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Taking Ownership for Learning: Self-Assessment through Portfolios

Wendy Hubenthal
Boston College
Doctoral Student
School of Education
Developmental and Educational Psychology

Do you enjoy taking tests? Have you found that examinations enhance your learning? Do your grades and scores on tests always accurately reflect your ability and knowledge? Even if you answered "yes" to these questions, it is unlikely that all adult literacy students would be able to say the same. Therefore, it is important to consider alternative methods of assessment, such as portfolios, in addition to, or instead of, conventional tests. The research and practical advice from literacy practitioners contained in this article will demonstrate that portfolio assessment may be one of the most important things you can do to encourage students to take charge of their own learning.

Assessment in adult literacy programs has the potential to promote students' confidence, awareness of improvement, and responsibility for learning (Fingeret, 1993). However, it may also impair learners' motivation, increase anxiety, and even discourage participation in tutoring (Michigan Literacy, 1994). Therefore, the selection of assessment methods is critically important. Student learning has traditionally been determined by test scores and teachers' evaluations. Assessment has not been in the hands of learners. However, alternative assessment methods that include adult literacy students in the process of evaluation have become increasingly prevalent (Bartel, 1991). The portfolio, in which students' work is collected and self-analyzed over time, is suggested here as the best alternative assessment tool available.

Portfolios document not only the content, but also the context and process of learning. Portfolios require learners' active involvement (Wlodkowski & Ginsburg, 1995). As adult learners determine what to include in their portfolios, they must reflect on what and how they have learned, rather than relying on instructors' judgments. In this way adults develop new insights into their learning, new skills and new attitudes about learning" (Taylor, 1994, p. 12).

The Drawbacks of Standardized Tests

Numerous reports have indicated that testing makes adult learners feel anxious, degraded, and intimidated (Robishaw, cited in Taylor, 1994). Many adult literacy students first became wary of tests as schoolchildren, and they have retained their apprehension about testing (Bartel, 1991). As one student said, "I hate tests. You get really nervous and what you do know, you go blank, you know you know it, but you can't do it on the test. They don't really tell you what you know and what you don't know" (Fingeret, 1993, p. 15). Norm-referenced exams may be especially threatening to people who are undereducated and not test-wise since these tests compare students, rather than revealing the unique progress made by each individual. Criterion-referenced tests may be used instead of norm- referenced exams; however, these may also be inappropriate and inaccurate because the criteria for success differ from person to person. Because both types of tests use external sources to judge learners' progress and capture only one aspect of learning, these tests may not measure anything that is meaningful to adult literacy students.

Formal tests cannot take into account students' goals or the ways in which they want to apply literacy skills in their lives. Success, when granted or denied by tests, is external to learners who have no authority in determining if they have made progress. Lacking a sense of ownership of what has been accomplished, it is unlikely that students will develop the understanding that they are responsible for their improvement. One adult literacy student told her tutor: "I don't always feel like I'm doing better, so it's hard for me to keep coming to the program. . . . You may think I'm making progress, but I need to feel it" (Manitoba, 1995, p. 1). The goal of this process of creating a portfolio is to assure students feel they are responsible for their improvement. They have decided what is important and meaningful; not a distant test developer.

Despite the drawbacks of standardized tests, many adult literacy programs utilize them because they are easy to administer and may be required in order to receive government funding (Taylor, 1994). However, adult literacy instructors have become increasingly dissatisfied with them and have begun to utilize alternative forms of assessment.

Alternative Assessment

Assessment tools that are being used instead of, or in addition to, standardized tests include interviews and conferences, informal reading inventories, writing samples, observations, progress reports, journals, and portfolios. These methods are learner-centered because they provide assessments that are individualized to each adult literacy student and explore whether personal goals have been achieved. In addition, alternative assessment intertwines instruction with assessment because learners must develop and utilize the skills of communication, organization, and critical thinking in order to evaluate their work (Hypki, 1994). Adult literacy instructors have been enthusiastic about alternative assessment, and numerous anecdotal reports, especially on portfolios (Fingeret, 1994), have confirmed its value. However, while instructors have been actively applying alternative methods, few have engaged in studies to verify their experiences. Some research has demonstrated the validity of alternative assessment (Hancock, 1994), but much more needs to be done.

Response Box 1: If you would like to know more about alternative assessment or have suggestions for other practitioners, please include your comments here.

Click here to see reader's response

One Solution: Portfolios

As in an artist's portfolio that contains samples of artwork, a literacy portfolio houses an adult learner's work. However, unlike the artist's portfolio that is an assemblage of only polished products, the literacy portfolio contains materials that show all the steps in learning.

Portfolios emphasize the process of learning and the adult learner's comments on each small success so students' confidence and motivation are enhanced as they reflect upon their improvement. In discovering how they have mastered skills, learners may realize that they can apply these abilities to other learning challenges. By enabling students to assess themselves, they begin to take responsibility for learning. Also, individuals are empowered when they are responsible for determining the criteria for success and making selections of what to include in their portfolios. In the words of an adult literacy student: "What I learn from my portfolio is that I've achieved what I wanted. . . . It belongs to me" (Fingeret, 1993, p. 15).

If the adult literacy student could add to that "And I made it happen by ..." and finish the sentence by stating specific strategies they had used to acquire this learning, that would be true ownership.

Instructors benefit, too, from collaborating with learners in portfolio construction by discovering which areas of instruction have been successful and which need more work. Portfolio development enhances communication between teachers and adult literacy students and may be particularly relevant to multicultural instruction.

In spite of many learners' and instructors' enthusiasm for portfolios there are drawbacks to using portfolios which literacy tutors should consider. Tutors and students who are hesitant to engage in portfolio construction may be more willing if it is emphasized that portfolios are as much an instructional activity, as they are a means of assessment. "In this view (assessment is an) essential part of the whole rather than an additional burden or interruption of the teaching process" (Lytle, p. 17).

Literacy tutors will also be more confident and better prepared to assist students in creating portfolios if they developed their own portfolios. Tutor topics could include improvement in vocabulary, reading rate or comprehension, or tutors could build portfolios around new subjects in which they are interested. A weekly journal that discusses the experience of creating it and using it to document learning should be included in the portfolio. By building their own portfolios along with students and comparing views on this process, tutors can demonstrate that learning is a lifelong process.

Response Box 2: Is this practical? Do you think your personal portfolio would serve as a model for adults? Would it help you relate to their feelings about portfolios?

Implementation of Portfolios

It is best to introduce portfolios at the outset of participation in adult literacy programs so that learners conceive of portfolios as one of their tools for learning. Relating portfolios to other methods of marking changes in life, such as keeping photograph albums, may help adult literacy students put the experience of noting progress into familiar contexts.

Step One

The first step is to set up the adult learner's folder. This will contain all work done both in and outside of class. On a regular basis, the adult learner will select items from this folder to move to portfolios. The folders function as scrapbooks and encourage students to take responsibility since they are the ones who must maintain them. In order to structure learning, folders should include lists of adult learners' goals and their criteria for achieving those goals. They might also include such items as dialogue journals, lists of articles or books read, student writings, audio or video tape recordings, materials from tutoring sessions, and observations and comments made by literacy instructors. Functional materials, such as completed applications, menus that have been read or copies of letters are also important to keep in folders.

Suggest that students also document and include learning that is part of their life experience. Adult learners (and tutors) might also include new words and reading strategies that they have used outside of tutoring sessions. Especially useful would be a list of any problems with communication (reading, writing, listening, and speaking). Creating a list of "What I discovered I need to know" will help tutors and adult literacy students diagnose needs and assure the development of practical strategies for learning. Including lists of other new learning, such as songs from church or information learned from radio and television, will demonstrate to adult students that they successfully learn all the time.

Accordion files are suggested because there may be a sizable amount of material in folders. Both folders and portfolios must be kept in a protected area that will ensure confidentiality.

Step Two

Instructors and students should set up regular schedules for transferring materials from folders to portfolios, at least as often as once each month. Selecting items requires reflection, and therefore, this is the point at which instruction can best be integrated with assessment. Topics that may engage students in discussions about their learning include:

  • Why certain items have been chosen.
  • What and how they learned (This may include content, specific strategies, steps that were taken in accomplishing a task-in order to emphasize to the student that several things are learned in a task, or problems encountered in doing work and how they were solved).
  • What further learning they would like to do and how tutors can help them.

Tutors should work together with the students to determine the criteria for selecting items to be moved into portfolios and discuss how to organize the material. Remind adult learners that the goal of portfolios is to maintain a record of progress. Some may want only perfect pieces in their portfolios. If this is the case, students may need some support in valuing the incremental nature of learning. However, ultimately the choice must be left up to learners; if they choose only their best work, tutors should respect this.

Step Three

The final phase in using portfolios is periodic evaluation. This may be done solely by the tutor and student or in groups. One literacy instructor stated, "When . . . people shared their portfolios there was a lot of pride. . . . ...with the portfolio the students saw exactly where they improved" (Fingeret, 1993, p. 39). It is also clear that they know why they have improved. Evaluating portfolios as a body of work is another opportunity to combine assessment with learning since students review their strategies and strengths, as well as areas that need attention. Instructors may wish to structure discussion with learners around the following topics and questions:

  • Changes in skills and processes:
    -How is your work at the beginning of the portfolio different from your work at the end?
    -Which pieces most significantly demonstrate change and in what ways?
    -Have you satisfied your learning goals?

  • Affective and personal changes:
    -What qualities does your work show (e.g. persistence, self-confidence, etc.)?
    -Have these qualities changed from the beginning of the portfolio to the end?
    -Which activities and assignments have you enjoyed most and why?

This can be done in greater depth. For example, writing reflection guides provide clear guidance for involving your adult.

Although students have ownership of their portfolios, literacy programs may require instructors to produce certain items or even entire portfolios for reporting purposes. This should be discussed with learners at the outset of portfolio construction, and their anonymity should be assured. To provide documentation for literacy program evaluation if adult learners do not wish to share portfolios, instructors should make written notes detailing students' progress both during the process of selecting materials for portfolios and when evaluating progress.


Creating portfolios can be rewarding, but it will take time for tutors and students to get used to the process. This method of assessment is very different from traditional testing, and the reflection and critical thinking it requires will develop slowly. However, utilizing portfolios is worthwhile because they enhance learning, self-esteem, and responsibility in the adult learner. Also, the use of portfolios demonstrate respect for adults and recognize that ultimately it is the adult learner's actions that cause increased learning.

Response Box 3: What experience have you had with portfolios? Please let us know if you recommend others use these.


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Bean, R. M. et al. (1989). Attrition in urban basic literacy programs and strategies to increase retention. (On-line). Abstract from: ERIC Document Reproduction Service 317 797)

Fingeret, H. A. (1993). It Belongs to Me: A Guide to Portfolio Assessment in Adult Education Programs. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No.ED 359 352)

Hancock, CR.(1994). Alternative assessment and second language study: what and why? Washington, DC Office of Educational Research and Improvement. (ERIC Documentation Reproduction Service No. ED 376 695)

Hypki, C. (1994). Thinking About Learning and Learning About Thinking: Using Portfolio Assessment in Adult Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 384 778)

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Wlodkowski, R. J. (1990). Strategies to enhance adult motivation to learn. In Galbraith, M. W. (Ed.),Adult Learning Methods: A Guide for Effective Instruction, 97-117. Malabar, FL: Krieger.