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Course portfolio as an alternative assessment of student's knowledge

Danijela Trskan

Paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, University of Geneva, 13-15 September 2006


The article presents the History Didactics Course, which is one of the educational courses that train undergraduate students to become teachers of History in lower and upper secondary schools at the Faculty of Arts in Ljubljana - Slovenia. (Trskan, 2002b; Trskan, 2002c; Trskan, 2003b; Trskan, 2004c)

The course has been structured in accordance with the current trends in the modern European development of the initial teacher training. (Green paper, 2000; Danielson & McGreal, 2000) Within the course, students learn about basic didactic and methodological features of pedagogical work and the teaching of history in lower and upper secondary schools as well as modern history didactics. They combine theoretical knowledge with teaching practice in schools and are trained in monitoring and researching the teaching process. The course also raises their awareness of the importance of permanent education and versatile pedagogical work.

A special feature of the History Didactics Course is a course portfolio which enables the students to become actively involved in the study programme and to succeed in meeting all study requirements of the course. The course portfolio offers one of the possibilities to learn, teach and assess at university level.


As an important part of planning, performance and assessment of student’s knowledge, student's portfolio proves to be more appropriate approach to learning, teaching and assessement at university level than 'classic' assessment (oral exam, written exam, seminar etc.). (Hinett & Thomas, 1999; Sentocnik, 1999; Rolheiser, 2000)

Basic feature of the alternative assessment in History Didactics Course is that all the graded study requirements (pedagogical article – 10 %, observation reports – 5 %, lesson plan and individually taught lesson in lower secondary school or in upper secondary school – 25 %, teaching practice diary – 35 %, oral exam – 20 % and course portfolio – 5 %; from 2002/03 to 2004/05 there were two lesson plans and individually taught lessons, one in lower secondary school and one in upper secondary school, both 20 %, because of the two-week teaching practice – 20 %) are connected with work of a future history teacher. The final grade is determined on the principles of alternative assessment, which consists of teacher's assessment, peer-assessment and self-assessment. The final Slovene grade is a sum of percentages or number of points achieved in individual study requirements: excellent (10): 95–100 points or 95–100 %, very good (9): 85–94 points or 85–94 %, very good (8): 75–84 points or 75–84 %, good (7): 65–74 points or 65–74 %, satisfactory (6): 55–64 points or 55–64 %.

In the process of alternative assessment (criteria-references assessment), teachers help themselves with rubrics, which include specific criteria for assessment, levels of excellence and specific indicators, describing what the various levels of excellence look like for each of the criteria. (Alternative Assessment, 1997) The assessment form includes the teacher's descriptive comment on student's progress. The comment usually offers some guidelines for successful fulfilment of study requirements. At the end of the 4th year all students who have finished the History Didactics Course receive the final assessment form, which includes the final grade, a closing comment and the list of all the fulfilled study requirements and additional activities of the course.


The portfolio is connected with the standards of knowledge or the competences of future history teachers. The basic standards of knowledge are that the students are required to know the aims of modern history teaching, the didactic and methodological structure of curricula, the student’s and teacher’s books as well as the external examination; to be able to make yearly and daily lesson plans, organise, carry out and evaluate lessons and out-of-school activities, emphasizing the active role of the learners; to use ICT; to be able to observe, monitor, evaluate and self-assess the teaching process; and finally, to show satisfaction, responsibility and positive attitudes towards pedagogical work.

Standards of knowledge are a combination of knowledge, skills, abilities and attitude towards learning and work. All these components are interconnected and therefore demand the organisation of a complex learning process in which learners learn actively and observe their own learning. (Sentocnik, 2004, p. 75) The process of learning and its results are presented in the portfolio.

"Setting of the standards is based on the principle that the basic role of those who educate future teachers is to train students so that they can become competent teachers. Hence it ensues that teachers of future teachers should /…/ base their work on specific practical problems and questions that experienced teachers as well as students, the future teachers, have to cope with." (Cvetek, 2004, p. 156)

The portfolio presents "authentic" learning. Therefore the study requirements of the History didactics are linked with real situations a teacher might find himself in, so that the students can feel the challenge and rationale. Compiling the portfolio encourages students to study history didactics actively – they have to carry out, collect, present, describe, evaluate and assess certain tasks throughout the year. Moreover, the portfolio also presents authentic testing and assessment because it includes continuous assessment (descriptive assessment, peer- and self-assessment, teacher’s grades) and final assessment (descriptive assessment, self assessment, assessment of the subject and work throughout the year).

The portfolio is an excellent feedback for students. Thus they can make continuous improvements and meet the standards more easily. Alternative assessment puts the process of learning first and evaluates student’s progress during certain periods of learning, while feedback is used for correction and improvement. (Sentocnik, 2004, p. 73) The portfolio influences students’ thinking and actions, boosts their self-confidence, their belief in their own abilities, and motivates them to continue to learn even after the end of formal education.

In the process of compiling the portfolio, students change their self-perspective. They begin to believe in themselves, develop self-acceptance, become more responsible, caring, compassionate, creative, hardworking and active. They acquire self-discipline, skill and self-initiative. "Estimation of progress and results of learning is based on different forms of testing and is no longer limited to the teacher’s domain; on the contrary, it is also becoming the student’s responsibility and plays an important role in diagnosing the problems and raising the quality of the learning process and its results." (Sentocnik, 2004, p. 71)

Reflection, as the main component of the portfolio, encourages students to trust their own talents, develops a positive self-image, a positive attitude towards learning as well as the subject and trains them for permanent education and citizenship. (Sentocnik, 2004, p. 74)


The History Didactics portfolio consists of six thematic units. (Trskan, 2002a; Trskan, 2003a; Trskan, 2004b)

The first unit contains introductory information, where students write their study orientation, present their best teacher, describe their best learning and teaching experience and describe what they expect from the History Didactics Course.

In the second unit, there are self-assessment forms for group assignment (students evaluate work and behaviour in a group); a written part of the seminar paper in the form of a pedagogical article (students assess clarity, organisation, depth and breadth of the contents, suitability of the examples and interpretations, use of sources, quotation, abstract and form); oral part – the presentation of the article (students assess clarity, comprehensibility, and mode of presentation, interpretations, examples and the use of teaching aids); observation lessons reports; preparation for individually taught formally assessed lessons in lower and upper secondary schools (students write what they have already managed to prepare and what remains to be done); formally assessed individually lessons in primary and secondary schools (students assess their own teaching and describe the didactic and methodological elements that were carried out more or less successfully); preparation for oral exam (students write the number of hours spent, sources and articles they have read; they describe their problems, write about didactic and methodological elements they already know and those they do not yet understand; they also write the expected grade); oral exam (students enumerate the questions they had problems with as well as those they answered very precisely).

Peer-assessment forms can be found in the third unit and are used by the students to assess presentations of seminars and individually taught lessons of their fellow students.

The fourth unit is made up of assessment forms for study requirements that are filled in by the university teacher. The forms relate to: group assignment, a pedagogical article or a seminar paper, reports of observation lessons, a formally assessed lesson in upper secondary school, a formally assessed lesson in lower secondary school, teaching practice diary, oral exam and portfolio.

Unit number five includes students’ work: a pedagogical article, lesson plans for formally assessed lessons in lower and upper secondary schools and teaching practice diary. Besides the obligatory work, students can enclose additional notes, revision exercises from lectures, personal writing etc.

The sixth unit ends with an action plan in which students plan improvement, reading of sources and articles, as well as writing the most important knowledge and useful tips they have gained during the course. At the end they write a conclusion, a plan for future professional growth and a statement verifying their authorship of the portfolio.

An important part of the last unit is the evaluation of the subject where students explain which of their expectations were met and which were not. In addition, they can suggest how to improve the practical part of the course. This part influences each year’s additions and slight modifications of the study programme within the frames of the History Didactics Course. The main findings are that the requirements have to be very diverse in order to meet the needs and interests of all students. What students want most is more practical work and longer periods of teaching practice. (Trskan, 2004a)

The conclusions of the students’ portfolios are very positive and indicate that the standards of knowledge have been met. For example, one of the students wrote: "My view of pedagogic work has changed very much. I have always found it very demanding and I still do. However, I have learned some important strategies that lead to successful pedagogic work. I think I have got rid of superfluous fear and discovered that pedagogic work can present an interesting challenge. In the classroom a teacher just has to be true to himself and set a good example for the learners." Another student: "I found out that a successful teacher is the one who likes pupils, feels a special vocation and constantly makes effort to grow professionally; only this way can he/she stay in touch with the learners and their changing expectations. A teacher should keep track of social changes and try to understand the aspirations of each individual." Yet another student writes: "Above all, I gained a lot of ideas I will be able to use in practice. One of these is also a portfolio. It is something new and interesting that I would like to use in the classroom where it can be of a great help to the teacher as well as pupils, clearly showing the success and personal progress. It also encourages reflection which is otherwise often neglected."


The last self-assessment form filled in by the students in the second unit also relates to the course portfolio. Students evaluate the organisation of their portfolio, the quality of their work throughout the year and the effort that they put into it. They choose their best work, their favourite study requirement and describe their experience in self-assessment.

Between 2003 and 2005, one hundred students filled in self-assessment forms. In the process they used the following academic grades: excellent (10), very good (9), very good (8), good (7) and satisfactory (6).

The main goal was to find out how the course portfolio influences student’s continuous learning and progress, how it influences their final grade and which elements of the portfolio encourage students to be responsible, caring, creative and active.

Sixty-four students assessed the organisation of their portfolio with 10, twenty-four students with 9, ten students with 8 and two students with 7. The main reasons for higher grades were: organisation (67 students), perfection (9 students), continuous work (14 students), effort (9 students) and materials collected in the portfolio. They used lower grades because they did not work throughout the year and did not fill in their portfolios carefully/precisely.

Forty-four students assessed the quality of their work in the fourth year with 10, forty students with 9, fifteen students with 8 and one student graded it 6. Their arguments for a higher grade were: invested effort (30 students), continuous work and work to the deadlines (37 students), quality of work, creativity and progress. Lower grades were suggested due to delays (4 students), absence from the lectures (5 students) and the fact that students did not work throughout the year or put in as much effort.

Sixty students assessed their effort with 10, twenty-nine students with 9, nine students with 8, while two students thought they deserved 7.

The graph shows the curve for the assessment of effort which students put in throughout the year.

Since the process of learning presented above always starts with a certain level of knowledge, skills and behaviour which grow, extend, deepen or broaden during the course, the curve has a shape of a J. A similar curve can be observed with the final grade in History Didactics.

According to the students, their best works were: teaching practice diary (50 students), a formally assessed lesson in lower or upper secondary school (17 students), reports on observation lessons (9 students), lesson plans (9 students), a seminar paper in the form of a pedagogical article (5 students), a worksheet used during the teaching practice (2 students). The rest of the students individually chose two (i.e. diary and reports, diary and lesson plans, diary and article, lesson plans and reports on observation lessons) or only one thing (i.e. peer assessment, portfolio). The main criteria for the best work were the amount of time and effort that had been put in (44 students), while some of the students chose a particular task because it was the most extensive, allowed them to gain experiences and to show their creativity.

Students were also asked to decide which study requirement of the course they most liked. Fifty-five students chose the teaching practice, seven students selected individually taught lessons, eight students the article while six students decided upon the observation lessons. The rest of the students chose other requirements.

Students chose the teaching practice for the following reasons: practical work (20 students), acquired experiences (21 students), independence and creativity (14 students), extensive knowledge (9 students), enthusiasm, cooperation, invested effort etc. For example: "During my lower secondary school teaching practice /…/ I felt great. I liked working with pupils. For the first time since I had started my studies, I felt this was the job I had always wanted to do. The teaching practice filled me with enthusiasm for teaching. In a way the practice was also exhausting since there were a lot of things to be done before we entered the classroom …"

Students answered that self-assessment and the filling in of the portfolio forms taught them to evaluate their effort and work more adequately (23 students) and helped them to develop self-criticism (23 students). They noted that they were very self-critical at the beginning (14 students), that they found self-assessment very difficult at the beginning (16 students), that self-reflection helped them to overcome mistakes (9 students) and that self-assessment was a positive and interesting experience. Students also mentioned a more objective attitude towards others, responsibility in assessment, greater self-confidence, more positive feedback on their own work and the importance of self-assessment for success. Only two students wrote that they had still not become used to self-assessment, while one thought he would have been successful even without self-assessment.

Some descriptions of experiences in self-assessment and self-evaluation are presented below. They show that students are aware of the positive effects of filling in the portfolio.

"It is difficult to be self-critical and impartial at the same time. It is not easy to give a negative assessment of your work when you know how much effort you have put into it. It is, however, a wonderful experience of self-reflection, during which you can learn about your own mistakes and later try to remedy them."

"At the end of the academic year I can find that I assessed my work accurately and overcame the uncertainty that I felt while assessing the good parts of my work. Filling in the entire portfolio helped to boost my self-confidence. At the same time I have realized that self-assessment is one of the keys for successful continuation of professional growth."

"At the beginning I found it very hard to talk about which grade I deserved or how I would assess my knowledge. However, I have realised that in the process of assessing my work, I started to think about my learning and progress, I started to evaluate my work critically. Thus, I was developing the skill of critical evaluation. Modern society, in which we are ‘bombarded’ with information, will certainly make it a welcome skill."

On the basis of portfolio evaluation, the following conclusions can be drawn. Even though students found it difficult to write a descriptive or numeric self-assessment, the process of filling in the forms (for self-assessment, peer-assessment and teacher’s assessment) helped them to realise that self-reflection can help to improve their knowledge and their results considerably, even in a short period of time. Besides, students stop being over self-critical and are able to commend their own work. With the course portfolio the students – undergraduate trainees begin to believe in themselves and their knowledge, develop self-acceptance, become more responsible, creative and active. Since various study requirements are organised in different parts of the academic year and the assessment criteria are known in advance, the alternative assessment in the portfolio can encourage students to continuous cooperation, work and study.


To sum up, a portfolio is a sort of aid, helping students to get to know themselves, their strengths and weaknesses, working habits, demands and targets, responsibility towards their work. On the other hand, it also helps the teacher, indirectly, to plan activities throughout the academic year and to write and give instructions for different tasks. In addition, it especially helps to monitor the individual student’s progress continuously.

Different study requirements/assignments (individual, pair or group work, written, oral, "authentic" …) offer possibilities for experiencing and learning about one’s own work (especially portfolio) and progress, which is an integral part of experience as a whole. This experience can be transferred to other jobs and spheres of activity. Reflection, thinking and planning are necessary for successful work and personal satisfaction. "Due to the changed social demands in connection with active and lifelong learning, an individual is presumed to be able to plan the process of learning, change and direct himself in the process of learning as well as evaluate his own learning process, which later has a return influence on further planning." (Pecjak, 2004, p. 39)

Alternative assessment with the portfolio is important because student’s progress is no longer compared with work of other students but with established criteria and levels of excellence. When alternative assessment is carried out, students need teacher’s help to meet the criteria. Besides this, the teacher monitors students' progress and makes sure they meet the requirements with success. Continuous peer- and self-assessment throughout the course are especially important because they train students in recognizing their weaknesses and making every effort to achieve better results.

The portfolio helps them realise that self-reflection can help to improve their knowledge and their results considerably, even in a short period of time. With divers study programme, as well as study requirements, many students can become enthusiastic about and qualified for efficient teaching practice already during the undergraduate study.


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This document was added to the Education-Line database on 20 October 2006