If a student’s degree program was a constellation, each curricular, co-curricular, and extracurricular experience would be a star in that constellation. To make meaning from these varied experiences, students need opportunities for reflection so they can “connect the dots” in what might otherwise be a fragmented curricular experience.
Reflection is central to ePortfolio pedagogy, and ePortfolios are powerful tools for helping students connect the dots and integrate their learning.
An ePortfolio is an online space where students can create, collect, curate, and connect their academic experiences and engage in reflective writing—a metacognitive process that supports students’ ability to turn their experiences into learning. ePortfolios can make learning visible, advance student success, and provide an opportunity for students to synthesize their learning across disciplines. They have the potential to bridge curricular fragmentation by holistically connecting students’ classes, skills, and experiential knowledge with a digital representation of their thinking (Conefrey & Smyth, 2020).
This introduction to ePortfolios will help you begin to incorporate ePortfolio pedagogy and the practice of reflective writing in your courses.
ePortfolios in Higher Education
In 2016, the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) identified ePortfolios as the eleventh high-impact practice (HIP). HIPs are educational practices that foster student engagement, support key student outcomes, and facilitate deeper learning.
The ePortfolio is an intentionally designed instructional approach. By helping college students connect and make sense of their varied experiences inside and outside of the classroom, ePortfolios prompt regular reflection and lead to deeper learning (Yancey, 2019). They represent both a process—promoting deep learning as students reflect on the integration of their courses, assignments, and co-curricular experiences—and a product—serving as a digital space for students to showcase key assignments, achievements, and other artifacts of their learning. Given this, ePortfolios are a meaningful vehicle for both formative and summative assessment.
At Ohio State, the General Education curriculum has a structured pathway for students to incorporate reflective learning in ePortfolios throughout the undergraduate experience. The Bookends courses—Launch Seminar and Reflection Seminar—are designed to help students contextualize and capitalize on their learning throughout the course of the GE curriculum. Each Bookend includes an ePortfolio component, introduced in Launch and culminating in Reflection. In between the Bookends, students keep up their reflective practice and add learning artifacts to their ePortfolios. Learn more in Planning Your Course for the General Education Curriculum.
Ohio State’s ePortfolio service is powered by PebblePad. With PebblePad, learners can create multiple portfolios, pages, activity logs, and other items. Instructors or program leaders can create and share resources, such as workbooks and templates, to guide students through a learning experience. See what a PebblePad ePortfolio can look like by exploring exemplars from the PebblePad Community. Learn how to use PebblePad.
If you're leveraging ePortfolios in your course, a number of other available tools can support your students to develop digital repositories of their work. Options include U.OSU (Ohio State's web authoring tool), OneNote or OneDrive, and Adobe Express. Depending on your goals, you might choose a tool based on factors such as students' familiarity with the technology as well as how user-friendly, flexible, robust, and aesthetically appealing each platform is. Explore a variety of approved tools on our Additional Tools page.
Benefits of ePortfolio Pedagogy
If you’re thinking about using ePortfolios in your course, you might be wondering how they can benefit your students. Consider that ePortfolios:
- Deepen learning as students engage in reflective practice and metacognitive thinking about their educational experiences and portfolio artifacts.
- Support students to practice skills that will benefit them in their professional lives and to make connections between their learning and personal goals.
- Promote equitable teaching practices, foster ownership of learning, and align with Universal Design for Learning principles.
Deeper Learning Through Reflection and Metacognition
Reflection is at the core of ePortfolio learning (Yancey, 2009). Reflection includes providing intentional opportunities for students to think about their goals and behaviors and integrate their learning, often through reflective writing. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), it is essential for students to have opportunities to enhance the communication and critical thinking skills that help them translate their course work, experiential learning, and life experiences into written artifacts (2022).
Reflective practice has been shown to promote students’ metacognition (thinking about one’s thinking) by making them more aware of how they learn. In ePortfolio work, students engage in metacognitive work as they build an understanding of how their learning came about and how it has changed over time (Bokser et al., 2016). They can synthesize and integrate their learning across courses and experiences to find meaning (Batson, 2011; Peet et al., 2011), which is not always inherent in undergraduate degree programs. Through these reflection opportunities, and in the process of creating ePortfolios, students develop higher-order thinking skills and engage in deeper learning (Burns et al., 2000; Chittum, 2018).
“It is clear that reflection is at the center of eportfolio pedagogy. Reflection allows students to build bridges between prior and current learning, across semesters and among courses and disciplines. It allows for the construction and understanding of knowledge within personalized contexts to make the curriculum come alive with meaning for each student.”
(Buyarski et al., 2017, p. 9)
Through ePortfolios, educators provide students with a structured means to make meaning from what they are learning, to reflect upon how and why the learning has occurred, and to see the relevance of their educational experiences across varied personal contexts.
Skill-Building and Career Readiness
While ePortfolios may be made up of artifacts and reflections from students’ academic studies, they also help them build skills that relate to future career goals. Through ePortfolio work, students can develop digital literacy and other 21st century communication skills (Gallagher & Poklop, 2014; Kahn, 2019) that will benefit them in their post-graduate lives. ePortfolios are well-suited to sharing complex experiences, career competencies, and materials that other formats may not allow, such as resumes, cover letters, and transcripts (Hickey et al., 2019).
The ePortfolio medium provides a uniquely recursive space for students to engage with their own goals and development by returning to prior artifacts and reflections to curate or modify them as they make meaning of their learning (Buyarski et al., 2015). The connections made can extend to professional interests and other personal endeavors. As an evolving virtual space where learners can create a digital identity, explore their personal brand, and engage in digital storytelling, ePortfolios empower students to practice useful skills that may not otherwise be found in their coursework (Jones & Leverenz, 2017; Yancey, 2013).
Equitable Practices in Teaching and Learning
Research has demonstrated that high-impact practices (HIPs) are an evidence-based approach to closing equity gaps and may be especially beneficial for students from underserved backgrounds (Brownell & Swaner, 2010; Finley & McNair, 2013; Kuh, 2008). Studies suggest that when coupled together, HIPs can increase engagement and persistence, especially for students from historically marginalized groups (Conefrey, 2017; Kilgo et al., 2015; Ribera et al., 2017). Unlike some HIPs that require a large time investment (e.g., internships, undergraduate research via independent study) or present financial barriers to participation (e.g., global learning through study abroad), ePortfolios are accessible to all students when they are effectively integrated into a course or curriculum.
Students choose which work best represents themselves and their learning in their ePortfolios. This process of reflection and curation promotes ownership of learning, which can increase students' sense of agency and relevance in their lives and courses (CAST, 2018; Chittum, 2018). Ownership of learning is an important aspect of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a framework for understanding how people learn that helps educators promote optimal learning opportunities for all students. Other UDL principles that are easily implemented with ePortfolios include providing options for learners to use multiple tools for knowledge construction and composition and multiple modalities to demonstrate their learning.
ePortfolios can support student learning in courses across the disciplines. Since they are curated over time, those who progress through their degree programs at varied rates or take breaks have an enduring product of their learning that they can pick back up when they’re ready (Oswal, 2013). Thus, ePortfolios are a dynamic and sustainable practice for student reflection and active engagement (Rhodes, 2018) that fit well not only into your course and the undergraduate curriculum, but also into your students’ busy lives.
ePortfolio Course Integration
When integrating ePortfolios in your course, start with how they will align with your specific learning outcomes. You might use them to support existing course activities by providing a dedicated space for students to showcase work, reflect on assignments and learning, and share their knowledge with others. The activities and assignments in your course for which students already produce are likely meaningful artifacts for them to include in ePortfolios.
Assignments that lend themselves well to ePortfolio integration include signature assignments. These are substantial learning assessments that are connected to programmatic or general education learning goals. Signature assignments typically:
- Ask students to convey their understanding of core course content
- Support students to synthesize and apply their learning
- Offer students agency and choice in the application of their learning
- Include a “real world” application
- Provide a space for reflection and connection (Roach & Alvey, 2021)
Examples of signature assignments to incorporate in ePortfolios are presentations, essays, case studies, service-learning projects, group or team-based learning activities, multimedia content creation, and more.
Remember that reflection is key to ePortfolio pedagogy—beyond deciding which course activities align well to ePortfolios, you must plan how you will support students’ reflection and metacognition. Students may achieve deeper levels of reflection with intentionally scaffolded prompts. Providing options and a variety of ways to reflect can also yield more engaged reflection.
Below are a few creative ways to stimulate your students’ metacognitive processes for integrative learning and reflection.
Exam or assignment wrappers
“Wrappers” are low-stakes ways for students to think about how they learn and to critically reflect on their performance and the steps they took to prepare for an exam or assignment. You can distribute a wrapper when handing back an exam and prompt students to consider your feedback as well as their own performance on the exam. Carnegie Mellon University shares examples of different exam wrappers.
Conceptual connection questions
There are few instances when students are afforded the chance to integrate their learning across semesters and disciplines. Offer opportunities for students to connect their prior knowledge (what they already know) with what they have learned in your course. An example question might be: “What did you learn that connects with what you are learning or have learned in other courses?”
Letter to future students
At the end of the semester, ask students to write a letter or discussion post to future students who will take your course. Encourage them to describe what learning and study strategies will be useful and why, what concepts or skills their peers will learn, and any advice they wish they had when taking the course.
At the beginning of the semester, ask students to describe ideas, experiences, and/or understandings they have about your course’s subject matter. At the end of the semester, ask them to return to what they wrote, determine if there are any misconceptions they’d like to correct, and explain why their thinking has changed.
Concept maps are graphic organizers that visually represent connections and themes related to a stated concept. Have students depict relationships, similarities and differences, or processes using concept maps. Students can then reflect upon and explain their reasoning for how they laid out their concept maps. There are many online tools your students can use to create dynamic concept maps.
Assessment and Grading
As noted above, ePortfolios offer a unique way to include both formative assessment and summative assessment in one platform. As always, it's best practice to first determine the learning outcomes associated with your ePortfolio project and which types of evidence (assignments, assets, and so on) will support those outcomes. Share the criteria by which all portfolio work will be assessed with your students and make this available early on in the semester. Using a clear and well-designed rubric will not simply make your grading process more fair and efficient, but will also make your expectations transparent so that students are better prepared for success. You can also have students use your rubrics to self-assess their own work as an added reflection activity.
The American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has designed several VALUE rubrics that can be applied to ePortfolio work, depending on your goals for your students.
Learn more about Designing Assessments of Student Learning.
- Brownell, J. E., & Swaner, L. E. (2010). Five high-impact practices: Research on learning outcomes, completion, and quality. Association of American Colleges & Universities.
- Buyarski, C., Oaks, S., Reynolds, C., & Rhodes, T.L. (2017). The promise of ePortfolios for student learning and agency. In T. Batson, K. S. Coleman, H. L. Chen, C. E. Watson, T/. L. Rhodes, & A. Harver (Eds.), Field guide to ePortfolio (pp. 6-12). Association of American Colleges and Universities.
- Conefrey, T. (2017). LEADing the way with ePortfolios in a first-generation learning community. International Journal of ePortfolio, 7(2), 161-173.
- Conefrey, T., & Smyth, D. (2020). Reflecting, Integrating, and Communicating Knowledge through ePortfolios to Increase Civic and Scientific Literacy. International Journal of ePortfolio, 10(1), 1-18.
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- National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2022). Job Outlook 2022 Spring Update. Author.
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- Ribera, A. K., Miller, A. L., & Dumford, A. D. (2017). Sense of peer belonging and institutional acceptance in the first year: The role of high-impact practices. Journal of College Student Development, 58(4), 545-563.
- Yancey, K. B. (2019). ePortfolio as curriculum. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.