Portfolios and reflective journals


Portfolios and reflective journals are examples of assessment tools designed to encourage reflective, self-directed learning. In both cases, students are responsible for reflecting on their learning and development over time. These assessment techniques are particularly applicable to the biological sciences where students are encouraged to reflect on their engagement with new knowledge in a range of contexts, including large lectures, laboratories and during fieldwork activities.

A portfolio is an organised collection of student work designed to represent students' efforts and academic achievements over a period of time. Portfolios are a powerful assessment tool that provide a record of accomplishments and encourage students to reflect on their progress and development in the biological sciences. Students typically take responsibility for organising their portfolio and selecting the most appropriate content, depending on the purpose of the portfolio assessment task (described in more detail below).

A reflective journal also gives students responsibility for recording their thoughts about learning in the subject. It is based on the premise that writing contributes to deeper learning and engagement with a subject, since it gives students the opportunity to clarify and reflect on their thinking. A reflective journal tends to be maintained regularly over a specified period of time. It may describe events, experiences or issues associated with learning, professional placement, fieldwork, or the like. Reflective journals encourage students to reflect critically on the process of learning and their development over time. A reflective journal may be included in a portfolio as a record of student learning [Example: Cooke 2].

In addition to being useful assessment tools, portfolios and reflective journals also provide invaluable feedback to academic staff about what students are learning and the depth of their understanding. This information, in turn, provides excellent guidance on ways to improve the curriculum and strategies for enhancing student learning in the subject.

Increasingly, portfolios and reflective journals are being developed in online environments. e-portfolios provide students with much greater flexibility in gathering, documenting, updating and maintaining the evidence of their learning over time. Similarly, online reflective journals represent greater flexibility and may be updated by students anywhere, anytime.

More about portfolios and e-portfolios

To be most effective, portfolios should be a purpose-designed collection that functions as a tool for critical reflection as students gather evidence to demonstrate the development of knowledge, skills and competencies, along with the transformation of attitudes and values that have occurred as a result of their learning in the biological sciences [Example: Peat 2].

Student portfolios may be used for different assessment purposes across year levels. For first year students, the portfolio may provide evidence of learning and an opportunity for self-reflection and assessment as learners come to terms with vast amounts of new knowledge in the biological sciences. As students move into later years of study, the portfolio may also be used to support career preparation, thus allowing them to showcase accomplishments that may be shared with prospective employers, or to document specific learning outcomes in a course of study.

Portfolios also allow academic staff to track student development within a course, to evaluate a course and to evaluate and monitor student performance.

Types and purposes of portfolios

There are four main types of portfolios or e-portfolios (adapted from Attwell, 2005; Prouse & Day, 2006).

i. Personal Portfolio: recognizing learning

This type of portfolio is primarily concerned with self-reflection and growth. This has most in common with the reflective journal. The student prepares the portfolio or journal and retains ownership of the document. Therefore the primary audience of this type of portfolio is the student, followed by others with whom the student chooses to share information, including academic staff members and peers.

ii. Feedback Portfolio: Recording and reflecting on learning

This portfolio works as a more collaborative document, providing feedback and evidence of learning primarily to the academic staff member, but it may also be shared with peers. The purpose of this portfolio is to guide teaching and learning and to promote independent learning [Example: Ross 4].

iii. Accountability Portfolio: Validating learning

For this type of portfolio, the academic staff member provides direction to the selection of contents. The primary audience for this type of portfolio is academic staff, university administration, external assessors or agencies (e.g. AUQA, review panels and professional organisations). The primary purpose of this portfolio is to provide evidence of learning, including graduate attributes and competencies developed in the biological sciences. This information guides the teaching, learning, assessment and curriculum development process.

iv. Presentation Portfolio: Presenting learning

This portfolio is produced collaboratively between the student and academic staff member. The primary audience extends beyond the university community to prospective employers or interview situations. The purpose of this portfolio is to demonstrate and highlight achievement, skills and abilities.

Strategies for assessing and providing feedback on reflective journals and portfolios

Assessment of reflective journals and portfolios should be underpinned by all the principles of good practice in assessing student work in higher education. As with any other form of assessment, the process will be determined by the goals of the task and intended learning outcomes.

Ensure a clear link between learning objectives, assessment and outcomes in your course. It is equally important to consider the role that portfolios and reflective journals might play in providing feedback in formative and summative contexts. If development of the biological sciences curriculum is underpinned by constructivist principles that value the benefits of self- and peer-evaluation, the portfolio offers even greater possibilities as a tool for learning and assessment.

Reflective journals and portfolios may or may not be formally assessed. Nevertheless, do not underestimate the amount of time it takes to read through/navigate and grade (if applicable) portfolios and reflective journals. It is important to design curricula and assessment tasks that specify the purposes of each task and criteria for assessment, whether formal or informal.

At the non-assessed end of the spectrum, journals and portfolios may be used as a way of offering students the opportunity to write about and compile evidence of their learning in a non-threatening way. These may be hurdle requirements (i.e., completion is compulsory and the goals of the activity are made clear to students, but no grades are awarded). Alternatively, you may assess these tasks in a range of ways, from criterion-based approaches, to satisfactory/non-satisfactory judgements.

[see also: Curriculum planning and review]

Providing feedback on reflective journals in the biological sciences

The journal can be used as a reference tool to help you monitor individual development and progress. If you plan to assess the journals, make the assessment criteria clear. You may provide feedback on some or all of the following areas:

  • Completeness of entries (i.e., entries for every lab etc.);
  • Quality and depth of questions posed;
  • Evidence of critical analysis in the stating of speculations and predictions;
  • Evidence of developing self-awareness and self-reflection relating to learning;
  • Capacity to demonstrate connections between personal experience and new knowledge in the discipline; and
  • Evidence of connection between self-reflection and achievement of learning outcomes, generic skills and/or graduate attributes.


  • You may decide to only assess a portion of the reflective journal. If so, make this clear;
  • The evaluation of journals should emphasise the content;
  • Clarify if you plan to award any marks for presentation; and
  • Be aware of the cultural context. Some students may feel very comfortable with the process of self-reflection and journaling. For others it may be a new skill that needs to be scaffolded. If asking students to self-reflect, the purpose must be clear.

Assessing portfolio-based assessment in the biological sciences

Portfolios, particularly e-portfolios, offer unique opportunities to provide an array of feedback to students, ranging from comments stored in an online log to scores on assessment rubrics.
In the case of formative assessment, for instance, students may view the assessment responses online and respond by improving an e-portfolio work in progress and then seek further feedback from the academic.
The following guide provides a useful starting point for planning, development and assessment of e-portfolios (Challis, 2005, p.5). It also draws attention to some of the unique elements of e-portfolios, such as the use of multimedia and navigational elements. When you assess portfolios, you may provide feedback on:

Selection of material

  • Relevant - everything tied to the set purpose and audience
  • Carefully selected to make obvious specific points
  • Each example/illustration makes a useful contribution
  • No unprocessed or trivial material
  • Not unfairly selected to misrepresent

Level of reflection

  • Reveals deep understanding
  • Embedded
  • Illustrates self-awareness and growth
  • Incorporates and is responsive to feedback from others


  • Reveals considerable thought over a period of time
  • Variety that demonstrates depth and breadth
  • Is contextualised
  • Reveals personality as well as thought
  • All text is accurately and succinctly written - polished prose

Use of multimedia

  • Enhances content and engages
  • Appropriate and purposeful
  • High quality audio/video
  • Non-distracting
  • Integrated


  • Uncluttered and elegant
  • Graphics are in accord with portfolio's purpose and its creator
  • No distracting elements
  • Well organised and coherent
  • Connections are readily made


  • Clear - intuitive
  • Allows users to select their own pathways
  • Fully hyperlinked

What do students say?

In the case of both portfolios and reflective journals, students who are unfamiliar with this form of assessment often ask for more examples of the type that is required. Since these are not traditional forms of assessment, like multiple-choice items or extended essay responses, students may feel uneasy about exposing their thoughts and reflections. It is important to make your expectations clear.

As you consider using these types of assessment in your classes, remember that students appreciate:

  • a very structured approach (template) when they first start out, but as they become more comfortable with the concepts and the software, they tend to want more control over look and feel;
  • initial samples of portfolios, e-portfolios and reflective journals before they begin;
  • examples to illustrate reflection and the format of reflective journals required;
  • clear expectations and criteria for the tasks;
  • integration of portfolio and reflective journal requirements into course content to help them see their assessment tasks as value-added exercises, rather than just another assignment to complete; and
  • recognition of the amount of time and detail required by portfolio and reflective journal assessment tasks. Portfolio development, in particular, may take a considerable amount of time and students appreciate this being recognized in the time allocated for the task and the awarding of grades.

Potential benefits of portfolios and reflective journals

Portfolios and reflective journals offer many benefits to students. For example, they:

  • facilitate personal knowledge management;
  • document an individual's history of development and growth;
  • function as a planning and goal-setting tool;
  • assist learners in making connections between learning experiences (this may include formal and informal learning);
  • provide the metacognitive elements needed to assist learners in planning future learning needs based on previous successes and failures;
  • enable a personal control of learning history (as compared to organizations controlling learner history); and
  • facilitate social networking (in the case of e-portfolios in particular), where students share digital knowledge artefacts online with other learners. This not only gives online learning a social context, but also allows new paths of learning with peers and experts in the field to emerge. (adapted from Siemens, 2004; Vuorikari, 2005),

Benefits for academic staff members include the fact that they:

  • provide a means of sharing examples of student learning with others members of staff;
  • represent an authentic form of assessment; and
  • assist in preparing learners for lifelong learning.

Some considerations and potential challenges of using portfolios, e-portfolios and reflective journals

  1. As with many other non-traditional forms of assessment, you need to provide a rationale for using portfolios and reflective journals. Be prepared to manage a cultural change in which your students and colleagues understand how to map their learning experiences together to facilitate an effective student portfolio system that is a learner-centred, developmental and reflective aid.
  2. Students may not engage with portfolios and reflective journals if they are not formally assessed. You may need to consider creative ways of integrating these assessment activities into your curriculum so that students know that they are valued, even if, for example, reflective journals do not necessarily attract a numeric grade.
  3. If you plan to introduce accountability and presentation portfolios, consider working with colleagues elsewhere in the university, particularly careers personnel, to build on existing institutional resources and strategies in this regard. This may help to build a more coordinated approach to use of portfolios across your university.
  4. Many question the validity of portfolio-based assessment. You will need to decide how you and your students will demonstrate the validity of the portfolio as an authentic representation of student work. This may include developing rubrics for deciding whether the different parts of the portfolio meet specific standards.
  5. You and your colleagues may need professional development and technical support (if using e-portfolios and electronic journals).
  6. Students may need specific training in the use of e-portfolio software.
  7. Your curricula and assessment criteria may need to be updated to reflect these new forms of assessment.
  8. There are many technical and related issues surrounding the use of e-portfolios, including:
    • Does your university own certain elements of a student's archived e-portfolio work, similar to other university records?
    • Should anyone other than the student be able to make changes to the student's e-portfolio?
    • How will the e-portfolio system authenticate that all the work, documentation, and demonstrations were created by the author?
    • What can and cannot be included in an e-portfolio and reflective journals? Does the institution reserve the right to audit and edit 'inappropriate' material?
    • Can the e-portfolio be transferred to another institution?
    • Should students be allowed lifetime access to e-portfolios after they graduate?
    • What policies are required for transporting or deleting e-portfolios?

Generic skills development

Students' use of portfolio assessment and reflective journals helps to develop their:

  • Confidence in written communication, testing out new ideas
  • Experience in documenting and reflecting on their learning for different audiences
  • Openness to new ideas
  • Critical analysis and interpretation skills
  • Deep learning

Authentic assessment

Portfolios and reflective journals are good examples of authentic assessment methods. They encourage students to reflect on their learning and performance as a student and novice biological scientist. As students reflect on and document evidence of learning in fieldwork contexts, work placements or research lab experiences, for example, they develop the skills of deep reflection so fundamental to successful lifelong learning.

Some relevant examples

Reflective journals and portfolios may be used as follows:

  • Reflecting on work-based learning and fieldwork experiences - students may reflect on their learning and development in the subject
  • Recording developing understanding of the nature of science through the use of investigative laboratory activities: students can record their impressions as they go.
  • In The University of Queensland's Bright Minds program, undergraduate students become participating members of their chosen research laboratory. This is assessed by reflective journals kept throughout the year and a formal presentation of the work at a student research symposium during semester 2. This demonstrates how reflective journals might be used to complement other forms of assessment in the course.

See also 'Relevant examples' in right hand column


Attwell, G. (2005). Recognising learning: Educational and pedagogic issues in e-Portfolios.
Retrieved 25 May 2007 from: http://www.knownet.com/writing/weblogs/Graham_Attwell/entries/5565143946...?

Challis, D. (2005). Towards the mature ePortfolio: Some implications for higher education. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 31(3).
Retrieved 7 May 2007 from: http://www.cjlt.ca/content/col31.3/challis.html

Prouse, J., & Day, B. (2006). Portfolios, assessment and reporting in the middle school. Paper presented at the Middle Years of Schooling Forum.
Retrieved 25 May 2007 from: http://www3.eddept.wa.edu.au/facilitiesandservices/laep/conferencePapers...

Siemens, G. (2004). ePortfolios.
Retrieved 25 May 2007 from: http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/eportfolios.htm

Vuorikari, R. (2005). Social networking software and ePortfolios foster digital learning networks.
Retrieved 25 May 2007 from: http://insight.eun.org/ww/en/pub/insight/misc/specialreports/digital_kno...

To reference material from this site, please use:

Harris, K-L., Krause, K., Gleeson, D., Peat, M., Taylor, C. & Garnett, R. (2007). Enhancing Assessment in the Biological Sciences: Ideas and resources for university educators. Available at: www.bioassess.edu.au