About Portfolio Assessment


Portfolio assessment is distinctly different from most traditional forms of grading. Rather than students completing specific assignments for a grade followed by a test, portfolio assessments ask students to create a body of work that the student believes demonstrates their level of understanding of the material. Let’s learn more about what is expected with portfolio assessment and how to create a high quality portfolio.

No Tests (with one exception)

With portfolio assessment, I am seeking to do away with tests and other high-pressure forms of assessment. Many students who work hard on a daily basis struggle to do well on tests, while others don’t work much at all and do well on tests (likely because they’ve learned the material elsewhere). I don’t think this is fair, nor do I think it is a good model for being successful outside of school. In addition, tests usually take 6 class days (or more) from every semester. That amounts to more than 2 weeks of class every semester! I’d rather we learn more physics with that time.

Most professional careers reward those who work diligently and are capable of expressing and sharing what has been accomplished with others. Portfolio assessment models this closely. ¬†Students know what is expected of them at the beginning of each unit. The unit learning goals are clearly outlined. Students are free to work at their own pace to accomplish those goals to the degree that they deem necessary. Generally, the more effort a student puts in demonstrating that they’ve achieved the learning goals, the better grade that student will earn.

My portfolio assessment classes place importance on keeping work organized and neat, both physically and digitally. By the end of this year, my students will be experts in creating virtual, “living documents” on Google platforms (Drive, Docs, Sheets, Slides, etc.) and digitizing handwritten work. Hopefully this will help them become more efficient, organized, and professionally competitive.

There will be one test each semester: a cumulative Semester Final Exam. There are two reasons for this: cumulative finals are required by our University of California state accreditation for lab science classes and because I need to differentiate between students who are truly learning the material from those who are not. The Semester Final (25% overall) isn’t worth too much overall compared to Unit Portfolios (70% overall); it’s worth just enough to separate the “A” students from “B” students, etc.

Semester Finals will be taken in two parts, conceptual and problem solving, over two days. The conceptual test will take place on the last day of class before finals week and the problem solving part will take place during the 2-hour final exam period. Students will be allowed to create their own “cheat sheet” for problem solving, on which they can put any information they deem necessary.

Class Time

At the beginning of each unit, students will be given access to a “Unit Overview” document. This document outlines learning goals, suggested assignments, external resources, lab assignments, and an assessment summary for that Unit. Each day of class is designed to help meet those goals.

Class time is incredibly important and students must work diligently. If students make the most of class time, they should have very little homework. It is my goal that students who work diligently every day in class can earn a “B” without doing much work outside of class. However, those students who wish to earn a better grade will likely need to spend time working outside of class.

In class, students will be split into “Research Groups” each unit. With every new unit, students will have a new Research Group. Students are expected to help one another in their Research Group and members will generally be working on the same thing at the same time. However, there are no Research Group grades; every student complete their own work.

Each class day, students will have three or four “tasks” that they will be asked to work on. Here are some of the more common tasks:

  • Small Group Lectures– Each Research Group will hear a lecture, watch a demonstration, or learn problem solving tactics directly from the Instructor.
  • Reading and Note Taking– Each Research group will work on reading the chapter, watching videos, and/or reading online resources related to the unit. It is expected that students take notes or summarize what they learn from each resource.
  • Problem Solving– Each Research Group works together to solve and annotate problems from the “Suggested Problems” list.
  • Virtual Lab/Demo– Most units will involve a virtual lab, an experiment or simulation run on a computer, and a demonstration that illustrates an important concept. Students will be asked to analyze, explain, and reflect on these activities.
  • In-Class Assessment– Two or three times per unit, students will be given one or two problems to solve independently for a grade. These will be graded in class by the instructor with the student present so that personalized feedback can be provided.
  • Self-Directed Learning– Each student will be free to work on whatever class-related work they see fit.
  • Lab Day– Every unit will involve one hands-on lab experiment where data will be collected. Students will be asked to analyze that data and respond to questions related to the experiment. These take an entire class day.

Building a Portfolio

If the student has been working diligently in class, the majority (if not all) of the work needed for the portfolio should be done by the end of the unit. The Portfolio Assessment asks students to provide evidence that they have accomplished the learning goals for that unit.

Learning goals fall into 4 categories and the specifics for that unit are outlined in the Unit Summary that students have access to at the beginning of each unit.

  • Conceptual Understanding– In this section of the portfolio, students provide links to their textbook notes, summaries from external resources, vocabulary definitions, and responses to “Suggested Concepts Questions.” Anything that the student thinks will help support that they learned the key concepts should be included.
  • Problem Solving– Here students will provide annotated solutions to all the problems they solved from the “Suggested Problems” list. Students should only include problems they believe are done perfectly.
  • Physical Understanding and Conveying Ideas– In this section students include lab and demo write-ups, graphical analysis work, and educational resources that student has made to share with others.
  • In-Class Assessments– Two or three times each unit, students will be asked to solve a problem or two in class that will be graded for correctness. In the portfolio, the student includes a copy of each assessment and provides the score earned.

Grading Scale

The grading scale for each learning goal category is based on a 0-4.0 scale. The rubric provides a more exact criteria for each grade, but it roughly looks like this:

  • 4.0– Perfect work. The student has demonstrated excellence in this category. Work is well organized and thoroughly addresses all learning goals.
  • 3.0– Good work. All learning goals addressed, but not thorough/complete enough to earn better score. There are some errors and other minor mistakes.
  • 2.0– Barely adequate. All learning goals are minimally addressed. It lacks organization, neatness, and/or effort. Numerous errors and mistakes.
  • 1.0– Below minimum expectations. Some learning goals not addressed, poorly explained, or incorrect. Very low quality, low effort work.
  • 0– Nothing turned in, work was plagiarized, or not following directions.

Scores can be given in 0.5 point increments. For example, a 3.5 is work that was almost 4.0 but had some errors, omissions, or something else that kept it from being perfect. The same is generally true for 2.5 and 1.5 scores. Always refer to the rubric for more precise explanations of grades in each category.

Portfolio Assessment

In each of the four learning goal categories, the student will provide a grade (on a 0 to 4.0 scale based on the rubric) that they think they have earned based on the evidence they have provided. The student is also given the opportunity to write a short explanation or argument as to why they deserve that grade if the student feels it is necessary. In-Class Assessment grades are averaged together (so a 3 and a 3.5 will average to 3.25). Upon completing the portfolio, the student then writes a 2-3 paragraph reflection on the unit. Finally the student adds the scores from each category and divides that number by 4 to have a “GPA” for that unit.

The instructor will then review the portfolio, assign an instructor grade in each category, and provide feedback to the student. The instructor’s grade will appear in the online grade book. If the instructor’s grade is lower than what the student feels they deserve, the student has the opportunity to defend their grade in an oral argument.

Oral Arguments

When the student feels that the instructor gave a lower grade than what was deserved, the student can schedule an appointment with the instructor to discuss the grade. The student should follow the process outlined below:

  1. Send an email to the instructor stating that you would like to schedule an oral argument regarding the grade on Unit # Portfolio (e.g. Unit 2 Portfolio). This must be done within 10 calendar days of receiving the grade.
  2. The instructor will reply and schedule a meeting during the next mutually available X-block period.
  3. During the Oral Argument meeting, the student is given the opportunity to explain or defend the grade they feel they deserve. The student should be prepared to:
    • Prove their knowledge/understanding of the subject by answering questions and/or solving problems.
    • Provide additional evidence (typically completed work) that the material has been learned.
  4. Based on the student’s Oral Argument, the instructor may or may not increase the grade. The instructor may assign additional work for the student to complete to achieve the desired grade. This work is due before semester finals week. There is no guarantee that the grade will improve; you’ve got to prove it to me!

It should be noted that students cannot earn a perfect grade (4.0) from an Oral Argument. The highest possible grade a student can earn from an Oral Argument is a 3.5. The only opportunity to earn a perfect grade is on the initial Portfolio Assessment.

Tips for a Great Portfolio

  • Class time is work time! If you work hard in class every day, you won’t have much to do outside of class.
  • Take notes on everything you read in the textbook and summarize what you learn from videos and other online resources.
  • Keep your work organized both physically (in a binder) and digitally (on Google Drive). It’s hard to provide evidence of work that you can’t find!
  • Seek extra help from classmates and from the instructor. I’m here to help you!
  • Avoid plagiarism by always giving credit to your sources (websites, books, people, etc.). Plagiarism is not tolerated and will be harshly punished!
  • Work to create professional looking, well organized documents. You will be graded more favorably when it’s clear you are putting significant effort into the class.