A Game of Snakes and Ladders: Launch of Critical Report on Learning Portfolio in Higher Education

On Wednesday 14th February, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, TD, Minister of State for Higher Education officially launched The Learning Portfolio in Higher Education: A Game of Snakes and LaddersIMG_5522.JPGThe launch took place in the historic Belvedere House on Dublin City University’s (DCU) St Patrick’s campus, which is the main location of the DCU Institute of Education. The report provides a refreshing critical synthesis of the international literature on the use of learning portfolio in higher education and was a collaborative effort between the Centre for Assessment Research, Policy and Practice in Education (CARPE) and the National Institute for Digital Learning(NIDL).

Grp with BMcC speaking.jpgProfessor Brian MacCraith, DCU’s President emphasised in his opening speech that, “The digital society in which we live, learn and work has led to fundamental changes and, more than ever, universities need to develop critically reflective, life-long learners”. The digital learning portfolio is a key tool in promoting  life-long learning and work ready graduates for the 21st Century. In commenting on DCU’s implementation of learning portfolios across the University, where over 9,000 students now routinely support their learning through Loop Reflect, the President underscored “the University’s commitment to contributing to the body of research in the area and playing a lead role in the international learning portfolio community”.


Darina Scully
, lead author, presented a brief overview of the report including some of the methodological weaknesses in the research literature. IMG_5519.JPG
She noted that despite considerable promise and associated theoretical literature at this point a definitive understanding of how best to implement and evaluate the effectiveness of learning portfolios in higher education has not yet been reached.

In introducing the Minister, Professor Michael O’Leary, CARPE Director commented on the importance of embedding learning portfolio in contemporary assessment practices which help foster critical reflection and gathering evidence of broad skills and competencies that may enhance future employment prospects. The Minister thanked the authors for their timely report which is particularly relevant in the context of the Government’s new Education Action Plan 2018 setting ambitious goals for Ireland’s future development. She also noted the key role teachers play in the successful implementation of any educational innovation.

MMO_Connor speaking.jpg

Professor Mark Brown, NIDL Director briefly expanded on some of the methodological flaws in the literature and talked about how DCU is already acting on many of the key lessons identified in the report. Using a musical analogy, where the rich sound of learning is usually produced by a whole symphonic orchestra working in harmony rather than a single flute, he explained how DCU is seeking to fully embed the Loop Reflect platform (Mahara) in a more meaningful and transformative student learning experience.


Importantly, Mark noted that the term ‘learning portfolio’, as distinct from the more common phase eportfolio, reflects a deliberate effort in both the Report and DCU’s innovation in this area to shift our thinking and language away from an inherently techno-centric focus on the platform towards the intended outcomes. Mark also commented on DCU’s commitment to providing leadership in this area, and in the field of digital learning more generally, by hosting a forthcoming International ePortfolio Seminar and the 2019 ICDE World Conference on Online Learning.

A copy of the Executive Summary appears below and the full report can be downloaded from the CARPE website51.jpg

Executive Summary

The ‘learning portfolio’ is often lauded as a powerful pedagogical tool and, consequently, is rapidly becoming a central feature of contemporary education. This report synthesizes and critically reviews the literature pertaining to its use in universities and higher education institutions speci cally. In these contexts, learning portfolios are typically used with the dual intention of (i) encouraging critically self-re ective lifelong learning and (ii) gathering evidence of broad skills and competencies that may enhance future employment prospects.

IMG_5507.JPGAlthough the theory underlying the use of learning portfolios is promising, robust empirical evidence supporting their effectiveness remains sparse. A large proportion of the literature published on the topic has either been purely theoretical in nature, or has focused on the technological platforms used to support learning portfolio construction. Of the few studies reporting outcomes of learning portfolio use, the vast majority have done so solely in terms of self- reported attitudes and perceptions of stakeholders, as opposed to achievement data or demonstrable competencies. Moreover, almost all of these studies have been conducted over relatively short periods of time.

IMG_5516.JPGOne clear message emerging from the extant literature is that simply requiring students to use learning portfolios will not necessarily foster the desired outcomes. The tool is rooted in a complex pedagogy, and its potential can only be realised if the processes underlying this pedagogy (e.g. re ection) are properly understood by advocates and executed by users. In addition, there is recurring tension between the developmental (process) and evaluative (product) conceptualizations of the learning portfolio, and this may be further aggravated by recent attempts to integrate digital badging within the tool.


Overall, a definitive understanding of how best to implement learning portfolios in higher education has not yet been reached. As such, current attempts to implement portfolios on a university-wide basis may be somewhat premature. Success and sustainability may be possible, but will require extensive planning and preparation, and a substantial commitment from all stakeholders involved. If this is not the case, the experience is in danger of becoming, as Joyes, Gray and Hartnell-Young (2010, p.493) described, “ like a game of snakes and ladders, where initial rapid progress can suffer major setbacks due to a poor understanding… of the threshold concepts.”