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Lit Review: Getting Started

October 24, 2010

The following is a summary of three research articles for Dr. Allen’s ENGL 621 and also serves as the beginning of the literature review for my graduate project.

Summary of Three Research Articles

My graduate research project involves working with parents and teachers at Summers-Knoll (SK) School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, an independent kindergarten through fifth grade learning center, to determine whether or not the school should incorporate digital student portfolios into their assessment program. The project entails a variety of research methods including usability testing of University of Michigan School of Information-designed electronic portfolio wireframes, interviewing of parents, teachers, and staff at SK, and extensive secondary research into the use of multimedia, digital assessment of elementary-aged students. The following is a brief review of three sources I will use as part of my literature review for this project.


Powerful Portfolios for Young Children, Hilary Seitz and Carol Bartholomew

Published in 2008 in the Early Childhood Education Journal, “Powerful Portfolios for Young Children” is a good starting point for my research as it provides an introductory overview of elementary portfolio assessment. While this essay is not specifically about digital portfolios — there is one reference to “electronic portfolios” — the arguments the authors posit transcend the platforms of hard and softcopy. The focus of any portfolio assessment, write Seitz and Bartholomew, “is to support a child (learner) with their understanding of concepts, ideas, and emotional self” (p. 63). Though portfolios historically provide more qualitative assessment of student performance, Seitz and Bartholomew argue that they additionally “provide[s] evidence of accountability of meeting standards, which may be of interest to administrators and even parents” (p. 63). This statement is particularly relevant to my research as one of the concerns of some parents of students at Summers-Knoll School is that current assessment practices provide little or no quantitative data to measure student achievement. While teaching methods at SK are specifically designed to lean toward qualitative results — i.e., growth over time, personal best achievement, etc. — providing parents with a balanced assessment program that includes traditional, norms-based measures (without compromising school philosophy) is the school’s best bet for satisfying the needs and wants of its diverse parent pool. Providing parents with documentation of a portfolio’s ability to adequately reflect content mastery within the framework of a more progressive learning environment is key for parent/teacher communication at SK. Seitz and Bartholomew offer foundational evidence that will help me construct a comprehensive argument to support this position.


Balancing the Dual Functions of Portfolio Assessment, Ricky Lam and Icy Lee

Lam and Lee’s essay, published in 2009 in Oxford University’s ELT Journal, a quarterly publication dedicated to scholarly research on English as a foreign or second language, is interesting as it focuses specifically on using portfolio assessment to explore formative English writing development of non-native speakers. Using 31 Hong Kong-based, non-English majors whose first language is Cantonese, Lam and Lee studied the effects of portfolio assessment on student improvement over time and levels of student satisfaction in participating in formative evaluation measures.

Lam and Lee’s study begins with an overview of portfolio assessment (PA): “While PA traditionally has a prominent summative function of providing a summary of students’ writing achievements in the writing process, it also enables teachers to provide ongoing feedback that informs both teaching and learning” (p. 54). They then set up their central question of how PA can be used for formative evaluation, stimulate meaningful student reflection, and align teaching with assessment. Through the use of student questionnaires, student interviews, and instructor interviews, the authors illustrate the measurable benefits of writing and language proficiency when approached from a formative perspective. After the implementation of PA, the data indicate students’ writings were more grammatically and structurally accurate and that students generated more and better ideas in their assignments.

Most interesting to me about this article is the culture-based resistance to PA assessment from students and teachers involved in the research. Despite the measurable improvement in the students’ writing, most students and teachers involved in the experiment remained unconvinced of the study’s value. The authors suggest this is because the participants were “brought up in a norm-referenced assessment culture which accustomed them to comparing themselves with each other rather than with their own previous learning” (p. 61). Despite this prevailing sentiment, some instructors were able to identify shortcomings of norm-based performance measurement, including Instructor 1 who wrote:

“A big problem of traditional assessment now is that students do not learn, they are only concerned about the marks and they do not know how to improve. Portfolio assessment is different, because students receive ongoing feedback which is purely formative, and they have to improve based upon they comments they received” (p. 60).

Overall, I enjoyed this essay very much. The data are valuable in supporting my own research, but more important is the potential cultural identification may have on understanding the benefits of portfolio assessment. This had not occurred to me before, and it may be relevant in addressing the needs and wants of Summers-Knoll School’s multicultural student/parent/teacher population.


Improving Literacy and Metacognition with Electronic Portfolios: Teaching and Learning with ePEARL, Elizabeth Meyer, Philip C. Abrami, C. Anne Wade, Ofra Aslan, Louise Deault

This essay is the result of a small group study of scholars from Concordia University and McGill University, both in Montreal, Quebec. Published in 2010 in the journal Computers & Education, Meyer et al.’s report focuses exclusively on the application of the electronic portfolio as a meaningful assessment tool in K-12 education. Straightaway the authors offer a concise definition of electronic portfolios: “An electronic portfolio (EP) is a digital container capable of storing visual and auditory content including text, images, video and sound” (p.84). They then offer this more comparative definition: “EPs are the Information Age’s version of the artist’s portfolio for students in the sense that they not only summarize a student’s creative achievements but also illustrate the process of reaching those achievements” (p. 85).

The authors provide extensive detail about the tri-level purposes of EP — process, showcase, and assessment — and their ability to stimulate metacognitive processes including planning, monitoring, and regulating. They posit that by engaging K-12 learners in metacognitive activities, such as building and maintaining digital portfolios, the students will “learn how to learn” and, perhaps most important, “their deficiencies in core competencies may be overcome” (p. 85). This final point is especially important to my research as it suggests quantitative measures may be achieved as a byproduct of qualitative assessment.

The participants in this study were 32 teachers from grades 4-6 and their 388 students from nine urban and rural English school boards in Quebec, Manitoba, and Alberta. The study took place during the 2007-2008 school year. Teachers received training in a specific digital portfolio tool called ePEARL, and teachers and students used ePEARL, at varying levels, throughout the year. Through the use of student pre- and post-tests, evaluation of ePEARL data, and several student and teacher questionnaires, the researchers found that “students who used ePEARL in medium or high implementation classrooms demonstrated learning gains on a standardized literacy measure and reported positive changes in key SRL [self-regulated learning] skills” (p. 89). Further, “teachers in these classrooms also reported how the use of ePEARL had a positive impact on their SRL teaching strategies” (p. 89). These findings are particularly interesting to me because they specifically address the use of digital portfolios (as opposed to hardcopy) in elementary assessment. Much has been written about digital portfolios in support of teacher preparation and professional development, but little research has been conducted on the benefits of their application among elementary-aged students. I hope to contribute to this burgeoning field of inquiry, and this study provides me with additional data to support my hypothesis. Further, it points me in the direction of a free, web-based portfolio tool, ePEARL, which I will investigate and perhaps incorporate into my study.



Lam, R., & Lee, I. (2010). Balancing the Dual Functions of Portfolio Assessment. ELT Journal, 64.1, 54-64. doi:10.1093/elt/ccp0

Meyer, E., Abrami, P.C., Wade, C.A., Aslan, O., & Deault, L. (2010). Improving Literacy and Metacognition with Electronic Portfolios: Teaching and Learning with ePEARL. Computers & Education, 55, 84-91. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2009.12.005

Seitz, H, & Bartholomew, C. (2008). Powerful Portfolios for Young Children. Early Childhood Education Journal, 36, 63-68. doi:10.1007/s10643-008-0

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