Published on 2015/02/11

Authentic Learning: Developing a Student-Centered Classroom Through Portfolios

Co-written with Brandon West | Instructional Design Librarian, SUNY Oswego

The EvoLLLution | Authentic Learning: Developing a Student-Centered Classroom Through Portfolios
Portfolios help students develop the metacognitive skills that are critical to the learning process and vital in the knowledge workforce.

Authentic learning is about helping to bring meaning and relevance to student learning. Meaning and relevance can be fostered through student-centered learning environments. While it may sometimes seem that certain subject areas lend themselves more to student-centered learning than others, any subject area can become more student-centered through the use of portfolios. The use of portfolios is not a new concept, but it is one that helps support authentic learning by engaging students in the learning process.

Student-centered environments are developed when students take an active role in their learning. This doesn’t mean that the students decide what they learn; rather it requires them to self-assess, think critically and track the progress of their learning. It is incumbent on the students themselves to practice being metacognitive learners. The benefit of using portfolios in the classroom is their ability to help guide students through the metacognitive processes of thinking about their learning and development. A residual effect of the portfolio process is that students may develop a deeper understanding of a topic as well as learn the skills, such as critical thinking, that will benefit them in their lives outside of the classroom.

As you begin developing a process of using portfolios in your course, there are aspects to hone in on student-centered learning. For example, you may allow students to develop the rubric that will be used to evaluate the portfolio. You may also utilize peer conferencing as a method to allow students to evaluate each other’s work and to decide what content to include in the portfolio. This shifts the thinking about the process to the students, which empowers them to take control.

There are three primary ways to use portfolios in the classroom:

  1. Growth portfolios that allow students to track their development
  2. Showcase portfolios that highlight students’ best work
  3. Evaluation portfolios that document student achievement and progress towards standards.

There is no wrong or right way to use a portfolio, but you must remain proactive in making sure that the portfolios are being used for the intended purpose. Simply having students store materials in a folder is not a portfolio. A portfolio should be used intentionally to help students make connections between smaller pieces of their work into a larger context.

So, how might you use a portfolio in, say, Computer Science? Students can create a portfolio that demonstrates their ability to program in one or more languages; for example Java, C++, Python, SQL. It might contain items such as: an initial reflection of their thoughts and ideas of what programming is and how they feel about it; an example or two of their early attempts; then perhaps a midterm project that allows them to demonstrate their growth with another reflection; lastly, a final project with a reflection/narrative that enables them to showcase their accomplishments in the course. The reflection allows the student see just how far they have come; “Even though the program is complex with loops and arrays it is efficiently and elegantly written and the documentation is included in the program as it would be done in the workplace.”

As you consider integrating portfolios into your classroom, there are a variety of elements to think about during the planning phase. Some questions you may want to ask yourself include:

  • What is the purpose of the portfolio?
    • a single course
    • a series of courses that lead to certificate or diploma
    • industry standards
  • For which audience(s) will the student’s portfolios be created?
    • the instructor
    • peers in the course
    • potential employers
  • How will the portfolios be developed?
    • reflection
    • peer conferencing
  • How will students select content to put in their portfolios?
    • all work
    • best work
    • work that meets specific criteria
    • reflection
    • standards
  • How will the students’ portfolios be shared?
    • online or physical copy
    • with the class, an organization, or individual
  • When and how will students update/work on their portfolios?
    • in class
    • on their own
  • How will the students’ portfolios be evaluated?
    • course rubric
    • program rubric
    • industry standards

There are a number of considerations to think about as you integrate portfolios into your course. A potential obstacle for successful use of portfolios is the tool or platform you select. Digital portfolios are becoming more standard and with them come issues of availability and ease of access. It is also important to determine the scale the portfolio; will it be used only over the course of a semester, the span of several semesters, or an entire program? Also, portfolios are meant to be iterative and should show student progression, so if you use one for more than one semester, you will want students to replace old content with newer content that highlights the progress they have made. While you may not be able to accomplish everything you would like with your students using portfolios, starting on a small scale is a good start. Remember, the beauty of implementing authentic learning practices is that it should happen incrementally and organically based on what’s feasible and comfortable for you.

This is the fourth installment of an ongoing series by Theresa Gilliard-Cook and Brandon West discussing different facets of authentic learning. To read the series introduction, and to see the other posts in the series, please click here.

If you would like to receive reminders about future posts, please click below.

Next installment coming soon

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