Web-Based Student Portfolio Unit: An Information Structure for Assessment

Juna Z. Snow* and Jenny Robins+
*Department of Curriculum and Instruction, College of Education
+Graduate School of Library and Information Science
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


This paper introduces the Portfolio Unit as an alternative assessment method with multiple advantages including validity, authenticity, and web-accessibility. The essence of this method echoes the belief that assessments should give students the opportunity to show what they know.

This paper seeks to enlarge the discussion of how learner-centered curriculum can create meaningful educational experiences, link to standards, and embed authentic assessment to be mediated through an information structure. This paper emphasizes how hermeneutics can inform the assessment process to move toward a more “emancipatory assessment” practice.

Theoretical Framework

The standards movement demands fair and equitable education for all students. Consistent subject content and academic performance across public schools are goals of establishing learning standards. Unfortunately, the ideals of the standards movement have been corrupted by a system of rewards and punishment in the form of standardized tests comprised mainly of multiple-choice tasks (Shepard, 2000). These large-scale standardized assessments are increasingly the foundation for high-stakes decision-making, in the form of student promotion/graduation, class rank, program placement or tracking, teacher promotion, and school funding. High-stakes accountability frequently inhibits schools and teachers from providing meaningful learning (Darling-Hammond, 1991, 1992; Falk et al. 1996). The consequence has been an effect on teaching and learning in the classroom through the pedagogical shift towards “teaching to the test.” The standardized tests are intended to be aligned with the content standards and, therefore, should be assessments worth teaching to (Resnick and Resnick, 1992; Shepard, 2000).

Curriculum-embedded performance assessment, or authentic assessment, is defined as integrating assessment into the daily curriculum and instructional activities (Meisels et al., 2001). They consist of “real instances of extended criterion performances, rather than proxies or estimators of actual learning goals” (Shepard, 1991, p. 21). Throughout the creation of the unit, the student is self-assessing and reflecting on his/her experience. This fosters meta-cognition and critical, higher-order thinking skills (National Research Council, 2001). In a review of more than 580 articles on formative assessment, Black and Wiliam (1998) point out students should engage in self-assessment in order to understand the objectives of their learning and what they need to achieve. Multiple-choice and short-answer tasks require “on demand” responses without reflection. On-demand assessments are not necessarily created from the actual classroom activities (as opposed to a textbook), and do not always occur during the process of teaching and learning (Meisels et al. 2001). Mounting evidence demonstrates that commonly used, standardized, norm-referenced, multiple-choice tests fail to tap both higher order thinking skills and students’ abilities to perform real world tasks (Resnick, 1987; Sternberg, 1985).

Moreover, we realize that students learn in non-standard ways, at different rates and from various experiential perspectives (Darling-Hammond, Ancess, & Falk, 1995; Falk, MacMurdy, & Darling-Hammond, 1995; Garcia and Pearson, 1994). Education must foster higher order thinking skills to create meaningful learning experiences, and this occurs when curriculum and assessment are connected. Assessments must be rich and dynamic and support meaningful learning (Darling-Hammond et al. 1995; Falk et al., 1996; National Research Council, 2001; Shepard, 1994; Wiggins 1989). This necessitates the further development of authentic assessments (Darling-Hammond et al., 1995; Shepard 1995) as an alternative to standardized tests.

The search for valid, alternative assessments to compete with the accountability era reliance on standardized tests used for high-stakes decision-making has been intense (Arter and Spandel, 1992; Darling-Hammond and Falk, 1995; Falk et al., 1996; Moss 1994; National Research Council, 2001). Portfolios are a prominent alternative assessment method. Arter and Spandel (1992, p. 201) define a student portfolio as “a purposeful collection of student work that tells the story of the student's efforts, progress, or achievement in (a) given area(s). This collection must include student participation in selection of portfolio content; the guidelines for selection; the criteria for judging merit; and evidence of student reflection.” They further explain how this definition supports the view that assessment should be continuous, capture an array of what students know and can do, involve realistic contexts, communicate to students and others what is valued, portray the processes by which work is accomplished, and be integrated with instruction.


Our work is based upon a hermeneutic exploration of the educational experiences of students mediated through a uniform information structure, the Portfolio Unit, providing a place to record and reflect on their individual experience.

Educational experience has a hermeneutical circular structure. Gallagher (1992) explains this principle from the perspective of the student as interpreter, and further we see both the teacher and the learner are interpreters. The learner interprets the inquiry activity, teacher-given criteria, and makes meaning from an educational experience and comes to understanding. The teacher also interprets and makes meaning from the experience.

The educational experience is ultimately linguistic (Gallagher, 1992) and is expressed by the student through his/her written text in the Unit. The teacher as the reader becomes interpreter of the text (Gadamer, 1989/1960). "Gadamer's point is that in the written text we have a paradigmatic example of the object of understanding. That object has its being in language” (Johnson, 2000, p.40). Gadamer maintains that hermeneutics not only demonstrates that the object of understanding has its being within language, it also shows us that the process of understanding is fundamentally linguistic, “language is the universal medium in which understanding occurs. Understanding occurs in interpreting” [emphasis in original] (1989/1960, p. 389). In philosophical hermeneutics, the interpreter engages in a dialogue, or “conversation” with the text in order to come to an understanding, “conversation is the process of coming to an understanding” (Gadamer 1989/1960, p. 385). This understanding informs the teacher as interpreter in making assessment judgments. Other researchers also put forth a hermeneutic approach to assessment (Moss 1994; Moss and Schultz, 2001) because dialogue is fundamental in the process, giving voice to students who often are voiceless in large-scale assessments.

Data Sources

Participating students build individual Portfolio Units. Because the Unit is based on an inquiry pedagogical model, students are encouraged to use a question for a title. Students build the Unit using a uniform information structure consisting of fourteen questions divided into four sections: Explore, Create, Discuss, and Reflect. There is also an element labeled ‘other’. This is provided as a way to make the unit flexible enough to evolve over time. The student fills out the web-based form (e.g., uniform information structure) that leads to an XML-formatted data structure. When the Unit is called up again by the student, or the teacher, a dynamic HTML file is generated. In addition, students can edit a copy of their Unit, thus using the Unit as a place for their own work. The students complete the Units over the course of a quarter or semester. Teachers have complete discretion over how units are assigned, created, used, and assessed. Of the fourteen questions that define the information structure, teachers use only those that they deem meaningful.


This paper will report findings from document analysis of student-created Units. The richness of the data from the Units is a particular focus in the context of formative and summative classroom assessment of the students’ learning and lived experience.

Some attributes of Portfolio Units:

Portfolio Units are available to teachers whenever they are needed. The uniform information structure of the Unit makes them easy to review.

Educational Significance

Portfolio Units can be used for formative and summative assessment that can be “aligned with” standards. The Unit creates a workspace and a data structure from which to formatively assess the process of learning throughout an inquiry activity. The Unit provides authentic assessment that offers all students the opportunity to demonstrate mastery of content and performance goals, while allowing students to demonstrate a range of abilities and achievement.

The Unit becomes a portfolio of the student’s work throughout her/his inquiry. The Unit is an electronic information structure that is learner-centered, real-life contextualized, and tells a meaningful story of the student’s learning. This assessment is embedded in the individual student activity and production of the Portfolio Unit, making assessment a reflective and on-going process. The validity of the Portfolio Unit lies in the assessment of what students know through the students’ own writings, discussions, presentations, and linkages to national/state standards.

The impetus for the investigation described in this paper was the “Teaching and Learning Through Inquiry” workshop at the University of Illinois in February 2001. At the workshop, many teachers expressed strong interest in learner-centered pedagogy, but they require methods for assessing students that are justifiable and defendable to parents and administrators. Teachers and students both need support in the public education high-stakes environment, and the Portfolio Unit information structure can be an empowering tool. Aligning learner-centered pedagogies with learner-centered assessment strategies is a critical first step.


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