Writing Portfolios: What You Need to Know

There has been a huge push in the liberal arts for something called a writing portfolio, a binder where developing writers keep a collection of their compositions that is graded under a common rubric. The concept has trickled down from the ivory towers of academia and has begun to stream into high school English classes. As we speak, quite a few English instructors are incorporating portfolios into their classes. You might be asking yourself, “This sounds awfully trendy. Why do we need such a thing?” Well, not horribly unlike an artistic portfolio, it showcases a certain skill set; namely, writing composition. Basically, a portfolio is something akin to a report card, only it is a showcase of skills rather than a marker of grades. Therefore, some instructors see portfolios as a fairer way of grading their students. So if your teacher is incorporating a portfolio into his/her class and you want a bit more information, here’s a quick overview of the pros and cons associated with portfolios so you know what to expect.


First and most importantly, the main goal of these binders is to show progress through what some have called assessments for learning as well as assessments of learning. If, at the end of the semester, you look in your portfolio and see ten entries, you should also see the progress of your writing skills. For instance, students in high school are graded on their essay’s organization, something that most students struggle with. However, with the consistent feedback that portfolios offer, students’ instructors will be able to emphasize things the students need to do to grow that skill. And so, theoretically, students’ growing organizational skills will be reflected in the portfolio at the end of the semester.

Portfolios also offer students the opportunity to build their organizational skills. I’m not talking about organizing essays here; I’m talking about real-life organization skills. Portfolio entries are typically hard copies, meaning that they are printed and plastered with red ink from their instructors, and included with every entry is the rubric. The rubric typically contains the requirements for the essay and whether those requirements were met or unmet. Students can organize their portfolios and maintain each entry in chronological order so that they can see their progress throughout the class… which leads me into the next benefit of portfolios.

Finally, portfolios are tangible. Often, tests and other assessments get shuffled into binders and forgotten about, sometimes happily. With portfolios, students are forced (politely) to collect their work, good or bad, and compare it to successful work. Portfolios can even function as reference guides for many students who have trouble following a rubric without an example, and having a collection of work that they can hold in their hands and refer to in terms of their skills at any given point is a huge benefit to students. Here, portfolios are a showcase of skills, not of grades, which can be more valuable to students than a fraction of one could ever be.

…Not benefits:

One negative to portfolios is that each entry is a snapshot. Therefore, in the early goings, portfolios are relatively ineffective simply because the students don’t have enough reference material to know a successful entry from an unsuccessful one, and so one or two bad entries could spell disaster early on. Portfolios are long-term projects, and all high school teachers know that it is hard enough to get students to think a month in advance let alone a semester. While these binders are supposed to motivate students, sometimes they have the exact opposite effect; students see their failures and are more likely to give up than ever.

One other downside of having a writing portfolio is that it is a ton of work, not only for students but for instructors as well. First, teachers have the responsibility of providing students examples of successful work—no small amount of work in itself—so that students can build on their own writing skills. Between finding and/or creating these examples, teachers need to create the rubric and set the standard of writing skills for the class. And after that, they have to align their students’ writing to that rubric, all of which adds up to a lot of prep time. For the students, portfolios mean extremely high expectations and extra time working on something that won’t necessarily give them a better grade. So it is perfectly normal to feel a little overwhelmed during your first semester using a portfolio.

The last negative for portfolios is a general feeling of disinterest on the part of the student. And perhaps even the teacher. Students often see portfolios as a weird optional assignment that doesn’t give them anything special. Perhaps this view of portfolios is due to how hard it is for teenagers to plan for the future, but the view is valid nonetheless. For teachers, portfolios are too much work and, if students show a disinterest in them, it would be easy for teachers to forget about the whole thing. Basically, portfolios are extra work with little early benefits for students and too much work for teachers, so the whole idea is scrapped. Not unreasonably.

The push for portfolios is becoming stronger and stronger. It is extremely likely that new high school and university undergrad students will see a portfolio in practice in the near future, so it is best to be prepared. Remember, these binders are both a blessing and a curse; they can show progress, build real-life organizational skills, and are things that students can physically see how they have improved. However, portfolios are tough to get rolling. A couple unsuccessful entries can lead to frustration, they are a ton of work for both teachers and students, and very few teachers and students want to do the extra work required to make a portfolio a major learning tool. Hopefully, this article will help you decide how you approach portfolios. ‘Till next time.