Assessment with portfolios – a neglected opportunity?

I finally got around to reading Tony Bates’ blog post on the outlook for online learning in the short and medium term. It’s an in-depth post, but I want to concentrate on one particular aspect. Tony puts forward the idea that the traditional lecture-based course will gradually disappear as learning shifts from the transmission of information to knowledge management. Later, he talks about an increase in the use of portfolios for assessment, and to my mind these two are a natural fit. This is because as teaching shifts from the presentation of a package of content to students meeting a common set of criteria traditional written assessment becomes increasingly less fit for purpose.

Clipboard and pen

Photo credit: Dave Crosby (CC BY-SA)

The idea of assessment by portfolio in higher education isn’t new. A few years ago, I saw Lewis Elton give the plenary at the teaching and learning conference at the University of Birmingham, where he suggested using portfolios as a replacement for the UK system of degree classifications. The plenary covered much of the ground in his 2004 paper ‘Should classification of the UK honours degree have a future?’ and provoked much discussion. I believe there is a case to be made for portfolio assessment to have a greater role in higher education. As Elton says, the “measurement of achievement has become more important than achievement itself”. In a recent article discussing competition in education, Natalie Bennett (the leader of the Green Party here in the UK) quoted the Education Reform Act 1988, which said that education should: “promote the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils … and prepare pupils … for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of adult life.” The quote relates specifically to the context of secondary education (11-18 years old), but it’s still a pretty powerful quote. And if that’s the case for school children then surely it should hold for university and higher-level study when their capacity to engage in activities that promote those values is arguably higher? We may want assessment that is both valid (measures what it is designed to measure) and reliable (gives consistent results) for very good reasons (such as quality control and comparisons across institutions), but that restricts the types of assessment we can do. What we get (across the education system as a whole) is assessment that comes down to a number or grade, and that steers the testing towards that which is easily measured, for example, a 1,500 word essay or a three hour exam.

So what does assessment by portfolio give us that conventional assessment doesn’t? First, it’s an active process and in a well designed assessment the learner has to engage over a period of time, evaluating and reflecting on their learning. Students can revisit their work and re-purpose it, for example, for use within a presentation to a potential employer. This does bring in issues of ownership and access after the end of the course, but I’ll leave those aside for now, and in any case those criticisms isn’t unique to portfolios.

Secondly, higher order and transferable skills can be assessed more effectively than they could through a conventional written assessment. For example, selecting items for inclusion will involve evaluating individual items, reflecting on their purpose and value, and synthesising the collection into a coherent whole. This does mean that the learners need to have a high level of independent learning skills, which may not be the case. A supportive pedagogical design with clear scaffolding and direction can help develop these skills. Another point is that this form of assessment is authentic – it assesses in a direct analogue of how use these higher order skills within a workplace. Support and direction need to be explicit, not only on the process of the assessment, but also on its purpose. My daughter used an eportfolio as a record of achievement during her degree, but didn’t see the point and questioned why they couldn’t simply submit their assignments and leave it at that. Another acquaintance is studying for a primary PGCE on a course that uses the Mahara eportfolio and said that it’s almost universally hated, mainly it seems because they find the user interface unintuitive.

The portfolio can be an integrating influence that draws the rest of the course together for students. They have been used very successfully on a Master’s level distance learning course by the Open University (Mason et al, 2004). The course consisted of four modules with two items being selected from each module for inclusion. Two thirds of students were positive about the role of the portfolio as an integrating element in the course.

So what are the downsides? Well, most criticisms centre around the issues of reliability and validity, but that brings us back to Elton’s statement that achievement is second place to the measurement of achievement. Elton also said that the “prime purpose of assessment should be to encourage good learning” (Elton, 2004), and that there should be a bias towards success and not failure. He’s not referring to grade inflation, but that we should move away from the deficiency model of traditional assessment. This brings to mind the perennial debate around standards, ‘dumbing down’, and whether assessments should act as a gate-keeper (norm-referenced) or as a marker of achievement (criteria-referenced). Should everyone on a course be able to get a first class degree? Absolutely, if they’ve met the standards for a first-class degree, but I can imagine the outcry if a department were to award first class honours to an entire cohort, supposing they were lucky enough to get such a cohort in the first place.

Elton recommends that if something can be assessed reliably and validly then grade it conventionally. If something can be assessed validly but not reliably then it should be graded pass/fail using experienced examiners. If it can’t be assessed either reliably or validly then it should be reported on (again by experienced examiners) rather than graded. Knight (2002) had a similar argument, stating that summative assessment should be restricted to “that which can be reliably, affordably and fairly assessed”. Skills development and other aspects of the curriculum should be formatively assessed. Portfolios, then, blur the lines between formative and summative assessment.

Portfolios have great potential for assessment, provided that they are used wisely and that significant effort is made to change the students’ focus away from the product. It’s like getting an essay for homework at school – the essay isn’t the homework, the homework is the process of research, drafting, revision and synthesis, and the printed essay is just the evidence you did it. The sticking point is portfolios they exist within an educational ecosystem that functions to support and validate conventional assessment, and that is likely to change only slowly.


Bates, T. (2014). 2020 Vision: Outlook for online learning in 2014 and way beyond.

Bennett, N. (2014) Let’s Get Heretical on Education: Competition Has Failed.

Elton, L. (2004). Should classification of the UK honours degree have a future? Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 29(4), 415–422.

Knight, P. (2002). Summative assessment in higher education: practices in disarray. Studies in Higher Education, 27, 275–286.

Mason, R. Pegler, C. and Weller, M. (2004). E-portfolios: an assessment tool for online courses. British Journal of Educational Technology, 35(6), 717–727.


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