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How Project Portfolios Take the Pressure Off Performance

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“How long are we going to be doing this?” A student speaks up, his tone and body language at the computer clearly communicate his stance: “I didn’t sign up for web design.” Our high school’s project based Engineering classes are held in an expansive makerspace with 20-foot ceilings, a full woodshop, an enclosed welding lab, massive tool cabinets and heavy work tables with loud metal stools. My efforts as a new teacher to have students create online project portfolios pulled us from the workshop and put us in the neighboring computer lab. Students resisted; they had just finished their first project and were eager to start the next. My novice teacher response was to keep repeating that portfolios were worth 25% of the semester grade and to please write about their results. I landed myself in the uncomfortable position of awarding B’s and C’s to students who would have otherwise received high A’s. Since those early days in my teaching career, I have iterated, improved and learned a lot about portfolio uses, benefits and implementation strategy.

Day One

This year, my new Engineering Design students immediately start working on their first project: making hydraulic robots that are to pick up a tennis ball and to put it into a cup in as little time as possible. I mention nothing of portfolios. Students build their machines in the first two weeks of class, getting familiar with the shop, each other and the flow of a work period. I make sure to include “in as little time as possible” when first describing the challenge so that the following makes sense on evaluation day: “You will have the first half of the period to attempt the challenge. Because I can’t be everywhere with the official stopwatch at once, the no-cell-phone policy is lifted. You are to capture a video of your best result and I’ll evaluate what I see there.” The energy and excitement are project-finale high. Students hustle to capture videos and rush around to watch their peers’ performances. I project a countdown on the big screen and when the buzzer goes off, we leave the shop together. Students are animated in the hall, talking about the project. In the computer lab, I model creating a simple Google Sites web page with an embedded video. They do so and email me the link. Portfolio creation happens just like that, without resistance. Students are excited to share their results.

Afterwards, I explain the importance of portfolios. I explain how every job, scholarship and college application now has a space for a portfolio link. I describe a simple portfolio structure: a main “Landing Page” with a picture they captured, a blurb about themselves and a list of their projects, where each project name links to a page containing project pictures, videos and reflections. One page per project, that’s it.

Here’s an example student portfolio.


I finish my portfolio instruction by explaining that each project documentation page will include responses to the same 5 reflection prompts and that we’re going to do the portfolio work a little at a time–it should never feel like a big deal. I’ve found it helpful on project kickoff days to model finding the project reflection prompts, creating a new project link and to then assign students to do the same and to post a few sentences in response to prompt number two:

What are the goals of the project? Make it clear what learning we are trying to accomplish and how we’ll know we’ve succeeded.

It is easy to then go through each student’s interpretation of the project expectations, catching misconceptions and areas needing further clarification.

After the first introductory project where students post a video of their device’s best performance and the second, more substantial project requiring a full portfolio entry, the portfolio process becomes automatic. There are snags and struggles along the way, but this implementation strategy has yielded the most success.

The Big Day

Project based education always entails students preparing for and performing on some “Big Day” that boasts an authentic audience of parents, friends and peers. The experience is wonderful, but typically brings high anxiety to both student and teacher, and let’s not forget the hopelessness for groups struggling to succeed. I remember hollering all period in my early career, “Team seven! You are up next! Team eight! Go ahead and get ready!” By shifting the evaluation away from the Big Day, and towards the portfolio entry documenting and discussing the results, stress is dramatically reduced in several ways. First, I get to be on everybody’s team. No longer am I the evaluator scribbling behind a clipboard. I am relaxed, engaged with classroom visitors, cheering for my students’ success and reminding them about data to capture for the portfolio entry. Second, all of the hollering and spotlight directing goes away. I set up multiple evaluation locations in the room and encourage groups to record results as soon as they are ready. Parents, visitors and peers interested in seeing a group perform will watch. Third, when students post results, they reflect and retain more of the project lesson. Finally, expecting documentation of a project rather than the project itself enables calming conversations like this one:

“It’s too bad that your project didn’t do as well as we had hoped. Post and review what you saw, then write about what you think went wrong and what changes you would make if you had more time. Remember, the goal is the learning.”

“If I post it working later, will I get full credit?”


The Days Ahead

Portfolios have a larger, future-oriented purpose. A former student emailed, “I’ve been linking the website you had us create to a lot of job applications I send out. It’s really helpful to show what I’ve done. … I hated doing it, but was well worth [sic]. I’m considering updating it with current projects.” Portfolios also have a softer purpose. Another former student email, “… something about that footage has captured the fascination of the huddled masses. The video has gathered thousands of views and multiple requests to obtain the source code for our device.” Emailing a former teacher about a project posted for class feels like evidence of pride and further reminds me why portfolio work is worth the effort. Any skill—be it creative writing, data analysis, scientific method, historical research or engineering design—can be documented using skill-capturing portfolio entries. From the first day of class, to the final Big Day of the semester, to a future where students translate their skills into opportunities, portfolios facilitate deeper learning and enable better teaching.

Editor’s Note:


If you want to learn more about how to use digital portfolios in your classroom, take our free, online course Digital Portfolios with Maker Ed on KQED Teach.

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