Reflecting on reflections

Digital portfolios are often described as a collection of student work. Of course, that’s true; but it’s not quite enough of a definition. If a portfolio is just a place to store work, then the portfolio is little more than an online file cabinet.

What makes a portfolio useful as an educational tool is the fact that students can look at a body of work – and then think about what they see. Hopefully, the student starts to see growth over time; the work from the end of the year is an improvement from the work at the beginning of the year, which itself is an improvement on the year before.

Students may also start to see patterns emerge — what work was most engaging? Maybe they were the ones most related to a particular topic — any chance the student had to work his or her favorite interest into the project was the one that they spent the most time on. Maybe it’s a more subtle pattern – projects where the student got to make more choices or were asked to work with another person (be it a fellow student or a mentor) might be the ones that are most interesting.

All of which is to say that a critical component of the portfolio is the ability to reflect on the work. Taking the time to look at the portfolio components and figure out those patterns or to take note of the growth is often what makes the portfolio worthwhile.

Now, students don’t always know how to reflect on their work; I’ve seen classes where the students were whispering to each other, “what does she [the teacher] want us to say here?” In the forward march of the school year, the idea of looking back at all – let alone with a reflective viewpoint – is something that requires some practice. To that end, the question to think about for now is this: how do we help students reflect? 

Depending on the age of the student, there are prompts that can be useful to guide a reflection. .Some basic prompts might be, “what work are you particularly proud of?” or “where do you think you could have done better?” (And, of course, asking the students to articulate why they thought those things will help.)  Students can look at a set of expectations and determine which ones are represented in the portfolio, and which might be missing.

There are different techniques for deciding how often a student should reflect, and what body of work might be most useful to examine (everything from this year? everything from a certain subject?). It’s worth it, though, for schools to give students the time to complete these reflections well.

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