2012. Vol.3, No.1, 155-163
Published Online February 2012 in SciRes (http://www.SciRP.org/journal/ce) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ce.2012.31025
Copyright © 2012 SciR e s . 155
Student Evaluations: Synchronous Tripod of Learning Portfolio
Jenna-Lynn Senger, Rani Kanthan*
Department of Pathology a nd Laboratory Medicine, University of Saskatchewan, Saskato on, Canada
Received December 14th, 2011; revised January 10th, 2012; accepted January 29th, 2012
Background: Learning portfolios are increasingly being introduced in higher education including under-
graduate and postgraduate medical education. Due to their highly personalized nature, creation of an as-
sessment tool that accurately reflects the value for the learner of the “work” created is challenging, and
has prevented a more widespread use of this valuable tool. Innovation & Evaluation: Forty-one physical
therapy students were asked to create a learning portfolio as a component of their pathology course. This
collection of evidence of learning was evaluated at the midterm and final examination by a synchronous
tripod of assessors-the “self”, a peer, and the instructor to provide a formative and summative evaluation.
Results: Grades awarded by the three assessors were more similar at the end of the semester when com-
pared with those at the midterm. A quantitative and qualitative satisfaction questionnaire was additionally
given to students to determine the usefulness of this educational activity. Though the majority of students
responded favourably, with notable self-reported improvements in communication, team-work, and pro-
fessional growth, primary challenges included negative perceptions related to increased time commitment,
student and teacher-related stress, and uncertainty regarding the value and the immediate and long-term
relevance of this creative learning activity. Conclusion: Reflection on our study authenticates that the
combination of formative and summative evaluations from such tripod assessments of learning portfolios
is particularly suited for explicit inclusion in higher educational programs including medicine and allied
health professionals. We recommend learning portfolios as a creative learning tool and assessment tool in
Keywords: Learning Portfolio; Self-Assessment; Peer-Assessment; Instructor-Assessment; Tripod
Portfolios were traditionally created by artists and architects
to demonstrate their high quality of work to potential customers
(van Tartwijk, Driessen, van der Vleuten, & Stokking, 2007).
These “ability showcases” have evolved and are slowly being
adopted by the educational community at large. Today, learning
portfolios (LP) are integrated in the medical and allied health
professional curriculums of undergraduate, post-graduate and
continuing professional life-long learning for re-validation of
doctors for a continuing licence (Teng, 2007). Over the past
twenty years, learning portfolios have slowly been gaining po-
pularity in higher education (van Tartwijk, Driessen, van der
Vleuten, & Stokking, 2007), with professional colleges recog-
nizing the unique combination of self-reflection, self-direction,
self-analysis, and self-discipline required to create and maintain
such a personalized collection. The autonomy of portfolio de-
velopment encourages students to reflect on personal experi-
ences and concerns with a self-directed reflection that promotes
a sense of ownership and motivation (Driessen & Nor man, 2008).
Due to this “personalization”, difficulties in assessment arise
with a struggle between standardization and reliability vs. ho-
listic personalization and validity that limits its widespread ap-
plication in medical education (Driessen, Overeem, van Tart-
wijk, van der Vleuten, & Muijtjens, 2006; Amsellem-Ouazana,
van Pee, Godin, 2006; David, Davis, Harden, Howie, Ker, &
The aim of this study was to introduce, implement and con-
sider the drivers and barriers of learning portfolios through the
tripod of self-, peer-, and instructor-assessment. In their 24th
guide to medical education, the Association for Medical Educa-
tion in Europe (AMEE), evaluated the use of portfolios as a
method of student assessment (David, Davis, Harden, Howie,
Ker, & Pippard, 2001). Their five suggestions for standardiza-
tion of portfolio assessment were incorporated in the individ-
ual-, peer-, and instructor-assessment strategies employed in
this study. These recommendations include
1) “Same portfolio’s units of evidence are assigned to all
students”—a list of required material to be included in the
portfolios was distributed to all students.
2) “Tasks and criteria for assessment are defined and made
3) “Instructions to students provide clear guidelines”—stu-
dents received a comprehensive introduction to the portfolio
project at its onset and were encouraged to provide feedback
J.-L. SENGER ET AL.
both formally via satisfaction questionnaires and informally in
the extended learning environment (contact classroom time +
4) “The portfolio reading process and rating of material fol-
low standardized guidelines”—identical assessment tools for
all three assessors included quantitative assessment based on a
specially designed 5-point Likert scale and qualitative assess-
ment guided by open-ended questions.
5) “The probing in an oral review of the portfolio with the
student follows standardized guidelines”—due to the tripod
nature of the assessments, students interacted with their asses-
sors throughout and upon the completion of the course with
constant formative and summative feedback opportunities.
Materials and Methods
The physical therapy program at the University of Sas-
katchewan transferred from a Bachelor’s degree to a Master’s
Program. This was accompanied by major curricular renova-
tions that included the construction of ten separate modules.
The second module included a twelve-week (January to April)
specially designed pathology course with 2.5 hours of contact
class time and 5 “discovery hours” per week. “Discovery hours”
are specific hours for self-directed learning without instructor
supervision. A learning portfolio (LP) was designed to specifi-
cally incorporate assessment of both affective and course-spe-
cific objectives for the discovery hours of this course. The pro-
ject was developed incorporating the five AMEE suggestions
for standardization of portfolio assessment, as outlined above
(David, Davis, Harden, Howie, Ker, & Pippard, 2001). After a
pilot run for one year, the LP as an assessment tool was for-
mally researched and analyzed prospectively. 41 students en-
rolled in this program participated in this study. Students were
introduced to the concept of LPs including the purpose and
focus of this activity, and were given an outline to guide their
efforts. A semi-structured approach in alignment with the
course objectives incorporated weekly mandatory entries to
achieve maximum control of standardization for the portfolio
content and process: the individual class quiz, the class group
quiz, the group activity and a one-page self-reflection document.
A template was given to aid students who had no prior experi-
ence in the self-reflective process. Students were further en-
couraged throughout the course to include evidence of their
own learning and development. Suggested, voluntary entries
included evidence of completion of the specially-designed on-
line digital games or relevant and interesting news articles, a
list of recommended websites or literary sources. Each week as
the student completed another section of their “mandatory evi-
dence”, group activities provided students with the opportunity
to discuss and to receive ongoing feedback on the contents and
format of their learning portfolios. Of this voluntary material,
students selected the work that best displayed their growth and
learning over the semester for inclusion in their portfolio.
At the onset of the course, students collectively negotiated
and decided on a mark breakdown, allotting their final grade
between the portfolio and the midterm and final examinations.
A formal summative tripod assessment of the portfolio by self,
peer, and instructor was conducted at the midterm and final
examinations, to enhance the portfolio’s reliability. A specially
designed assessment tool for the learning portfolio (Table 1)
was created to standardize evaluations between the three asses-
sors, as suggested by the outline five suggestions for portfolio
Self/peer/instructor-assessment tool for the learning portfo li o .
This portfolio is well-structured, i.e. content is presented in the proper
place, descriptions, analyses and learning objectives are easy to find.
This portfolio is com plete, i.e. no required components are missing.
This document is “clean” i.e. proper spelling, grammar, and sentence
structures are used.
This portfolio shows evidence of critical self-reflection i.e. indicates both
strengths and weaknesses.
Evidence that supports the analyses of strengths and weaknesses is in-
cluded in this portfolio in a systematic and clear ly evident fashion.
This portfolio has content beyond the guiding questions and instructions
(without being a “shopping trolley”).
This portfolio shows evidence of steps taken to achieve the learning
Portfolio Str engths;
Recommendatio ns for Im provement.
assessment standardization (David, Davis, Harden, Howie, Ker,
& Pippard, 2001). These evaluations included a combined
quantitative 5-point Likert-scale based assessment and eight
open-ended qualitative questions. The final grade of the portfo-
lio was calculated by determining the average of these three
Additionally, on alternate weeks, students were asked to fill
out a brief qualitative and quantitative satisfaction question-
naire to provide feedback regarding their attitudes towards this
learning experience that led to constant modifications and rec-
ommendations for the portfolio process and content as required.
In total the questionnaire was repeated five times in the ongoing
twelve weeks. At the midterm and final examination, a more
comprehensive detailed questionnaire for formative feedback
was collected (Table 2). All questionnaires were submitted
anonymously thus reassuring students that their responses
would have no effect on their graded marks.
Forty-one students were enrolled in the 2010 Masters of
Physical Therapy course at the University of Saskatchewan. At
the beginning of the semester, the students decided that the
learning portfolio should account for 50% of their overall final
course grade, with the midterm and final examination each
contributing 25%. All three assessors used the semi-structured
5-point 7-question Likert scale (Table 1) to award a grade out
of a possible 35 points and provided comments. At midterm
examination, self-assessment ranged from 78% - 99% (mean
86.1%), peer-assessment from 69% - 92% (mean 82.3%), and
instructor-assessment from 78% - 96% (mean 87.1%). At final
examination, self-assessment ranged 69% - 91% (mean 82.5%),
peer-assessment from 69% - 89% (mean 83.7%) and instruc-
tor-assessment from 70% - 89% (mean 81.3%). As seen in Fig-
ures 1 and 2, the grades awarded by the three assessors were
more closely related on the final evaluation when compared to
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
J.-L. SENGER ET AL.
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 157
Student satisfaction questionnaire.
1, 23 4,5 1, 2 3 4,5
I like using Learning Portfolio as part of assessment for this course 11 15 12 15 5 18
I liked the “partially” structured organization of the Learning Portfolio 4 11 23 7 10 21
Portfolio developme n t has improved my writing skills 25 10 3 18 16 4
Portfolio development ha s improved m y communica tio n s kills 23 13 2 17 16 5
Portfolio developme nt has made me more reflective about my thought processes. 8 10 20 8 15 15
Portfolio developme nt has improved my own learning and performance 13 14 11 15 9 14
Portfolio developme nt has helped me develop thou ghts to concrete processes and products 14 13 11 12 13 13
Portfolio developme nt has helped me engage in use f ul reflection about m y approach to this course. 15 13 10 14 12 12
Portfolio developme nt has enhanced my feeling of r esponsibility for monitoring my own progress 7 10 21 9 11 18
Portfolio development has helped me gain further insight int o my approach to learning 15 9 14 14 8 16
Portfolio assessme nt h as helped m e have a clearer understanding of my v alues. 16 14 8 18 15 5
Portfolio developme nt has helped me work in a group as a team member 11 10 17 6 13 19
Portfolio assessme nt has contributed to my awareness of the need to support my peers 9 15 14 9 14 15
Portfolio developme nt h as stimulated awareness of my decision making processes 11 13 14 9 16 13
Portfolio development has pro vided oppor tunities to modify my approaches to learning 11 11 16 8 14 16
Keeping a Learning Portf olio was stressful 6 10 22 11 8 19
Keeping a Learning Portf olio was time consuming 0 4 34 1 3 34
My portfolio is an indiv idual expression of my learning process 15 9 14 7 12 19
Portfolio developme n t makes me fe el accountable and responsibl e for my learning 11 11 16 13 9 16
Portfolio developme n t h as contribu ted to my personal growth 18 12 8 15 18 5
Portfolio development has c ontributed to my professional growth 17 13 8 11 17 10
Portfolio developme nt has contribut ed to my learning 13 10 15 12 10 16
The purpose o f the Learning Portfoli o is clear 5 10 23 6 5 27
My portfolio is a tangible expression of my ideas & experience as a student learner in this course. 11 12 15 12 10 16
Overall developing the Learning Portfolio has been a worthwhile experience 11 15 12 13 11 14
1. What have you learned about the su bject that you did not pre viously know as a result o f keeping this l earning portfolio?
2. What have you discovered about your learning style as a result of keeping this learning portfolio?
3. What are the best/weakest examples of your work in this learning portfolio?
4. What do your selection of the various content i tems and the portfolio overall reflect about your learning?
5. What new learning strategies hav e you adopted as a resu lt of the portfolio process?
6. What were the most difficult part of the process? Why?
7. In what ways is your lea rning portfolio unique? How does it capture your personal learning experience and voice?
8. What has been the most meaningful about the portfolio process? Why?
Midterm assessment. This line-graph illustrates the percentage-grade of the learning portfolio
awarded by the tripod panel of assessors at the midterm examination. The self-assessment grades
are in red, the peer-assessment grades are in blue and the instructor-assessment grades are in green.
The y-axis is the percentage grade awarded and the x-axis is a single-point representation of each of
the forty-one st u d ents.
J.-L. SENGER ET AL.
the midterm evaluation. Sample quotations from the qualitative
self and peer feedback obtained are listed in Table 3. Some stu-
dents provided one-sentence feedback, whereas others wrote an
entire paragraph. The depth of insight offered ranged signifi-
cantly, from vague comments on organization, grammar, and
completion to analyses of specific portfolio elements. Interest-
ingly, the majority of reported weaknesses by all three assessors
were predominantly related to the self-reflection documents.
Final assessment. This line-graph illustrates the percentage-grade of the learning portfolio awarded
by the tripod panel of assessors at the end of the final examination. The self-assessment grades are
in red, the peer-assessment grades are in blue and the instructor-assessment grades are in green. The
y-axis is the percentage grade awarded, and the x-axis is a single-point representation of each of the
Examples of qual itative feedback from self and peer assessments.
“All mandatory elements are met”
“As learning samples were added and reflection created, the completed entries were listed in a table of contents that is neat, organized, and ex-
plains the relevance of learning experience to myself”
“Clear learning points, organized to include study notes that are an indication of what and h ow I really learned the material”
“One of the strengths of my learning portfol io is that it is also an excellent study tool”
“My refle ctions are truthful. I did not hold back my thoughts or feeling s”
“All required content is in th e portfol io”
“Easy to read, good grammar and sentence str ucture”
“Well orga nized, clearly laid out, self-reflections are thorough and well thought out”
“Straight to the point , no clutter, honest learning points ”
“It demonstrates dedication to learning and g oes beyond the minimum required work”
“The leaner is aware of his preferred learning styles and shows e vid ence of using them, with a willingne ss to be critical during reflections”
“The binder I purchased was too small”
“My group poster from Module 6 is unprofessional and disappo inting, decreasing the overall quality of my work”
“The self-reflections were hard to write in my opinion, so they are not as reflective as they could have been”
“Even though I did attempt other methods of lea rn ing and explor ing course content, there is no evidence of it in my portfolio”
“Formatting is not consistent throughout the portfolio”
“Learning objectives were simply stated and not built upon”
“Perhaps more insightf u l informa t io n could be made – for example, quizzes could have reasons why the answer s are what they are”
“Key lea r ni ng points w ere there, however these q uestions were never actually answered in the portfolio”
“Self-reflections are superficial. Add more components that will showcase learning efforts, including strengths and weaknesses of week’s learn-
Recommendatio ns for Portfol io Improvement:
“Spelling corrections and adding more learning points”
“Continue to focus reflections on overall learning as o pposed to focusing on one class”
“Use the portfolio as more of study tool rather than an assignment by answering the objectives, not just stating them”
“I should take a couple minutes a week and look on the internet for some current events on the subject we are looking at or use other outside in-
formation to help clarify material”
“Add table of contents at the beginning of each section for organization”
“Incorporate learning objectives more evidently within each section to demonstrate grasping material”
“Include evidence of diverse learning approaches. Eg- diagrams, sketches, mnemonics you create while studying”
“Taking each of th e poin ts you make in you r self -refl ection an d an swerin g why you feel th at way wo uld make t hem more in -dep th and helpf ul fo r
you to make f uture strategies”
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
J.-L. SENGER ET AL.
Thirty-eight of the 41 students (93%) responded to the mid-
term and final satisfaction questionnaires. Students’ response to
this educational activity improved as the course progressed. At
midterm evaluation (Figure 3), one third (32%) of the class
responded favourably (at a level 4 - 5) to questions outli ning the
value of portfolio develo pment within the var ious f acets of learnin g,
including organization, reflection, responsibility, group-work,
stress and personal/professional growth. When these same ques-
tions were again posed at the final examination (Figure 4), nearly
half (47%) of students responded favourably, and a greater di-
vide was seen among students who enjoyed this creative proc-
ess and those that did not. Seven questions were identified that
demonstrated a change in students’ perspective and learner
behaviour over the term (Table 2—green background). These
1) Though at the midterm exam 61% (28 students) responded
negatively (levels 1 - 2) when questioned about their perceived
communication improvement, at final examination this number
decreased to 48%.
2) More students felt that the development of the portfolio
helped to gain further insight into their approach to learning,
increasing from 37% to 42%.
Students’ Midterm Evaluation of the Learning Port-
folio. This pie-chart illustrates student perceptions at
the midterm examination to the question “overall de-
veloping the learning portfolio has been a worth-
while expeence”. Response 1: Strongly disagree; Re-
sponse 2: Disagree; Response 3: Neutral; Response 4:
Agree; Response 5: Strongly agree.
Students’ Final Evaluation of the Learning Portfolio.
This pie-chart illustrates student perceptions at the
end of the final examination to the question “overall
developing the learning portfolio has been a worth-
while experience”. Response 1: Strongly disagree; Re-
sponse 2: Disagree; Response 3: Neutral; Response 4:
agree; Response 5: Strongly agree.
3) Portfolio development was perceived to enhance team
work in 45% at the midterm, and 50% at the final examination.
4) A large increase, from 37% to 50% as a favourable re-
sponse to this educational innovation is also reflected in the
statement “My portfolio is an individual expression of my
5) At midterm students did not believe the portfolio contrib-
uted to professional growth (21% levels 4 - 5); however, the
final questionnaire was more positive (26% levels 4 - 5).
6) Students found the purpose of the learning portfolio to be
clear (61% midterm, 71% final).
7) Overall students found the development of the learning
portfolio to be a w o rt h w h il e e xp erience.
As a part of the satisfaction questionnaires, students were
posed eight open-ended qualitative questions (Table 2). A few
of the student comments are summarized below.
In response to the first question (#1) asking students what
they had learned as a result of the learning portfolio, the ma-
jority of students focused on learning from class material and
activities rather than the learning portfolio itself; however,
some students commented that the portfolio aided in identifying
effective learning techniques, and the challenges associated
with integrating and organizing materials. Noteworthy com-
- “The portfolio allowed for engagement and learning within
and outside of the classroom”.
- “The portfolio helped me assess on an ongoing basis how
well I am doing in meeting the subject/content knowledge goals
of the course”.
- “It helped me make connections between and see the rele-
vance of knowledge and skills”.
- “The portfolio allowed for engagement in learning within
and outside of the classroom which allowed everyone to be
independent of our learning, both individual and in dependent
Responses to the second question (#2) regarding the role
their portfolio played in identification of learning styles yiel-
ded a wide variety of explanations of their personal optimal
- “I have learned that I do not learn well in a group”.
When asked to describe the best and weakest examples of
their work included in the portfolio (question #3), many stu-
dents were proud of the “key learning points” and various
in-class group activity products they had created specifically for
the portfolio. The most common weakness was:
- “My self-reflections—I did not spend much time on them
and did not go further than the questions on the template to
evaluate my progress”.
The fourth question was more personal, asking students what
their portfolio contents reflect about their learning (#4). Most
of the responses outlined students’ need for organization of
materials, drive towards self-directed learning, and awareness
of the variety of learning styles employed and appreciated.
The most common response when asked about new learning
strategies adopted as a result of portfolio development (ques-
tion #5) was time management skills and the development of
‘key learning points’. Despite their reluctance towards the re-
flection documents, students noted
- “I was surprised when I realized that taking time to reflect
each week on courses is so important in order to assess what is
working and what is not”.
- “I am beginning to recognize that reflection is essential to
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 159
J.-L. SENGER ET AL.
learning; it fosters critical thinking, problem solving and deci-
sion making which is essential to continuous learning and im-
- “I now sit back and take a moment to evaluate what I need
to do in order to be successful at learning”.
Many students found the most difficult part of the portfolio
process (question #6) was in maintaining high-levels of moti-
vation and finding the time to add documents, reflect, and per-
sonalize throughout the entire length of course:
- “Balancing my time and understanding that I can’t do eve-
rything at the last minute”.
Students additionally struggled with the self-reflection do-
- “I had a great deal of trouble trying to reflect on what had
gone right and wrong during the week and why it was so”.
Students did note that by the second half of the semester:
- “I had a better idea of what to do and how and when to do
it” “The most difficult part was being able to find relevant in-
formation on my own and choose what is relevant, with con-
stant reflection to check up on myself and how the learning
process is going”.
Students were asked to reflect on unique characteristics of
their portfolio (question #7). Each student response was unique
and individualized as it often described specific documents or
- “Items I included in my portfolio reflect my personal inter-
ests—science, research and sports are curiosities of mine and
this are reflected within these pages”.
- “When doing the weekly self refection, I decided after the
first week not to use the template and instead more freely re-
flect what I have found important and interesting during each
week. The highly organized format and overall neatness are a
reflection on my learning style and personality”.
The final question (#8) about the most meaningful aspect of
this project generated the most comments, as students were
eager to share their wide variety of experiences. Organization
and context were the most meaningful aspects of portfolio de-
velopment for many students. One student commented
- “It is great if you know details, but if you can’t fit them all
together in the bigger picture then they are not of much use”.
Other common trends noted inclu ded time-management skills,
active-learning, and self-reflections. Students commented:
- “My portfolio is both a story and a comprehensive record
of my learning. Both the process and the product reflect learn-
- “Being able to create my portfolio allowed me to take pride
in my work”.
- “It has been a valuable tool for me to review and under-
stand the content of each module”.
- “Being able to create my portfolio allowed me to take more
pride in my work”.
- “Probably the self-reflections—because they involve look-
ing within and identifying one’s strengths, weaknesses, and
unique qualities. They are the most intimate part of the portfo-
A learning portfolio is a collection of student work aimed at
evidencing learning and professional development. Students
gather documentation of their learning activities through a vari-
ety of sources and then integrate this evidence together to gain
a more comprehensive representation of their knowledge
(Driessen & Norman, 2008). Evidence should include work
completed, feedback received, progress made, and reflections
including plans to improve competence (Driessen, van Tartwijk,
van der Vleuten, & Wass, 2007). The creation of such a portfo-
lio involves four distinct steps:
1) Students’ reflection on the learning goals and personal
2) The collection of evidence of this learning through a wide
variety of sources;
3) The selection of the most appropriate and convincing evi-
4) Creating connections between this evidence to create a
three-dimensional portrait of the student as a learner and as a
The learning portfolio’s function is therefore two-fold: prod-
uct and process. As a final product, the learning portfolio is a
documentation of all learning activities, which can then be sub-
jected to formative and summative evaluation. Though it is the
final portfolio-product that may be assessed, the importance of
this educational tool remains in the portfolio-process, as the
process of learning portfolios catalyzes the self-directed learn-
ing (Pitts, Coles, & Thomas, 2001). Through the process of its
creation, the learning portfolio encourages students to system-
atically reflect on their learning and analyze their actions, en-
couraging them to designate alternative choices that may not
have been apparent in the initial “learning moment”.
Before a learning portfolio can be adopted, it must first be
adapted. We strongly advocate that the successful introduction
of a learning portfolio depends highly on its structure. Without
a guide, the portfolio may become a simple collection of docu-
ments with the absence of any cohesion (Amsellem-Ouazana,
van Pee, & Godin, 2006). It has been suggested that too much
structure is more damaging than too little (Driessen, van Tart-
wijk, van der Vleuten, & Wass, 2007). Four models of learning
portfolio structures have been reported by Endacott et al. (En-
dacott, Gray, Jasper, McMullan, & Miller, 2004).
1) The “shopping trolley” portfolio contains a collection of
course material that lacks cohesion and does not link course
learning goals to the presented evidence;
2) The “toast rack” portfolio is highly organized into separate
sections with no overlying connections tying these discrete
elements togeth er;
3) The “spinal column” portfolio focuses on the course learn-
ing goals with pieces of evidence centered on it with reflections
bringing multiple competencies together;
4) The “cake mix” portfolio integrates theory with practice
under an overarching narrative that links evidence with goals
and learning outcomes.
Determining the extent of structure to offer students in order
to guide their creative process is a delicate procedure for in-
structors. Students require guidance through well-defined guide-
lines and learning goals; however, the degree of detail that
should be conferred may be difficult to ascertain. With consid-
erable structure comes the risk of reducing the learning portfo-
lio to nothing more than a checklist, thus diminishing students’
originality and reflection in the portfolio creation (Driessen,
van Tartwijk, Vermunt, & van der Vleute, 2003; Rees, Shep-
herd, & Chamberlain, 2005; Rees, Shepherd, & Chamberlain,
2005). Nevertheless, some degree of structure is necessary as
too much freedom may lead to student confusion and frustra-
tion as seen by Driessen et al. in the use of portfolios in early
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
J.-L. SENGER ET AL.
undergraduate medical training (Driessen, van Tartwijk, Ver-
munt, & van der Vleuten, 2003). In our study, learning portfolio s
were semi-structured, as students were given a list of weekly
mandatory and a list of suggested “voluntary” documents for
Health care curricula have been evolving to emphasize per-
sonal and professional development. These changes are ac-
companied by recent evolving “new” curriculum outcomes
coupled with the goal of increased ‘student-centered’ teaching
and learning. Assessment goals no longer seek to evaluate just
knowledge but rather ongoing performance and competency
(Elango, Jutti, & Lee, 2005). Unlike “grades” which may be
considered an achievement, competency is an ongoing habit of
learning and improvement; therefore assessment in higher edu-
cation such as medicine must include student performance and
capacity to adapt to change, find and generate new knowledge
and improve overall performance (Epstein, 2007). Such a mul-
tifaceted, ambitious goal cannot be met by the traditional means
of assessment, thereby necessitating alternative teaching strate-
gies with valid and reliable assessment tools. Portfolio-based
learning adheres to such teaching goals, and is grounded in the
cyclical process of recording, reviewing, reflecting, and learn-
ing (Elango, Jutti, & Lee, 2005). The learning portfolio’s ability
to richly evidence students’ development and achievements
separates this tool from other methods of assessment (Driessen,
Overeem, van Tartwijk, van der Vleuten, & Muijtjens, 2006).
Unlike traditional educational tools that evaluate the students’
possession of knowledge, portfolio assessment is a judgement
of knowledge application and is therefore a complex task. Tra-
ditionally, difficult to evaluate qualities such as one’s attitude,
personal growth, reflective ability, professionalism, self-di-
rected learning, and aptitude for self-development as required
in health professional curricula are additional potential targets
in portfolio assessment (David, Davis, Harden, Howie, Ker, &
Pippard, 2001; Davis, Be n-David, Harden, Howie, Ker, McG hee
et al., 14). The personalized nature of the portfolio creates dif-
ficulty in assessment, as each is unique in content, size, and
structure. Reliance on the personal judgements of the assessor
is thus advocated as a detailed checklist trivializes the character
of the assignment (Driessen, Overeem, van Tartwijk, van der
Vleuten, & Muijtjens, 2006).
The currently accepted educational paradigm in the training
of health care professionals has a dopted the constructivist mo del,
in which students are independently responsible for “building”
their own knowledge (Langendyk, 2006). Such self-regulated
learning necessitates continual self-assessment, in which per-
sonal evaluation is intrinsically driven by the student with the
ultimate goal of self-improvement. Many studies in the litera-
ture suggests that self-assessment by physicians is often inac-
curate (Galbraith, Hawkins, & Holmboe, 2008; Davis, Mazma-
nian, Fordis, Van Harrison, Thorpe, & Perrier, 2006). It has
been noted that higher-achievers will often underestimate
themselves whereas those at a lower-level of aptitude tend to
give themselves significantly higher ratings (Langendyk, 2006;
Galbraith, Hawkins, & Holmboe, 2008). During training the
majority of physicians are not exposed to effective self-assess-
ment tasks, which may perhaps account for these discrepancies
later in practice. Self-assessment is an important skill, aimed at
increasing self-improvement activities including appraisal of
strengths/weaknesses and setting appropriate personal goals
(Galbraith, Hawkins, & Holmboe, 2008). Introduction of self-
assessment may offer students the opportunity to practice and
develop this skill as seen in the study of the introduction of
self-reflection assignments in the early years of undergraduate
medical education (Kanthan & Senger, 2011). Factors including
clear learning goals, feedback provision, and external evalua-
tive data may contribute to the improvement of this practice in
the training of health professionals (Gordon, 1991). It has been
suggested that self-assessment may further be enhanced through
external validation, which may include peer-feedback (Gal-
braith, Hawkins, & Holmboe, 2008).
Peer-feedback is a powerful, insightful, and instructive tool
reported to promote communication, teamwork, and profes-
sionalism so long as feedback provided is constructive, confi-
dential, and the source is deemed credible (Epstein, 2007). In
health care, peer-assessment has infiltrated into nearly all as-
pects of professional competence (Norcini, 2003). Within the
educational context, a “peer” may be someone at the same level
of education, or a senior student. Twelve distinct benefits sup-
porting peer-teaching in medical education have been listed by
Ten Cate and Durning (Ten Cate & Durning, 2007). These
include: 1) alleviating teaching pressure for faculty; 2) offering
education at students’ own cognitive level; 3) creating a com-
fortable and safe educational environment; 4) socializing stu-
dents and providing role models; 5) offering an alternate study
method and motivation; 6) enhancing intrinsic motivation, 7)
preparing physicians for an educator’s role; 8) incorporating
this assessment as part of a multisource feedback; 9) training
leadership skills and increasing confidence; 10) modifying aca-
demic culture to accept education as a core task of healthcare;
11) sustaining training programs in low-resource settings; and
12) offering supervision responsibility to trainees. Key factors
that may influence the quality of the assessment include reli-
ability (the number of performances assessed and competencies
to be evaluated), relationships (students in competition vs.
friends), stakes (anonymity of evaluator may be beneficial), and
equivalence (in status and education between the student and
the peer) (Norcini, 2003). When implemented correctly, peer-
assessment can provide a unique learning opportunity for both
the assessor and the assessed.
In the assessment of a learning tool as highly personalized as
the portfolio, there is an inherent risk that students may spe-
cially choose evidence and direct their reflections and portfolio
contents towards what they believe will earn them the highest
grades rather than reflecting on weaknesses, commonly referred
to as “the corruption of portfolios for testing purposes” (En-
dacott, Gray, Jasper, McMullan, Miller, Scholes, & Webb, 2004;
Driessen, Van Tartwijk, Vermunt, & van der Vleuten, 2003).
This teaching/learning tool may be concurrently assessed through
both formative and summative means, by continued monitoring
with feedback, as students progress through different phases of
their education (Driessen, van Tartwisj, van der Vleuten, &
Wass, 2007; Davis, Ben-David, Harden, Howie, Ker, McGhee,
Pippard, & Snadden, 2001). The combination of formative as-
sessment linked with summative decisions creates a powerful
assessment tool (David, Davis, Harden, Howie, Ker, & Pippard
2001). Unlike traditional multiple-choice, short-answer or essay
questions, portfolio creation is an ongoing process that encour-
ages revision, reflection, and trial-and-error learning (Pitts,
Coles, & Thomas, 2001). It is a well-recognized fact that as-
sessment drives learning (Driessen, van Tartwijk, Vermunt, &
van der Vleuten, 2003); therefore, summative evaluation is a
key component of the learning portfolio to assure that the port-
folio maintains its importance alongside other assessment tools
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 161
J.-L. SENGER ET AL.
(Driessen, van Tartwijk, van der Vleuten, & Wass, 2007).
The use of learning portfolios as an assessment tool in high
stakes decision-making such as medical education requires it to
be rooted in sound psychometric properties (Roberts, Newble,
& O’Rourke, 2002). The literature has yet to come to a con-
sensus on the reliability and validity in the assessment of this
teaching/learning tool. A comprehensive review of the literature
conducted by Driessen et al. of portfolios in medical education
observed a trend of high inter-rater reliability in recent studies.
In this study, reliability appeared to be related to certain factors,
including the use of a small group of trained assessors that dis-
cussed and graded the student work using a holistic scoring
rubric (Driessen, van Tartwijk, van der Vleuten, & Wass, 2007).
In contrast, a study by Roberts et al. on portfolio-based assess-
ments in medical education identified a rater-reliability well
below the acceptable value (Roberts, Newble, & O’Rourke,
2002). It is suggested that reliability may be improved by 1)
semi-standardization of the portfolio; 2) analytical objective
assessment; and 3) an increased number of assessors (Driesse n,
Van Tartwijk, Vermunt, & van der Vleuten, 2003). Reliability
may further be enhanced by consensus-building discussion be-
tween two independent assessors, yielding high levels of agree-
ment on both objective and subjective criteria (Driessen, Over-
eem, van Tartwijk, van der Vleuten, & Muijtjens, 2006). Un-
fortunately, a standardized, reductionist format optimal for in-
creased reliability impinges on the validity of portfolio assess-
ment. It has been suggested that methods such as standardiza-
tion that may improve reliability could jeopardize validity, as
students would no longer experience freedom to the same ex-
tent (David, Davis, Harden, HOwie, Ker, & Pippard, 2001;
Driessen, van Tartwijk, van der Vleuten, & Wass, 2007; Dries-
sen, van Tartwijk, Vermunt, & van der Vleuten, 2003). The
validity of portfolio assessment is related to the evaluator’s
interpretation, expectations, and understanding of the learning
goals. As such, greater validity can be achieved when the
evaluator is familiar with the educational program and student
progression (David, Davis, Harden, Howie, Ker, & Pippard,
2001). Promising results were found in a study examining fac-
tors that influence evaluator’s judgement of student reflective
skills, as it was determined that the quality of reflection was the
only factor to significantly contribute to the evaluation, with
features such as lay-out, spelling/grammar and structure being
not significant to the overall grade awarded (Driessen, Overeem,
van Tartwijk, van der Vleuten, & Muijtjens, 2006).
The drivers and benefits of implementing learning portfolios
are numerous. The promotion of self-reflection with the identi-
fication of personal strengths and weaknesses within the con-
text of professional practice is the greatest strength of this
teaching technique (Pitts, Coles, & Thomas, 2001). Reflection
can be stimulated as students gather, organize, and analyze
documented evidence of learning for inclusion in the portfolio
(Driessen, van Tartwijk, van der Vleuten, & Wass, 2007). Por-
tfolio-learning is authentic, in that it incorporates evidence of
past academic and work-related experiences that act as a foun-
dation for new knowledge (David, Davis, Harden, Howie, Ker,
& Pippard, 2001). As such, portfolio assessment focuses on the
quality of ongoing work rather than examination performance,
showcasing students’ abilities within the context of their talents,
interests, and potentials. As this learning is highly personalized,
self-directed, and student-centered, learners autonomously as-
sess individual strengths and weaknesses with identification of
learning needs (Rees, Shepherd, & Chamberlain, 2005). By
consequence, the nature of the teacher-student interactions is
shifted, as students become increasingly independent. As evi-
denced by their comments, students found the self-reflection
document to be one of the weakest and most difficult aspects of
this portfolio creation, yet recognized that it was a valuable
learning strategy and a meaningful learning experience. This
assessment tool is additionally useful in:
1) Increasing student engagement, and active learning;
2) Linking experience with reflection and interpretation, the-
reby contextualizing learning;
3) Providing an alternative method of self-assessment;
4) Practicing and facilitating written and verbal communica-
5) Promoting independent self-directed, situated, authentic,
6) Providing an enhanced student learning environment;
7) Enhancing skills including time management, organization,
and decision making.
The challenges and barriers of the learning portfolio lie in
students’ unfamiliarity with this educational tool, and the per-
ceived large workload for both the learner and the assessor
(Pitts, Coles, Thomas, 2001). As such, it is paramount that both
the students and educators understand and acknowledge the
reasons for portfolio development and what the process entails
(van Tartwijk, Driessen, van der Vleuten, & Stokking, 2007).
Completion and assessment of learning portfolios is a large
time-commitment due to the widespread amount of material
and extensive reflection required for its completion. In our
study, students commented “it takes up far too much time” and
“what on earth am I to put in this self-reflection report?” Though it
is meant to be a weekly activity, students may be tempted to
procrastinate until the due date nears at which point the portfo-
lio may be assembled in a haste, without reflection or learning.
If students do not recognize and/or accept the inherent value of
this learning tool, and are unclear in its purpose, comments
such as “how can this be useful to me as a doctor?” can occur,
as seen in some of the student comments in our study. The pri-
mary barrier, however, remains the uncertainty regarding the
value in maintaining a learning portfolio, with the central ques-
tion “is this worth all this effort?” Though a large body of re-
search supports an affirmative response, in our opinion further
validation is required to universalize this opinion.
Integration of learning portfolios in all levels of education
and post-educational accreditation is increasing throughout
multiple disciplines. The portfolio’s centricity on the “self”—
self-reflection, self-direction, self-discipline and self-assess-
ment—makes it a valuable educational activity in the construc-
tivist educational community. Though traditionally assessment
of learning portfolios has relied on qualitative/formative feed-
back, its use in higher-stakes decision-making necessitates the
development of a quantitative/summative means of assessment.
A challenge in the use of this educational strategy as an as-
sessment tool lies in balancing the conflict between holistic
personalization and true reflection versus objective standardiza-
tion of assessment as validation for the grade/marks awarded.
Self-, peer-, and instructor-evaluation are individually well-
studied assessment techniques in the literature; however, to the
best of our knowledge this “synchronous tripod of assessment”
has not been evaluated within the context of learning portfolios.
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
J.-L. SENGER ET AL.
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 163
Reflection on our study authenticates that the combination of
formative and summative evaluations from such synchronous
tripod assessments of learning portfolios is particularly suited
for inclusion in higher education including undergraduate and
post-graduate medical education and allied health professions.
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