Learning portfolios help students 'tell their story'

Few people in the world know as much about learning portfolios as Helen Chen.

Chen, a senior research scientist and Director of ePortfolio Initiatives at Stanford University has spent much of her career studying the effectiveness and best practises around learning portfolios, an online tool to help capture and document student learning through goal-setting and reflection.

Chen was recently invited to share her expertise with 100 faculty, staff and students at the Learning Portfolio Showcase, an event hosted by David Wilkinson, McMaster Provost and Vice-President, Academic and the McMaster Institute for Innovation and Excellence in Teaching and Learning (MIIETL) to highlight the development of the Learning Portfolio at McMaster.

Image of Helen Chen

Learning portfolios are, “first and foremost, something students need to own,” says Chen (pictured above).

In her lecture Why ePortfolios? Why now? Documenting Learning in the 21st Century,” Chen talked about the evolution of learning portfolios and their value both as a pedagogical tool and as an effective way to support student learning and development.

In an interview with the Daily News, Chen expands on why she believes learning portfolios play a valuable role in helping students develop the skills they need to be successful, academically and in life.

Reflection is key

Learning portfolios are grounded in reflective practise; Chen says they provide a space for students to reflect on their in-class and out-of-class activities and to see how those experiences fit together.

“What I value about learning portfolios is the reflective aspect. Helping students make the connections between the different experiences that comprise their education; that kind of learning is really critical to their own self-awareness, personal growth and development during their time at university.”

Learning portfolios tell a story

Learning portfolios are, “first and foremost, something students need to own,” says Chen. “Portfolios are there to help them gain self-awareness and understanding of their education and what they’re getting out of their time at university.”

“By documenting their learning this way, they’re able to tell a story; tell a story about the variety and range of experiences that comprise their education at McMaster, both the in-class experience in courses and out of class experiences, as well as how those fit together to represent the unique education they have received from this university.”

Facebook and LinkedIn can’t replace a learning portfolio

Although many students already spend a lot of time documenting their lives and experiences on social media, Chen says learning portfolios are unique.

“They help students build an ‘intellectual identity’ and that’s why you’re here at McMaster, to build an identity as a learner. You may already have a LinkedIn account, or a blog that focuses on your professional identity. You may have a Facebook account that’s focused on your social identity, but what a learning portfolio does is help students to establish a framework as a learner that they can carry with them through the rest of their lives.”

Learning portfolios should only be used when they make sense

“Faculty should incorporate learning portfolios only if it makes sense to them and the kind of experience they’re trying to design for their students,” says Chen.

“My advice to faculty is to think about what kind of experience you want to design for your students. What do you want them to take away from your course? In light of those things, what role do you think learning portfolios can have in supporting those goals, and also help students to physically see what they’re getting out of their class?”

The body of evidence is growing

Chen says that although learning portfolios are a relatively young field, they draw upon long-standing pedagogical traditions around reflection, self-authorship and metacognitive awareness. In recent years, there has been increasing evidence that supports the idea that learning portfolios enhance student learning.

“As more people are getting involved with learning portfolios, there’s also greater research,” says Chen. “Recently there’s been quite a lot of research that’s come out highlighting both qualitative analyses and quantitative results. The Connect to Learning Project for example, studied different students in various contexts using the portfolios and the impact that has on their learning, their growth and their development.”

Higher education is changing; approaches need to change too

“Higher education is changing, from online education to MOOCs to flipped learning,” says Chen. “How do we help [students] become the kinds of graduates we want them to become with 21st century professional and interpersonal skills so they can go on to lead successful and productive lives? I see learning portfolios as one approach, not the only approach, but one approach.”


* Helen Chen is a senior researcher in the Designing Education Lab in the Center for Design Research within the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University. She is also the Director of ePortfolio Initiatives in the Office of the University Registrar.