Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

How can learning portfolios best be used in practice based assessment?

Carol Thorogood, School of Nursing
Linda Mason, School of Occupational Therapy
Barbara de la Harpe and Alex Radloff, Centre for Educational Advancement
Curtin University of Technology
A number of disciplines for example, Nursing, Occupational Therapy and Education, include a practice component in their programs. This component is typically conducted off campus and in the work setting. This means that students do not have regular contact with teaching staff and their learning has to be assessed in non-traditional ways, such as using a learning portfolio. A learning portfolio is a promising way of supporting student learning and providing an authentic way of assessing learning outcomes. A learning portfolio is "...a purposeful collection of student work that exhibits the students' efforts, progress and achievements in one or more areas" (Paulson, Paulson & Meyer, 1991, p.60). Learning portfolios have been used in a number of disciplines such as Journalism, Architecture, Design and Performance Arts but up to now have not been commonly used in Health Sciences and Education.

We describe the use of learning portfolios in two discipline areas and at postgraduate and undergraduate levels and discuss the features that make them effective in meeting the learning and assessment needs of the practice based components of these programs. While portfolios foster critical thinking skills and self-reflection, and provide a mechanism for students to demonstrate learning achievements, they may be time consuming to produce as well as expensive and difficult to mark reliably. Therefore, matching the theoretical features with the realities of teaching practice creates the dilemma of "How should learning portfolios be structured to promote students' critical thinking, creativity and self-reflection skills while at the same time making them manageable for both students and lecturers?"


One of the challenges which disciplines such as Nursing, Occupational Therapy and Education face is assessing student learning which occurs during field work. Since this component of the course is usually off campus, students do not have regular contact with teaching staff and their learning thus has to be assessed by alternate means. One way of supporting and assessing student learning outside the classroom is to use learning portfolios. A learning portfolio has been described by Paulson, Paulson & Meyer (1991,p. 60) as "...a purposeful collection of student work that exhibits the students' efforts, progress and achievements in one or more areas". Learning portfolios have been used in professional courses such as Architecture, Journalism, Design and Performance Arts to showcase students' skills and achievements. In this paper we outline the value of using learning portfolios, describe how they are used in two areas, namely Nursing at the postgraduate level and Occupational Therapy at the undergraduate level and pose our dilemma.

Learning portfolios are valuable because they "present a broader, more genuine picture of student learning (Zessoules & Gardiner cited by Melograno, 1994). Student portfolios can be developmental, multidimensional and flexible. They allow for greater student involvement in and responsibility for learning, as well as encouraging self-assessment, reflection and effective reporting of skill achievement (Paulson, Paulson & Meyer, 1991). A particular advantage of learning portfolios is that they can be "...a compendium of work in any format (visual, verbal, written, musical, symbolic, and the like) which reflect student learning and growth during the semester" (Gordon, 1994, p. 23).

In terms of assessment, the more traditional approaches to assessment are based on group testing and decontextualised assessment tasks. Moreover, as Biggs and Tang (1997) note, in such approaches the assessment process - setting criteria, selecting the evidence and making the judgement - is largely controlled by the teacher. In contrast, learning portfolios are an example of 'authentic' assessment which emphasises comprehensive on-going holistic performance based assessment of in-context student learning (Woolfolk, 1993) as well as learner control of the process. Requiring students to construct a learning portfolio gives them freedom to explore their learning and discover new understandings. This experiential approach provides students with opportunities and experiences which may challenge their fixed beliefs and may "...touch them at both cognitive and affective levels in a way that may lead them to question these beliefs" (Gordon, 1994, p. 23). Moreover, students who have become passive learners, and have a preference for traditional assessment approaches such as essays and multiple choice tests, may be challenged by being required to construct a learning portfolio to take control of their own learning and to reflect on their learning experiences.

Developing and presenting a learning portfolio encourages active student involvement in their learning. According to Aitken (1993), developing a learning portfolio encourages students to:

Overall therefore, learning portfolios help students to increase their awareness of the self as a lifelong learner; identify key learning experiences relevant to their discipline and to their professional goals; document development of learning over the course of their study; plan for continuous learning improvement; reflect on their professional development; and showcase their achievements.

For the teacher, learning portfolios provide an opportunity to:

In terms of learning portfolio implementation, we offer the following guidelines based on the literature on effective use of learning portfolios. First, involve students in selecting items to be included in the learning portfolio. Second, ensure that items which show student self-reflection are included, for example giving a rationale for the inclusion of particular items, identifying strengths and weaknesses that are reflected in examples included, and self and peer critiques. Third, include a representative range of student learning activities related to unit goals. Fourth, include items which show student growth including, where appropriate, items showing how learning relates to other aspects of their lives. Fifth, help students to develop their portfolios by providing examples and feedback on drafts. Finally, use learning portfolios for different purposes such as reflecting on learning and showing evidence of achievement of goals. In the next sections, we describe two examples of the use of learning portfolios and the dilemma which their use creates for the teacher.

The use of portfolios in midwifery

Portfolios in midwifery are not new. In the United Kingdom it is a statutory requirement that all midwives maintain a Professional Portfolio to record their professional experiences and plan continuing professional development. The staff teaching in the Postgraduate Diploma of Midwifery at Curtin are committed to self-directed and life-long learning and hope that the portfolios students begin in this course will be maintained long after they have left academia.

The portfolios are used for multiple purposes. They provide a storehouse for relevant articles, lists of key people, evidence of clinical experiences and self or academic assessments, assignments and evidence of attendance at informal or formal learning activities. A journal records the student's personal journey through the midwifery program. Apart from course requirements the portfolios contain whatever the students deem appropriate.

Each week students record their objectives and how they intend to meet these. By engaging in self-assessment they review their achievements and describe what they have learned, what they need to know more about and then modify their plans. Many students study in remote areas and academic staff have little opportunity to work with them. The portfolios are posted to staff and they are used to review student achievements and progress. The contents are used to negotiate appropriate clinical experiences. Occasionally, they provide evidence that individuals require intensive clinical supervision or should be excluded from clinical practice.

Another component of the portfolio provides on-going evidence that students are developing or have achieved the 'Competency Standards' of a midwife. In addition, to be eligible for registration as a midwife, graduates must also meet slightly different Nurses Board competencies. Each state and territory have different requirements, which sometimes resemble shopping lists of skills. Moreover, during job interviews employers frequently ask prospective employees to list how many births they have attended or vaginal examinations they have performed.

A third component of the portfolio involves documented evidence that students have engaged in reflection and reflective practice. Through reflection-on-action (Schon, 1983) students explore issues triggered by critical incidents during clinical practice. They are asked to reflect on these issues and by doing so gain a greater understanding of themselves, their actions and decisions that they took as well as their consequences. These entries are part of unit assessments and are submitted to academic staff for evaluation. The purpose of these entries is for students to:

The final 'compulsory' component of the portfolio is a journal, the main purpose of which, is to encourage students to record their personal journey of self discovery during a demanding, stressful and at times heart-breaking course. The journal provides students with the freedom to explore what it means to be an experienced, adult-learner and a neophyte student midwife. The journal remains confidential but students are asked to share some entries with peers and staff. However, many want others to read their work and add notations such as "what do you think?" or "Help!". Confidential parts are submitted as a 'sealed section'. Initially, keeping a reflective journal is not an easy task and students can find writing about themselves time consuming, so they may need guidance.

Occasionally, when the student is in the depths of despair an entry and cry-for-help arrives via e-mail. Other students have found they could not write about their innermost feelings and taped them or instead used art or music. They are encouraged to use their journals to reflect on their progress during the entire course rather than on one or two units of study. Some loathe them, others find them enjoyable and beneficial but nearly all need time to warm to the task. A few comment how the act of writing about an incident and then returning to it at a later time helped them assign deeper or new meanings to their original entries and changed their view of the world.

The use of portfolios in the occupational therapy undergraduate program

Portfolios are being used increasingly in undergraduate health education as a learning strategy that supports student centred learning. The use of portfolios in the occupational therapy program at Curtin University is a productive resource for students to collate evidence of their learning, and for staff to monitor and assess students' process of learning and competencies reached. It is considered a valuable tool for linking course work with fieldwork, with importance placed on reflective journalling.

Student fieldwork portfolios were introduced in 1997 with the implementation of a revised curriculum. The portfolios are used primarily for students to compile a comprehensive record of their fieldwork experiences and related learning that takes place throughout the four year undergraduate course. Fieldwork coordinators and supervisors provide feedback on documents and assess student competencies. Students have the opportunity to self assess on their reflective journals. Individual portfolios are compiled for each semester, with students following guidelines given by the fieldwork coordinator that reflect learning outcomes of the curricula.

Since its inception, the structure of the portfolio has been adjusted from a loosely structured format with set tasks for each semester, to clearly defined areas that are addressed throughout the eight semesters of the undergraduate course. This shift has taken place as a result of staff discussions and experience of using the portfolio, student feedback, and through discussion at an international level with staff in other occupational therapy schools.

The format of areas listed below provides a comprehensive description of personal and professional development, and reflects the individual student's qualities and abilities:

Since the introduction of fieldwork portfolios students have shown a commitment and pride in their individual documents, and have learned skills in critical reflection on their experiences. Fieldwork coordinators have gained insight into the 'underground' learning that has taken place for students and have been able to monitor the effectiveness of the fieldwork program.


In order to help staff address the dilemmas created when portfolios are used, professional development may be needed. Such support might focus on the theoretical and practical issues of portfolio use, addressing questions such as 'why use portfolios?', 'what will the portfolio look like?' and 'who and how will they be assessed?'. Support is needed because, from our experiences, "portfolio implementation is a slow and evolutionary process" (Daw's (1996, p. IX-2:1) and needs to be developed in response to the unique needs of each discipline.


Aitken, J.E. (1993, April). Empowering students and faculty through portfolio assessment. Paper presented at the Annual meeting of the Central States Communication Association, Lexington, KY. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. Ed 355 599).

Biggs, J., & Tang, C. (1997, July). Assessment by portfolio: Constructing learning and designing teaching. Paper presented at the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia International Conference: Advancing international perspectives, Adelaide, South Australia.

Daws, D. (1996). Schoolwide portfolios. In R. E. Blum and J.A. Arter (Eds.), Student performance assessment in an era of restructuring (pp.ix-2:1-12). Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Gordon, R. (1994). Keeping students at the center: Portfolio assessment at the college level. The Journal of Experiential Education, 17(1), 23-27.

Melograno, V. J. (1994). Portfolio assessment: Documenting authentic student learning. The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, 65(8), 50-60.

Paulson, F. L., Paulson, P. R., & Meyer, C. A. (1991). What makes a portfolio a portfolio? Educational Leadership, 48(5), 60-63.

Schon, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner. New York: Basic Books.

Woolfolk, A.E. (1993). Educational psychology (5th ed.). London: Allyn and Bacon.

Please cite as: Thorogood, C., Mason, L., de la Harpe, B. and Radloff, A. (1999). How can learning portfolios best be used in practice based assessment? In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 437-442. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/thorogood.html

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