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Tracking Progress Using Portfolios

For better or worse, “tracking progress” has become a buzz phrase in education. As teachers, we are constantly being asked how we are tracking student progress across the content areas. I have mixed feelings about the current state of assessment in education, but one thing is for sure – I don’t think we ask our students to track their own progress and self-reflect nearly enough.

Reflection: a thought, idea, or opinion formed or a remark made as a result of long consideration

Great teachers work towards a constant goal of instilling a sense of intrinsic motivation amongst their students. In order to encourage students to want to push themselves to their potential, we must show them what progress feels like. We must teach them to recognize growth in their own learning and to engage in personal goal-setting. This comes from studying their own work over time. Students should constantly be asking themselves these 3 questions:

  1. What was my work like when I first started?
  2. What is my work like now?
  3. Where do I want my work to be in ________ (fill in the blank by setting a reasonable amount of time.)

While this process of reflection is important, there is no doubt that it is a challenge for us educators as well as our students. Depending on the age of our students, we must support the reflection process at different levels. Youngsters (more specifically, birth-Grade 3) will need maximal support throughout the reflection process, while older students will be able to work towards greater levels of independence with appropriate modeling and practice.

There are a number of different ways that we can support students in reflecting on their growth as learners. Today, I am going to focus on one method which I have found to have a strong impact on my students throughout the years. The method is using the reflection process with a portfolio.

Portfolio: A collection of materials which are representative of an individual’s work

Many administrators request (or even demand) that teachers keep portfolios for their students in different content areas. In many classrooms, the portfolio is a teacher-based tool. The teacher creates the portfolio by compiling student work samples and the teacher has access to the portfolio. Today, I am suggesting that we teach our students to organize their own portfolios for different academic areas such as writing, math, reading, science and social studies.

Students can keep a portfolio in a number of different ways but my favorite is the folder. While many teachers (including myself!) have found that students struggle to organize their folders, I think we can all recognize that maintaining an organized folder is an important skill in itself. With explicit modeling, this skill can be taught. I have always had my students keep a folder for each subject. On the inside of the pockets of the folders, they would write labels such as: “What I’m Working On” and “What I Have Finished.” Adding labels to the pockets of a folder can help a student stay organized.

Sample Science Portfolio

I always liked giving students a cover sheet for their folder. The cover sheet would be different for each grade level and each subject area. For example, for first grade I might only include date and title of work. In sixth grade I might add other categories such as progress and goals. Here are two sample cover sheets available for download. Feel free to modify them. I had my students glue them to the cover of their folders.

Sample Math Portfolio Cover Sheet (Click to Download)

Sample Writing Portfolio Cover Sheet (Click to Download)

The Reflection Process

  1. At the end of every month, choose a week to be “Reflection Week”
  2. Assign one subject area to each day of the week (ex: Math Monday, Reading Tuesday, etc.)
  3. On the corresponding day, during the corresponding period, use the time to lead students through a reflection activity as well as “spring cleaning” (see below).
  4. On the following Monday, repeat the cycle by handing out new portfolio cover sheets for students to glue/staple onto their folders.

Possible Reflection Activities:

  • Students make a timeline of their work and fill out a graphic organizer describing how their work has changed over time.
  • Students look over their pieces and choose their least mature and most mature work from the pile. Then students get to post both pieces up in the room and do a gallery walk where they can see everyone’s work. This can also be displayed on a bulletin board in a “before/after” style.
  • Have students choose their most mature piece of work and fill out a goal-setting sheet for how they hope to improve their work in over the next month.
  • Do a portfolio scavenger hunt (ex: “Find a piece of work where you have at least 3 spelling errors,” “Find a piece of work where you added at least two details to make your story stronger,” etc.)

Through looking over past work, students can see how they have grown over time. They can better understand the importance of care and hard work. Even a disorganized, careless portfolio can teach a strong lesson. A student who cannot find a “most mature” piece of work needs the most support through the reflection process. It can feel overwhelming for a student who views his/her portfolio as “weak” to set goals, so it is our job to support them  as best we can.

I always liked setting goals as a class. The most important way that we can support our students is to ensure that the goals being set are measurable, appropriate and most importantly reachable within a month’s time. Setting goals as a class is helpful because it allows the teacher time and space to model what makes a goal strong. Vague goals can be overwhelming, so choosing one small category can really help. Some vague goals might be: “I will read more,” “I will get more math problems right,” or “I will spell better.” These goals are not easily achievable or measurable. Here are some super specific goals that my students have set in the past…and been able to achieve over time:

Do you have ideas about other reflection activities, goals or methods for self-tracking progress? Share them by posting a comment!

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