Portfolios in Psychology Classes

In this Teaching Tips article, our goal is to share our experience using portfolios in psychology courses and dispel some of the “myths” we encountered along the way. Our hope is that our experience can help others considering the use of portfolios who may be hesitant to implement them due to concerns such as: They are a haphazard collection of student work, are too time-intensive to incorporate into a large course, are independent and non-collaborative projects, or are technologically impossible to implement. The article that follows describes our collective experience implementing portfolios in a course taught by one of the authors (MB). ~Melissa, Linda, and Sue

“By doing this portfolio, I want to continue to learn more about {the topic}, even after the class is over.”Student comment, Fall 2009

What instructor wouldn’t like to see a comment like the one above at the end of the semester?  As an instructor of a sophomore-level Introduction to Neuroscience survey course several semesters ago, I found this comment especially rewarding. That semester, I  decided to implement portfolios for the first time in the course, a decision that I made after much deliberation. Along the way, I encountered a number of portfolio “myths” that could have stopped me in my tracks. Looking back, I’m glad that I did not believe the myths, and that my students and I were able to learn and grow from that first portfolio experience. Now, after using portfolios in the course for nearly three years, I would like to share what I have learned, and help to both dispel some of the more prevalent myths and offer some practical examples and suggestions for other instructors considering a portfolio project for their classes.

Why consider a portfolio project in the first place? In reflecting on my experiences in the survey class, I found myself thinking about some of my conversations with students in the course. Some students were passionate about topics in psychology that related to our course but that were not going to be covered that semester. As I thought more about these students, I realized that all of their topics could not be covered in the course and was disappointed  that these innate interests could not be cultivated and engaged. I wanted a way to allow students to explore a topic of their choice, particularly something they personally connected with or had an interest in as part of the survey course. I decided to try a portfolio project to allow students to pursue these topics in a more focused way than our in-class lectures and activities allowed.

In my course, students developed a working “personal interest” portfolio based on written assignments completed throughout the semester. There was an assignment approximately every two weeks, which involved researching causes, symptoms, and treatments for diseases of the nervous system and how the disease affects various parts of the nervous system. For each assignment, students were provided with a prompt about which aspect of the topic to research, ideas for locating primary or secondary research materials, and expectations about the use of American Psychological Association (APA) style format. Each assignment included a grading rubric available to students as they completed the assignment. Accompanying each assignment, students included a two- to three-paragraph reflection. Students selected three assignments as the focal points of their final portfolios at the end of the semester and wrote a one-page self-assessment of the entire project. This general approach could be used for other areas of psychology as well: for example, stages of development in developmental psychology, disorders in abnormal psychology, statistical techniques in a research methods class, or development of theories in social psychology.

As I designed and implemented the personal interest portfolio in the Introduction to Neuroscience survey course, I grappled with several portfolio myths:

Myth 1: A portfolio is a scrapbook.

Many professors’ understanding of a portfolio is that it is a collection of assignments put together to display student work. Admittedly, when I first thought about using a portfolio for my undergraduate psychology survey course, I, too, thought that it was just a collection of assignments, perhaps loosely woven together with a common research theme. As I discovered, however, portfolios are much more. The lesson artifacts gathered in a portfolio have a specific purpose, and that purpose includes “exhibiting to the student and others the student’s efforts, progress, or achievement” (Johnson & Rose, 1997, p. 6). By engaging in the portfolio process, students and/or professors carefully collect, select, and reflect on their work. While professor feedback is part of the process, student reflection is the key to “promoting student engagement and learning” (Birkett, Neff, Pieper, 2012, p. 49) and allowing students to get a full view of their own learning.

In designing my first portfolio project, I wanted to move beyond a scrapbook approach and guide students in creating an organized and professional presentation of their work, showcasing their reflection, learning, and progress over a semester. Efforts to produce a high-quality, professional product that students could be proud of took a big leap forward this past semester with the help of a teaching assistant. The teaching assistant organized and led APA-format writing workshops for students outside of class and provided additional feedback on APA-formatting on all assignments throughout the semester. She also helped select examples of “professional” work from past semesters to share with students and explained to students the importance of a professional writing style. Together, we implemented more thorough and descriptive rubric categories for “professionalism” for each assignment. These changes resulted in a notable increase in the quality of portfolios this past semester. Taking time to explain the importance of professional presentation and to make expectations explicit helped avoid a scattered scrapbook approach to our portfolios.

Myth 2: The amount of time it takes to provide quality feedback makes it impossible to implement portfolios in a large course.

When I first thought about using portfolios in my classroom, I was a little overwhelmed with the thought of grading 70 written assignments each week, but I was determined to create an environment that promoted student learning and engagement. As a result, I decided to spend a little more time in the planning stages and found that careful planning is one of the first steps to ensuring a successful portfolio project. As a part of this first step, I defined a purpose for the portfolio and then aligned the portfolio project to the course learning objectives. Next, I designed assignments and rubrics with these learning objectives in mind. I had to allocate an appropriate amount of time for each assignment, break assignments into smaller components, and find or build links between what students were learning in class and their port folio assignments.

Once I understood the connections between the assignments and course content, it was much easier to explicitly communicate to students the purpose of the portfolio in a clear, organized, and concise manner. During each class, I demonstrated the connections between the course content and the portfolio assignments. One way I did this was to model the reflection process by showing student assignments and reflection examples. In doing so, I set high expectations where students made connections between portfolio assignments, course/class concepts, student backgrounds, and the real world. As a result, students better understood that the portfolio was not just about organization and presentation, but also about reflection and making connections.

There were six graded portfolio assignments throughout the semester, which made the final portfolio submission easier to grade at the end of the semester. In fact, the total amount of time I spent on grading was equivalent to the time I would typically spend grading homework or disconnected written assignments (Birkett, Neff, & Pieper, 2012, p. 60). One other modification that helped facilitate written feedback while using time efficiently was to allow students to omit one assignment or drop one low writing assignment grade during the semester. This not only reduced the total number of assignments that were graded throughout the semester, but it also allowed students some control over the directions of their portfolios and provided them with the flexibility to modify their schedules/work loads over the course of the semester.

Finally, because individual assignments had already been graded once and students had received feedback to incorporate, with the help of a rubric, grading of the final portfolios was relatively efficient. The final portfolio rubric included weighted components for: the inclusion of required elements, the quality of those elements, and how well the student demonstrated basic principles of neuroscience as determined by the course outcomes. Overall, I provided very few comments on the final portfolios. A copy of the rubric used in past semesters was recently published in the Journal on Excellence in College Teaching (Birkett, Neff & Pieper, 2012). While it does take longer to grade a portfolio than a multiple-choice exam, I believe the benefits of using an authentic, in-depth learning activity far outweigh the loss of time spent grading each assignment. With careful planning and deliberate decisions about where you would like to spend time providing feedback to students, the grading process can be made manageable.

Myth 3: Portfolios are a self-contained course project for students to work on independently.

This myth might only be half-myth. In my experience, it is important for students to work on developing their research and writing for a portfolio independently. However, the portfolio is not a self-contained course project. Creating a successful portfolio experience has involved students collaborating with assessment and technology experts, librarians, and classmates.

Before beginning a portfolio assignment for the first time, I sought advice from campus experts on assessment and technology about the best ways to implement this type of project. These individuals became instrumental in informing decisions about how to structure assignments, how best to use features of the learning management system (LMS) on our campus (e.g., Blackboard Learn or similar systems), and how to develop rubrics and efficiently provide feedback to students. Key questions I asked these experts included:

  1. What are the advantages and disadvantages of using portfolios as opposed to other assignment options?
  2. What potential portfolio assignment delivery and grading options are available through the LMS at our school?
  3. What grading rubric options are available and which will best suit the needs of the assignments?
  4. What types of assessments best align the portfolio project with the learning outcomes for the class?

Next, because this portfolio project involved student use of research resources to investigate self-selected topics, I sought the assistance of librarians. Who better to teach students about the research resources available at your school than the people who specialize in the process? Our university has a librarian dedicated to helping students and faculty in the Social and Behavioral Sciences, from whom I learned that the Association of College and Research Librarians (ACRL) has outlined a set of information literacy standards for undergraduate psychology students, which align closely with the APA’s Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major (see Hughes and Birkett, 2011). The overlapping nature of these guidelines helped us discuss the relevance of a portfolio project involving research in both of our disciplines. As a result, we were able to set goals for the project that could benefit students in a more comprehensive way than I had initially envisioned. Near the beginning of the semester, the librarian visited the class to discuss research strategies and processes with the students. Over the past several semesters, this librarian-led instruction has evolved to include visiting a computer lab during class, leading students step-by-step through the process of selecting keywords and search terms, refining search results, and evaluating the quality of research resources.

Finally, I wanted to give students a personal responsibility over the portfolio projects. I wanted students to see that their work mattered, and to engage them in an authentic effort to create a professional piece of work that could be read by colleagues.  I’ve tried several different approaches over the semesters but most recently found that in order to strive to make a portfolio worthy of being read by colleagues, it must actually be read by them. I did this by organizing small groups of informal student “review panels” at the end of the semester and asked students in each panel to bring their completed portfolios to class and share them with their peers. To facilitate the process, I provided students with short prompts about what aspects of the portfolio to share. In the future, it might be beneficial to establish these reviews periodically throughout the semester so that students can receive peer feedback and suggestions during the portfolio creation process.

Myth 4: E(lectronic)-portfolios are the best solution.

Working with our e-Learning Center, I considered using an e-portfolio, or an online storage system for the course portfolio assignments, but upon further assessment, I decided against it. I was more interested in students learning how to engage in the research process and reflect on their learning than being technically savvy presenters of information. On the other hand, should your portfolio purpose include “learning that involves reflection, community, and making connections” in an online environment (Hyland & Kranzow, 2012, p. 70), then you may want to carefully consider both the challenges and benefits involved in building an e-portfolio.

Introducing an online e-portfolio system takes time. You will need to ensure that either you have the technical competency to answer students’ questions about the system or that you can partner with an instructional technology expert who has the time and expertise to answer these inevitable questions. Another obstacle to consider is the need to provide students “with clear guidance on confidentiality and the use of digital media” (Moores & Parks, 2010, p. 47). Students need to understand how to cite electronic sources and when to acquire consent to avoid plagiarizing or breaching individual confidentiality. E-portfolios may have many benefits in your learning context; however, you need to clearly evaluate “what added value the electronic portfolio can bring to the group of students” (Moores & Parks, 2010, p. 47).

If e-portfolios fit your needs, they offer a number of benefits over paper portfolios. E-portfolios allow students to incorporate multimedia products or research elements into their final portfolios and make it easy for students to link to additional sources or non-traditional resources, such as videos, interviews, animations, or artwork. E-portfolios can facilitate sharing student work outside the classroom, for instance, by posting them on websites to or setting up on-line collaborations with peers to receive feedback. Finally, e-portfolios provide a unique opportunity for students in online or hybrid courses to partake in the benefits of the portfolio process. For those considering e-portfolios, Vigorito (2011) provides a wealth of ideas for beginning to implement them in psychology classes.

My current plans do not include implementing e-portfolios because I still find value in having students bring a physical copy of their work to class on the final day. Anecdotally, students also report that they like to have a final hard copy to share with classmates and a physical representation of what they have learned over the course. However, if I were to develop a fully online section of this course, I would consider many of the unique e-portfolio options available from education companies and new tools or modules being added by learning management systems.


Altogether, my experience with portfolios has been overwhelmingly positive. This brief description of the process illustrates only one form that a portfolio project may take and addresses only a few of the portfolio myths and benefits. Other educators have tailored portfolios to suit the needs of their individual courses and written at greater length about their experiences (see References and Recommended Reading section). Although research about implementing portfolios has been slow to develop (Herman & Winter, 1994), empirical studies are slowly accumulating to help inform this evidence-based practice (see References and Recommended Reading section).

I have now been using this portfolio project in the survey class for nearly three years.

Each semester brings more refinement of the process and new ideas to evaluate. Implementing portfolios and dispelling myths has proven to be a rewarding and engaging process. Our hope is that in thinking about the ideas, examples, and myths raised in this article, you may find an opportunity to consider a portfolio project for your class and realize the benefits too.


Do you have any materials for teachers wanting to implement a portfolio assignment in their classroom that you would be willing to share?

Hi Hannah,

I would be happy to share materials! Please email me directly at Melissa dot Birkett at NAU dot EDU.

Would you still be willing to share examples and rubrics?

Melissa do you still have materials regarding student portfolios? I would appreciate any help you can provide. Both examples & rubrics would be GREAT!

I would appreciate receiving rubrics and handouts on instructions. I am implementing this for a large (over 100) lecture course. Thanks!

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