Portfolio Assessment as a Strategy for Self-direction in Learning

(Jean Ellen Jones)

Chapter Three


Overcoming Resistance to Self-Direction in Adult Learning

Roger Hiemstra and Ralph G. Brockett (Editors)

New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education

Number 64, Winter 1994

Jossey-Bass Publishers

Ralph B. Brockett, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

Alan B. Knox, University of Wisconsin, Madison, CONSULTING EDITOR


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Portfolio assessment strategies hold great promise for promoting self-directed learning in formal classrooms. Art education provides examples for using portfolios; some implementation strategies are described.

Portfolio Assessment as a Strategy for Self-direction in Learning

Jean Ellen Jones

Educational philosopher John Dewey (1916, 1986) made an important observation: Children and adults learn most naturally when they have a problem solving experience with relevant, real-life issues. Critical to that learning experience is skill in purposeful reflection. Several decades later, learning theorists under the constructivist banner have come to the same conclusions. By viewing learning as a construction of the individual, not something to be absorbed from teachers and texts, they are experimenting with a "portfolio assessment" approach to education. In this approach, problem solving and student reflection, and their appropriate portrayal or documentation, receive primary attention.

Both learning theorists and practical adult educators are evoking strikingly parallel educational themes. Adult educators became interested in self-directedness through awareness of its central role in individual learning projects (Houle, 1961; Tough, 1971). This prevalent and natural approach to learning, while nearly universal, is far from well developed in many adults. Much current discussion among adult educators centers around how self-directed learning can be developed in the formal classroom. Figuring prominently in the discussion are constructivist theory, problem-oriented learning, and reflective thinking (Candy, 1991; Boud, Keogh, and Walker, 1985).

For educational theorists who focus on traditional school-age students, self-directed learning is emerging as a serious interest reflected in educational research over the past twenty years. Pointing to the way people learn outside formal school settings as an appropriate model for in-school training, several such theorists have said that essential content should be determined and then authentic and meaningful problems should be devised using the content so that knowledge can be constructed. To make learning even more effective and

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to develop student feelings of control over their learning, teachers should also help students become "self-regulated" learners (Resnick, 1987, 1989).

Many of the tools used to realize self-regulated, intentional learning are coming from the arts, They are reflected in current language. Along with portfolio assessment, educators are urging the use of public performances, exhibitions, and examination of a student's repertoire. Even the instructional method of craft guild apprenticeship is being examined as a viable model (Collins, Brown, and Newman, 1989). The arts metaphor will be continued throughout this chapter with visual arts used as the model to describe recent practices.

Experiments with the portfolio format outside of visual arts have shown promise in isolated locations for some time. For example, the Bay Area Writing Project, begun in 1973, sparked widespread use of portfolio-like methods among writing teachers at every level, elementary through college, nationwide (Gray, 1986). A number of universities have used a portfolio for certification of skill levels from prior learning (Marsh and Lasky, 1984), as basic course work (Elbow and Belanoff, 1986), and as a component for student job interviews (Soares and Goldgehn, 1985). Such classroom-based uses of portfolios have even attracted the attention and support of the Educational Testing Service (Gitomer, Grosh, and Price, 1992).

Thus, portfolio methods have developed as important means for helping learners become self-regulated and gain some personal control. Those portfolio approaches currently being developed allow teachers and students to implement many of the strategies that have been associated with self-directed learning. Compare the following statement about self-directed learning with the description of the components of a portfolio below it.

What differentiates self-directed learning from learning in more traditional formal settings is that the learner chooses to assume the primary responsibility for planning, carrying out, and evaluating those learning experiences. [Caffarella, 1993, p. 28; italics in original]

A portfolio is a purposeful collection of student work that exhibits the student's efforts, progress, and achievements in one or more areas. The collection must include student participation in selecting contents, the criteria for selection, the criteria for judging merit, and evidence of student self-reflection. [Paulson, Paulson, and Meyer, 1991, p. 60]

This chapter explores portfolio assessment in formal educational settings. It also describes difficulties encountered with the portfolio process and ways they are being addressed. Among the solutions are several useful ideas for overcoming resistance to self-directed learning.

Portfolio Assessment in the Visual Arts

Art instructors are very concerned with building skills in self-directed learning so that, in the end, students can set their own goals and make their own "statements" (Eisner, 1972). Methods for helping students reach this end

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require learners to assume increasing amounts of control over the goals, processes, and evaluations of their work. Such art instruction calls for active commitment and problem solving by students. Edwards (1989) and Huber (1989) provide useful models for typical high school and adult art teaching practices.

Although portfolio formats differ with every application and, indeed, every teacher, there are typical characteristics related to personal commitment, problem solving, and reflection that can be explored, The Arts PROPEL project provides a well-developed model (Winner and Simmons, 1992; Gitomer, Grosh, and Price, 1992), Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation in cooperation with the Educational Testing Service, Harvard Project Zero, and Pittsburgh Public Schools, PROPEL involved a five-year period (1987-1993) of experimentation with middle school and high school art teachers and their students. Many aspects of PROPEL are continuing through the support of local foundations and enthusiastic teachers.

The PROPEL approach uses many traditional methods of the visual arts discipline. PROPEL focuses on the production of art. Teacher and student agree on "domain projects" that require open-ended but guided, in-depth problem solving. Through involvement with concrete, visual problems, students become engaged in using the content of the discipline. Such content includes not only manipulation of materials, but training in analyzing their personal work, that of other artists, and the visual world.

Another component of the PROPEL approach, reflection, requires student artists to think about the learning processes they use and personal progress toward goals. This self-reflection occurs frequently during the problem-solving process and at the end of a project. It is also the main component for final assessment.

Art educators working in the PROPEL project found that the ways they implemented the general approach differed from teacher to teacher. Different teaching philosophies, students, course loads, and aspects of art being covered all influenced the formats used. There are several assessment approaches common to many PROPEL classrooms:

Setting public criteria

Keeping a portfolio of all work, including preliminary work and reflective writing, to be used as a reference point throughout the course

Individual and peer reflection, oral and written, often with guiding questions

Teacher feedback, oral and written, including teacher conferences

Checklists of project criteria with space for student and teacher evaluations and comments

Journals in which students frequently record their reflections, sometimes with guiding questions, at both a scheduled time and on their own time

Oral presentations to a significant other (such as a teacher, relative, or friend) of student-selected items and portfolio reflections, often including listener feedback via a questionnaire

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Formal portfolio review, usually on selected projects. The portfolio typically includes an annotated table of contents, student background information, project work (including preliminary and trial work), journal entries, records of mid-term assessments by the teacher or student and teacher, and final reflective overviews of the work by the student, teacher, and perhaps, a significant other.

Portfolio-based exam.

In addition, as students engage in any reflective exercises, they and the teacher can judge the quality of their learning through examining statements about goals, documented progress toward goals, learning processes used, and personal or others' opinions.

Even though portfolio assessment methods are still being refined, they have generated enthusiasm among teachers who have tried them. For example, some teachers report that students are more motivated, express feelings of control over their learning, and are learning more about the subject and their learning processes. Other teachers add that they have increased their understanding of students and learned to clarify goals and expectations (Taylor, 1992; Winner and Rosenblatt, 1989).

Overcoming Problems with Portfolio Methods: Lessons for Self-Directed Learning

The continued need to refine portfolio methods is based on some problems that exist with the process. Led by teachers of writing, the most experienced with the process, educators from such disparate disciplines as visual art, math, science, instructional design, and adult vocational-technical programs are offering many similar suggestions for coping with difficulties and resistance. Portfolio News (1990-1993) is a primary vehicle for this ongoing discussion among teachers and administrators. Centra (1993) describes how teacher self-reports and portfolios can assist with various efforts to evaluate education.

By all accounts, portfolio assessment requires new strategies from teachers and students. When student confusion, apathy, or resistance occur, it is often because teachers have not adhered to basic assumptions about learning and teaching on which the portfolio process is based. For example, some attempt to use portfolio assessment methods while still teaching primarily through lectures and assigned textbook readings and exercises. Others fail to require self-reflection by students, who, without it, do not build sufficient ownership for their learning. Thus, teacher training pertaining to portfolios must be thorough and something more than a one-day, in-service meeting.

The early model developed by the Bay Area Writing Project continues to work well for helping teachers initiate the process (Gray, 1986). Using constructivist principles in teaching teachers, the Bay Area model stresses overcoming resistance through voluntary teacher experimentation with the process. Teachers, after hearing about basic principles and standard approaches, select

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a place to start in their own classrooms. As they try an approach, teachers reflect on the results and obtain feedback from fellow teachers and resource experts. This emphasizes teacher discoveries and helps build a better understanding of what really works. Trainers using this model have found that continuous contact among teachers is essential. A particularly useful element is regular meetings of teachers to assess student portfolios from all of their classrooms.

Even without a formal in-service program teachers can begin to obtain the direct experience that appears essential to overcoming resistance to portfolio assessment and self-directed learning. For instance, they can add the self-reflective components of portfolio assessment to any current learning project. Fingeret (1993), an adult literacy educator, reports that "The literature about preparing public school teachers to use portfolios is adamant on one central point: we learn by doing. So I began developing my own portfolio. It has been a powerful experience that leaves me a proponent of portfolio assessment on the basis of research, theory and my own experience" (p. 50).

Self-reflection, the core of the new process, requires careful attention. Teachers from various disciplines and settings report that students find it difficult to write self-reflective statements. Comments are often superficial and unconnected. Evaluators have noted that it is essential for students to see and discuss enough examples of good and bad performances, and useful and less useful learning methods, to build a basis for assessment comments. Very detailed written explanations assist students in making the transition to self-reflective processes. For example, one format builds portfolio instructions around questions often asked by students (Vermont Department of Education, 1991). Further, teachers must constantly model self-reflection statements and use student modeling as well where students examine each other's journals and portfolios. Students may practice by discussing their work in small groups before they write. Another solution has been to have students begin with a familiar process such as making judgmental statements, then justify and elaborate on their judgments.

Teachers and administrators alike have complained that the portfolio process is both more expensive and more time consuming than previous assessment methods. Besides the time spent learning the approach themselves, teachers note that they must give frequent feedback and collect and store a lot of paper. In the absence of administrative support for more released time from teaching duties, teachers have devised some time-efficient methods. Time spent presenting information to the group can be traded for more time with individuals. Trading group teaching duties with other teachers while conducting individual interviews also helps. Teachers can expand their effectiveness by using students, other teachers, and community persons to serve as resource and feedback agents. Other teachers may be especially helpful in training students to write self-reflectively.

Adult educators concerned with promoting self-directed learning in the formal classroom setting cannot afford to underestimate the rigor needed in implementing the portfolio approach. Unless the approach can be linked to

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high standards in a clear fashion, it will receive little respect or support from administrators or the general public. Several in the field of art education have dealt with past assessment problems and are currently working on reform (Alexander, 1993; Wiggins, 1993). Many people may not understand a discipline's dedication to a student-centered, problem-solving approach to education; however, they can understand a thorough assessment program and a well-illustrated report of learning outcomes.


This chapter has described how many of the behaviors and attitudes associated with adult self-directed learning are being used in the portfolio assessment process. By requiring students to take on personally relevant projects and then to reflect on their goals, progress, and processes of learning, teachers who use portfolio strategies are creating a dress rehearsal in the formal classroom for skills that will be useful for a lifetime.

Resistance to self-directed learning may be overcome in ways that have proven effective in addressing resistance to portfolio assessment processes. Training teachers thoroughly is essential. Such training should require teachers to include the reflective processes of portfolio assessment in their own learning. A second key component is training students to be self-reflective, including speaking and writing about personal assessments.

The wide-ranging experimentation with portfolio assessment by educators at all levels is very important in terms of contributions to the self-directed learning knowledge base. In addition, there are now many more educators developing resources for teaching self-directed learning and sharing strategies for overcoming resistance to it.


Alexander, F. "Standards: A New Opportunity for Arts Educators." In National Art Education Association, Keynote Addresses: Art Across the Curriculum. Reston, Va.: National Art Education Association, 1993.

Boud, D., Keogh, R., and Walker, D. (eds.). Reflection: Turning Experience into Learning. New York: Nichols, 1985.

Caffarella, R. S. "Self-Directed Learning." In S. B. Merriam (ed.), An Update on Adult Learning Theory. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no. 57. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993.

Candy, P. C. Self-Direction for Lifelong Learning: A Comprehensive Guide to Theory and Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991.

Centra, J. A. Reflective Faculty Evaluation: Enhancing Teaching and Determining Faculty Effectiveness. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993.

Collins, A., Brown, J. S., and Newman, S. E. "Cognitive Apprenticeship: Teaching the Crafts of Reading, Writing, and Mathematics." In L. B. Resnick (ed.), Knowing, Learning, and Instruction. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum, 1989.

Dewey, J. Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan, 1916.

Dewey, J. "How We Think: A Restatement of the Relation of Reflective Thinking to the Educative Process." In J. Boydston (ed.), John Dewey: The Later Works: 1925-1953. Vol. 8: 1933. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986.

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Edwards, B. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1989.

Eisner, E. Educating Artistic Vision. New York: Macmillan, 1972.

Elbow, P., and Belanoff, P. "Portfolios as a Substitute for Proficiency Examinations." College Composition and Communication, 1986, 37(3), 336-339.

Fingeret, H. A. It Belongs to Me. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Division of Adult Education, 1993.

Gitomer, D., Grosh, D., and Price, K. "Portfolio Culture in Arts Education." Art Education, 1992, 45(1), 7-15.

Gray, J. "University of California, Berkeley: The Bay Area Writing Project and the National Writing Project." In R. Fortune (ed.), School-College Collaborative Programs in English. Options for Teaching, no. 8. New York: Modern Language Association, 1986.

Houle, C. O. The Inquiring Mind: A Study of the Adult Who Continues to Learn. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1961.

Huber, V. Individuality and the Evening Art Course. Unpublished manuscript, 1989. (Available from the author, 4009 Mandau Crescent, Madison, WI.)

Marsh, H. F., and Lasky, P. A. "The Professional Portfolio: Documentation of Prior Learning." Nursing Outlook, 1984, 32(5), 264-267.

Paulson, F. L., Paulson, P. R., and Meyer, C. "What Makes a Portfolio a Portfolio?" Educational Leadership, 1991, 48(5), 60-63.

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Resnick, L. B. "Learning in School and Out." Educational Researcher, 1987, 16(9), 13-20.

Resnick, L. B. "Introduction." In L. B. Resnick (ed.), Knowing, Learning, and Instruction. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum, 1989.

Soares, E. J., and Goldgehn, L. A. "The Portfolio Approach to Business Communication." Bulletin of the Association for Business Communications, 1985, 48(3), 17-21.

Taylor, P. "Visual Arts Portfolio: CAEA Pilot Project Update." Portfolio News, 1992, 4(1), 7.

Tough, A. M. The Adult's Learning Projects. Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 1971.

Vermont Department of Education. Your History as a Writer. Montpelier: Vermont Department of Education, 1991.

Wiggins, G. "Assessment and Art Education." In National Art Education Association, Keynote Addresses: Art Across the Curriculum. Reston, Va.: National Art Education Association, 1993.

Winner, E., and Rosenblatt, E. "Tracking the Effects of the Portfolio Process: What Changes and When?" Portfolio, Dec. 13, 1989, pp. 21-26.

Winner, E., and Simmons, S. (eds.). Arts PROPEL: A Handbook for Visual Arts. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Project Zero, 1992.


Jean Ellen Jones is assistant professor of art education, School of Art and Design, Georgia State University, Atlanta.

June, 2001

-- Return to Roger Hiemstra's opening page

-- Return to the Overcoming Resistance to Self-Direction in Adult Learning Contents page

-- Go to Editor's Notes, Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Four, Chapter Five, Chapter Six, Chapter Seven, Chapter Eight, Chapter Nine, Chapter Ten, Chapter Eleven or The Index.