Using Portfolios to Evaluate Student Writing

Kirsten Jamen, WAC Program, UW-Madison
Having students collect and submit portfolios--collections of drafts and finished papers--helps students see themselves as developing writers.

Why Use a Portfolio to Evaluate Student Writing?

A writer’s portfolio is essentially a collection of papers and drafts, similar to an artist’s portfolio of paintings, photographs, etc.  Having students keep and submit their work in portfolios encourages them to see their writing as “their own”— and enables them to look back and reflect on their development as writers and learners.  I use portfolios in two ways, depending on the amount of writing in a course.


Process Portfolios

Any time I assign formal writing, I have my students submit their papers in a process portfolio.  A process portfolio is a collection of all the work that went into producing a final version of a paper.   Such portfolios  contain all the drafts and notes that led up to the final version of a paper, emphasizing the idea of writing as a process of drafting and revising.  This method of collecting portfolios— rather than just final drafts of papers—lets students know that you take the writing process seriously and that you expect drafts and revisions, rather than a paper done the night before the due date.


A valuable benefit of the process portfolio is that it makes it difficult for students to plagiarize.  I insist that all students turn in outlines, notes, and drafts and weigh the quality of the “process” into my evaluation of the “product.”  This does not mean, however, that I read every page in the portfolio; rather, I skim over students’ notes and drafts quickly to gauge the work that went into writing the paper.   Skimming early drafts can also be useful for figuring out whether a poor paper is the result of a misunderstanding of the assignment or simply a lack of effort.  Looking deeper into the portfolio can help me figure out where promising ideas went astray, and often helps me make more constructive comments.

Final Portfolios

If I assign several papers over the semester, especially if they are of similar size and scope, I have my students prepare a final portfolio at the end of semester, for which they select and further revise their best papers.   A final portfolio is a collection of a student’s best work over the course of the semester.  The student selects which papers s/he thinks best represent her/his abilities, revises them further, and submits them for evaluation.  Such portfolios require selection, further revision, and reflection.  I also ask students to prepare a 2-page cover letter in which they explain why they chose and revised the essays they did and, in doing so, reflect on their own learning and writing processes.  I like to defer paper grades until the final portfolio to emphasize revision over time (a paper can be revised all semester long) and to encourage students to take risks in their writing since they will be able to “throw out” their least successful experiments.


Portfolios and Conferencing

Portfolios also work well with a system of one-on-one conferencing.  I often return the portfolio in a conference, and the student and I look over her/his work together, discussing my feedback.  Rather than write an endnote, I save time by making a list of issues to discuss based on the student’s cover letter and my own impressions.  When I do write lengthy end comments (which I do when I respond to final portfolios), I try to respond directly to the student’s cover letter.  Thus, the portfolio works as a way to increase the dialogue between the student and myself, between the writer and the reader.