than enough, to be honest. Even with a smaller number to deal with, formative assessment is a time-consuming proposition because it requires significant, ongoing dedication and effort from both the learner and teacher to sustain effectiveness. Secondly, you have to coordinate the level and degree of feedback that each teacher is giving, so that all learners receive roughly the same amount of attention to their work: this is not an easy task.

Summing up why this is a challenge:

Trust me: this time and effort factor is especially true when you’re combining portfolio work with regular everyday summative assessments like grammar and vocabulary quizzes.

4. It creates a noticeable chain of accountability

The fact is, wherever you work, there is a hierarchical chain of accountability in education – in my case from student to teacher, teacher to director, director to the rest of the university, etc. – which creates universal pressure for student performance to be impartially and comparatively measurable at each stage. By definition, formative assessment doesn’t easily make available such accountability.

Summing up why this is a challenge:

This factor explains why, even though the benefits of portfolio assessment have often been noted, relatively few teachers and/or institutions make consistent use of portfolios in actual practice.

Looking forward

As this is my second post on formative assessment, please feel free to share your thoughts on portfolios and the like. This is a subject I’m bound to return to soon, and I’d like to know your thoughts on the matter.

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9 thoughts on “What are the advantages and disadvantages of portfolio assessment?”

  1. I really like the idea, but as you say, because of the volume of portfolios we had to give feedback on one year, we had to abandon this as assessment and simply recommend it to students. I’d like to see a planned out way that it can be kept as an assessment tool, but also isn’t a 100x worse than marking an essay.

    1. Thanks, Tyson.

      What you say really hits the nail on the head. I’m all for giving regular constructive feedback on learner performance and development, but it seems like a constant flow of documentation that needs to be checked, boxes that need to be ticked, etc. I’ve always been one for regularly collecting and informally assessing my learners’ written work, but now that I ‘have to’ do it, it seems somewhat more overwhelming!

  2. We used to work solely with portfolio assessment up to around 18 months ago. The (huge) plus side was that portfolios were individual – no two were the same. The portfolio could truly reflect the student and the student’s personal learning requirements. The ‘down’ side was of course time. Over the last few years we have had to accommodate larger and larger group numbers making individual attention became more difficult for the teacher to offer. Just over a year ago our assessment prodecure changed from portfolio assessment to exams (a national requirement). The portfolio is still used nowadays to house all the work involved in the learning process and it contains alot of ready made lesson material. The trick I try to incorporate is to offer lessons and lesson material that can be used across the board but are as adaptable as possible to the individual needs of each student – no mean feat!

  3. Thanks for the tip, Chantel.

    As I mentioned in my reply to Tyson, I’ve always been one for collecting and thoroughly commenting on my learners’ work, but for some reason I’m finding it more of a chore. Truth be known, I have pinpointed the exact reason…

    When I was doing this under my own steam, the tasks I set and the feedback I gave served as a complete, detailed writing exam preparation document. Now, the portfolio seems to exist as an entity unto itself and the work I need to prep for exams has to come on top of it. Good to know, and feedback for those evaluating the success of our portfolio project.

  4. Perhaps there is a way of using technology- the way online writing classes do- where the students work is posted, for comments by all of their classmates, as well as the teacher- so students learn to be both constructive editors and authors, and they learn form the feedback the teacher gives to each student.
    Perhaps on each assignment the teacher only comments on X number, such that in the course of the semester every student receives feedback from classmates and the teacher- Just a thought…

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