How Digital Portfolios Document and Motivate Learning

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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David NiguidulaIn 2012, I did an interview with Tony Wagner where he extolled the power of digital portfolios to document meaningful accomplishments both inside and outside of school. I wanted to explore more deeply into digital portfolios through someone that has created one of the best platforms out there — David Niguidula.

Niguidula led the original research on digital portfolios while managing the technology group at the Coalition of Essential Schools and Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. His work has focused on issues of technology, assessment, and school reform. You can see more of his work at his web site,

Zmuda: Let’s first get clear on terminology. What is a digital portfolio?
Niguidula: A digital portfolio is an online collection of student work for a particular purpose and audience. The student isn’t just putting together a scrapbook online; students are collecting and reflecting on work that they’re going to show to somebody else. It could be an internal audience (e.g. classroom teacher, peers), an external audience (e.g. employer, college admissions officer, parent, government official), and for the student’s own self-reflection. The portfolio is a body of evidence that demonstrates what a student can do and how the student has grown. In addition, as educators and parents we can see what the student is like as a learner and really understand them personally.
Zmuda: So, what have you seen educators call portfolios that are not necessarily the kind of portfolio you described in the first question?
Niguidula: It’s very easy for folks to collect work into folders, electronically or otherwise, and say they have created portfolios. Essentially what they have is a scrapbook. Scrapbooks are nice, and can serve as memory pieces – but you can’t just say it’s a portfolio without any kind of reflection, without any ability to sort of look at the work as a whole, without opportunities to present the work. Some of what people call portfolios are just a digital repositories, or another way to store manila folders in a file cabinet.
Zmuda: What actions can kids take once they start documenting their accomplishments?
Niguidula: One of the key things is being able to reflect on the work that the student has done. This reflection lets a student set goals for getting to the next level, or be able to say, “Here is something that I’d like to achieve and here are the steps I need to take to reach that goal.”
Kids are used to doing this in lots of other settings. If they’re taking martial arts, they know what they need to do to get to the next color belt; if they’re taking piano or ballet, they are very clear on the techniques and styles to reach the next level of mastery. The digital portfolio provides the opportunity to do the same kind of thing and have students demonstrate achievement, as well as set sights on the next level.
Zmuda: One of the larger implications that I’m hearing you talk about is the power of creating school-wide rubrics or performance expectations that accompany student work.
Niguidula: Digital portfolios provide a new opportunity for assessment. It helps clarify expectations for students; they can see how the school defines the overall expectation of a good persuasive essay or a good understanding of problem solving. Rubrics provide a stable set of criteria as a measuring stick; benchmarks of sample work give students models. Teachers, collectively, can evaluate the work and identify strategies for improvement. More importantly, using portfolios for assessment provides a way for students to think about what levels they want to reach themselves. It’s not just achieving a certain percentage score but understanding the criteria behind those scores.
When done well, a digital portfolio can do two things: allow a student to demonstrate standards, and show who the student is as an individual learner. Here in Rhode Island, schools use portfolios as part of the high school graduation requirements. Students have to demonstrate their skills and knowledge in six subject areas. At the same time, students select and reflect on what they consider to be their best work. When they present their portfolios, students are showing that they are meeting the standards – but each student is showing his or her own personal approach and aspirations.

David Niguidula

Zmuda: Can you talk about other implications?
Niguidula: Portfolios allow us to think about schooling as competency-driven system. Students can see expectations of Grade 3 or 6 or 11 and use the digital portfolio to demonstrate when they have arrived at proficiency. It may take some kids two weeks to get to another level; it may take others two years. But the point is, we can see their progress and when the student is ready, they can move to that next level. So rather than tying a student’s grade level to their age or the number of hours accumulated, we can tie it to a body of work that shows student readiness.
Another intriguing shift is in the “side effects.” Even though students are the ones creating the portfolios, teachers who examine those portfolios start to reflect on their own work in new ways. Teachers start to look closely at the kinds of tasks that we’re asking students to do, and see that some work better than others. We refer to them as “portfolio-worthy assignments.” The student portfolios can then drive the work of teachers, and provide an opportunity for changing instruction, based on student performance. In a way, this is a more interesting form of “data-driven” decision-making; we are using actual student work as the data, rather than abstracted test score results.
The other implication arises when students present their portfolios to an audience. It’s not unusual for the reaction of the teachers to be “I didn’t know that about you”. Presentations provide powerful moments for teachers to have a different kind of interaction with the students’ learning, and to really get to know the student as an overall learner, not just in the narrow ways that we often see them in school. Digital portfolios take the parent / teacher conference to an entirely different level. Rather than teachers simply describing what’s going on in the classroom, the parents and teachers are able to look at video clips of children reading or look closely at sample writing from the beginning, middle and end of this year or the work over the last few years. Looking at the portfolio changes the conversation between parent, teacher and student about what they are able to do and what everybody’s observing.
Zmuda: Digital portfolios have so much possibility, but what’s really holding folks back?
Niguidula: Of our essential questions, we find that the toughest are issues of logistics and culture. A lot of schools try to fit the portfolio into existing structures as much as possible. While that’s understandable, it limits the potential of portfolios. There are new ways that we can think about how we use student work to inform our own teaching and to help personalize education for students. To accomplish this often requires some different uses of times and different uses of space.
The result might be more blended classrooms and educational opportunities using an online portfolio structure. Students can demonstrate their best work through online courses and projects as well as in the classroom. But for that to happen, the culture has to give educators permission to create new structures for “doing school.”
Addressing the culture is critical. Many schools can play with the mechanics of the day and the year to make the portfolios logistically possible. But it isn’t the presence of portfolios that makes a difference in schools; it’s what the school DOES with the portfolios. The portfolio is a body of work that extends over time and crosses subject boundaries; students need feedback that shows that someone is paying attention to their whole educational journey – where they’ve been, what they hope to become, and how their current work is helping them move along that path.
Zmuda: So what are some action steps that educators can take right now? Let’s talk through a digital portfolio that an existing school system has or a school has that’s not working well. Can you talk about one or two quick actions they can take?
Niguidula: One place to start is to ask the students to do some kind of structured presentation about their work. The presentation can be simple; ask the student to select a few pieces, and reflect on the individual pieces or the work as a whole, but it is imperative that it include some amount of student choice. In putting together such a presentation, students can offer insights into what this says about themselves as learners, areas of strengths and weaknesses, and areas for improvement. Given an opportunity to be in control of the presentation, students can be inspired to take ownership of the work.
In addition, teachers should think about the feedback that students receive. Are students getting a grade for a good presentation or a “complete” portfolio? Or are they being rewarded for carefully considering their body of work as a whole, and for making connections? This will help students determine what should go into their portfolios.

More information about David Niguidula

David Niguidula is the Founder of Ideas Consulting, an educational software and professional development group in Providence, Rhode Island. He is best known for his work on digital portfolios, and for leading the development of the Richer Picture software tools. He has written extensively on the topic over the last 20 years; most recently, he contributed a chapter to Curriculum 21 (published by ASCD, and edited by Heidi Hayes Jacobs). Previously, David led the research on technology and school reform at Brown University’s Coalition of Essential Schools. His education includes degrees in computer science and education from Brown University and a doctorate from Teachers College, Columbia University. David can be reached at .



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