The Problemn With Student Portfolios

(borrowed under the creative commons license)

Here is the problem with student portfolios:

Most of the time, students and teachers hate them. Teacher pretend like they don’t, but they fake it very badly, the whole process gets rushed, then executed at the last minute, leading  students to hate it equally, because it is obvious the process is ridiculous and inauthentic and a colossal waste of time.

Phew. I’m glad I got that off my chest.

But that’s not even the real problem with portfolios. The real problem with portfolios is that they could be amazing, outstanding, and brilliant learning experiences and often they don’t reach their potential in the classroom. Portfolios, I think, are one the most misunderstood members of our educational landscape (standing somewhere awkwardly in the corner next to graphic novels probably…but that’s another post) and I want to do something to change that.

Maybe you’ve read already that I’m embarking on a year long exploration of growth mindset in my classroom. It has been harder than I thought it would be to find ways to embed this philosophy in my teaching (leveraging 21st Century tools to make this happen) and I’m humbled by the posts of fellow teachers out there that Garth pointed out to me that are struggling with the same challenges. My hunch is that infusing the portfolio process with a growth mindset philosophy, students can better reflect on their setbacks, actually learning that challenges are essential to achieving their goals.

This is where we stand right now with portfolios in Grade 7:

  • Students have chosen 2-3 artifacts that they feel show either a growth, a challenge, or a success. See one example here.
  • We will likely use Blogger as a platform to house these artifacts and help students curate the story of their learning this year (see the chart that explains this decision making process).
  • Students have shared some artifacts with their parents during the conferences (I also want students to have the power to choose what they show their parents and what they don’t show their parents to make their writing more honest and vulnerable).

Pros and Cons


And this is how I’m hoping to remix  portfolios:

  • The instruction of portfolios happens in tandem with instruction on growth mindset. Students have to be taught how they learn and grow. By doing so, I hope to help students “buy in” to the portfolio process and see the merits in this kind of learning.
  • We set monthly “portfolio parties” in class: we watch some YouTube growth mindset videos, we chose current artifacts, we write about our learning / progress towards goals, we celebrate each other’s successes and learn from our shared challenges.
  • We use the power of Google tools (YouTube, Docs, Blogger, Kaizena) to get students to write and reflect about their learning in multiple modalities.
  • Students can curate their work: the final conferences are student led. Students can chose who they invite to view / celebrate their work (in addition to having their parents / guardians present).
  • Students see their own teacher actively engaged in the process of “documenting” work: therefore this blog needs to be shared with them!

I want to know the good, the bad, and portfolio horror stories from your own practices. What has worked well for you / your students? What will you never do again? Let’s share and learn from our missteps and failures together!


About the Author
Passionate and curious about technology, smiles, special education, differentiated instruction, forests, graphic novels, accessibility, anti-oppression, and warm beverages. Can often be found laughing with young people and improvising songs on the spot. @teach_tomorrow

8 comments on The Problemn With Student Portfolios

  1. Tia Chambers says:

    Hi Celeste,

    I love the idea of creating online portfolios for students to share their pieces and track their learning and growth. I completely agree that teaching students about how they learn, teaching about growth mindset, and portfolio development all need to happen in tandem – these are learning experiences that support each other: by participating in all three, students can see the connections for themselves.

    I am new to student portfolios this year, and at my school they are paper-based and, in the primary years, heavily photo based. Too often, I find that I am giving students language for what they are learning instead of trusting them to come out with the words themselves. Going forward, I want to be explicit about the learning objectives for any given task/time period, and then ask students to reflect on these at the closing of the practice we will do. (That is, of course, if I am choosing this objective). I think that it is so important for students to direct and reflect on their own learning as much as is possible, even in the primary years. Your portfolio initiative seems to be an excellent way to do this.

    1. Garth says:

      Like a good portfolio, someone will chart the course, but the portfolio-ee (the person creating the portfolio – did I just make up a new word?) will/can take it in the direction that they choose. When launching blogger as a portfolio, one of the key ingredients was student ownership – allowing them to structure and make it their own. Sure, they were limited in this way by the platform itself; however, have some boudaries, I found, helps keep them focused on the goal of reflection and archiving growth.

      In terms of the platform, it really does depend on how you structure the portfolio requirements. I used blogger: it allowed for shorter, reflective posts in the linear format, but then we added PAGES to allow for the curation of the artifacts. However, at the moment, I am looking at Sesame HQ for an English Writer’s craft project…I will take your comment about starting earlier with it to heart. I think we have a month before it really gets going…I’ll keep you posted!

      You’re off to a really interesting start with this action plan.

      1. Hey Garth,

        I want to talk to you about Sesame once you have a this English project launched. I would be willing to experiment with it, but this being the first year for portfolios in Grade 7, I didn’t want their to be be too much “new” in the mix. My teaching team mostly all knows Blogger and is comfortable with it.

        How did you organize the student artifacts? Did you link them to curriculum expectations? Habits of Mind?

        Thanks for your thoughts!

    2. “I think that it is so important for students to direct and reflect on their own learning as much as is possible, even in the primary years.” Well said, Tia!

  2. Fresh Air says:

    Do you think it would help students to know that teachers are going through the exact same process? If we are now teaching them about growth mindsets, why not tell them a little bit about Cohort 21 and how having a growth mindset really is a great idea? Perhaps a little bit of proof that everyone is learning together would help…

    1. YES! I definitely think that students need to see their teachers actively reflecting and processing their learning. So sharing this blog is a major part of that, I think!

  3. Celeste,

    This is a really great post. I love the idea of “portfolio parties” – I think this is a great way to engage students in the process, as well as an effective way to foster a “growth mindset culture.” Thank you as well for sharing the pros and cons of the various sites that could be used to create e-portfolios – very helpful!

    I would love to talk more with you about how Blogger works out in your Grade 7 class. Portfolios at our school are paper based, but I was strongly considering making the jump to online portfolios this year; I was looking at using Weebly. I had some concerns, however, about using too many different platforms (the students use EduBlogs in English, and “TigerNET”- our intranet – in Music class). This, in combination with my lack of experience with Weebly, and the busy-ness of the school year startup, led me to revert to the paper portfolios. That’s not to say I couldn’t still try implementing e-portfolios at some point over the course of the year (better late than never, right?!). I certainly see it as a very valuable and inevitable shift. I think the students would take much more ownership of their portfolios and would be much more excited about them if they were online!

  4. Hi Celeste,

    I was eager to read your blog post as I am working on implementing e-portfolios with the middle school teaching team this year. Thank you for your honest reflection as well as your ideas on how to make it a fun part of the learning and reflection process. I can’t wait to bring the idea of a ‘portfolio party’ back to my colleagues to see how we can include it in the process!

    Like you, we are looking at e-portfolios as a piece of the larger conversation about mindset and the learning process. This was our starting point with the rationale when we introduced the idea with parents in the Middle School. We are also working toward sharing these with parents at student led conferences in January. We are using Google Sites as our e-portfolio template as it has been easy to collaborate with other teachers on the design before sharing the site with students.

    I wanted to share one key strategy that we are working through as a lens for capturing growth and challenges in documenting the learning experience. We are using our learning skills as the tools through which we gather artifacts / evidence of growth, organized into each subject area. Teachers and students will select a piece of work and connect it with one learning skill as a means to reflect on how that skill was part of the overall learning process. It is our thinking that this allows more of the metacognitive reflection to be the focus of the e-portfolio piece. Of course, this is a work-in-progress so I will let you know how it progresses.

    I am looking forward to continuing this conversation about e-portfolios and learning from you — learning about how you are doing as well as bouncing ideas off each other. Thanks again for a great post.


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