Portfolio as a tool for academic education and professional development: problems and challenges

Introduction 1.1. Portfolio in higher education

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1. Introduction

1.1. Portfolio in higher education

About two decades ago portfolios appeared on the scene in higher education. Ever since different definitions of a portfolio have been presented. These differences reflect probably the authors’ paradigm of teaching and learning. Whereas some definitions exclude assessment, others include it as an important function of portfolios (cf. Barrett 2005). Some authors estimate on collaborative analysis and define a portfolio as a “flexible, evidence-based tool that engages students in a process of continuous reflection and collaborative analysis of learning. (…) the portfolio captures the scope, richness, and relevance of students’ learning. The portfolio focuses on purposefully and collaboratively selected reflections and evidence for both improvement and assessment of students’ learning” (Zubizaretta 2004). While other authors (like Van Tartwijk et al 2004) avoid a “definition discourse” and focus on the different purposes of an electronic portfolio, resulting in various types of portfolios:

Assessment portfolios

When a portfolio is used for assessment purposes only, portfolios are usually organised around items such as the students’ own products, evaluations, photographs and video-recordings. To guarantee that the students provide assessors with all the necessary information, sometimes a list may be supplied containing items required for inclusion in the portfolio. Students use the portfolio to prove their competence. To be convincing they must include information such as their coaches’ evaluations or certain key products.

Showcase portfolios
Where students are free to determine the content of their portfolios, they most often tend to display examples of their best work or evaluations of that work. These are usually referred to as showcase portfolios and resemble those compiled by artists and architects. Students may use showcase portfolios for a number of purposes, such as introducing themselves to potential employers.

Development portfolios

A portfolio may also be designed as an instrument to keep track of and plan a student’s development. In such a case it is referred to as a development portfolio. The point of departure here could be a summary of what the student should master in order to obtain a degree. The student can then use the portfolio to note work done on competences or roles, the results of such work, and the planned nature and direction of further development. Obviously the use of development portfolios only makes sense where there is room for individual development. If all students take the same courses, try to achieve the same goals and are tested in the same way, more efficient systems than a development portfolio are available for tracking and planning the development of students.

Reflective portfolios
When portfolios are used for the purposes of monitoring student development, it is important to know how students themselves evaluate and analyse it. Therefore it is crucial that portfolios used in this way contain written reflections by the students. These reflections are usually organised around the competences the student should master. Students are asked to reflect on how their accomplishments relate to their goals.


Portfolios are usually used for a number of different purposes and in that case possess characteristics of each of the typical portfolios described above.
Although (electronic) portfolios have been used in higher education for several years, there are still problems occurring in daily practice.

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