Post adapted from Digital Student Portfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Assessment by Matt Renwick (Powerful Learning Press, 2014)


How do digital portfolios help students learn? Where is the evidence that this assessment strategy actually supports improved teacher practice and increased student achievement? Why should teachers “do” digital student portfolios in the first place, since they are not required? How do performance and progress portfolios “mesh”?

I have been asked these questions multiple times in the past, and I am sure I will be asked again in the future. When initially confronted with one of these inquiries, I would attempt to work my way through a response, in hopes that I sounded like I knew what I was talking about. The fact is: I didn’t. How could I?

Digital portfolios for learners is a relatively new concept. Nowadays, I readily admit that I don’t have definitive responses to these questions. I will sometimes even ask the same questions of the person asking me. I could learn something!

What I have learned is that it is okay to admit not having all the answers. It can even be affirming to do so in front of our teachers and colleagues, who too often feel lost as they navigate these digital waters. When we can admit that this type of learning is a challenge, but agree it is worth the struggle, then we can we sail to our destination together.

What I Know Right Now

While I don’t want to pretend that I have all the answers, as the school leader I should be able to clearly describe the direction we are heading. First, assessment is assessment, regardless of whether we bring technology into the mix.

MattRenwick-cvrOne realization regarding assessment is that formative and summative assessments are often not separate entities.

Anyone who has been in the classroom for some time knows that assessment for learning and assessment of learning don’t always have a clear distinction while we are engaged in instruction. The teaching/assessment cycle ebbs and flows, based on learners’ needs and our responses to their needs.

The same concept can be applied to digital student portfolios. During instruction, we are always on the lookout for students showing progress toward the learning target. Teachers will attempt to capture this learning in order to respond to it during instruction. What digital tools such as iPads and Evernote provide are ways to efficiently capture this learning through a variety of techniques, including audio, images, and text. This allows the teacher to both respond to the student in the present moment, as well as look back later on artifacts of learning to prepare for instruction in the future.

Something else I know: When students finally meet the learning target, thanks in part to the teacher’s ability to document student progress and respond with personalized instruction, their performance should be celebrated.

For instance, one practice many of our teachers adhere to is taking pictures of their students who master their basic math facts. This image is placed in their digital portfolios, to be shared with their families. The child’s parents know this is a big deal, because prior to this celebration, they had access to their child’s portfolio and followed his or her progress through the math facts learning journey.

What Digital Portfolios Look Like in Action

Instead of totally distinguishing between performance and progress portfolios, let me recall Chris Tovani’s formative and summative assessment table shared in Chapter 1 (click here).

Consider this :


Now, what if instead we visualized the two different types of portfolios in the context of a learning cycle:


(Illustrations from Digital Student Portfolios, p. 86)

This learning cycle, similar to Regie Routman’s Ongoing Cycle of Responsive Teaching, might better represent how performance and progress portfolios connect and support each other. We set a clear learning target (the performance), and provide support and scaffolding for students (the progress) as they work to meet the expectations.

Sometimes students will have to go backward in order to go forward. Maybe they weren’t clear on the directions, or they were still in the planning stages for their work. Other times, we leave the learning cycle completely. This may be due to the learning task being too difficult and the student not being developmentally ready. When do we know this? We might find out through a quiz or exit slip, but after a whole lesson, it might be too late. We then spend an additional period reteaching the content the next day.

By capturing student learning progress and performance in the moment, using digital tools, we can bring learning to life. Here’s an example from Evernote – a note documenting work by first-grader Morgan. Academic growth is represented by the work they have produced at any given point in time, collected in progress portfolios. We can show students, through audio or images, where they are in their learning progression and help them become more self-aware of current reality. This understanding can lead to improved performance when they are ready.

To be clear: Performance portfolios contain the best examples of a student’s work and are summative in nature. Progress portfolios are more fine-grained; the contents collected in these portfolios show growth over time; the ups and downs, the struggles and breakthroughs, that are always part of the learning process. Although we consider progress portfolios as formative assessment, we do have an end goal in mind. They are also products that will be placed in the students’ performance portfolio and become part of his or her summative assessment.


It’s all about progress

A teacher may create a progress portfolio to document students’ progress in a particular area associated with a learning target (e.g., informational writing). Like Morgan’s image of her writing plus her audio, meaningful artifacts are collected in their portfolios over time. They can happen both on the fly, like the Morgan example, or more systematically, such as during a grade level meeting when teachers bring student work with them to analyze and score (more on that below).

These portfolios of student work take shape according to what we need them to be. If a teacher is working on a fairly narrow piece of curriculum, such as informational writing, then she might consider one Evernote note with several pieces placed chronologically over time. For a more comprehensive “historical” portfolio that the teacher and student might examine together, they can collaboratively select pieces each quarter that best represent achievement and growth toward a student’s personal goals.

In terms of digital management, a student would typically have a single overarching portfolio that contains both artifacts showing growth over time (progress) and final work to celebrate (performance). It is important that the audience – the, teacher, the students themselves, other staff, the parents – see the growing and culminating pieces side by side. Learning is a process. We should be aware of all the steps it took to get to our goals.

Digital student portfolios can provide what other assessment tools cannot: Real, unabridged, minimally processed artifacts of learning that make sense to all the learners in the classroom, including the teacher. Technology used in this way can bring us as close as we can get to peering inside our students’ hearts and minds to find out what they currently know and are able to do.

A Progress Portfolio sample

As part of a professional development session demonstrating how a digital “progress” portfolio can be used for formative assessment on the fly, Matt Renwick brought in a writing sample from his son Finn, a first grader at Howe Elementary. Click to see this Evernote portfolio entry, which includes both the captured text and audio of Finn reading his work. “Notice,” says Renwick, “how the audio sample helps us grasp his level of understanding about what he wrote.”

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