Online only: Digital Portfolio Assessments

This tool can communicate information about learning

Chris Besse

When it comes to assessment, communication is everything. It’s the way we make learning tangible and visible to all our stakeholders — whether that be educational leaders, teachers, parents, or students.

Traditional assessment in the form of letter grades and report cards attempts to quantify and communicate learning, offering a snapshot in time of a student’s academic ability. In many ways, traditional assessment practices serve their purpose, highlighting the areas in which the student needs to improve and the areas in which they excel. And yet, there is much room for improvement.

I am sure you remember feeling the pressure in the lead up to an exam, or taking a test on a day where you’ve not felt your best and knew you could perform better. Perhaps you were frustrated by the grade that told your parents how you performed in a math test but didn’t tell them anything about your leadership skills. Maybe you felt like your grade meant you had finished learning English and didn’t need to keep reading or practicing your writing. Perhaps that grade came as a surprise to you — you didn’t realize that you needed to work on your language skills — and now it was too late.

Testing is stressful for everyone involved. However, teachers, parents, and students all agree that we need to communicate information about learning. Educators need to know how well a student is performing so they can plan for instruction. Parents need communication about their child’s learning, so they know how to support him or her outside of the classroom. Students need communication about their learning so they can feel motivated and engaged. We can agree that we need more than a snapshot.

Shifting the assessment model

Thanks to research from leaders like John Hattie, we are seeing educators shifting their assessment model. In Hattie’s book, Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning, formative assessment, collaboration, feedback, self-reflection, and parent engagement score highly. To do these things effectively, there is an explicit need for continuous communication, hence the popularity of digital portfolios.

Because growth looks different for every student, teachers need a way to document that growth and show the progress each student is making. They also need to share this information with parents to allow them to be part of their child’s learning and success.

Third-grade teacher Staci Woodruff says, “Digital portfolios have changed the way I teach. They allow me to be in the moment with my students, share their success with their parents on a weekly basis and provide feedback for them to improve well before a traditional report card would come home. It has also been valuable to have a place where students have gather their own goals and plans for future learning. It has made them more reflective learners and more focused on their strength and how they will overcome their weaknesses.”

Digital portfolios encourage growth mindset

Digital portfolios allow educators to combine a traditional approach with ongoing feedback in a way that shifts assessment from a snapshot to an ongoing conversation. By capturing and documenting learning in a digital portfolio, a teacher collects tangible proof of the learning journey that can be revisited over the course of the school year.

Using digital portfolio tools is an effective way of encouraging students to foster a growth mindset and own their learning and development. High school language teacher Michele Greene Hansen says, “I needed a way to show students what they had and had not completed in order to master the new material and have them be accountable for their work. I started by having students document what they had done. I then had students go back through their work, identify what they could have done better, then do a similar activity that let them improve on their weaknesses. That's when I saw improvement. Suddenly, everyone's marks made sense to them and to their parents. It was all there… their successes as well as the meager attempts.”

Parent communication increases student engagement

We know from the research conducted by Matthew A. Kraft & Shaun M. Dougherty of the Harvard Graduate School of Education that frequent teacher-family communication immediately increases student engagement. Digital portfolios can create a more powerful relationship between the student and the teacher. As one parent puts it, “Whether it be our son’s speech in front of the class or the results of all his tests, it offers us the opportunity to be much more present in his everyday schooling without missing anything. It benefits the student in knowing that everyone is paying attention, and we like being able to provide our child with feedback and dialogue.”

Digital portfolio and assessment tools replace traditional reporting

It is incredible to see the positive changes that district leaders and educators are making for their learning communities. In some cases, leaders are using digital portfolio and assessment tools to replace traditional reporting. In Canada’s Surrey School District, educators are using ongoing progress and summary reporting as an alternative to test scores for their 70,000 students.

“Fundamentally, I don’t think that report cards are very useful,” says Surrey’s Superintendent Jordan Tinney. “I don’t think they inform instruction, I don’t think they provide parents with a ton of useful information, and they’re a massive amount of work for teachers. Digital portfolios allowed us an opportunity to inform instruction, to give parents a window into the classroom and to say to teachers, maybe we don’t need to do report cards the way we’ve always done.’”  

The increase in communication that Tinney and his team saw when they implemented digital portfolios is credited with an increase of ownership of student learning and great parent engagement. The team received the Simon Fraser University Cmolik Prize and ISTE’s Sylvia Charp Award for District Innovation in Technology for their work.

In the U.S., we are seeing educators in Chico, California, improving student outcomes by encouraging students to take ownership of their learning. Students use digital portfolios to self-assess and seek out feedback from their parents and teachers. As middle-school science teacher Darren Massa puts it, “a child's progress is a much more complicated narrative than a single grade on a report card.”

These success stories pave the way for a promising future. Improving the communication of student learning won’t happen overnight, nor will it mark an end to traditional learning. However, digital portfolios will open new channels that spark dialogue beyond the classroom between the student, teacher, and parent. That’s where we will see real change start to happen.

Chris Besse ( is president and COO of FreshGrade Education Inc., a learning collaboration and digital portfolio platform company.
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