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How Can Electronic Portfolios Be Beneficial for Basic Writing Students

Daryl Szymanski


An electronic portfolio is a creative means of organizing and sharing artifacts, information, and ideas about learning, along with personal and professional growth. A portfolio is a sampling of the breadth and depth of a person’s work conveying the range of abilities, attitudes, experiences, and achievements (Johnson). Although e-portfolios share many attributes with their in-print predecessors, the following characteristics are advancements that are available only when portfolios become digital:

  • accessibility (especially web portfolios)
  • portability
  • increase of multimedia technology skills
  • ease of making corrections, revisions, additions, and deletions
  • diversity of media types - audio, video, graphics, text (Barrett “Electronic”).

In addition, because technology is such an integral part of our culture, and because most college students possess technology skills that surpass those needed to construct an e-portfolio, it makes perfect sense to integrate the beginnings of an e-portfolio into basic writing coursework.


Only a small portion of a college student’s experience is made up of the time spent in a seat in a classroom. Many of the student’s significant and relevant experiences take place outside of the classroom and therefore are not reflected by the student’s transcript of academic history. This is particularly true of basic writing students since many are non-traditional students. These non-traditional students can be well served throughout their college experience and far beyond by creating and maintaining an electronic portfolio that will provide the student with one cohesive space to document the learning from both inside and outside of the classroom. In doing so, students will have an increased opportunity for effective learning, practicing reflection skills, interacting in the assessment of their work, and maintaining focus on their educational goals.

Effective Learning:

Learning takes place within complex psychological and sociological milieus. Shannon Carter identifies these “communities of practice” as participation in an activity system about which participants share understandings concerning what they are doing and what that means in their lives and for their communities. Carter’s activity theory contains two assumptions that are important to basic writers: language, literacy, and learning are embedded in communities of practice rather than entirely within the minds of individuals; and, communities reproduce themselves through social practices. The social practice of creating an electronic portfolio can help basic writers to assimilate into the collegiate community, which will hopefully increase student engagement of learning. When students engage in a community of practice like e-portfolios, their overall engagement in their education increases, and the engaged learner, one who records and interprets and evaluates his or her own learning, is the best learner (DiBiase).


Reflection is especially important in allowing basic writing students to turn life experiences into learning and allowing students to make connections between and across experiences (Teaching). This is a particularly important benefit of e-portfolios for basic writers because the e-portfolio gives students a place showcase interests and talents. These interests and talents can then be integrated into writing assignments – perhaps through reflective writing – that will build student confidence. This confidence is built as students make use of their own expertise through the literacies that function in their lives. Although she is not the first to do so, Shannon Carter asserts that basic writers have their own expertise and should be encouraged to draw from it.

Additionally, capturing the student’s voice through self-reflective writing provides teachers with an authentic, highly-personalized way to assess both content knowledge and writing skills (Robins). In optimal conditions, this reflection occurs between the student and instructor in that e-portfolio systems allow for commenting on work that is a work in progress. This type of dialogue is the critical component that makes e-portfolios such a valuable commodity for basic writing students. This is a marked advancement from print portfolios of the previous century, in that e-portfolios are not just an archive space since students have the ability to complete and revisit and revise their work within the e-portfolio program. This results in students finding in the portfolio a continuing site where experiences can be planned, articulated, interrogated, reflected upon, and made sense of (Yancey “Postmodernism”).

Lastly, students can create reflective artifacts in which they identify and evaluate the different kinds of learning that their e-portfolio represents. Students may explain how various forms of feedback influenced the composition and revision of their various e-portfolio artifacts, making teaching and learning contexts more transparent to all who view the e-portfolio (Principles).


The assessment of portfolios is very dependent on the two different types of portfolios: positivist portfolios and constructivist portfolios. The purpose of a positivist portfolio is to assess learning outcomes. Positivism assumes that meaning is constant across users, contexts, and purposes. The constructivist portfolio is a learning environment in which the learner constructs meaning. It assumes that meaning varies across individuals, over time, and with purpose (Barrett “Researching”). The portfolio presents process, a record of the processes associated with learning itself.

For basic writing students, constructivist portfolios are beneficial because no two basic writing students are ever the same, the progress of each basic writing student with vary with regard to other basic writing students, and basic writing needs to be concerned with progress.

This dichotomy between assessment of learning and assessment for learning is paramount when working with basic writing students because formative type assessments raise standards of achievement more effectively than any other strategy according to recent research conducted in the United Kingdom which supports the claim through empirical evidence underpinned by theory from the psychology of learning and studies of learning motivation (Barrett “Researching”). Assessment for learning is the process of seeking and interpreting evidence for use by learners and their teachers to decide where the learners are in their learning, where they need to go, and how best to get there. Over the course of time, e-portfolios provide the abundant evidence for formative assessment (Barrett “Researching”).


Embedded in an interdisciplinary yearlong first-year seminar at Portland State, digital portfolios are cited as one reason the retention rate, from first year to second, has more than doubled in the last four years, from 30+% to 67% (Yancey “Postmodernism”). Throughout the literature regarding basic writing, retention of students is a huge issue. Although e-portfolios are only one of many avenues for increasing retention rates, they are a worthwhile component.


Keywords for CompPile:

portfolio, e-portfolio, electronic portfolio, basic writer, basic writing

Works Consulted:

Barrett, Helen C. “Electronic Portfolios.” Education and Technology: an Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO, 2003.
Barrett, Helen C. “Researching Electronic Portfolios and Learner Engagement: the REFLECT Initiative.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 50 (2007): 436–449.
Carter, Shannon. “Redefining Literacy as a Social Practice.” Journal of Basic Writing 25 (2006): 94–124.
DiBiase, David, comp. e-Portfolio. 9 Dec. 2006. Penn State University. 14 Apr. 2008.
Corwin, Terry. “Electronic Portfolios.” Best Technology Practices in Higher Education. Medford: Information Today, Inc, 2005. 3–15.
Fournier, Janice, Cara Lane, and Steven Corbett. The Journey to Best Practices: Results of a Two-Year Study of e-Portfolio Implementation in Beginning Composition Courses. University of Washington. 2007.
Johnson, Larry, and Annette Lamb. “Electronic Portfolios: Students, Teachers, and Life Long Learners.” Teacher Tap. 2007. Eduscapes. 31 Mar. 2008.
Principles and Practices in Electronic Portfolios. Nov. 2007. Conference on College Composition and Communication. 14 Apr. 2008.
Robins, Jenny. “Electronic Portfolios as a Bridge.” Intervention in School and Clinic 42 (2006): 107–113. General One File. Gale Power Search. Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti. 19 Feb. 2008. Keyword: Electronic Portfolios.
Teaching, Learning, and Assessment with e-Portfolios. Dir. Mike Vendeland. Perf. Kenneth C. Green (Host). Videocassette. California State University, 2002.
Yancey, Kathleen. “Looking Back as We Look Forward: Historicizing Writing Assessment.” College Composition and Communication 50 (1999): 483–503. JSTOR. Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti. 19 Feb. 2008. Keyword: Electronic Portfolios and Writing.
Yancey, Kathleen. “Postmodernism, Palimpsest, and Portfolios: Theoretical Issues in the Representation of Student Work.” College Composition and Communication 55 (2004): 738–761. JSTOR. Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti. 19 Feb. 2008. Keyword: Electronic Portfolios and Writing.
Yancey, Kathleen. “The Electronic Portfolio: Shifting Paradigms.” Computers and Composition 13 (1996): 259–262.
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