The Research on Portfolios in Education
By Dr. Helen C. Barrett

There are many educators who advocate the use of portfolios in education, both with students and teachers. The empirical research, however, is very limited and focuses more on the development of teaching portfolios than on K-12 student portfolios in the classroom. The literature shows many accepted purposes for portfolios, which may make it difficult to research with any precision. In classrooms, portfolios are not so much an instructional strategy to be researched, but more of a means to an end: to support reflection that can help students understand their own learning and to provide a richer picture of student work that documents growth over time.

Artists have maintained portfolios for years, often using their collection for seeking further work, or for simply demonstrating their art; an artist's portfolio usually includes only their best work. Financial portfolios contain a comprehensive record of fiscal transactions and investment holdings that represent a person's monetary worth. By contrast, an educational portfolio contains work that a learner has selected and collected to show growth and change over time; a critical component of an educational portfolio is the learner's reflection on the individual pieces of work (often called "artifacts") as well as an overall reflection on the story that the portfolio tells. There are many purposes for portfolios in education: learning, assessment, employment, marketing, showcase, best works. The examples discussed in this paragraph should make it obvious that the term "portfolio" should always have a modifier or adjective that describes its purpose.

The use of "portfolio assessment" in education emerged in the late 1980s, primarily in college writing classrooms (Belanoff, Elbow, 1991) to address the needs for accountability: the emphasis on portfolio assessment. In K-12 classrooms, the emphasis was more on portfolios as a showcase for learning, as a counterpoint to traditional forms of assessment or to illuminate capabilities not covered by standardized testing: the emphasis on portfolio assessment. According to Kathleen Blake Yancey and Irwin Weiser (1997), those purposes are becoming reversed, with post-secondary institutions exploring the wide varieties of purposes for portfolios (learning, advising, employment) and with state departments of education (Kentucky, Vermont, Connecticut) designing statewide models of student portfolios for statewide assessment.

In their synthesis of "Portfolio Research: A Slim Collection," Herman and Winters (1994) note the following:

Well-designed portfolios represent important, contextualized learning that requires complex thinking and expressive skills. Traditional tests have been criticized as being insensitive to local curriculum and instruction, and assessing not only student achievement but aptitude. Portfolios are being heralded as vehicles that provide a more equitable and sensitive portrait of what students know and are able to do. Portfolios encourage teachers and schools to focus on important student outcomes, provide parents and the community with credible evidence of student achievement, and inform policy and practice at every level of the educational system. (Educational Leadership, October 1994, pp. 48-55)

These authors go on to discuss the lack of empirical evidence to support these claims. Joanne Carney (2001) noted in the literature review for her dissertation that the research literature on portfolios has not changed much in the seven years since Herman & Winters published their article.

Collections of writing are considered here as a special case of a class of new performance assessments known as “portfolio assessments.” Although models of portfolio assessment differ, it is common practice that students’ classroom work and their reflections on that work are assembled as evidence of growth and achievement. The goal is to produce richer and more valid assessments of students’ competencies than are possible from traditional testing… However, little is known regarding the capacity of portfolio assessments to support judgments that are valid for large-scale [assessment] purposes. (Novak, Herman & Gearhart, 1996)

Even so, the multiple purposes for which portfolios can be developed makes the research task even more challenging. Adding to the multiple purposes, there are many different contexts that portfolios can be found: K-12 schools, higher education, professional portfolios, making comparison a further challenge. Following are excerpts from several documents published by ERIC that focuses on several different contexts: K-12 Student Portfolios and Teaching Portfolios.

K-12 Student Portfolios

In a Consumer Guide on “Student Portfolios: Classroom Uses” the U.S. Department of Education (November 1993) noted the following:

WHAT DOES THE RESEARCH SAY? Research shows that students at all levels see assessment as something that is done to them on their classwork by someone else. Beyond "percent correct," assigned letter grades, and grammatical or arithmetic errors, many students have little knowledge of what is involved in evaluating their classwork. Portfolios can provide structure for involving students in developing and understanding criteria for good efforts, in coming to see the criteria as their own, and in applying the criteria to their own and other students' work.

Research also shows that students benefit from an awareness of the processes and strategies involved in writing, solving a problem, researching a topic, analyzing information, or describing their own observations. Without instruction focused on the processes and strategies that underlie effective performance of these types of work, most students will not learn them or will learn them only minimally. And without curriculum-specific experience in using these processes and strategies, even fewer students will carry them forward into new and appropriate contexts. Portfolios can serve as a vehicle for enhancing student awareness of these strategies for thinking about and producing work--both inside and beyond the classroom. (

In a follow-up Consumer Guide (December 1993), “Student Portfolios: Administrative Uses” the authors addressed the use of portfolios for administrative purposes and here is what they noted about the research:

WHAT DOES THE RESEARCH SAY? Experience with classroom-level portfolio projects shows that many portfolios are currently highly individualized, if not intensely personal. Judged in light of available standards--some district and school policies, court decisions, and professional association standards--many of our existing student portfolios appear to contain too little information for "high-stakes" administrative uses.

One ERIC Digest “The Portfolio and Its Use: Developmentally Appropriate Assessment of Young Children” was written in 1992 and covers basic principles of using portfolios in early childhood education.

Teaching Portfolios

Wolf, Whinery, & Hagerty (1995) cite strong theoretical support for teaching portfolios. Herman and Winters (1994) noted that most published articles on portfolios were not research-based, but rather were conceptual or anecdotal. In her dissertation literature review, Carney (2001) noted that there was little change since the Herman and Winters’ survey. Carney also points out that a teaching portfolio “could be a theoretical act, a reflective tool, and a credential.” As a theoretical act, Shulman (1998) points out that a teacher’s portfolio is a way of conceptualizing one’s practice, can act as a repository for teacher knowledge (Carney, 2001). Diez (1994) proposed three metaphors for thinking about portfolios: mirror, map and sonnet, capturing the reflective nature of the portfolio (mirror), a tool for planning (the map), within a structure (the sonnet). Portfolios are recognized as tools for teachers to think reflectively about their practice. Teaching portfolios are more and more being assigned an assessment role, to demonstrate achievement of professional standards (NBPTS).

Electronic Portfolios...

Carney (2001) notes, “Our past experiences with innovative technologies would suggest one technology cannot be so easily swapped for another. The introduction of a new tool into human activity often changes that activity in ways unanticipated and sometimes profound (Wertsch, 1995).”

Research and Dissertations on Electronic Portfolios on the WWW:

Atkinson, W. (2000). A qualitative study: What are the perceptions of principals and teachers to the implementation of electronic portfolios. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, The University of Akron, Ohio.

Carney, Joanne (2001) Electronic and Traditional Portfolios as Tools for Teacher Knowledge Representation. Unpublished Dissertation, PhD, Univeristy of Washington, Seattle, WA.

Derham, Carol Swavely (2003) The Digital Portfolio Assessment of Teaching Competencies (D-PATCO): Initial Development and Validation. Unpublished Dissertation, EdD, Lehigh University.

Falls, Jane Ann (2001) Using a Reflective Process to Implement Electronic Portfolios

Fiedler, Rebecca (2006) “In Transition”: An Activity Theoretical Analysis Examining Electronic Portfolio Tools’ Mediation of the Preservice Teacher’s Authoring Experience. Unpublished Dissertation, Ph.D. University of Central Florida.

McCloud, F. C. (1997). The strengths and weaknesses of electronic portfolios as perceived by educators in three southwestern Pennsylvania school districts. Unpublished Dissertation, EdD, University of Pittburgh, Pittsburgh, PA.

Niguidula, David Anthony (2002) The writing and reading of digital portfolios. Unpublished Dissertation, EdD. COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY TEACHERS COLLEGE.

Piper, Carla (1999) Electronic Portfolios in Teacher Education. Dissertation, EdD, Univeristy of the Pacific, Stockton, CA.Published online at:

Havelock, B.; Gibson, D; Sherry, L. (2003) The Personal Learning Planner: Collaboration through Online Learning and Publication


(a comprehensive list compiled from a variety of research studies and dissertations on electronic portfolios 152K)

Barrett, H. (2002a). “Researching the Process and Outcomes of Electronic Portfolio Development in a Teacher Education Program.” Paper presented at the Society for Information Technology in Teacher Education Conference, Nashville, March 17-23. Posted online at:

Batson, Trent (2002) “The Electronic Portfolio Boom: What's it All About?” Syllabus. Available online:

Carney, J.M. (2002). “The intimacies of electronic portfolios: Confronting preservice teachers' personal revelation dilemma.” Paper presented at the Society for Information Technology in Teacher Education Conference, Nashville, March 17-23.

Carney, J.M. (2003). “Teacher Portfolios and New Technologies: Confronting the Decisions and Dilemmas.” Paper presented at the Society for Information Technology in Teacher Education Conference, Albuquerque, March 24-29.

Diez, M. (1994). The portfolio: Sonnet, mirror and map. In Kay Burke (Ed.), Professional Portfolios. Glenview, IL: Skylight Training and Publishing.

Gibson, David & Barrett, Helen (2002). “Directions in Electronic Portfolio Development.” ITFORUM listserv discussion paper for December. Posted online:

Lucas, Catharine. 1992. Introduction: Writing Portfolios - Changes and Challenges. Portfolios in the Writing Classroom: An Introduction, ed. Kathleen Blake Yancey. Urbana, Illinois: NCTE: 1-11

Rogers, Douglas (Baylor University) (2003) "Teacher Preparation, Electronic Portfolios, and NCATE." Proceedings of the 2003 Conference of the Society for Information Technology in Teacher Education Conference, Albuquerque, March 24-29. (pp. 163-5)

Shulman, Lee (1998) "Teacher Portfolios: A Theoretical Activity" in N. Lyons (ed.) With Portfolio in Hand. (pp. 23-37) New York: Teachers College Press.

Weblinks: A very interesting page of links from the UK. Another research project from the University of Dundee

©2003, Helen C. Barrett, Ph.D.