Assessing Student Portfolios: Extended Version

Two weeks ago I posted a video of myself reacting to the experience of assessing my students unit portfolios for the Evolution unit in my Biology classes. As promised, I would like to share some more detail from that experience.

I described the design of the Evolution unit and the structure of the portfolios in a previous post. The choose-your-own-adventure style of the unit was new for me, and I really enjoyed how the three weeks felt. Particularly, I liked that I could circulate through the room, sitting with different students and having rich discussion about the activities they were working on. I collected some formal observations during this time, but didn’t do as great a job as I could have documenting things. The truth is, sometimes documentation seems to get between me and my students. If I’m holding a phone or iPad or even a notebook I know that my students feel ‘the evaluative gaze of school‘ much more acutely, and that our conversation becomes a little less real.

Throughout those three weeks, my students worked through a variety of activities and collected evidence of their learning using Google Keep. We chose this tool for several reasons: it integrates beautifully with Docs and Slides, it allows different kinds of evidence (text, photo, audio), and photos can be marked up on the fly. All of the evidence my students collected was text and photo; their lack of experience with other media is colours their choices and in the future I’d like to explore more options.

Assessing the reflections was an amazing experience – nothing like I have ever done before in Science. I curated some highlights while assessing the first 20 or so. In case you don’t have time to go read my May 1 post first, students shared evidence of their work and wrote explanations that connected the activity to one of the learning goals for the unit. Here is an example; this one has lots of words (more than necessary) and shows a good, if not exemplary understanding of the main idea of the activity:

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Throughout the portfolios, one thing I really enjoyed were the way my students’ voices came through. Consider these examples:

“I did not enjoy doing this activity as much as I enjoyed others. The main reason for this is because I learned about all the unethical things that humans did to mice in order to conduct their experiments.”

“This was probably my favourite activity because I am so interested in philosophy, and (NAME) and I have different world views which sparked many interesting conversations.”

These ideas might never have been communicated if it were not for the portfolio. I really like that students had a venue to discuss the social/emotional side of learning. It brought some life to the process that I had not anticipated.

Something that I saw in the portfolios that I had expected were excellent examples of metacognition and reflection. Here are some excerpts:

“Decided not to include it as even though it was complete as it wasn’t up to my standards.”

“Even so, I do not think that this activity did a great job at teaching me HOW new species are formed, but more what it looks like when they are.”

“I also exchanged feedback with peers on my work which I think helped to improve my quality of work.”

“I had previously learned about domestication of animals but I had never really connected the idea to plants…()…I found this of interest to me as the comparison of domestic plants to wild plants was alarmingly different.”

How wonderful for my students’ learning to be so visible! They are all at different stages in developing metacognitive skills, but I am glad that this activity allowed all of them an opportunity to consider and communicate something about the nature of their learning.

Finally, I was pleasantly surprised at the number of students (about 10 of the 65) who decided to pursue their own inquiry questions without being prompted. Many of their work went beyond what was precisely because I was NOT assessing the activities, but rather their curated samples of learning. A handful of students expressed their explicitly as in this example:

“Even as I write this explanation new questions arise
surrounding this topic that I am willing to research.”

These are just some examples of the aspects of these portfolios that prompted my rather emotional video two weeks ago. In the Sciences, we rarely offer opportunities for self-expression as we rush to measure our students’ learning.

I am already thinking about how to incorporate a portfolio model in my fall classes; I’ll share my ideas sometime soon, but right now I have a little homework to do. This week Doug Peterson and Stephen Hurley discussed my previous post in this podcast. My homework is to share a little about to leave video comments on students’ work in Google Docs.

Leaving video feedback is new to me. I will say that I tried a few different audio and video options near the start of the unit and my ‘test students’ much preferred video to audio. I did too – screen sharing allows very clear communication and feedback that is more difficult to achieve with audio alone.

Some options for video feedback that are cloud-based include Loom, Talk and Comment, and Screencastify (all Chrome extensions). See what I did there? Those are links to tutorials not made by me. I’m hoping to show my process in a future post – maybe in the summer? I settled on Loom for this project. I had some concerns about privacy, but since student names and grades are NOT part of the videos I feel comfortable that I am not compromising my students’ privacy by using these tools for this purpose.

There will be another post soon – I hope next week – to share my students’ feedback on a number of things from this semester. Until then I will be conferencing with my students (which I love!) and preparing for our final assessments.

The piece from Carol Black that I have linked to above is poignant and is likely to stir emotions of anyone examining their assessment practices. Definitely a recommended read.

Thanks for reading. 🙂

2 thoughts on “Assessing Student Portfolios: Extended Version

  1. Nothing like opening the learning to the level where students have control. From my earliest days as a grade 2 teacher and a quality control engineer, it seemed the more I gave power to my students and work colleagues the more I saw students and colleagues achieve – the accomplishments were truly theirs. Amy, I love reading what you are doing.


    • Thanks, Greg. Working with people like you and seeing the things happening at schools like yours certainly helped me understand what was possible. I’ll be posting soon about my students’ feedback. Hearing what they have to say has been good for me, but also challenging. Luckily I get the chance to try again in the fall – it is wonderful that we get a chance to iterate. 🙂


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