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Literature Review: Digital Portfolio Assessment

December 2, 2010

My culminating Written Communication MA graduate project focuses on formative academic assessment in K-5 education. As a certified elementary school teacher, continuing education student, and professional writer, I am especially interested in exploring, identifying, and creating methods for quantifying academic performance in alternative or non-mainstream settings. I am also interested in how to best communicate performance data to parents and guardians of students engaged in learning contexts that are not bound by conventional measurement methods. My study site is Summers-Knoll School (SK) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Summers-Knoll is an independent, kindergarten through fifth grade school that focuses on traditional liberal arts content delivered in a cross-curricular, experiential format. Through embedded learning and developmental objectives and qualitative performance assessment, students’ energies are channeled into how to learn as opposed to what to learn. Students and families partner with teachers in curricular decision making, and they also play active roles in assessing student performance through the use of the school’s two primary assessment tools: Work Sampling System (WSS), a narrative-based assessment tool developed by the University of Michigan and portfolios. Teachers at SK currently use the paper and pencil version of WSS for narrative student assessments and hardcopy portfolios for showcasing student work. The purpose of my study is to determine the value of moving both of these assessment tools onto digital platforms and whether or not such a shift would benefit all members of the SK community including students, parents, faculty, and administrators.

A prelude to my project design included conducting a literature review of scholarly research on portfolio assessment. Though my project focuses specifically on digital, or electronic, portfolios, I expanded my reading to include the use of traditional portfolios in K-12 and post-secondary education as well. Foremost in my review was searching for a clear explanation of what a portfolio is. Ocak and Ulu offer a concise definition of the primary-level portfolio calling it “a carefully selected collection of student work that provides clear evidence to the student, parent, and…educators of the student’s knowledge, skills, strategies, grasp of concepts, attitudes, and achievement in a given area over a specific time period” (2009, p. 28). Peacock, Gordon, Murray, Morss, and Dunlop provide a digital-specific definition in their 2010 study: “An ePortfolio is an electronic system that facilitates the development, collection, and management of digital resources which may be drawn from a range of learner experiences over a period of time and could include those from formal and non-formal learning opportunities” (p. 828). This interpretation may be especially applicable to experiential and cross-curricular learning by suggesting that digital, or ePortfolios, are capable of capturing development and achievement that occurs outside of conventional scenarios, including, as Wall, Higgins, Miller, and Packard point out, art, physical education, design, and technology (2006). Perhaps the most succinct definition comes from Meyer, Abrami, Wade, Aslan, and Deault who call the electronic portfolio “a digital container capable of storing visual and auditory content including text, images, video, and sound” (2010, p. 84). By including the digital portfolio’s multimedia capabilities, the authors highlight another key benefit of electronic performance showcasing.

In searching for clear-cut descriptions of digital portfolios that would help me develop my own informed understanding, I was struck by the lack of consistency in terminology across the literature. Alternately referred to by Chang as web-based learning portfolios (WBLP) (2001), Meyer et al. as electronic portfolios (EP) (2010), and Vermilion as Efolios (2008), the naming or development of a lexicon appears secondary to charting and tracking the primary functions and purposes of digital portfolios.

The documented benefits of digital portfolio assessment are numerous. Among the most interesting to me and relevant to my study with SK is Chang’s assertion that portfolio assessment identifies student skills rather than shortcomings, identifies the unique needs of each student, increases student motivation, and encourages students to develop decision-making skills (2008). This is in stark contrast to more traditional summative assessment tools prevalent in lecture/test models that focus on memorization and context-specific performance. Chang’s research also indicates that digital portfolio assessment may be beneficial to students with low motivation and/or self-esteem, underperforming students due to at-risk-classification, and special needs students including twice exceptional and gifted learners (2008). Wall et al. further suggest that digital portfolios are an appropriate method for recording achievement of pupils who find writing difficult (2006). In other words, portfolio assessment may meet the unique needs of learners whose talents sometimes fall outside the confines of the bell curve.

Lam and Lee’s research study focused specifically on how digital portfolio assessments can facilitate quantitative achievement in English as a second language (ESL) and the language arts. After implementation of portfolio assessment in the authors’ ESL classroom, the data indicate that students’ writings were more grammatically and structurally accurate and that students generated more and better ideas in their assignments (2010). Vermillion reports anecdotal evidence that digital portfolios improve skills in technology, public speaking, and leadership (2008). And Hewitt’s seminal 1995 research study on portfolio assessment, as reported by Chang, uncovered the following seven benefits:

  1. Portfolios demonstrate students’ growth
  2. Portfolios encourage students to set up learning goals
  3. Portfolios provide evidence of students’ efforts
  4. Portfolios demonstrate students’ performance
  5. Portfolios help teachers review students’ performance
  6. Portfolios stimulate students’ introspective thinking and enhance self-assessment
  7. Portfolios encourage students’ learning interests, improve their communication skills, and build self confidence (2001, p.436)

While all of the above provide obvious advantages to learners and teachers alike, the stimulation of introspective thinking is especially interesting to me. One of the precepts of contemporary educational studies is that reflective learning results in increased retention and achievement; therefore one can draw a direct correlation between Hewitt’s list of benefits and authentic, measurable learning. This is further reinforced by Meyer et al. who posit that metacognitive activities, such as reflecting while building and maintaining digital portfolios, teach students to learn how to learn and overcome deficiencies in core competencies (2010). And such egalitarian learning, write Ocak and Ulu (2009) and echoed by Seitz and Bartholomew (2008), results in increased student empowerment in classrooms where teachers are facilitators and students are constructors of knowledge.

The quantitative and anecdotal data surveyed in this review, in addition to subsequent readings in electronic learning and web site testing and development, have provided my study with a solid background and framework. My somewhat amorphous collection of prior knowledge about digital portfolio construction and assessment has been brought into focus and solidified by the efforts of the researchers included in this review. Though all of the studies concentrate specifically on portfolios in K-12 and post-secondary education, each offers a unique perspective, including potential cultural influences (i.e. language proficiency, nationality, socioeconomic status, etc.) on interface design and interaction. These readings have helped situate my understanding of digital portfolios within the frameworks of sociocultural historical theory, postmodern identity theory, and critical perspective theories, including radical pedagogical and poststructuralist.

Though there is scant research specific to digital portfolios in K-5 settings, I find this revelation rather exciting as it offers Summers-Knoll School and me the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to this burgeoning field. I will rely on the knowledge and best practices gleaned and developed by the scholars included in this review and apply them specifically to the needs of SK’s diverse K-5 population. It is my belief that doing so will not only propel Summers-Knoll School into the vanguard of digital, formative assessment, but, more important, contribute to increased student learning and achievement and a more egalitarian education model that positions children, parents, and teachers as cooperative co-learners.


Works Cited

Akpinar, Y., Simsek, H. (2007). Pre-Service Teachers’ Learning Object Development: A Case Study in K-12 Setting. Interdisciplinary Journal of Knowledge and Learning Objects, 3, 197-217. Retrieved from

Baron, C. L. (2010). Designing a Digital Portfolio (Second Edition). Berkeley, CA: New Riders

Berrill, D.P., & Whalen, C. (2007). “Where Are the Children?” Personal Integrity and Reflective Teaching Portfolios. Teaching and Teacher Education, 23.6, 868-884. doi:10.1016/j.tate.2007.02.002

Chang, C. (2001). A Study on the Evaluation and Effectiveness Analysis of Web-Based Learning Portfolio (WBLP). British Journal of Educational Technology, 32.4, 435-458. doi:10.1111/1467-8535.00212

Chang, C. (2008). Enhancing Self-Perceived Effects Using Web-Based Portfolio Assessment. Computers in Human Behavior, 24, 1753-1771. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2007.07.005

Chang, C., Tseng, K.H. (2009). Use and Performances of Web-Based Portfolio Assessment. British Journal of Educational Technology, 40.2, 358-370. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2008.00885.x

Lam, R., Lee, I. (2010). Balancing the Dual Functions of Portfolio Assessment. ELT Journal, 64.1, 54-64. doi:10.1093/elt/ccp024

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

Ocak, G., Ulu, M. (2009). The Views of Students, Teachers, and Parents and the Use of Portfolio at the Primary Level. Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences, 1, 28-36. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2009.01.009

Peacock, S., Gordon, L., Murray, S., Morss, K., & Dunlop, G. (2010). Tutor Response to Implementing an ePortfolio to Support Learning and Personal Development in Further and Higher Education Institutions in Scotland. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41.5, 827-851. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2009.00986.x

Schneider, C.G. (2008). The Proof Is in the Portfolio. Liberal Education, 95.1. Retrieved from

Seitz, H, Bartholomew, C. (2008). Powerful Portfolios for Young Children. Early Childhood Education Journal, 36, 63-68. doi:10.1007/s10643-008-0242-7

Vermilion, E.R. (2008). The EdVantage of Efolios. Distance Learning, 5.4, 67-72. Retrieved from

Wall, K., Higgins, S., Miller, J., & Packard, N. (2006). Developing Digital Portfolios: Investigating How Digital Portfolios Can Facilitate Pupil Talk About Learning. Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 15.3, 261-273. doi:10.1080/14759390600923535

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