Too often, conversations about digital portfolios center on the tools: how to save, share, and publish student work. Mastering the technical component of digital portfolios is critical, and students do need an opportunity to showcase their work to a broader audience. However, when we let the process of curate > reflect > publish serve as the sole focal point, digital portfolios become summative in nature and are viewed as an add-on at the end of a unit, project, or activity.
For digital portfolios to be truly valuable to both teachers and students, they need to provide insight into not only what students created, but also how and why. If the ultimate goal is to develop students as learners, then they need an opportunity for making connections to content as well as the overarching learning objectives.
Through the act of collecting learning artifacts and compiling them into portfolios, students should have an opportunity to reflect upon their experiences and see their own growth. In his book, Matt Renwick discusses the need for both progress and performance portfolios: By capturing student learning progress and performance in the moment, using digital tools, we can bring learning to life. (p.123)
Artists and writers often keep a portfolio to reflect upon their work. Leonardo DaVinci kept hundreds of notebooks documenting his thinking in notes, diagrams, and sketches. John Updike left behind thousands of documents illustrating how he rewrote paragraphs and solved technical challenges. In a similar manner, students could curate a body of work that represents their progress as well as their performance to show their thinking throughout their learning experiences.
In her high school science classes, Jodie Deinhammer has her students keep portfolios so that they have a place to share their learning as well as an opportunity to reflect on how class content directly pertains to their personal lives. (Here are a few examples.) These portfolios provide her with an opportunity to observe her students’ individual growth and how they make connections to previous content. Because reflection and documentation of progress have become part of the class learning culture, Jodie’s students recognize from the outset that they need to capture not only what they learn but also how. Her students’ reflections become a vehicle for formative assessment and deeper exploration. Jodie can see their comprehension and understanding as well as how they connect content to their personal lives and experiences.
The question remains, though: How do we teach reflection? Paul Solarz, a fifth grade teacher in Illinois, recognizes that students need ongoing support and sees teaching reflection as a year-long endeavor that involves instruction and goal setting. He focuses on explaining larger concepts during lessons and then scaffolds the questions that he provides to his students and guides their thinking until they gain independence.
Too often, students struggle with reflection because they don’t understand what they were supposed to learn and why. However, what if students knew from the start of the school year that all of their work would be in support of two or three essential questions? Some examples are:
If students kept these concepts at the forefront of their thinking, imagine the impact as they document their progress and their learning.
At Trinity School in Atlanta, teachers and students have been working toward this outcome with their portfolios. The goal, as articulated by Early Elementary Division Head Rhonda Mitchell, is for students to:
. . . develop the practice of looking for connections between their experiences and their personal characteristics, beliefs, and interests (awareness categories); and capturing them as evidence that can be used in the ongoing development of their learning story.
The Trinity teachers are working through a number of essential questions to guide the pedagogy behind their students’ portfolios:
Jill Gough, Director of Teaching and Learning, describes in Facilitating Student Reflection how Trinity students, beginning as three-year-olds, document their learning with voice and images. By sixth grade, they can analyze and assess their learning and tell their story through a variety of media. At each grade level, students assume more responsibility for their portfolios and take greater ownership in their development as learners.
The students’ critical thinking and the utilization of the essential questions combine to create a more robust model of digital portfolio creation. Because the emphasis is not simply on publishing and sharing products, learning remains the central focus. As students reflect on each experience, they become more aware of the processes and strategies that make them successful, allowing them to learn from their successes as well as their challenges or failures.
Recently, I’ve found myself wracking my brain to remember concepts from grad school, college, and even high school. At some point, I had access to that knowledge, but now I have no way of retrieving it. Imagine if I had a digital portfolio — not just of my final products but also of my learning progress. As Rhonda Mitchell wrote, “The true power of the portfolio is in the revisiting.” As educators, our challenge is ensuring that students have an opportunity to engage in reflection such that they create a meaningful product to actually visit again and again.