Fox, S. (2006). Students' perceptions of electronic portfolio development in the elementary classroom . Instructional Technology Monographs 3 (2). Retrieved <insert date>, from

Students' Perceptions of Electronic Portfolio Development in the Elementary Classroom


Sonja L. Fox
University of Georgia




This qualitative study will present evidence of the effects derived from student self-assessment and reflection of self-selected artifacts for individual electronic learning-process portfolios. The study will focus on the perceptions of students involved in electronic portfolio development, in two suburban 4th grade elementary classrooms, in a public school with a diverse population, within a large metropolitan area, and includes an analysis of student, and parent survey responses and interviews, as well as students’ reflective artifacts addressing the portfolio development experience over a four-month period.

Though the practice of implementing authentic assessment, to gauge student learning in elementary classrooms, has been studied and widely held as an effective means for assessing students in rich and meaningful ways, elementary-level students’ perceptions of the effect of electronic portfolio development on their learning and as an instrument for self-assessment, has not been studied extensively.



Literature Review Methods Results and Discussion Conclusions References




There is no happiness if the things we believe in are

different than the things we do . -- Albert Camus, Philosopher, Writer

I remember my school days in a structured classroom, where the teacher presented the class with a predictable series of lessons in lecture format, followed by uninspired written, independent practice assignments. Of course, on Fridays I took the paper and pencil test to assess our acquisition of the knowledge and comprehension-based concepts. I felt relieved to have gotten through the test and the material, thinking I wouldn’t have to worry about that anymore. I often asked myself, “Why is this important to know?” When I remember school this way, I am part of the generations of American students whose learning was influenced by 19 th century ideas on the standardization of public schools. The 1970’s ‘back to basics’ movement supported the study of relevant core subject matter, student self-discipline and standardized tests. Perhaps my parents agreed that time spent on non-academic activities was time wasted, and supported the decline of whole-language, experiential, and social change instruction based on the theories of progressivist thinkers such as Francis Parker.

Colonel Francis Parker, founder of the ‘Quincy system’, believed in a child-centered curriculum. Parker’s successor in leadership of the progressivist movement was pragmatist John Dewey. Dewey supported instruction that did not teach concepts in isolation, but learning through experiences specifically designed to assist students in acquiring knowledge of the conditions and resources of their communities. Progressivists wanted students to be able to use these resources to acquire skills to affect social change.

Progressivists did not use paper and pencil tests exclusively as a way to measure learning. They liked the idea of evaluating student progress using alternative methods. The idea of using portfolios can be found in the beginnings of the progressive education movement in the late 19 th and early 20 th century. While portfolios were thought to be time consuming, they placed emphasis on students sharpening research skills and creative thinking, rather than just building a broad base of knowledge. Present day Progressivists view portfolios as a more meaningful, in-depth method for assessing student progress than scores on standardized tests.

At the end of a typical school week, elementary school students bring home all the work they are proud to show to parents. They want to share every page, explain how they completed each task, and receive praise for papers that show their best work. This collection of work is a simple type of portfolio that allows the teacher and student to share academic progress with the parent, and acts as a summative assessment for the week. I remember a fourth-grade social studies project that assessed our knowledge of the physical Earth. Our teacher demonstrated the technique of blowing up a balloon, layering paper mache strips around it to form a somewhat spherical form, then instructed us to recall our knowledge of the oceans and continents and paint the surface accordingly. I can still see that classroom, and our blue and green models arranged on the table. The most memorable moments I have and the concepts that stayed with me were those when the teacher included a performance-based or authentic assessment.

Authentic assessments (AAs) incorporate a wide variety of techniques "designed to correspond as closely as possible to `real world' student experiences" (Custer 1994, p. 66). An assessment is authentic when it measures the ability of the student to apply an acquired skill or concept in new situations and calls upon students to create responses instead of choosing answers from a limited selection of items. Authentic assessments require students to use higher order thinking skills. Teachers design authentic, appropriate assessments to reflect the actual concepts presented and learned in the classroom.

What authentic assessment does not do is compare or rank students. In this educational climate requiring benchmarks, universal standards, and accountability for all, authentic assessments are seen as too time-intensive, varying greatly in their design and purpose from teacher to teacher, and are too subjective. Wiggins argues that what is really subjective is the creation and scoring of standardized tests. “Though the scoring of standardized tests is not subject to significant error, the procedure by which items are chosen, and the manner in which norms or cut-scores are established is often quite subjective--and typically immune from public scrutiny and oversight.” (Wiggins, 1990, #26).

Ryan and Miyasaka (1995) considered performance assessment and portfolio assessment to be types of authentic assessment. Wiggins provides two descriptors for measuring assessment authenticity: “an assessment reflects the challenges, work, and standards engaging practicing professionals, and that it involves a student with opportunities for dialogue, explanations, and inquiry” (Wiggins, 1989, p. 703). A portfolio holds selected samples of student or teacher work, with reflections generated by the portfolio developer, which “transforms the artifacts into ‘evidence’ of achievement,” (Barrett, 2001, p.2). Portfolios are a type of authentic assessment that some say can be used as an alternative to standardized tests in determining Adequate Yearly Progress of schools under the No Child Left Behind Law (Harris, 2004)

Much of the available research on the impact on students involved in portfolio development addresses pre-service teachers, adult learners, and the use of portfolios in higher educational institutions to assess student academic work. Not since the early 1990’s when the states of Vermont, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Kentucky initiated statewide programs for elementary student portfolio development, has any significant attempt been made to study the effect of student electronic portfolio development in elementary school populations, as an approach to “promote a high degree of learner activity and increase metacognitive awareness.” (Hattie, Biggs, & Purdie, 1996, p.131). Many institutions of higher learning utilize portfolio development to obtain clear evidence of student learning. If portfolio creation, and more specifically electronic portfolio development, is accepted as authentic measures of academic mastery of concepts and skills by these accredited institutions, then isn’t this instructional practice appropriate for student assessment at all educational levels?

The purpose of this study is to record elementary school student perceptions of how increased use of technological tools, specifically electronic portfolio development, increases their level of participation in the learning process and in self-assessment of their own achievement. Researchers, who have focused on integration of technology, alternative and authentic assessment, and student portfolio development in institutions

of higher learning, agree that further study is needed to determine whether portfolio development is a beneficial instructional practice at the K-12 level (Harris, 2004, Barrett, 2005).

What is missing from the literature is current research on the phenomena that occurs in the elementary school classroom. Specifically, how do 4 th grade students respond to electronic portfolio development? What seem to be the benefits for 4 th grade students engaged in developing electronic portfolios? I will focus on student perceptions of the portfolio development process, how it seems to affect their level of engagement, and how the reflection element of portfolio development improves their learning.

I intend to collect data on the student reactions and perceptions from student self-assessment and reflection of self-selected artifacts for individual electronic learning-process portfolios, in two suburban 4th grade elementary classrooms, in a public school with a diverse population. The study will include a collection of student, and parent survey responses, student interviews, as well as students’ reflective artifacts, addressing the results of the portfolio development experience.

For the purposes of this study a portfolio is defined as “a purposeful collection of student work that exhibits the student’s efforts, progress and achievements in one or more areas. The collection must include student participation in selecting contents, the criteria for selection; the criteria for judging merit, and evidence of student self-reflection” (Northwest Evaluation Association Conference, 1990, definition developed by Pacific Northwest Educators). “An electronic portfolio uses electronic technologies, allowing the portfolio developer to collect and organize portfolio artifacts in many media types (audio, video, graphics, text). An electronic portfolio is not a haphazard collection of artifacts (i.e., a digital scrapbook or a multimedia presentation) but rather a reflective tool that demonstrates growth over time.” (Barrett, 2001, p. 3).



Literature Review


As America becomes increasingly dependent on the mathematical and technological skill sets of citizens of other countries, discussion over American students’ lack of engagement and interest in schoolwork prompts several important questions. If lack of student engagement is a barrier to student attainment of basic and essential skills for increased student achievement (U.S. DOE, 1994), which educator and student behaviors must change to improve engagement, and which instructional method(s) will be most effective in generating self-motivated learners? Which instructional practices, that research indicates lend themselves to technology integration strategies, seem to support student attainment of skills that will transfer to real-world applications?

With ever-increasing expectations that students must be able to interpret and apply ideas from complicated information, from various technological formats, to real-world situations, it is imperative that educators identify effective instructional strategies that integrate technology. Technology can provide support for differentiated student learning, when the teacher is proficient in the use of the chosen technology. One meta-analytic study, which included students from kindergarten through higher education, revealed that students who used computer based instruction (CBI) performed better on achievement tests and in the classroom, taking less time to learn concepts and were more likely to exhibit a positive attitude toward learning (Kulik,C, 1994, p. 4).

Computers, when used to engage students in higher-order thinking activities, have improved academic achievement in mathematics among elementary and middle school math students. Indeed, researchers in the twentieth century, who have studied cognition in learners, describe the learning experience as being most effective, when certain characteristics are present.

The research indicates these characteristics are active engagement, collaborative groups, frequent interaction between students and teacher with meaningful feedback, and instruction that is connected to real-world contexts (Roschelle, Pea, Hoadley, Gordin, Means, 2000).

Studies by researchers seeking to determine the cause of progressive decreased intrinsic motivation toward school work completion in adolescents focus on the change in environment from elementary to middle school. Their findings indicate that in the middle school culture there is a prevalence of greater teacher control of the learning environment and decreased participation of students in decisions concerning the learning process. Several studies ( Brophy & Evertson, 1976; Midgley & Feldlaufer, 1987; Midgley, Feldlaufer, & Eccles, 1988; Moos, 1979), as cited in Eccles & Midgley, 1993), revealed that the motivating elements of choice and self-management for students making the transition to a new learning environment, are greatly diminished.

It is well known that the middle school years are a time when students struggle between fitting in with their peers and figuring out who they are as individuals. If this is also a time when they lose some of the control over the learning process that they were accustomed to having in elementary school, then it is no wonder some students lose interest in working to their highest potential. When choice is removed and the purpose for instruction becomes mastery of concepts for the sake of assessment, students cannot make a connection between their academic and personal contexts (Eccles &

Midgley, 1993, p.90). Students at the upper elementary and middle school levels demonstrate more intrinsic motivation when given an opportunity to analyze and reflect on the results of their academic efforts, and then determine the necessary course of action needed to improve their performance. The previous statement can be generalized for adults in the workplace. The ability to analyze and improve work performance is required of any employee no matter the job description.

The increased use of electronic portfolios in classrooms in K-12 and university learning environments and in the workplace suggests that portfolios may be an effective tool, capable of bridging the gap between classroom behaviors and workplace expectations. Just as portfolios in the school environment reveal the intellectual, mathematical, artistic strengths of the developer, so does the professional portfolio provide evidence of talents to the employer. A study of the impact of experiential portfolios on adult students, conducted by Judith Brown, Barry University associate dean and director of The Portfolio Program, School of Adult Learning and Continuing Education reported the following outcomes: a) a marked increase in the participants’ self-knowledge after portfolio development; b)a greater recognition of the value of learning from work and from mentors; and c) improved communication and organization skills, and greater appreciation of the role of reflection in recognizing learning (Brown, 2002, p. 234 ).


Research Question

Do students recognize electronic process-portfolio development as an effective method for self-assessment and for improving their learning process?

If adult learner outcomes are positively shown to impact communication and organizational skills in the work setting, what will be the perceptions of 4th grade students of the impact on their communication and organizational skills as students develop?In this paper I have attempted to spotlight the literature that studies the effects on student learning as a result of electronic portfolio creation. My search constantly required me to refocus on my mission as article after article presented advice on how to create or facilitate the creation of electronic portfolios, select portfolio creation software, or guidance on assessment of ongoing and completed student products. There is an abundance of literature that defines the types and purposes of portfolios and more that tout the usefulness of this tool as a repository of student work and as a meaningful use of the available technology, but finding that golden nugget that provided research-based support for using electronic portfolios as an effective instructional tool for increasing student engagement, and transferable skills proved to be more difficult.

Portfolio Research: Purpose of Portfolios

Portfolios have been described as “a purposeful collection of student work that tells the story of a student’s effort, progress and /or achievement in one or more areas” (Artel & Spandel, 1992, p. 36). Assessing student progress using portfolios became more widespread during the 1980’s, but received negative press in 1994, when Daniel Koretz, former RAND Corporation researcher, reported portfolios as lacking usefulness in evaluating student work. Koretz, (1992) when evaluating Vermont’s statewide implementation portfolio development in fourth and eighth grade classrooms, found that a lack of uniformity of the development process from teacher to teacher and school to school created a non-standardized form of assessment. Other problems reported in The Vermont Portfolio Assessment Program: Interim Report on Implementation and Impact, (1991-92) were inconsistent training of teachers in the first year of implementation. Teachers expressed the reality that change takes time, and that they were not given specific guidelines for implementation. During the second year of implementation, more effective and frequent training opportunities for teachers were provided.

Some researchers hold the positivist view that portfolios are assessment tools to obtain documentation of standards met (Wolf, 1996, p. 40). Others see the value of portfolios as a vehicle for self-assessment. “Self assessment, including both self-reflection and self-evaluation, allows students to develop feelings of ownership and responsibility for personal learning” (Wagner & Lily, 1999, p.31). Reflection is a critical component of student learning and portfolio development (Wilcox 1996; Wolf and Dietz 1998, p.2).

These proponents of Learning/Process portfolios (Barrett, 2005, p. 5) see portfolio development as a transformative experience during which the learner’s critical self-reflection ” results in the reformulation of a meaning perspective to allow a more inclusive, discriminating, and integrative understanding of the learner’s experience” (Brown, 2002, p. 241). Still one more purpose for portfolio creation is as a showcase to highlight exceptional student work, the more traditionally recognized model. It is the Learning/Process portfolio that has received the most attention in recent professional articles and the model that when studied by researchers, seems to provide the strongest support for educators to implement instructional design which utilizes portfolio development.

Learning Process portfolios that provide scaffolding for cognitive reflection are also a key factor in helping students develop self-regulated learning. As a learner progresses from being assisted by others to a self-assisted state, the learner needs to determine what skills they have acquired and what they have yet to acquire to progress in a specific context. As a first step in this diagnostic process, the learner needs to be able to reflect upon his/her progress in a meaningful way. Portfolios can serve as a scaffolding technique to help the learner make the transition from being dependent on others for direction in his/her writings to becoming an independent writer.

A closer examination of the literature on portfolio development reveals potential, major obstacles to obtaining desired results from EP development. Implementation of an instructional initiative, even if within a small segment of an institution, requires the acknowledged relevance of the goals, objectives and planned activities of the individuals involved, by segments of the institution not directly involved in the initiative. No member of an institution can act in isolation. Actions or failure to act has an impact on others or other systems within the institution. For student electronic portfolio development to take place, all students and staff who have an interest in the academic and personal development of each student involved, must at least be aware of the specific, unique, strategic plan of the primary educator in improving student achievement levels. A common vision for applying proven, research-based strategies must be present in the learning community. For example, if the school’s technology coordinator has not been consulted in advance on a plan to utilize the school’s mobile lab on a thrice-weekly basis, for an extended period of time, she may plan to allow other educators access to the same equipment. Also the coordinator may need to schedule tutorials for both teacher and students on the use of hardware or software in order that EP work sessions are as productive and trouble-free as possible. Open communication with administration about goals may not only garner approval for or access to additional resources known to administrators, but also the moral support and encouragement that may make the difference when things don’t go as planned.

Another major consideration when facilitating EP creation is being clear of the purpose before beginning. Is the portfolio to be a tool for assessment and if so for formative or summative assessment? Will the portfolio serve as a collection of artifacts that demonstrate mastery according to previously set criteria and the completion of a universal checklist? Or, will the portfolio be part of a balanced system of assessment for learning that includes a reflective component to ensure the focus is on process and not product, individual growth and goal attainment (Barrett, 2004)?

If the portfolio’s purpose is to provide a framework for the learning process and opportunities for student reflection, then how can the teacher be sure of the quality of reflection? (Barak, L. 2005). Students may not have actually had any direct instruction and guided practice with reflective writing. Teachers must not assume students have the experience of reflecting deeply on their progress. Students may produce reflections that are a narrative of actions or behaviors that are not truly a self-examination of behaviors and attitudes toward learning (Farr, 2001).

The expense of the kinds of up-to-date, digital recording devices, web-authoring software, file accessibility and storage capabilities must be considered as well as providing time and personnel resources for training in their use.

These issues must be discussed and solutions found before considering or implementing a plan for student electronic portfolio creation.

Portfolios: Research by Organizations

Several articles I discovered support electronic student portfolios that move beyond skills checklists. Dr. Helen Barrett advocates a combination of three purposes, including “an archive of student work, an assessment management system to document achievement standards, and an authoring environment where students can construct their own electronic portfolios and reflective, digital stories of learning (Barrett, 2004, p. 1). Dr. Barrett’s recently released White Paper-Researching Electronic Portfolios and Learner Engagement (2005) is an excellent place to begin a review of electronic portfolio research. It provides an overview of the available research on student portfolios in K-12 classrooms,the difficulties of conducting precise research due to multiple definitions, and purposes for portfolios. This paper is a part of ongoing research by The REFLECT Initiative; an initiative directed by Barrett and dedicated to Researching Electronic portFolios: Learning, Engagement and Collaboration through Technology. Dr. Barrett cites Joanne Carney’s (2001) dissertation, as she noted that little has been added to research literature since the Herman and Winters’ (1994) paper, “Portfolio Research: A Slim Collection.” Barrett also notes a Consumer Guide published by the U.S. Department of Education (1993) that promotes portfolio development as beneficial in creating student awareness of the processes and strategies involved in writing, problem-solving, research, analysis and reflection. If the available research on the effects of student portfolio creation is supportive of continued implementation of this practice, then any endeavor to conduct further research that would substantiate previous findings is needed.

Barrett (2005, 2004) emphasizes the difference between Assessment of Learning and Assessment for Learning, another reminder that the selection of a purpose of the portfolio is the most important decision made by the creator. Dr. Barrett’s web site provides additional resources for reviewing teaching and professional portfolios (

Helen Barrett has recently agreed to assist TaskStream, a producer of ePortfolio software, in researching “ the effectiveness of the portfolio development process in secondary student learning, motivation and engagement... By using a single tool that doesn't require a lot of technical skill, we can focus on the real goal of the project: student learning, engagement and reflection, not HTML coding, hyperlinking and design. I am hoping that TaskStream will add more options for creativity in design to their tools; but our goal is to get students to collect (create their digital archive), select the key pieces, reflect on their growth over time, project their future goals, and respect their work through sharing with a wider audience.” (Barrett,, #3). Barrett says, “I am hoping that this project provides a seed for more future serious research about portfolios for learning (not just for accountability) and that we can show how the development process can lead to enhanced student self-esteem. (Of course, how to research that outcome will be a challenge!)”. (Barrett, #4)

The National Coalition for Electronic Portfolio Research, an alliance of twenty institutions including the University of Georgia, brings together teams to share the intricacies of e-portfolio projects, and to research the impact of ePortfolios. The new NCEPR website, launched in September, 2005, allows members to communicate and share findings in chat rooms, blogs, an aggregator, wiki, email lists, and news.

Each participating NCEPR institution, by implementation and evaluation of ePortfolios, is addressing key issues toward answering the question of impact on student learning. In a presentation to The EIFEL (the European Institute for E-Learning) Conference in October of 2005, Barbara Cambridge stated that the institutional goal of the University of Georgia in the area of rhetoric and composition is, “ How do successful and unsuccessful revisers in first-year composition courses articulate their revision choices in their e-portfolio reflections? What does analysis of reflections tell about the effect of revision on final products?” Other institutional goals include:

Professional identity -How do preservice teacher professionals identify and develop over the course of a programmatic e-portfolio experience? University of Texas, San Antonio

Identity with educational institution- How is student representation of research in the university, which has been shown to affect students’ institutional identities and participation, enhanced through e-portfolios? University of Illinois, Champaign Urbana

Cultural identity - How does Hawaiian identity influence student self-reflection on learning experiences and academic and career goals in e-portfolios? Kapi’olani Community College

Issues in the discipline - To what extent do discipline-related issues shape e-portfolio implementation? Washington State University

Psychology - How is progress in the ten dimensions of understanding within psychology supported by e–portfolio use? Clemson University

Connections between academic study and professional reality - How does the use of e-portfolios, blogs, and wikis influence students’ making of explicit connections among their aptitudes, knowledge, and skills and the real work of engineering? Stanford University

Integration of learning across and beyond academic study - How does the practice of integrative thinking supported by e-portfolios transfer with students across their years of undergraduate education and into their personal and professional lives?

George Mason University

Integration through linking - Why do students create links and what kinds of materials do they link? Through links are students reflecting, integrating, building community, and/or providing context?

St. Olaf College (Cambridge, B., Presentation, EIFEL Conference, 2005)

The collaborative question for all participants in this endeavor is: How does reflection, as supported by electronic portfolios, influence student learning? All participating institutions have a vested interest in supporting the search for answers to all the above questions. The answers to these questions, I suspect, will strengthen the viewpoint that when educational institutions at all levels provide opportunities for students to create, select and reflect on artifacts that demonstrate their understanding of content, then not only will a greater number of students reach self-actualization, the quality of instruction at these institutions will also improve. I cannot help but think that by finding answers to these institutional questions, researchers at these universities will be providing answers to the effects of electronic portfolio development on the learning of primary and secondary students.

Though the practice of implementing authentic assessment to gauge student learning in elementary classrooms has been studied and widely held as an effective means for assessing students in rich and meaningful ways, I could not locate research on the development of perceptions of elementary-level students engaged in electronic portfolio development in the literature.

Although electronic portfolios are used widely in elementary and secondary schools, researchers have devoted more time to studying the results of the use of portfolios to assess instructional practices of preservice teachers. Institutions have provided evidence of undergraduate and graduate student learning, and highlighted institutional portfolios to provide support for accreditation. Wieseman’s (2005) meta-analysis examined studies and conceptual papers on the nature of reflection in electronic portfolios of preservice teachers. The result was the creation of a framework on three kinds of reflection for three different aspects of education that includes technical, practical, and critical reflection.

As I guide students in their portfolio creation, I will place emphasis on the meta-cognitive aspect of students’ experience. I contend that consistent attention to critical reflection will increase individual student awareness of their growth and could precipitate increased academic gains and motivation in goal setting.


The literature reveals evidence of several collective efforts by higher education internationally (NCEPR, The REFLECT Initiative 2006, EIFEL, National Learning Infrastructure Initiative), and of collaborative efforts between educators and software creators (i.e., Barrett and TaskStream), in determining the most effective methods for guiding portfolio development, assessing portfolios, and eliminating variables in implementation The research questions posed by these groups might also determine the true impact of portfolios on meta-cognition in students and lasting effects from the experience.

There is a need for the continued efforts of both experts in the field and organizations mentioned previously to complete qualitative and quantitative research on the progressive, transformative and transferable effects of the electronic portfolio creation process. Researchers will need to consider the lack of uniformity in electronic portfolio design, the software utilized, and the differences in instruments used to determine performance. Another major, and arguably the most important, consideration is the importance of the self-reflective factor and documenting student growth and change in motivation, attitude, and not only conceptual knowledge, but knowledge of self as observed through their reflections. The showcase portfolio and the assessment portfolio have their place in documenting exceptional work or achievement over time, but current research has focused on the metacognitive effect of learning/process electronic portfolios. Students remain the ultimate beneficiaries of research in this direction.




What is not known given the recent change in the educational climate as a result of the No Child Left Behind Law, is how electronic portfolio development, as a means of authentic assessment, impacts the learning process in the 4th grade classroom compared to more time-efficient, less open-ended strategies for determining yearly progress. Given the increased availability and variety of digital tools for use in the classroom, and ease and eagerness with which 4th grade students approach technological tools, how can technology be integrated into instruction to facilitate real learning? Specifically, how do 4th grade students respond meta-cognitively to electronic portfolio development? What are the benefits for 4th grade students engaged in developing electronic portfolios? I will focus on student perceptions of the portfolio development process, perceptions of their level of engagement, and how the reflection element of portfolio development improves the learning.

The student portfolio development process as an instructional framework for student self-assessment, self-regulation, and self-reflection has proven to be a powerful phenomenon with students at the higher education level. Why then is there a dirth of current research on the impact of this form of authentic assessment for learning in the place that nurtures the foundational skills of all learners? Do students recognize electronic process-portfolio development as an effective method for self-assessment and for improving their learning process? This study of this question deserves the attention of educators at all levels.

Participants in this study include students in two suburban 4th grade elementary classrooms, in a public school with a diverse population. One class was the control group that did not receive instruction or utilize the electronic portfolio guidelines. The other 4th grade class experienced teacher designed instruction and facilitation in the content, process, and product development of individual electronic portfolios. The qualitative methods included a collection of student and parent survey responses, student interviews, as well as students’ reflective artifacts addressing the benefits of the portfolio development experience

Twenty two 4th grade students from two regular education classrooms, and their parents, in one elementary school participated in the study to determine perceptions of the electronic portfolio development process. Each participant completed a pre-portfolio development survey questionnaire for their views on traditional and authentic assessments they’ve taken, or reviewed with a student. The 4th grade students completed The Computer Attitude Questionnaire, a Likert instrument for grades fourth through eighth, to establish baseline data for student enjoyment and comfort with computers.

During the electronic portfolio development process, instruments for documenting observable learner behaviors and engagement during each instructional phase included a checklist for teachers and weekly student reflections. The teacher checklist lists specific higher-order thinking skills, enhanced problem-solving skills, and documents evidence of increased learner motivation and occurrences of student engagement. I believe the checklist format will make it easier for teachers to make observations on the fly that they can create anecdotal notes from when they have more time.

These artifacts will reveal a pattern in student perceptions that the portfolio development process creates in students of the same age, with diverse backgrounds. Student perceptions of their own level of motivation, engagement, and academic progress, as revealed in their reflections, addresses the question, “Do 4th grade students recognize electronic portfolio development as a means for self-assessment and for improving their learning process?”

At the end of the eighteen week implementation period, all student and teacher participants will retake the Computer Attitude and Teacher Attitude Questionnaires to identify changes in individual perspectives and to establish any patterns that have developed. Student interview questions at the end of a eighteen-week implementation period will probe reactions concerning their ability to choose the content of student portfolios, their views on portfolios as an assessment tool, and student thoughts on the opportunity to use technology tools to create and self-regulate a device for determining their own learning. Teacher reflection at the end of the nine-week implementation period will elicit views on portfolios as an assessment tool, the uses to which portfolios are put within their classroom, and views concerning portfolio-based learning.

To further examine for patterns of portfolio use, one-on-one interviews of all participants focus on the perceptions that students, and parents hold about the impact of the electronic portfolio development process on students. Interview questions cover perceived positive and negative aspects of the provided guidelines for portfolio development, and teacher ability to provide technological support throughout the process. Specific interview questions address the use of electronic portfolio development as an assessment for learning compared to more traditional formative, summative and standardized assessment instruments.

This qualitative study will provide evidence of the impact of the student electronic portfolio development from the perspective of upper elementary students. Educators and administrators at the elementary school level may find electronic portfolio development to be an alternative method for determining the true academic progress of their students that federally required standardized tests do not measure. Educators seeking to maintain student engagement at a high level will be able to offer proof that integrating a variety of technological tools in instruction captures student interest. This study will provide evidence that including students in facilitating the learning process, and providing a mechanism for increasing students’ intrinsic motivation, in turn, increases time on task and improved academic progress.

This study, while important to the academic community, only includes a small sample of 4th grade students in a specific setting, so results, whether positive or negative, cannot be generalized to all 4th grade populations. The difference in each classroom teachers’ teaching experience, and competency and attitude toward technology will be factors in the outcomes of the data collected, as each teacher exerts influence on their students during portfolio development implementation. For the participants in this specific study, student exposure, or lack thereof, to various technological tools was a major factor in lesson planning. The school’s master schedule and availability of the schools’ two permanent computer labs and two mobile labs (16 laptops each) had a major effect on student access for artifact incorporation and retrieval on demand. The transient nature of a percentage of the 4th grade population might normally have affected the continuity of instruction as the teacher and students in the classroom receiving the treatment and would have to take additional time to provide support for new students; however, this did not become an issue as no new students enrolled in the classes. I expect that a positive effect would come from this variable, as students who verbalize and demonstrate the task expectations to assist others would internalize and improve their own execution of content selection and reflection upon their own performance in the portfolio development process.

Instrument Development

As I began this study to determine how students perceive the impact of electronic portfolio development on their learning, the question of how students would compare electronic portfolio (EP) development to other forms of assessment of their learning was foremost in my mind. I had an expectation that students would prefer EP development to other forms of assessment of their learning. My thinking was based upon prior observation of student engagement and enjoyment in previous class sessions and long term units of study when computer or other digital tools were integrated into the lesson. I set about formulating open-ended interview questions that would allow students to express their honest reactions to assessment in general, their past experience with assessments and the type and frequency of the assessments their teachers have used. The questions I created for the preportfolio-creation interviews could be placed into two categories; those that asked students to describe assessment, identify the types of assessments they were most familiar with and that their teachers have used, and those questions which asked students to define a portfolio, and a portfolio’s purpose.

I selected the Computer Attitude Questionnaire developed by the Texas Center for Educational Technology to record student attitudes toward computers, their importance and level of enjoyment based on student responses in these subscales. The reliability for the six attitude measures ranges from 0.80 to 0.86 (80 to 86% consistency in scores produced). The Computer Attitude Questionnaire (CAQ) produces seven sub-scale scores, including Computer Importance, Computer Enjoyment, Study Habits, Motivation/Persisitence, Empathy, Creative Tendencies, School, and Anxiety. For the purposed of this study I was most interested in the Computer Importance, Computer Enjoyment, and School subscales. “The Computer Attitude Questionnaire (CAQ v5.14) is a 65-item, 4-point Likert-type self-report questionnaire to be used with students in the fourth through eight grades. The CAQ is designed to measure attitudes (feelings toward a person, or thing) and prevailing attitudes (dispositions), rather than achievement. Students record their own perceptions of the extent to which they agree or disagree with each item, under the supervision of a teacher in the classroom environment, or a parent in the home.” (Knezek & Miyashita, 1993). The CAQ also incorporates three paired-comparison sets of 4 activities (writing, watching television, reading a book, or using a computer) asking students their preferences for, difficulty with, and from which they would learn most.


Using the preportfolio interview questions in one-on-one sessions, I recorded student responses to the following questions:

What is an assessment?

Why do teachers give assessments?

What kinds of assessment do your teachers give you?

What type of assessment do your teachers give you most often?

How do teachers figure out what students have learned?

How do your teachers allow you to show what you’ve learned?

What is a portfolio?

What are portfolios used for?



Results and Discussion

It was important in this study to determine student knowledge and awareness of assessments, to record their personal definitions of assessments, and how their teachers use assessments. Surprisingly 50% of students were not sure what the term ‘assessment’ meant. Students called it

“a piece of writing”,

“a review for a test”,

“a special project”.

Others gave a more expected, traditional definition stating it is

“like a test”

“you take a certain subject for a period of time and the teacher wants to see if you’ve completed the subject”,

“It’s a test you take only on Fridays to see what class you’re supposed to go to for Team Time”.

When asked why teachers give assessments, students responded that

“teachers give you important tests to pass to the next grade level”

“to see if you’ve completed the subject, to see what you’ve learned”

“to see if you were paying attention”

“to see how good you are in that subject”

“to see where you are on that specific thing”

“they want us to be able to do them”

When asked what kinds of assessments their teachers give most students provided a list of subject area tests. One student stated they take “tests with one-word answers”. One student responded “she gives me assessments like ‘write a summary’ of what I’ve learned”. Other responses included “she usually gives us written tests, multiple choice”. In answer to the question ‘How does your teacher allow you to show what you’ve learned I received a variety of responses:

“by calling on you and you answer out loud”

“letting us write something about it or maybe make a diorama”

“write your own questions and give them to your partner then the partner

checks to see if you’ve given enough detail”

“summary questions to give to everybody”

“Do problems from the book”

“I could write a story”

“make a quiz about it ”

When asked “What is a portfolio?”, three students responded ‘I don’t know”. Other responses were:

“Sort of like a file, something to organize. I’m guessing, but I’m not so sure what it is”

“It’s like an organizer (binder)”

“I’m guessing that its a record or something you type down that’s information”

“I’m guessing it’s like somewhere where you can go to find information you need”

After, portfolio development (the goal setting cycle, artifact selection, and reflective practice) has become a natural part of the school day and students’ reflections have reached a level beyond the narrative of behaviors, can illustrate what they’ve learned and use portfolios as opportunities for self-assessment and growth, I will revisit the interview questions on student definitions of assessments, how they are used, the various types, and definitions of portfolios, to record any changes in conceptual knowledge and evidence of awareness of portfolio creation and reflection as a method of assessment of their learning.


Documenting student opinions about their own computer use, the importance of computers in completing their school work and general attitudes toward school in general would provide baseline data prior to the EP creation process. Students had not yet been told that they would soon begin utilizing computers in an integrated, personal way as part of their daily learning. Of the 21 4 th graders who completed the CAQ, all agree or strongly agree that they “enjoy doing things on the computer” and all but one student responded that they are not tired of using a computer. Ninety-one percent of students responded that they feel comfortable using a computer (see Table 1, p.32).

In the three-paired comparison activity sets that included read a book, write, watch television, and use a computer, students chose first,the activities they would rather do, in the second set, the activities they thought were more difficult, and in the third set activities from which they thought they learned more. Although 90% of students would rather use a computer than watch television, 62% of students would rather read a book than use a computer, while 52% would rather use a computer than write. Student responses indicated that 66% found it more difficult to use a computer than to watch television while 77% found it more difficult to read a book than to use a computer. Almost all students, 95%, thought they would learn more from computers than watching TV, 52% thought they would learn more from computers than reading a book and 81% thought they would learn more from a computer than writing.

Table 1
Computer Attitude Questionnaire – Computer Importance/Computer Enjoyment Subscales


Note . Scale ranged from 1 - strongly disagree to 4 - strongly agree. a N = 21

Strongly Disagree No.(%)

No. (%)


Strongly Agree No.(%)

I Enjoy using computers.



I am tired of using computers.




I will be able to get a good job if I learn how to use a computer.




I concentrate on a computer when I use one.



I enjoy computer games very much.




I would work harder if I could use computers more often.




9(42 %)

I know that computers give me opportunities to learn many new things.



I can learn many things when I use a computer.



I enjoy lessons on the computer.




I believe that the more often teachers use computers, the more I will enjoy school.





I believe that it is very important for me to learn how to use a computer.



I feel comfortable working with a computer.




I get a sinking feeling when I think of trying to use a computer.



I think it takes a long time to finish when I use a computer.




Computers do not scare me at all.




Working with a computer makes me nervous.




Using a computer is very frustrating.




I will do as little work with computers as possible.





Computers are difficult to use.




I can learn more from books than from a computer.





Electronic Portfolio Development

Students began the development of their electronic portfolios by first recording their academic and personal goals, so as to have a basis for artifact selection and specific objectives to be met and reflected upon. I showed students how to create a folder in their personal drives to house all files to be collected or created. The goals documents, created in Microsoft Word, were then linked to a simple, main web page, containing a table that incorporates four main categories for organizing linked pages and artifacts.. The four category labels that students are required to use are ‘Academic and Personal Goals’, Writer’s Corner, Projects, and Hobbies. The students themselves agreed upon these labels as titles under which any artifact could be placed. Students were already proficient in using Format functions, so were allowed to choose color and graphics to enhance their pages. One brief but important tutorial I gave students was on file naming, impressing on them the importance of not including spaces or symbols within the file name as sometimes the server would ‘get lost’ trying to locate a file. Students are now involved in choosing artifacts based on their opinion that the artifacts demonstrate some level of growth towards a goal or that is an example of their best work to date. Every artifact incorporated into the portfolio must include a reflection. I have often reminded students that if they cannot defend their selection and importance of an artifact to their learning or goal achievement, it is not to be included in their EP. Emphasis on EP creation has been on a maintaining a balance between three important components of the learning portfolio, as modeled in Zubizarreta’s impressive examination of learning portfolios (Barrett’s term is Learning/Process). This model of portfolio development moves beyond the showpiece and product for the sake of completing a checklist types of portfolios. Students must think critically during the development process using reflection component as well as collaborating with peers or mentors to assess their learning beyond simple documentation. “By providing a structure that is essentially an act of communication--that is an investment in learning as community—the learning portfolio concept, primarily through the powerful agency of reviewed work, facilitates students’ active engagement of the three crucial domains: 1) reflections on learning, 2) evidence and outcomes of learning, and 3) collaboration and mentoring (Zubizarreta, 2004, p. 21)

Image by John Zubizaretta - Learning Portfolio showing Reflection, Documentation and Collaboration as the vertices of a triangle.

Created by John Zubizaretta, (2004)





At this point in the study students require further guidance by me in reflective writing. Their selection of artifacts is thoughtful and consistent with their academic goals, but have the feel of writing that sounds like the right thing to say, or is a narrative of how the student went about accomplishing their goal without that deep reflection on the personal journey they took to get there. Time, much practice, and me incorporating example/non-example strategy will assist students in improving this skill. What is promising is the eagerness with which students want to use the laptop computers. I believe this is due to the opportunity to work with material that matters to them, while at the same time increasing their motivation to improve skills addressed in the curriculum, and the involvement they themselves have had in identifying challenges and highlighting progress made. Electronic portfolios, when created with a balanced approach have a way of crystallizing, bringing into focus for students what students have learned, how they learned it, and what it took to get them there. My plan is to continue facilitating students in EP creation throughout the school year, so that reflection becomes not a collection of segmented captions, but a series of personal realizations about the self as learner.



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