The Annotated Portfolio: An Experiential, Proactive Learning Strategy

by Virginia F. Hartman

from VCCA Journal, Volume 9, Number 2, Summer 1995, 35-38

Copyright 1995 VCCA Journal

Angelo and Cross (1993) have collected extensive research in classroom assessment. Their findings reaffirm the value of using annotated portfolios to assess students' knowledge and skills in specific courses and across disciplines. Moreover, their research also reveals the value of using portfolios to document and evaluate teaching effectiveness.

Portfolios encourage active student involvement and invite students to apply known principles and generalizations to new problems and situations; to think creatively; to gain skill in using materials, tools, and technology germane to the subject; and to prepare for transfer, graduate school, or employment. They also commit students to personal achievement (empowerment) and encourage them to develop realistic self-evaluative skills. Finally the portfolios illustrate the students' depth of knowledge and skills.

Instructional effectiveness can also be determined through portfolios. Faculty have an opportunity to assess student change and growth throughout the semester and to gain insight into what students value and appreciate. The portfolios help to maintain open communication channels both upward and downward (ongoing) while the instructors provide and receive immediate feedback.

Students report that the portfolios encourage them to reflect on their accomplishment and the progression of their learning. For the students, they also serve as memory aids and encourage a greater focus on course content and critical decisions about that content. At the same time, the portfolios demand a wider variety of experiences and assist in self-evaluation and assessment processes. The students have further noted that the portfolios elicit favorable responses from employers when they are shared during interviews, identify strengths and weaknesses, and encourage professional dialogue with peers and professionals (a natural component of the portfolio). Finally, the portfolios allow a better understanding of what is known and what is not known about course content.

Academic Portfolio Construction

Effective portfolios encourage the students to document evolution and change in a course. This is achieved, in part, by encouraging the students to keep first drafts as well as the final drafts of their work to show the progression of skills and knowledge gained during a semester. The selections should also document accomplishment by including the students' best work. Another important feature of the portfolio is to document integration between the course in which the portfolio is used and other courses within a curriculum. To document integration, students would be asked to answer questions like the following. How does this work relate to other courses? What previous skill or knowledge was required to complete this work? What other courses will require this knowledge or skill? By requiring students to include selections that document integration, the instructor encourages the students to focus on the theory and content connections between courses and begin to recognize the need for the transference of learning.

Portfolios that produce most successful outcomes are usually constructed in one of two ways. One approach is to require selections in specific categories based upon course content. Another approach is to allow students to determine portfolio content. Whichever approach is used, the portfolio should contain two broad categories of entries: a series of "core" entries that cross disciplinary boundaries (generic), and discipline-specific entries that can be designed for each individual course. Portfolio entries are often accompanied by a reflective statement, including the date and time of entry.

Regardless of how student portfolios are constructed, they will continue to be valuable assessment tools, measuring the quality of product and process. A list of assessment features of the annotated portfolio follows.

Management Tips for Portfolios

The following tips were developed by the Oregon Department of Public Instruction. As with all instructional strategies, planning is the first step. Define the purpose of the portfolio before students collect work. The purpose could be related to course, curriculum, or specific project. Establish student ownership as soon as possible. Teach students to manage their portfolios and consider what method of organization will be required. Have students use "working folders" simultaneously with their portfolios. A working folder contains all work from which selections for the portfolio are made. Color code the sections of the portfolio.

Possible Portfolio Entries

Suggestions for portfolio development are offered in the following list. Each entry in a portfolio should be accompanied by a reflective statement. This statement is an explanation of why the item is an example of the student's growth, skill, and mastery of subject. Portfolios that do not include meditated thinking (reflective statements) are of little value.

The annotated portfolio is a viable classroom assessment tool that can be used successfully to evaluate student learning outcomes and teaching effectiveness. However, the most important reason for using portfolios is the resulting empowering of students to take responsibility for learning experiences.


Angelo, T. and K. Patricia Cross. Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers: 1993. 210-212.

Langsam, D. "Portfolios Across the Curriculum: Moving Beyond English 101." ISETA Conference. Ogden, Utah, 1993.

Smyser, S. and J. Green. "Using Portfolios to Invite Learning," ISETA Conference. Ogden, Utah, 1993.

Virginia F. Hartman is assistant professor in office systems technology at Lord Fairfax Community College.