How to Use Portfolios To Personalize Learning

Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda

Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda are authors, friends, and colleagues. They co-authored the 2017 book, Students at the Center: Personalized Learning with Habits of Mind.


When we suggest that a critical element of personalized learning is a cumulative demonstration of learning, we mean that in order for students to discover what they are capable of in the moment as well as how they grow over time, they need to collect evidence of their work products as well as evidence of their growth in the process of doing the work. Portfolios grow in concert with the curriculum design and culture of a classroom. When you are designing projects, for example, and including the importance of the dispositions you will need to work thoughtfully, you are creating the seedbed for what goes in a portfolio. When the culture of the classroom focuses on students’ strengths, this invites students to include their strengths as a part of describing who they are as learners.

Although it is generally easier to collect the work samples to demonstrate learning, it is equally important to demonstrate the process they go through to develop the work. This includes such important artifacts as:

  • A time management plan
  • Modifications they make based on feedback
  • A reflection that includes what they used to do and what they now can do
  • A “recipe” they developed for working successfully with groups

In addition, portfolios can serve teachers because they provide insight into the thinking of the student that is not readily apparent. The work samples can offer new data necessary for making critical judgments in evaluation, engaging in conferencing with students and/or parents, and designing a more responsive learning experience for this year’s and future students. By definition, a portfolio marks time, progress, growth, and change. The reflection serves as an opportunity for the student to become self-analytical and self-examining. For example, a math portfolio’s purpose could be to think about their work and look for indicators of effective problem solving. Students could cull through their work and select seminal problems to reflect:

  • Understanding: How well did I understand the problem? Did I use the Habit of Mind of listening with understanding and empathy? Was I open to questioning and problem posing?
  • Strategies, Reasoning and Procedures: What strategies did I use to solve the problem? In what ways did I demonstrate evidence of mathematical reasoning? Did I make appropriate application of mathematics procedures when solving the problem? Was I using the Habit of Mind of striving for accuracy? Was I thinking flexibly?
  • Communication: How well did I explain my solution? How was I strengthening the Habit of Mind–Thinking and communicating with Clarity and precision?

They offer a perfect opportunity to develop the four attributes:

  • VoiceVoice: When students choose the work that will go in the portfolio and then present it to others, they are expressing what matters to them in their work. They are given the opportunity to learn how to speak about what they have accomplished, showcase where their strengths are, and, at the same time, share a story of how they have improved as they have taken on the challenges of increasingly more complex work. Students can play a much more prominent role in assessing their own work. They can share this information at teacher-parent-student conferences, where they can use the collection of artifacts to celebrate strengths and identify challenges they face.
  • Co-Creation: Teachers and students can sit at the design table and think about what goes in a portfolio. Would we want to organize the portfolio so that: it shows work and how it relates to standards? Shows work that is evidence of deeper thinking? Shows work that meets the graduate learner profile? There are many choices about what goes in the portfolio and this is an excellent way for students and teachers to think about what this particular exhibition will reflect. By elevating students to partners in evaluation, they become a significant part of the goal-setting process, and they help decide on next steps to take in subsequent projects or performances.
  • Social construction: There is nothing more disappointing than creating a portfolio that no one looks at. The portfolio requires a thoughtful audience. Students might choose who might have credibility and expertise to share their portfolio with. Sharing the portfolio is a dynamic process of students reflecting on their work out loud and the people in the audience offering a combination of warm (what was it that really stood out for me in your work?) and cool (as I observe your work, I am wondering if…) feedback. Students see that they can continue to improve by candidly looking at their current work and developing an actionable set of next steps in consultation with the teacher, advisor, or employer, whatever the case may be.
  • Self-discovery: The very process of reflecting on work across time leads to many questions such as: What have I learned about myself as a learner? What am I really good at? What am I not so good at and what am I willing to do about that? Am I proud of the work that I have done? Students uncover areas of growth and achievement that often get lost in a traditional grading structure. They also learn to describe themselves as learners in richer ways than as simply “good” or “bad” at something.

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