Integrating E-Portfolios into Your
Assessment Strategy

Trent Batson, executive director of The Association for Authentic, Experiential and Evidence-Based Learning (AAEEBL), stirred some controversy this week with an article entitled "The Testing Straitjacket," in which he advocates for privileging e-portfolios over legacy testing as a primary tool for assessing student learning, arguing that e-portfolios, which "encourage students to use their collection of evidence as a strong developmental practice, and fully recognize the value of student discovery," are the more effective assessment tool to evaluate the type of learning needed in the twenty-first century.

While many educators do not see such an either-or proposition, interest in the use of the electronic portfolio is growing. However, while older methods of testing have a set of attested practices, the e-portfolio is a much more recent innovation in learning assessment, and many institutions are less sure where to look for effective models and best practices.

Tracy Penny Light, assistant professor at the University of Waterloo, a leading e-portfolio researcher and co-author (with Helen Chen at the Stanford Center for Innovations in Learning) of the book Electronic Portfolios and Student Success, offers several steps for integrating e-portfolios into your assessment strategy.

Ensure Your Assessment Strategy is Aligned with Your Outcomes

"The problem we see most often when educators begin using e-portfolios is that they may try to stick e-portfolios into existing modes of pedagogy, rather than rethink what outcomes they are trying to achieve, and how a portfolio can help get them there."
Tracy Penny Light, U of Waterloo

"You need to think through how you are aligning your outcomes with your teaching and learning assessment methods," Penny Light cautions. "Students are astute, and they know when you are asking them to do something just for the sake of doing it." It's essential to be clear about what outcomes are you trying to achieve (either in a course or in a program), and how e-portfolios can help assess whether your students have met them.

Penny Light suggests that rather than looking at the e-portfolio as a replacement for older assessment methods, evaluation of student learning might be most effective when you combine methods strategically. "Sometimes we do need students to memorize," she notes, "and we need to hold an exam to test that. We need medical students to know the correct dosages for a particular drug. We need chemistry students to know not to mix certain chemicals, in order to avert an explosion in the lab. We do need memorized knowledge. But we need other kinds of knowledge demonstrated, too."

It all depends on your outcomes. Here are a few examples.

Scenario A

Penny Light offers the example of a course in sexual ethics that is offered as an interdisciplinary course, not a philosophy course. The desired learning outcome is the students' self-awareness and ability to articulate their own ethical perspective, what has shaped their perspective, and how they are in dialogue with other perspectives. This self-awareness and ability would be difficult for students to demonstrate in a test. In this case, Penny Light's students develop a portfolio that includes a variety of artifacts demonstrating and reflecting on how their perspective has shifted over the course of the term.

For example, several times during the term Penny Light's students create a content map, identifying how course materials are affecting their understanding of ethics with respect to sex. "It's a way of capturing their thinking at one point of time," Penny Light notes. "Then, in their final portfolio, they can look back at that record and can reflect on how their knowledge has shifted."

Scenario B

If the outcome is less about developing skills in reflection and the ability to understand, think critically about, and articulate one's position, and is more about developing a knowledge base, the exam may be a privileged assessment strategy. For example, consider the course in Scenario A -- same topic, different outcome. In the Scenario B version of the course, the students need to be able to demonstrate comprehension of the different types of sexual relationships, how they function, and their ethical implications. The educator in this case can use an exam to test retention of key information. The educator can also use an exam to test the student's ability to apply their understanding of the concepts to specific case situations, by testing with higher-order questions.

Scenario C

This third example is a history course for underclassmen, and the outcome is that students need to develop the ability to connect varied resources in their research. A traditional assessment method in this case is a research paper, and this will still be needed as part of the course's assessment strategy. However, Penny Light notes that there is a whole research process that the students also need to learn in order to be effective and strategic researchers. They need to understand in what ways one article or item of information can lead them toward finding a second item.

The students in this course keep a reading log; besides noting the author of a piece and the perspective the author is writing from, they also log how they found additional articles from that assigned reading. They are asked to track the process of how they are finding the information they need for their own paper and how they are interpreting the evidence they find. They receive feedback on their log and on their process throughout the term. "Students in an introductory history course may have an expectation that they will be told a story of what happened," Penny Light observes. "The course needs to move them beyond that." In the final portfolio, the students reflect on how their research process has developed over the term, how they responded to instructor feedback, and what discoveries they made about the process.

Encourage Students to Take Ownership of Their Learning

Student buy-in is critical. Penny Light suggests engaging students during the first day of the course in a dialogue about the course's outcomes and the methods that will be used to assess whether the outcomes have been achieved. It's critical to encourage students to take ownership of their own learning.

This first day discussion could be built around questions such as:

  • What is a final exam?
  • How does an exam demonstrate what you have learned?
  • What is a portfolio?
  • How does a portfolio demonstrate what you have learned?
  • What are our learning outcomes?
  • What assessment methods will help us demonstrate that we've reached them?

"This dialogue places the focus on the student getting meaningful knowledge out of the class," Penny Light suggests. "The course is no longer about absorbing knowledge that is disconnected from their life and career." The dialogue invites students to see the portfolio as more than just busywork.

Testing has been an accepted assessment method in higher education for a long time. Portfolios are newer. Students may expect a final exam; students in some disciplines may even assume that assessment based on reflective thinking is not applicable to their field. "Some of your accounting students may think reflection is warm and fuzzy," Penny Light notes. "So bring in professionals in accounting to speak about how they use that skill in the field. Have the professor model reflective activities."

"Talk about process; talk about what we do as experts in these disciplines. Help the students see how their learning in this course is applicable and critical, how we are asking them to develop the skills, and the type of critical thinking they will need as they enter their field."
Tracy Penny Light, U of Waterloo