Student Portfolios: the Narrative of 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.

One of the seven elements of personalized learning we describe in our book Students at the Center: Personalized Learning With Habits of Mind is a Cumulative Demonstration of Learning.

As designers, we ask the question–– how do we create opportunities for students to show evidence of learning over time?

So often, we focus on the moment and forget the importance of recognizing how important it is to observe growth across the years within the content of our learning processes and products. We suggest that student portfolios provide an opportunity to collect and then select the work that best recognizes where the student is in the learning journey. Reflecting on the work creates a narrative for the journey and helps to direct paths that will lead to her learning in the future.

Portfolios help us continuously recreate the narrative of our own learning. Powerful classrooms help students arrive at an understanding of themselves through collecting work over time that they can reflect back on. Beyond the chronological history of producing work, being evaluated, and work toward improving, there is the deeper layer where the patterns of their work tell a personal story of where they are at this time.

They offer a perfect opportunity to develop the four attributes.

Developing the Four Attributes Using Portfolios


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
  • 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.


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?
  • … that is evidence of deeper thinking?
  • … 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 (this is what 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.


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.

This is an ideal opportunity for students to provide evidence and reflect on what makes them feel efficacious, what engages them, and how they view themselves as learners. They begin to see, through their performances, the way the dispositions affect their creations. For example, to what extent were they able to:

  • Persist in the face of uncertainty?
  • Use precise language to share findings?
  • Show wonderment and curiosity?
  • Imagine and grow ideas?

Portfolios are for every student. They can be used as effectively in a Kindergarten class as a high school class. We saw a fabulous video where a kindergarten classroom had a stack of pizza boxes, one for each student. Students decorated their own pizza box and used it to store their completed work. Then every Friday, students sorted that work to determine which they were most proud of that were worthy of holding onto.They also reflected on what they saw in that work. That kind of reflection can be documented through a 1-on-1 conference or through recording on an iPad or some type of tablet. Through that practice, students start to see their own growth and attention to detail. It gives them the opportunity to celebrate accomplishments and potentially (with teacher assistance) identify goals or new questions or new ideas.

Portfolios are for every subject area. Many examples live in the territory of English Language Arts or Art to chronicle the increased development of written/visual expression. 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?
  • 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?
  • Communication: How well did I explain my solution?

Portfolios provide insight into the thinking of the student that is not readily apparent. Portfolios can provide additional 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. Reflection prompts for a given problem/challenge that can lead to self-discovery and teacher insight:

  • The process I went through was…
  • Who or what influenced me…
  • Risks I took…
  • New insights I gained about myself…
  • I have discovered that I am good at…
  • What continues to intrigue me is…
  • The evidence that I have to show my growth is…

Yet, if the purpose is muddy and consistent actions are not incorporated as part of regular practice, portfolios can be a drain on the energy and resources of both teacher and student. Students may struggle to see the value which diminishes the quality of their reflections. Teachers may struggle to figure out how to evaluate the collection and question the benefit of reexamining past work that was already graded.

Portfolios need to have a clear purpose and regular opportunities to learn how to:

  • Choose an electronic system (see possible examples below) or develop and use a collection “box” that is easily accessible
  • Time to Sort and identify pieces students believe to be worthy of reflection and commentary
  • Create a space where students reflect on why the piece was chosen
  • Create a space for students to share future direction and possible next steps to get them there.

How to Make Portfolios Work

Consistency is key. Collecting student artifacts is only a small part of the larger point, which is demonstrating growth over long periods of time. The cycle of collection, reflection, and action must be meaningfully integrated into the learning process for both teacher and student.

Celebrate the small wins on the road to achievement. These types of celebrations are not driven by grades, but by a series of unsung victories along the way.

Avoid the autopsy mindset. Typically, there are reflection moments in conferences, exhibitions, and presentations in which students are expected to communicate what they learned about themselves along the way. Instead of identifying a verdict about oneself that becomes a life sentence, students should experience self-discovery as an ongoing journey in which one changes and grows.

Websites on digital portfolios with examples




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