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From Portafoglio to ePortfolio: A Brief History of the Portfolio (r)Evolution

March 4, 2011

My earliest memory of the word “portfolio” dates back to the mid-1980s when I became aware of fine artists using a case or sturdy folder, often in black leather, for transporting and easily sharing samples of their work. These portfolios housed both original pieces, such as watercolors and pencil sketches, as well as photographic reproductions of larger or ephemeral works, like pottery, mixed media sculpture, and performance. Models, too, carried portfolios, usually much smaller and often in more of a traditional binder format, though they commonly referred to them, in the patois of their tribe, as “books.” I found both of these uses exceedingly romantic and was attracted to the idea of having samples of one’s efforts always at-hand. For years I believed portfolios were reserved exclusively for the arts.

Some years later, I became aware of another common use of the term in finance, specifically portfolio as a collection of debt and equity securities. “Portfolio theory is a formal analysis of the relationship between the rates of return on a portfolio of risky securities and the rates of return on the securities contained in that portfolio” (2007, p. 167) writes James Bradfield in Introduction to the Economics of Financial Markets. In other words, careful understanding and application of portfolio theory allows the investor to tailor a financial profile that best meets his/her specific needs. One needn’t be versed in portfolio theory, however, to understand and manage his/her own economic portfolio. Those of us more entrenched in humanities than economics may simply refer to our generic amalgam of investments — home mortgage, retirement fund, mutual funds, etc. — as our “portfolio,” and this is a popular understanding of the term.

Since the mid-1970s, a new type of portfolio has entered the education lexicon and consciousness. This new portfolio is designed for instruction and formative assessment. The earliest reference to educational portfolios in ERIC, an international database of journal and non-journal education literature, is a 1976 report by Joanna Sweet titled “Experience Portfolio: An Approach to Student Writing.” Though Sweet’s portfolio was simply a one-page checklist, she did suggest that it could be referred to throughout the year to assist both teacher and student, and this is a hallmark characteristic of how we’ve come to know and use portfolios in education since. Shortly after Sweet’s apparent inaugural repurposing of the term, portfolio use in progressive education enjoyed a boost in implementation as well as an increase in the breadth of the tool’s possibilities. According to Susan M. Brookhart, Coordinator of Assessment and Evaluation for the School of Education at Duquesne University,

“In the late 1970s and 1980s, portfolios were discovered and became so popular that they were used for all sorts of things, whether they were the most appropriate assessment for the purpose or not. Portfolios arose out of a search for assessments that would encourage lifelong learning skills and student responsibility. They arose during a time of school reform when one of the objectives was to encourage complex thinking and student ownership and agency regarding their work” (2008, p. 445).

Brookhart’s description of portfolios as teaching and assessment tools, perhaps more broadly understood as communication tools, is aligned with my experiences with them in elementary school (K-5) contexts. From 2002 to 2008 I taught grades one through eight (the middle school has since disbanded) at Summers-Knoll School (SK) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. SK’s pedagogical foundation is in experiential, cross-curricular, project-based learning, a model not well served by the constraints of traditional summative assessment tools. To measure student achievement and growth over time, SK uses a two-pronged assessment package developed by the University of Michigan called Work Sampling System (WSS). The first component of WSS is the teacher-produced narrative reports of student development and achievement in eight domains, such as music, foreign language, physical education, fine art, and mathematics. Portfolios complete the package. The portfolios are maintained by students and teachers throughout the year, shared with parents and guardians at regular intervals, and provide visual representation of student progress in the same domains used in the narrative reports. Portfolios offer tangible evidence of sometimes difficult to quantify objectives, such as arts performances and community service activities, as well as opportunities for student reflection, which promotes content retention, awareness of self, and expression of identity, all key objectives of “new,” “authentic,” and “performance” assessment movements rooted in sociocultural historical theory and postmodern identity theory (Berrill & Whalen, 2007). According to Berrill and Whalen portfolios offer visual, textual, and sometimes aural demonstrations of epistemological (valued knowledge and skills), ontological (the nature of knowledge and skills in historical, social, and cultural contexts), and axiological (values and beliefs associated with knowledge and skills) learning (2007).

Before moving on to the portfolio’s newest incarnation, the digital or e-portfolio, the subject of my current research including my capstone MA project at EMU, let’s backtrack just a bit to get a better understanding of the etymology of the word along with its traditional and contemporary definitions. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Italian word “portafoglio,” meaning a stiff folder or case for holding papers or prints, first appeared in an isolated attestation in 1556 (OED Online). Known alternately as “portafogli” by 1804, the term entered into popular use in Western Europe and the United Kingdom as well as North America during the nineteenth century. From the Latin “porta,” the imperative of “portare,” or carry, plus “foglio” (from the classical Latin “folium”), or leaf, the device became referred to as “portefeuille,” “porto-folio,” “portefolio,” “port-folio,” and finally “portfolio” by the mid-1830s. (OED Online). A separate meaning for the term, an “office or area of responsibility of a government minister”, used primarily in France and Canada, can be traced back to 1797 (OED Online). The use of a physical portfolio employed by an artist, writer, model, etc., as a conveyance of his/her achievements in a particular field first appeared in an 1883 Times (London) article (OED Online). The portfolio as a range of financial investments debuted in an 1848 Times (London) piece (OED Online), and the Chicago Daily Tribune first coined the term to mean a generic (i.e. not strictly financial) “range of products, services, assets, or qualities offered or possessed” in 1933 (OED Online).

While most of these definitions of portfolios are commonplace today, their popular use in non-financial professional and educational contexts is what interests me most. From the portfolios assembled and maintained by recent college graduates, education professionals seeking employment, and K-12 students mapping their development and achievements, what they all have in common is a specific agenda. Mathers, Challis, Howe, and Field simply define the portfolio as “a collection of evidence maintained and presented for a specific purpose” (1999). Cole expands on this idea by stating, “The term ‘portfolio’ applies to different types of material, collected for different purposes, in different contexts. A short list of components that should be considered in portfolio models includes the platform for recording the collection of evidence, mentoring, and the process of introduction and support for the portfolio” (2005). And the benefits of K-12 and post-secondary portfolios are nicely summed up by Chang in his reference to Hewitt’s seminal 1995 research study:

  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)

I agree with all of the above statements and have seen evidence of each in both building and maintaining my professional portfolio as well as the numerous collaborative portfolios I’ve designed and managed with K-5 students over the last decade.

The portfolio, in keeping with the natural evolution and dynamism of language, is currently in the midst of a yet another fundamental change, and it is this metamorphosis that is the focus of my personal interests and graduate research at EMU. Pedagogical emphases on digital literacy, perhaps especially evident in secondary and post-secondary settings, have given birth to the digital or e-portfolio, and this platform transition requires more than just transference of hardcopy items onto digital spaces.

Since 2001, Chi-Cheng Chang and his colleagues at National Taipei University of Technology have been on the vanguard of digital portfolio research and design. In a 2001 study, Chang offered specific recommendations for student e-portfolio wireframes (2001), and in later studies, such as 2008’s “Enhancing Self-Perceived Effects Using Web-Based Portfolio Assessment,” which recounts the researcher’s tests of e-portfolios against traditional hardcopy portfolios on two junior high school computer classes of 30 students each, Chang uncovered concrete advantages of the new portfolios that are not simply limited to student evaluation (2008). Specifically, Chang’s findings indicated e-portfolios may be beneficial to learners who often fall through the cracks, including 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). This finding is echoed by Meyer, Abrami, Wade, Aslan, and Deault who conducted a similar study in Montreal and found that e-portfolios have the ability to stimulate metacognitive processes including planning, monitoring, and regulating, and that they facilitate learning how to learn (2010).

Of the preliminary secondary research I’ve thus far conducted on digital portfolio design and implementation, the bulk, aside from Chang’s single middle-school study, involve the use of e-portfolios is secondary and post-secondary teaching, assessment, and career preparation. While traditional hardcopy portfolios are popular in a variety of K-5 contexts worldwide, minimal research has been conducted on e-portfolio implementation in the elementary grades. It’s the belief of the faculty and staff at Summers-Knoll School, as well as my personal belief, that the benefits of e-portfolios charted at the higher levels of education can be extrapolated to include the youngest of learners. We will attempt to confirm this through qualitative and quantitative methods, and, hopefully, contribute meaningfully to the continuing evolution of the term “portfolio.”



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

Bradfield, J. (2007). Introduction to the Economics of Financial Markets. New York, NY: Oxford University Press

Brookhart, S. M. (2008). Portfolio Assessment. In Good, T. L. (Ed.), 21st Century Education: A Reference Handbook Vol. 2 (pp. 443-453). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications

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

Cole, G. (2005). The definition of ‘portfolio.’ Medical Education, 39(11), 1141. Doi:10.1037/0278-6133.24.2.225

Mathers, N.J., Challis, M.C., Howe, A.C., & Field, N.J. (1999). Portfolios in continuing medical education – effective and efficient? Medical Education, 33, 521-530

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

Oxford English Dictionary Online. (November 2010). Oxford University Press. Retrieved from

Sweet, J. (1976). Experience Portfolio: An Approach to Student Writing. The English Journal, 65(6), 50-51. Retrieved from

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