Teachers’ Professional Learning Portfolios: Do they really improve teaching?

By Nathan Woods


Teaching portfolios are used widely in pre-service teacher education programs and amongst faculty in higher learning institutions. The focus of this article, however, is on the role that teaching portfolios can play in enhancing the learning of in-service teachers in the compulsory education sector. Much of the literature on teachers’  professional learning portfolios discusses tensions between the formative and summative application of portfolios; this review avoids this discussion and focuses on the formative potential of teaching portfolios. Drawing on relevant literature, five key questions are addressed:

  1. How are teaching portfolios defined?
  2. Do teaching portfolios capture the complexities of teachers’ learning?
  3. Do teaching portfolios enhance teachers’ critical thinking?
  4. Do teaching portfolios promote collaboration within schools?
  5. What impact do teaching portfolios have on practice?
  6. Is the time required by teachers to construct portfolios reasonable and sustainable?


The search terms “teach* portfolio*”, “professional learning” OR “professional development” returned 14 results from the ERIC database – results were limited to peer-reviewed journal articles published since 1990 and specifically those pertaining to elementary and secondary education. As the focus of this article is on the impact of teaching portfolios on inservice teachers’ professional learning, a number of articles were discarded. Three articles, which focused only on the use of portfolios for teacher appraisal and evaluation, were discarded and one article that was concerned only with pre-service teachers’ use of teaching portfolios was also discarded. This left nine articles, which are thoroughly reviewed. Sources more generally related to factors that enhance teacher’s professional learning are used to frame findings from the review.

How are teaching portfolios defined?

Teaching portfolios are defined as purposeful collections of carefully selected artifacts and reflections on teaching (Ouellett, 2007; Sung, Chang, Yu, & Chang, 2009). They communicate the philosophy, practice and learning of a teacher across various contexts over a period of time. A number of different kinds of teaching portfolios have evolved to serve various functions, such as learning, assessment, and employment portfolios (Xu, 2003). Although teaching portfolios can take a variety of forms, a number of common features shared by most teaching portfolios have been identified, such as statements of teaching philosophy, examples of student work, unit and lesson plans, and reflective annotations (Maurice & Shaw, 2004). More recent definitions emphasize the process involved in building a portfolio (Simon & Johnson, 2008; Wolf & Dietz, 1998). The acts of collaboration and conversation are often seen as important parts of this process. Wolf (1996, p. 34) summarizes this idea:

A teaching portfolio should be more than a miscellaneous collection of

artifacts or an extended list of professional activities. It should carefully

and thoughtfully document a set of accomplishments attained over an

extended period. And, it should be an ongoing process conducted in the

company of mentors and colleagues.

Do teaching portfolios capture the complexities of teachers’ learning?

Teachers work in complex and demanding environments. Numerous social, cultural, and political forces pervade schools and classrooms and influence day-to-day interactions between teachers and the many people they come in contact with (Darling-Hammond & Baratz-Snowden, 2005; Hargreaves, 2000). According to Hargreaves (2000), the role of teachers has undergone a transformation in recent decades. Many teachers now work in culturally diverse classrooms, with demanding workloads, and face ongoing public scrutiny. At the same time, teachers are asked to play broader roles and teach a wider range of skills and competencies (Darling-Hammond & Baratz-Snowden, 2005; Hargreaves, 2000). In such dynamic and uncertain contexts, teachers make ongoing, moment-by-moment decisions (Nuthall, 2007) as they help diverse groups of learners achieve a range of outcomes. Although earlier approaches to professional development have been criticized for “conveying undue certainty and predictability in education” (Poskitt, 2005, p. 136), there is a growing awareness that teachers’ professional learning must reflect and capture the complexity and idiosyncratic nature of schools and classrooms (Darling-Hammond & Baratz-Snowden, 2005; Poskitt, 2005).

Research suggests that teaching portfolios can provide a rich, in-depth representation of teachers’ work and learning as it develops over time. Attinello, Lare and Waters (2006) conducted a study in a southeastern district of the United States that explored teachers’ and administrators’ perceptions of teaching portfolios. The study surveyed 752 teachers who had created portfolios and 46 administrators who had been involved in the support and evaluation of portfolios. Semi-structured interviews were also carried out with 10 teachers and 4 administrators. Findings showed that 85% of teachers and 93% of administrators believed teaching portfolios revealed an accurate and comprehensive picture of teachers’ learning and performance. However, qualitative analysis of the interviews indicated that teachers and administrators also recognized that portfolios did not “necessarily reflect all aspects of teaching” (Attinello et al., 2006, p. 137) and that teachers could sometimes construct “glitzy” (Attinello et al., 2006, p. 137) portfolios that did not accurately reflect their practice.Other commentators have raised similar concerns about the authenticity of reflection in teachers’ portfolios. MacFarlane and Gourley (2009, p. 457), for instance, warn that teaching portfolios are prone to “inauthentic writing” and can become “an exercise in self-justification and conformism”.

Do teaching portfolios enhance teachers’ critical thinking?

Critical thinking is considered a powerful form of thinking that can empower teachers, help them connect theory with practice, and help them advance more rapidly from novice to expert (Zwozdiak-Myers, 2012). Critical thinking involves making “taken-forgranted beliefs and assumptions explicit and subject to conscious scrutiny” (Lizzio & Wilson, 2007, p. 280). It also involves staying open to the “voices, opinions, and advice” (Parnell, 2012, p. 118) of others. Dewey (cited inParnell, 2012) describes critical thinking as “turning a subject over in the mind and giving it sharp consideration”. More recently, and in the context of teachers’ professional learning, Zwozdiak-Myers (2012, p. 5) has defined critical reflection as:

A disposition to enquiry incorporating the process through which student,

early career and experienced teachers structure or restructure actions,

beliefs, knowledge and theories that inform teaching for the purpose of

professional development.

Critical thinking improves teachers’ ability to respond strategically to practice situations (Lizzio & Wilson, 2007) and weave together theory and practice (Parnell, 2012). According to Painter (2001, p. 34), “teachers who can articulate their beliefs are better situated to justify and question their own practices” and “are better prepared to talk with colleagues or to search for meaningful ways to enhance their instruction”. However, as Lizzio and Wilson (2007, p. 280) point out, the quality and depth of critical thinking is an important consideration.

Several researchers claim that teaching portfolios can help teachers to structure and enhance their critical thinking. Zwozdiak-Myers (2012, p. 131), for instance, claims that teaching portfolios enable teachers to “critically reflect on the development of their own work and to set goals for themselves as learners”. Wolf notes that portfolios provide numerous opportunities for self-reflection as teachers “examine the teaching documented…and reflect on what teachers and students learned” (1998, p. 18). Attinello et al. (2006) found that the majority of teachers and administrators involved in portfolio development and evaluation believed portfolios encouraged teachers’ self-reflection and critical thinking. Sung et al. (2009) studied the level of critical reflection demonstrated in 44 in-service elementary school teachers in Taipei who had completed portfolios as part of a professional development program. The study used a seven-point framework to evaluate the level of critical reflection demonstrated by the teachers. Reflective comments in the portfolios were coded according to where they fell within the framework. The results showed that the majority of teachers demonstrated critical reflection at level five, which indicted they were able to state the rationale for using certain methods of instruction. However, only 10% of the participants demonstrated the highest level of critical reflection (level 7), which involved critically analyzing the wider social, cultural, and economic implications of their practice.

Do teaching portfolios promote collaboration within schools?

When teachers work collaboratively with colleagues and other members of their communities it can enhance their learning and lead to better outcomes for students. Darling-Hammond (2005) argues that teachers learn to enact new skills most effectively through collaboration and peer support. Zwozdiak-Myers (2012, p. 164) explains that collaboration with peers and experts contributes to the development of new knowledge and ideas, which improves learning for students, reduces teacher isolation, and creates more motivated and better informed teachers. Working collaboratively with peers and experts in communities of practice also helps teachers to bridge the gap between theory and practice (Zwozdiak-Myers, 2012). Hargreaves (2000) found that teachers were better able to respond to change and uncertainty when they worked collaboratively.

Research shows that teaching portfolios help promote collaborative dialogue within schools. A case study of an urban elementary school in the United States found that teaching portfolios created “an electric atmosphere of professional collaboration” (Xu, 2003, p. 350). Interviews with teachers, the staff developer, and the school principal showed that portfolios created a common language and improved communication between teachers and administrators. They provided a means for administrators to work with teachers constructively and a way for teachers to “communicate the complexities of their practice” (Xu, 2002, p. 351). Similarly, Simon and Johnson’s (2008) analysis of portfolios created by teachers involved in a professional development program in the United Kingdom found that portfolios provided evidence of practice that “allowed teachers to engage in professional dialogue with colleagues” (Simon & Johnson, 2008, p. 690) and helped “broaden the process of reflection” (Simon & Johnson, 2008, p. 690). Furthermore, interviews with teachers indicated that collaboration with colleagues was “the most highly valued aspect” (Simon & Johnson, 2008, p. 693) of the portfolio process. Attinello et al. (2006) also found that teachers and administrators in the United States frequently cited increased collaboration as a positive outcome of the portfolio process.

What impact do teaching portfolios have on practice?

There is evidence that teachers who engage in the portfolio process make improvements to their practice. Van Wagen and Hibbard (1998) have found that when constructing portfolios teachers become more skilled in analyzing students’ work and more conscious of the impact they have on student learning. Wolf (1996, p.17) found that portfolios allowed teachers to “retain examples of good teaching so they can examine them, talk about them, adapt then, and adopt them”. Attinello et al. (2006) found that teachers and administrators involved in the portfolio process believed portfolios prompted changes in teaching practice, although administrators were more positive about the impact. Research by Sung, et al. (2009) used parallel items to determine differences in teachers’ assessment practices before and after portfolio construction. Two researchers, who did not know which items were original or parallel, rated them independently. The inter-rater reliability coefficient was 0.92. Results showed that scores for parallel items were consistently higher than the original items and indicated a significant difference in the quality of teachers’ assessment practices after portfolio construction.

Is the time required by teachers to construct portfolios reasonable and sustainable?

A recurring theme in the literature is concern over the amount of time required to develop portfolios. Wolf (1998, p. 19), for example, claims that teaching portfolios are both “time-consuming to construct and cumbersome to review”. Likewise, Painter (2001, p. 33) writes that portfolios are “extraordinarily time-consuming” and emphasizes that time is something “most teachers do not have”. Research by Attinello et al. (2006) reiterates these concerns; they found that survey and interview responses by teachers and administrators revealed that teachers and administrators viewed the time required for portfolio construction to be a “distinct disadvantage” (Attinello et al., 2006, p. 149) of the process. Furthermore, during interviews, some teachers communicated that “the time would be better spent planning lessons and doing other activities more directly related to classroom instruction” (Attinello et al., 2006, p. 159). Attenillo et al. (2006, p. 159) mention that the issue of time was the concern “voiced most often” in their study.

Conclusions and Recommendations:

To justify the time and effort required to construct and evaluate teaching portfolios within compulsory sector education, a strong rationale and convincing evidence of their effectiveness is required. Portfolios have the potential to reflect the complex nature of teachers work and, for this reason, may be an excellent tool to enhance teachers’ learning in increasingly diverse environments. This article has illustrated that although strong claims are made regarding the impact of the portfolio process on teachers’ levels of reflection, empirical evidence does not support these claims. And while the literature suggests that teaching portfolios can foster collaboration within schools and transform teaching practice, the evidence is limited and does not contrast the impact of portfolios with other forms of professional learning. Further empirical evidence is needed to strengthen claims about the effectiveness of teaching portfolios and future research needs to compare the impact of portfolios on teacher learning with other forms of professional development. Research is also needed that investigates how teachers’ critical thinking develops over an extended period of time when using teaching portfolios.

Further questions for reflection:

This article has outlined recent research findings on the impact of portfolios on teacher professional learning in the compulsory education sector. Below are some questions to think about. Please share your responses to these questions in the comments section (beneath the references).

  1.  How might deep and useful reflection be enhanced with teachers?
  2. To what extent might guidance help in the development of teaching portfolios?
  3. How can authentic and dressy portfolios be distinguished?
  4. How might we better balance the time consuming nature of teaching portfolio development and the benefits derived from them?


Attinello, J. R., Lare, D., & Waters, F. (2006). The value of teacher portfolios for

evaluation and professional growth. NASSP Bulletin, 90(2), 132-152.

Darling-Hammond, L., & Baratz-Snowden, J. (2005). A Good Teacher in Every

Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hargreaves, A. (2000). Four ages of professionalism and professional learning.

Teachers and Teaching: History and Practice, 6(2).

Lizzio, A., & Wilson, K. (2007). Developing critical professional judgement: the

efficacy of a self-managed reflective process. Studies in Continuing

Education, 29(3).

Macfarlane, B., & Gourlay, L. (2009). Points of departure: The reflection game:

Enacting the penitent self. Teaching in Higher Education, 14(4).

Maurice, H. S., & Shaw, P. (2004). Teacher portfolios come of age: A preliminary

study. NASSP Bulletin, 88(639).

Nuthall, G. (2007). The hidden lives of learners. Wellington: New Zealand Council

for Educational Research.

Ouellett, M. L. (2007). Your teaching portfolio; Strategies for initiating and

documenting growth and development. Journal of Management Education,

31(3), 421-433.

Painter, B. (2001). Using teaching portfolios. Educational Leadership, 58(5), 31-34.

Parnell, W. (2012). Experiences of teacher reflection: Reggio inspired practices in the

studio. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 10(2).

Poskitt, J. (2005). Towards a model of New Zealand school-based professional

development. New Zealand Journal of Teachers’ Work, 2(2), 136-151.

Simon, S., & Johnson, S. (2008). Professional learning portfolios for argumentation in

school science. International Journal of Science Education, 30(5), 669-688.

Sung, Y. T., Chang, K. E., Yu, W. C., & Chang, T. H. (2009). Supporting teachers’

reflection and learning through structured digital teaching portfolios. Journal

of Computer Assisted Learning, 25(4), 375-385.

Van-Wagen, L., & Hibbard, M. K. (1998). Building teacher portfolios. Educational

Leadership, 55, 26-29.

Wolf, K. (1996). Developing an effective teaching portfolio. Educational Leadership,

53(6), 34-37.

Wolf, K., & Dietz, M. (1998). Teaching portfolios: Purposes and possibilities.

Teacher Education Quarterly, 25(1), 9-22.

Xu, J. (2002). Using teaching portfolios to promote ongoing, in-school professional

development. ERS Spectrum, 20(1), 21-28.

Xu, J. (2003). Promoting school-centered professional development through teaching

portfolios. journal of Teacher Education, 54(4), 347-361.

Zwozdiak-Myers, P. (2012). The Teaher’s Reflective Practice Handbook: Becoming

an extended professional through capturing evidence-informed practice New

York: Routlidge



Filed under General

4 responses to “Teachers’ Professional Learning Portfolios: Do they really improve teaching?

  1. Very thoughtful analysis, Nathan. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Florian

    Hello dear journal of education.
    I’ll give a shot at answering your first question. I think that our appraisal process is enhancing deep and useful reflections if it is based on data. It is through the appraisal process that I’ve had the deepest reflections on my teaching and learning. It does hint at keeping a portfolio of evidence for the appraisal process to be effective, but simple pieces of data, not necessarily organised within a portfolio, would also do the trick.
    There is one drawback, which is that the appraisal process only happens with one appraiser, so however deep and useful the conversations are, they are limited to whoever you’re talking to. We would gain from being scrutinised by more of our colleagues. That means that we’d have to be a bit less shy about it and trust our colleagues to be helpful professionals.
    I guess that we could have a time slot in our weekly staff PD sessions to showcase a reflection from one of us about their teaching. Not mandatory. Just an opportunity to widen the conversation.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful response, Florian. I agree that appraisal needs to be based on good data/ evidence and a good understanding of how to analyse and interpret data. Also, I think discussing teachers’ approaches to/ philosophy of education would be a good way to support critical reflection.

      Are teachers’ objectives well articulated and consistent with their philosophy and practice? Are they open to reflecting critically on their education philosophy and giving serious consideration to alternative points of view? Are they able to justify their philosophy in light of the needs of their particular students, as well as the broader social, cultural, historical, and political context in which their teaching occurs?

      I agree that a collaborative approach would be beneficial and that showcasing teaching is a good idea – this might help foster a focused and professional culture. However I also believe deep, informed, and open discussions about the aims of education need to be a part of a school’s culture. Teaching is more than a technical exercise – it is a moral and philosophical endeavour with a long and contentious history. Good teachers are able to implement policy skilfully, but they can also think and communicate critically, especially when they believe their students are being subjected to unsound policy.

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