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Teaching Opinion

Response: Ways To Help Students Develop Digital Portfolios

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 05, 2015 17 min read
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Steve McCrea asks:

How can we teachers use digital portfolios to help students show what they know and show us how they have used what they have learned?

Several educators have volunteered to write responses today - Rusul Alrubail, Michael Fisher, Frank Serafini, Kristin Ziemke, Kate Muhtaris, Jeb Schenck, and Joe Rommel. You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Rusul and Michael on my BAM! Radio Show.

I have also collected additional related resources at The Best Resources For Developing Student Portfolios.

Response From Rusul Alrubail

Rusul Alrubail is an Educator-in-Residence at Design Cofounders, where she helps with the development and facilitation of Education pathways in Design, Education & Entrepreneurship communities in Toronto. She also teaches composition, literature, and ELL to college students:

Digital portfolios can be a very useful tool to enhance students’ social and cultural learning in an English Language classroom. Teachers can use digital portfolios as a platform for students to show their work. More importantly, students can use them as a platform to share the learning process with their teacher.

I used digital portfolios as an extension to students’ learning outside of the classroom, as a platform for peer feedback, and to build and foster social, cultural and interpersonal interactions in our classroom.

My students created their portfolios on Blogger.com which has a very simple and easy to manage interface. However, teachers can use many other platforms: Edublogger, Google Sites, and Wordpress are just a few examples. My students personalized their sites through themes, images, layout, and content. Their digital portfolios contained some of the following categories:

  • Responses to readings, discussions, news events.
  • Sharing images, visuals, links/resources.
  • Reflections: thoughts on ideas, themes, goals.
  • Digital storytelling.

A vital aspect of using digital portfolios in an ELL classroom is to allow students to lead the creation of their own portfolios, with the teacher facilitating and guiding the creation with feedback and positive suggestions. Many ELL students will feel very shy and hesitant to publish work. It’s important for them to know that their work should be reflective of their voice and personality, with alot of encouragement and support from the teacher. The teacher can reassure students that it is totally fine to have grammar, sentences structure or vocabulary errors on their blogs. This will take off a lot of pressure, and will allow students to demonstrate their learning of concepts and ideas, while still practicing written and oral (if using digital storytelling) communication in their digital portfolios.

Also, consider giving students a choice in topics to share and write about in their digital portfolios. This will give a sense of ownership to students on the process and will increase levels of engagement and motivation. Giving students choice will also inadvertently give authentic pedagogical feedback on the students’ learning and their needs in the classroom.

Teachers can ask students to reflect on topics they covered in the classroom to demonstrate their learning. Depending on the students and their needs, it might be useful to provide question prompts to help them focus their ideas. Remember to keep questions opinion related and not content driven, in this way students will not hesitate to write out of fear of not having “the right answer”. Here are some sample reflection questions from Edutopia, they provide great discussion prompts for students to reflect on work completed in class through their digital portfolios.

Peer feedback is also an important aspect in the use of digital portfolios. They give students an opportunity to show what they have learned, but more importantly to share it with their peers and engage in learning together. Thus, digital portfolios should motivate and engage students in communicative learning on a high level. This communicative learning will help students build social interactions with their peers around specific classroom contexts. Schedule for students to give effective feedback or comment on their peers’ work. Peer feedback will help students to build social and interpersonal skills, and create a positive community in the classroom. Consequently, this type of learning will also help English Language learners with confidence level, social and cultural adaptation, and building relationships. The teacher should see the classroom as a place to learn and practice the language, and digital portfolios as artifacts of what students can do with the new language in a social context.

Response From Michael Fisher

Michael Fisher works with schools around the country, helping to sustain curriculum upgrades, design curriculum, and modernize instruction in immersive technology. Michael is the author of Digital Learning Strategies: How do I assign and assess 21st Century Work? (ASCD, 2013) and co-author of Upgrade Your Curriculum: Practical Ways to Transform Units and Engage Students (ASCD, 2013). Connect with him on ASCD’s EDge Social Network, his website The Digigogy Collaborative or on Twitter at @fisher1000:

Traditionally, grading has largely been a function of both behavioral conformation and high degrees of subjectivity. We are in the midst of a shift from traditional grading practices to more modern ones that represent proficiency and skill over check off lists that, in many cases, represent low level thinking. Digital portfolios are a great way for students to demonstrate their knowledge and what they are able to do with what they’ve learned in a way that shows evidence of proficiency and presents opportunities for strategic and extended thinking. Depending on the format of the digital portfolio, students could potentially display multiple types of products, processes for achieving those products, and written articulations / reflections of what their product represents and why they chose the web tools they used to create the final piece.

In my Digital Portfolio LiveBinder, there are loads of resources to help educators understand what digital portfolios are, articles and research around the pedagogy of portfolios in general, tools for creating digital portfolios and examples of student-made portfolios.

In my book, Digital Learning Strategies: How Do I Assign And Assess 21st Century Work?, I advocate for two different types of digital portfolios: presentation portfolios and process portfolios. A presentation portfolio is more along the lines of a traditional / physical in-print portfolio where students select their best work that represents proficiency over the course of a period of time, say a quarter or a semester, even a year. They include reflective statements about each of the portfolio’s entries that articulate why they chose this as representative of their best work and how it demonstrates learning. In a process portfolio, the product is only one element. The rest of the portfolio consists of all the steps a student took to get to the product. This might include multiple iterations of solutions to a problem, drafts, storyboarding/outlining, feedback from a global audience with evidence of the impact of the feedback, etc. Process portfolios would also include a reflective statement about the student’s work and how they chose to demonstrate their learning.


Hale, J., & Fisher, M. (2013). Upgrade your curriculum: Practical ways to transform units and engage students. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Fisher, M. (2013). Digital learning strategies: how do I assign and assess 21st century work?. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Response From Frank Serafini

Frank Serafini is an Associate Professor of Literacy Education and Children’s Literature in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. Frank was an elementary school teacher and literacy specialist for twelve years in Phoenix, AZ.:

Print-based student portfolios have been used, misused, discarded, and reintroduced by many schools and districts over the past thirty years. Keeping track of students’ work, storing these collections, evaluating them, and using them to drive instruction has had its ups and downs in literacy education. Online and digital portfolios have been used with similar outcomes in elementary, high school, and college settings.

The biggest challenge for portfolio advocates is whether to apply normative or criterion-referenced standards for evaluating the contents of students’ portfolios by creating rubrics or other grading processes, or allowing individual students to use portfolios to document and demonstrate their learning and development over time. The second approach, a learner-referenced approach, has not been widespread in schools since so many assessment programs are designed to compare children to other children or schools to other schools.

Portfolios are collections of one’s work designed to provide opportunities to reflect on progress or change over a period of time. In most “real-world” instances, for example interior designers, architects, photographers, or artists, portfolios are used to demonstrate competencies and accomplishments. This type of portfolio is rarely scored using a rubric.

As the requirements for being proficiently literate (of course defining proficiently literate is problematic in itself) continue to expand and grow more complex in the digital age, the assessments we use to understand students’ abilities and performances need to expand as well. Portfolios and other performance assessments offer possibilities in this arena. For me, the challenge is not how to collect and evaluate portfolios but why to collect and evaluate portfolios. In my book, Classroom Reading Assessments (Serafini, 2010), I proposed three essential aspects of portfolio assessment:

  1. Help teachers teach more effectively
  2. Help students learn more effectively
  3. Provide information for stakeholders

In order to do this, classroom-based assessments should: 1) utilize a variety of sources of information, 2) involve students in evaluating their performances, 3) focus on abilities, not deficits, 4) be conducted over time, and 5) respect the teacher as knowledgeable observer in the assessment process. There are ways of using portfolios as performance assessments that align with the above-mentioned criteria. Unfortunately, most designers and implementers of portfolio systems are too busy trying to scale-up or standardize what goes into the portfolio. More complex systems of evaluation will be needed to understand the complexities of student performances beyond the collection of artifacts or bubbling in answers on a standardized test.

Response From Kate Muhtaris & Kristin Ziemke

Katie Muhtaris @LiteracySpark is a 5th grade teacher at Burley School in Chicago. Kristin Ziemke @KristinZiemke is a 1st grade teacher at the Big Shoulders Fund in Chicago. Katie and Kristin are the co-authors of Connecting Comprehension and Technology (Heinemann, 2013):

Who owns the learning? Is it the teachers or the students?

When we place learning in the hands of our students we empower them to take charge and teach them to reflect and grow independently. One way we do this is by having students create digital portfolios to curate their learning, reflect on growth, and set goals. These portfolios serve as a visual record of all that a student has accomplished. How do we best position our students to show what they know and how they’re applying their learning?

Establish systems for curating and sharing work. If we want students to consistently curate their work and take charge of the process we must establish systems that are easy for them to use and maintain. We’ve found that over the years our student blogs began to take on this roll, as students use them across the curriculum and are responsible for posting images, writing and video. What has made this powerful is the consistent feedback that students receive from the classroom community and beyond.

Model for students how to reflect on work and use it to set goals. If we want students to really understand why they are curating their work and how to reflect on it, then we must model the process. Just as we model problem-solving skills, we make our reflection process transparent. We have students observe as we analyze our own work and set new goals. Then we support students as they work individually, in partners, or small groups to do the same. A few key questions guide our process:

  • What do I know now that I didn’t before? What more would I like to know?
  • What can I do now that I couldn’t before? What more would I like to do?
  • What challenges did I face? How did I overcome them and which challenges do I still need to conquer?
  • How might I use this knowledge or skill in a new or different way?

Create space for celebration and sharing. If we want students to value the process of reflecting on learning and applying that learning then we must make space for it in our classroom. We need to set aside time to model and practice the process, engage in long term reflection, follow-up on goals, and ultimately, celebrate! Students should feel the joy of accomplishment and have that joy honored by their community. In this way, all students are empowered to accept that they can become the learner they want to be.

Response From Jeb Schenck

Jeb Schenck, PhD, was a high-school educator for 41 years and presently teaches graduate school classes on the brain and learning. He also conducts workshops for schools nationwide, as well as for colleges, hospitals, and the military. As an educator, Dr. Schenck’s teaching skills have been widely recognized at the national level, having been honored with the National Science Teacher of the Year, a Genetech Access Excess Fellow, Presidential Awardee for Science Education, Einstein Distinguished Educator Finalist, and Tandy Scholar Teacher. He is the author of Teaching and the Adolescent Brain: An Educator’s Guide (W. W. Norton; 2011):

Tablets and smart phones allow access to millions of apps to gather information. The brain immediately evaluates all incoming information for its personal significance, and is less likely to forget information that is highly significant, especially if it carries personal consequences. The key value of digital portfolios is that they take students beyond the technology of cutting and pasting information to create a presentation that helps them to explore, analyze their personal growth, increase their depth of understanding, and create personal connections that further learning.

Digital portfolios can be complex, so I recommend checking all students’ work periodically to avoid rabbit trails that create more hurdles. Also, have students practice assembling and presenting the portfolio so the technology does not impede learning. The rubric should be clear, with a series of simple, immediate goals focused on the overall problem. It is very important to distinguish whether the real goal is learning the technology or some lasting principle. Today’s technology will soon be yesterday’s extinct dinosaur. Remember the first clunky cell phones, or even the rotary phones? Focus the learning on topics that will outlast the current technology. Sharing models of digital portfolios with different levels of quality for students to discuss is helpful. In fact, opening a project by showing a couple of digital portfolios is not only an attention grabber, but frames their expectations and helps them get started. If you don’t have samples, it will be a beneficial learning exercise for you to build demonstration samples so you can develop appropriate expectations.

Learning that sticks is more likely to happen with personally meaningful tasks slightly above the student’s current ability level. It is important that they explain the topic with a demonstration that explores what happened, why, and what they think is likely to happen in the future. This reveals more of their understanding while creating a deeper memory. To facilitate this, have students capture and edit digital imagery that describes their personal connections with the task. Additionally, have them find other images or videos to illustrate significant points. Consider having them reflect by comparing their original understanding to their current understanding. To check for depth of understanding, they should document one or two further applications by using their new understanding. Finally, images and video are, by nature, meant to be seen, so have them present their final product in class, civic group, or post it on social media after you’ve reviewed it.

Response From Joe Rommel

Joe Rommel is an integration technology consultant with Berrien RESA - an organization created to support teachers throughout Michigan’s southwestern-most county (Berrien). He previously taught elementary and middle school for St. Joseph Public Schools in St. Joseph, Michigan:

I have been a classroom teacher for 15 years. In the beginning of my career I would stuff manila folders and three-hole punch various examples of student work to proudly share with parents and students. The process was both rewarding and messy. At times I felt like I housed a warehouse in my back room.

With the integration of technology into my classroom I was excited to archive student work in a digital format. I collected examples of finished essays and curated samples of math projects. I was happy to share, but still not satisfied. My portfolios evolved but something was missing.

Through conversation with other teachers I came to realize my approach to student portfolios was a little bit like how a school approaches a visit by a local dignitary. Dignitaries rarely see the messy parts of the school, and my portfolios were not showing the ‘messy’ part of my classroom. The student portfolio had become a place to showcase their best work and not as a testament to learning. Worse, I had retained control over what entered their personal library. This needed to change.

My goal with portfolios now is to expose the process. I like to think of it as more of risk-taking journal; a place to highlight the mistakes from which learning blossoms. As Salman Khan recently pointed out in an August 19 op-ed in the Huffington Post, '...the brain grows most by getting questions wrong.’ The portfolio cannot simply show the best completed, or the ‘most right,’ but has to showcase these errors.

The last step remains the same: share. The portfolio does not illuminate anything if not shared. When done so, the portfolio provides a student with greater understanding of the learning process. Ideally the portfolio would follow them over their school career providing numerous opportunities to show not only what they learned, but how they used this over time. Portfolios approached in this way can serve as a powerful reminder of when mistakes became opportunities to grow. And if teachers know anything, it is that students are always growing.

Thanks to Rusul, Michael, Frank, Kate, Kristin, Jeb and Joe for their contributions!

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