Process-Folios: Peeking into a Student’s Head

By Rebecca E. Wolfe
September 3, 2013

Originally published by CompetencyWorks, August 28, 2013.

What educator hasn’t wished they could get inside a student’s head—if even just for a moment—to really understand how she thinks, learns, and what she still needs to do to grasp a concept or lesson? Process portfolios (also known as “process-folios”) provide an opportunity to not only peek inside a student’s progression toward mastery, but also to get the student more actively engaged in understanding his own learning process.

You may think to yourself: Oh sure, I know all about portfolio assessment—that’s when students present a big senior project before a panel of community members. Great stuff. Or, maybe the name reminds you of the promising, but ultimately failed (derailed, some may say, by the standards movement) experiment with statewide portfolios in Vermont.

Wrong. Those are summative assessments. Although Steven Seidel won’t swear by the “birth story,” the idea for process portfolios likely emerged out of the arts-oriented work he, Howard Gardner, and the team at Project Zero were doing via Arts Propel in the late 1980s with the Pittsburgh Public Schools and Education Testing Services. The impetus for creating process-folios focused on the notable role reflection could play in learning, particularly learning in the arts. Seidel recalls the team’s concern at the time that “using the term portfolios would only mean collections of one’s best work”—the common understanding when educators talk about portfolios. However, Seidel explains that “the kinds of portfolios for learning that we were developing were designed to include lots of one’s work—what the student thought was his or her best work, but also selections of work in process so you could see the process of learning happening through the collection of selected pieces.”

The impact of process portfolios comes from not waiting until the end of a learning objective, but rather from engaging the educator and student at pivotal milestones along the way for self-reflection. Making Assessment Student-Centered (Anytime, Anywhere 2013) authors Heidi Andrade, Kristen Huff, and Georgia Brooke outline similar features: “Successful process portfolios actively engage students in their creation, especially in determining their goals, selecting work to be included, and reflecting on how each piece demonstrates progress toward their goals.” Process folios can be coupled with other types of self-assessment, a learning/assessment approach positively correlated with academic improvement.

For educators striving to make learning more student-centered, two key concerns are: how to know their students are progressing and how to get students to take ownership over their own learning. Having assessment be part of the learning process, not just a grade at the end of a set moment in time is a critical element of student-centered education approaches. One powerful tool in the toolbox of student-centered assessment is the process portfolio. On the Students at the Center website, teachers can find a suite of tools and resources to help make student-centered assessment part of their classroom—including a how-to and examples of electronic tools to manage process portfolios, and a new series of engaging videos of peer and self-assessment in action.

Rebecca E. Wolfe, PhD, is an associate vice president at Jobs for the Future. She leads Students at the Center, a Jobs for the Future initiative that synthesizes and adapts for practice current research on key components of student-centered approaches to learning that lead to deeper learning outcomes.

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