Thinking on Education: Using Portfolios in the Elementary Classroom

Studies Weekly Social Studies Science

For many schools throughout the United States, the elementary classroom connects students, teachers and parents hand-in-hand for student learning.

Teachers often use portfolios as an effective way to forge and strengthen that connection. It also is a potent tool to celebrate student learning and achievement.

In general, a portfolio is “a body of student work collected over an extended period.” Using this definition, culled from Education Week, we can move into a more in-depth look at successful portfolios that showcase student learning.

Using Portfolios

There are a few different types of portfolios — including those that display learning processes, showcase best work, and are used for assessment purposes. Elementary teachers can use all these.

The best portfolios include specific elements.

Portfolio Purpose

Students may use this learning tool to display their learning for a single unit or for an entire year, but they must understand the goal of the portfolio from the beginning.

“It is vital that students also understand the purpose of the portfolio, how it will be used to evaluate their work, and how grades for it will be determined. Make sure students are given a checklist of what is expected in the portfolio before they begin submitting work,” said Emma McDonald in a 2011 Education World article.

Portfolio Learning Objectives and Outcomes

Before starting, students also need to understand the learning objectives for the portfolio. Teachers can present a rubric or grading guidelines as they introduce the portfolio, so students are prepared. Teachers can also set aside specific classroom time for students to add to the portfolio.

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Another important point is how they will present their portfolio at the end of the unit, week, month or year. Will it be in a binder or folder? Will it be a collage, magazine or other creative collection to display? Will they have leeway to use technology elements, and access to those?

Because this is an ongoing project, students also need clear direction as to where they will store their portfolio as they are doing the work. Many teachers find it best to store all students’ working portfolios in one place in the classroom.

Student Choice and Reflection

Students should choose what they include in the portfolio. Additionally, they should have time to reflect on their work, evaluate it, and share work they believe is their best. Educators at the State University of New York-Geneseo explained in a presentation that these two elements — student choice and reflection — are two of the most important parts of the portfolio process.

Student choice guarantees better student engagement. Reflection gives both teacher and student an “opportunity to reflect on [the student’s] growth over a period of time.”

Science and Social Studies Portfolios

Many educators are familiar with using portfolios within their language arts block, but this tool also works well in other subject areas, even as a cross-curricular assessment.

Studies Weekly ScienceIn science, the portfolio fits well with a unit where students must complete various tasks to get to full mastery. The portfolio highlights their learning path.

For example, a science unit portfolio might include:

  • Research notes and conclusions
  • Lab experiments and reports
  • Charts and graphs reporting test data
  • Projects

Studies WeeklyIn social studies, a unit portfolio could focus on an event or movement and include:

  • Research notes and conclusions
  • Interviews
  • Primary sources and analysis
  • Infographics, timelines or maps
  • Models or projects

In a 2011 Social Studies and the Young Learner article, Jacqueline S. Craven, William J. Sumrall, Jerilou J. Moore and Kellie Logan showed how this works on a first grade level with their lesson plan on studying historical monuments.

Portfolio Assessment

In any subject, teachers make clear learning objectives and grading rubrics for the portfolio.

For example, with both science and social studies units, teachers might assess students’ critical thinking. Both units could focus on a guiding question. Teachers would then award points based on how well students presented their evidence and conclusions within the portfolio.

Overall, there are many dynamic ways to use portfolios in the classroom. Portfolios are not the only assessment tool, but when used correctly, they can be a powerful way for both students and teachers to see student learning and progress.


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