Portfolios That Work: A Counseling, Assessment, and Retention Tool

Abdullah O. Johnson
Innovation Showcase

In fall 2012, I applied for a Learning Challenge Grant to develop and present a hands-on workshop that would introduce a counseling, assessment, and retention tool (CART) system to the Electronics Engineering Technology (EET) department faculty and staff at Sinclair Community College (SCC). After this workshop, the goal was to offer it to the Science, Mathematics, and Engineering (SME) division, then to all SCC faculty.

The workshop was requested to:

  1. Develop teamwork within the EET department;
  2. Enhance the overall success rate of students and faculty by implementing a system to increase the effectiveness of managing students and course material; and
  3. Help the department to better assess itself, as well as student success and retention rates, thus providing another positive tool for Completion by Design initiatives.

During the project, each EET faculty member instituted the CART system, using specifically designed portfolios in their respective courses. Each student was given portfolio instructions, and the three-ring binders and dividers that constituted their portfolio. Faculty members monitored students' progress, and physically checked each portfolio during the midterm and final weeks of the semester. Throughout the project, department personnel met regularly to address any issues.

At the end of the semester, both student and faculty participants were given a survey to solicit feedback related to the use of the CART system. Each faculty participant was required to provide a written report of his or her individual experiences during the project.

After project data had been analyzed and compiled, an internal report was written and presented to SCC's Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL). Ultimately, my goal was to use data to show how this method can be used across the curriculum as a counseling, assessment, and retention tool. Furthermore, I wanted to track the use of the portfolios as a department and formulate our findings in a report that could be presented at SCC and other institutions.

Learning Challenge Grant

After CTL approval and funding of the Learning Challenge Grant (LCG), EET department participants were briefed on the project that would begin in the 2013 spring semester. During fall break, all logistics for the start of the LCG were completed; supplies were received and provided to faculty participants by the first week of the spring semester.

We initially planned to issue 300 portfolios and tabbed dividers to EET students based on previous semesters' enrollments and course sections. However, due to decreased enrollment, 252 were issued.

Faculty participants were given the freedom to utilize the portfolios in ways suitable to their particular courses, based on suggestions from previous implementation of the portfolio system. During the grant period, weekly emails were sent out and contact was made with faculty participants to assess their progress. Department meetings were used to provide updates and solicit feedback from each participant.


Toward the end of the semester, surveys were administered to participating students to solicit feedback. After analysis of survey data, we concluded that:

  • Students used a portfolio of some kind at least twice, on average.
  • Ninety-nine percent of participating students would recommend the use of the portfolio to other students.
  • Students saved, on average, at least four hours of studying or organizing time each week as a result of the portfolios.
  • The use of the portfolio had a positive effect on students' confidence in being successful.
  • Ninety-one percent of the students plan to use the portfolio in other classes.
  • If graded, the portfolio should be at least 22 percent of their grade.
  • Eighty-six percent of students stated that the portfolio had a positive impact and 14 percent stated it had a negative impact.

In addition to implementing the portfolios in the EET department, we tested our process with students in first-year student experience courses. A comparison of EET department student survey responses with first-year experience student survey responses shows that:

  • Ninety to 100 percent of first-year experience students and 99 percent of EET students would recommend the use of the portfolio;
  • First-year experience students  saved 3 to 4 hours and EET students saved 3.9 hours of study time per week as a result of using the portfolios
  • Ninety percent of first-year experience students and 86 percent of EET students stated there was no negative impact using the portfolio.

In summary, survey responses and comments remained consistent and positive for the continued use of portfolios to organize their coursework.

Participating faculty stated that the portfolios were a positive influence on students and helped with the organization of their coursework. The majority of the faculty plan to continue using the portfolio and adapting it to individual courses. A few faculty members indicated that they will use the portfolio system as a graded component in all of their courses.


This LCG has allowed the EET department, as a team, to help students become successful in their coursework. However, the portfolio is just a container for the paper unless used in a standard way and with some strategy in mind. The portfolio as a CART is a well-thought out and tested system which relies only on the three-ring binder and tabs as tools to organize. The real value in this system is how the instructors and students use the information. For a CART to be effective, faculty must use the system to monitor the progress of each student and counsel them as needed during the course.

The cornerstone of the portfolio is the course-specific worksheets placed in the front of the binders, which must be filled out, monitored, and used to counsel each student. In some courses, faculty who have refined this system use portfolios in one-on-one meetings with each student.

Each instructor sets the tone. Organization, management, and individual accountability can be adjunct to any course of study and can relate to assessing how an instructor and student are successful or effective in their course.

Based on the project data, our expected outcomes were met or exceeded. Although we did not have a valid way to measure grade performance during the LCG, we are confident, based on student comments, that a correlation exists between the use of the portfolio system and an increase in student success, which may lead to an increase in grade point averages.

We expect, based on previous informal implementation of this system, that students and faculty will find their coursework more manageable, comprehensive, and organized. For students, this will result in lower stress levels, better understanding of course material, and a greater sense of accomplishment and control of the success of their course. We predict that students' performance, as well as their overall GPA, will increase.

We are encouraged to continue the process in 100 level courses, where attention to management and organization is needed the most. If we get students to organize early in their courses, they will, based on our data, become more confident, and subsequently, more successful. Data indicate that stress levels can be reduced and significant time saved each week. Our plan is to continue the process in our department, and we hope to provide the three-ring binders and tabs. The material cost is low compared to the benefits to students, and to instructors who will have better organized students. Using portfolios will save faculty the need to repeatedly answer the same questions, provide additional copies of syllabi and handouts, and hear excuses such as, "I can't find my notes."

With initial success behind us, think of the possibilities if we use portfolios for all first-year experience courses, where, in theory, students are new to the college environment and need a mechanism to stay organized in all their courses.


At a minimum, we know that the portfolio system works for both faculty and students; but ultimately, SCC and the business community at large will benefit as well. The table below reflects some of the benefits for faculty and students.

Table 1. Faculty and Student Benefits of Using the Portfolio

Faculty Students
Organization Organization
Management Management
Continuity Study
Change Archives
Updates Interviews
Archives Reflection
Assessment Tracking
Reflection Disputes/Grades
Mentor Faculty Sense of Accomplishment
Certifications Confidence

Lessons Learned

Throughout the process we observed and learned the following:

Project Leaders

  • Ensure that faculty participants believe in the process.
  • Regularly make contact (i.e., email, face to face, department meetings) with faculty.
  • Start implementing portfolio use in 100 level classes, where students are least likely to have used the portfolio system.
  • Not all faculty will give the project their full attention.


  • You have to believe in what you are doing so that students will take the portfolio seriously.
  • Assign a grade, points, or other incentive to help ensure that students believe the portfolio is worth doing.
  • Keep track of students who drop courses in which portfolios are used, regardless of the reason for dropping the course.
  • Regularly mention the portfolio to keep students on task.
  • Show students a sample of what you expect.
  • Develop a written standard for students to follow.
  • Use binders that are the right size to match your class content requirements.
  • Advise students that you are willing to check their portfolios any time they want.
  • Have hole-punches and staplers available.
  • Keep in mind that some students will lose their portfolios.
  • Do not accept unorganized portfolios.
  • Survey student participants once to get a more accurate reading.
  • If you survey students more than once, check the consistency of the answers.
  • Keep survey questions short.
  • Give surveys early enough to get them done and collected.
  • Start compiling your data early.
  • Not all students will provide you with good survey data.
  • Be patient--take what you have and make it happen.

Abdullah O. Johnson is an Associate Professor in the Engineering and Electronics Technology department at Sinclair Community College.

Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.