Katie White is coordinator of learning for the North East School Division in Canada. With more than 20 years in education, she has been an administrator, a learning coach, and a classroom teacher.

Documenting Learning over Time: Portfolios and Data Notebooks

Documenting Learning over Time: Portfolios and Data Notebooks

Portfolios and data notebooks have been around a long time. I remember bringing home scrapbooks in June, after another year of elementary school, filled with glued-in samples of worksheets and drawings—artifacts of a year spent learning. I recall, many years later, opening my portfolio during a final summative conference in a university studio art class, and pulling out samples of work that represented the skills and knowledge I had developed throughout the course. Even more years later, after I had taught for some time, I recollect asking my students to chart their skills in recalling French vocabulary on multiple bar graph templates I had handed out at the beginning of a unit. These graphs were then placed in a dossier for reference. Each of these examples speaks to the act of documenting learning by collecting artifacts and data in a single place where they can be easily accessed and serve their intended purpose.

What is interesting about each of the examples above is that the intended purpose varied in each context. My elementary scrapbook was simply a collection of artifacts representing skills we had been developing or things I had chosen to create. It served as a kind of curated (largely by my teacher) album that I could share with my parents and then place in a box in our basement. My art portfolio was a catalyst for reflection and evaluation at the end of my studio art class. The individual pieces contained within served as a way to make a case for my growth and development in critical artistic skills. Sadly, this portfolio has also been relegated to my basement, gathering dust. I still feel tremendous emotional attachment to the artwork within but it has served its purpose. The data sets I invited my students to create in French class served the purpose of documenting growth and supporting conversations about how my students might improve further. The data the learners collected and graphed was intended to be a temporary “current state,” with new data added each time they attempted new strategies and spent time practicing.

The years we spend in educational contexts represent a vast array of experiences. Children and youth spend a tremendous proportion of their days in classrooms and schools (face-to-face or virtual) and the learning they experience is certainly worthy of documentation. Their educational stories deserve representation. The great thing about data notebooks and portfolios is that we can document the learning journey and we can use the documentation as a catalyst for reflection, analysis, goal setting, and growth. We now know that these collections of artifacts and data can serve a purpose beyond becoming an album or a capstone collection that sits in a basement—they can begin new learning conversations.

Foundational questions

Whether you are newly contemplating the use of data notebooks or portfolios as part of your classroom routine or you are already “knee-deep” in using them in your learning context, the following questions can help you initiate or refine your approaches:

  • Why might we document student learning over time? What is our purpose in gathering artifacts and data?
  • Who is our audience? Would sharing include peers? The teacher? Families?
  • What actions are we hoping will be taken as a result of documenting learning over time?
  • How can we ensure these actions enhance learning and investment?

It is important to have a clear understanding of how portfolios and data notebooks will support learning processes in classrooms (the purpose). If we intend to use them as points of reflection and analysis that will inspire goal setting, we can begin to work with student to curate documentation that represents “learning in progress.” This might include drafts and revisions, journaling, video samples, photographs, and both early and later formative data. Documentation that reflects various stages of thinking and growth allows students to analyze their current efforts and identify elements that demonstrate strength and those that suggest a need for further attention. In this way, data notebooks and portfolios become part of the learning process instead of sitting outside it.

Thinking about who will receive access to data notebooks and portfolios is also an important early consideration. When documentation is collected that represents mistakes, errors, and risk-taking, students need to be prepared to share these less-than-proficient samples. Any audience, whether it be peers or family members, needs to be prepared for the purpose of data notebooks and portfolios. We need to be clear with everyone involved that these tools will act as a catalyst for decision-making and goal setting. Documentation that represents the authentic messiness of learning is different from the scrapbooks I took home at the end of the year or the bulletin boards on which we often display polished products. Learning is vulnerable work and students need to feel safe sharing their learning as it is happening, even when it is not fully formed or refined. There may even be times when we allow students to reflect on their progress privately, without needing to share their thoughts with everyone.

Planning for success

When planning to use or refine our use of data notebooks and portfolios, it may be helpful to consider the following:

  • Who will curate the documentation (data and artifacts) that will be placed in the notebook or portfolio? Will students hold responsibility for making decisions about what will be included?
  • Will the portfolio or data notebook represent work-in-progress? Will it include polished products, performances and/or final summative data sets?
  • Will the data notebooks/portfolios include evidence of reflection and metacognition?
  • Will students be asked to set goals and make decisions about how they will learn (strategies and processes they will implement)?
  • How will we organize the data, documentation, reflection, and goal setting?
  • Which aspects of the data notebooks and portfolios will be private and which parts will be public?
  • How will we celebrate growth? How might we investigate ways each learner would prefer to be celebrated?

Analyzing documentation in data notebooks or portfolios

In order for students to use data notebooks and portfolios as a catalyst for learning, they will need to learn to analyze artifacts and/or data. This may mean they compare a single work sample to success criteria; or that they compare two different samples or data sets to each other; or that they analyze multiple documents and draw some broader conclusions. No matter how they are engaging in analysis, they will need to develop the skills of noticing, describing, comparing, relating, imagining, revising, and celebrating. I have expanded on the development of these skills in a previous blog post.

Intentional prompting is a great way to help students develop their analysis and goal setting skills. The template below shows examples of prompts that could guide the analysis of documentation within data notebooks or portfolios:

Using sticky notes, look through your data notebook/portfolio and choose the following samples. On the sticky note, list the category and answer the prompt for each.

  • Do over: A sample or data set that you would like to do over again. How would you change it if you could?
  • Growth: A sample or data set that shows growth. How can you give evidence of this growth?
  • Strengths and Stretches: A sample or data set that had some hard parts and some easy parts. Which parts were which? How did you deal with the hard parts?
  • Goal: A sample or data set that has some potential but needs a little more attention. Where do you need to focus some time and why?
  • Perseverance: A target or sample that you stuck with even though you didn’t want to. Why was this work so tough?
  • Celebration: A sample or data set that you are really proud of. Why do you want people to notice about this sample or data set?

Final Thoughts

Portfolios and data notebooks hold tremendous possibility. They offer students a window into their own growth and development and a mirror that reflects who they are as learners. They invite students to notice and describe their current state of learning and imagine a future state that looks different. They offer students and teachers the opportunity to celebrate decisions made and risks taken in service of goals. They document an amazing story of learning that reflects days well spent. I can think of no better purpose than that!

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