Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Looking in the Mirror: Helping Adolescents Talk More Reflectively During Portfolio Presentations

by Tim Fredrick - 2009

Background/Context: Portfolio assessment is a popular form of authentic assessment, but often portfolios become simply folders full of papers rather than student reflections on their work.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: The author conducted a study aiming to help the ninth-grade students in his English language arts classroom be more reflective about their reading and writing portfolios.

Research Design: This study was conducted as a teacher research study in two parts. The first part studied the effect on the reflectiveness of students when using a 10-minute one-on-one presentation with the teacher instead of a cover letter. From the data received from these first-semester presentations, the teacher-researcher categorized the students' statements into reflective and nonreflective categories. In the second part of the study, the teacher used these categories to teach students to speak more reflectively during their second-semester presentations.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The author found that students can be taught to be more reflective about their work and that this newfound reflectiveness helps students take more control in their literacy education.

In my time with the ninth-grade students in my New York City English classroom, my first goals are to help them enjoy reading, writing, and learning and to care about what we are doing in the classroom. I teach in a small school, Grades 7–12, that has a total student population of approximately 550 students. The school’s mission is twofold: (1) to provide equal access to educational resources often denied to racial and economic minorities who make up the majority of its student population, and (2) to prepare all students in the school to attend some form of postsecondary education and to get all students admitted to at least one such institution upon graduation.

My students do want to get good grades—oftentimes, they tell me, to please their parents—but “getting good grades” and “learning” are not the same to them. Many blindly do assignments, and I sometimes catch them copying off each other when they think I’m not looking. When they hand in their assignments, they look to me, the teacher, to tell them what they learned. I do not blame them for this attitude; it is an attitude that has been given to them by a school system that forgets, or is not interested in, who they are. They are urban teenagers of color, of varying economic backgrounds and religious beliefs. They like hip-hop music and punk rock. They spend their free time in my classroom chatting about their favorite reality shows and scary movies. They (sometimes) study together. They are not the disenfranchised gang members you see in Hollywood movies, but some do not have perfect lives, nor are they perfect angels. Many have given up on a school system that they feel has given up on them and thus find their sources of self-worth elsewhere.

We live in a fast-paced world where we can access information in the blink of an eye. Taking the time to stop and reflect is either nonexistent or not valued. The high school students I have taught are awash in this flood of information and adroitly manage it better than most adults, including myself, do. Unfortunately, although they have grown adept at managing and utilizing new media and literacies, they are not often asked to stop and reflect on what they would like to learn and what they’ve already learned. Reflection, though, is key to becoming a lifelong reader, writer, and learner—goals I have for each of my students. For many of my students, there appears to be a deep divide between themselves and their learning—a divide fostered by our reliance on standardized assessments and curriculum, neither of which encourages reflection or, one might argue, authentic learning. Students resist learning or looking at themselves as learners in part because they are rarely asked to do so. They have grown accustomed to going to school, completing assignments, taking a test, and then leaving school to get back to what they view as the important parts of their lives—friends, family, video games, cell phones, the Internet, and so on. There is no doubt that these are all important, but for many, learning and school often are not high on their list of priorities. Many of my students have long ago rejected reading, writing, and learning as irrelevant, so to think about themselves as readers, writers, and learners seems foreign. As a teacher, I fear that as a result, my students lose a very important method of claiming power over themselves and their future.

My hope is that their time with me in my English classroom will help them see that they are indeed learners and that they can recapture the love of learning that I’m confident they had as little children. I believe that we are all born with that love of learning, but it is often lost along the way, perhaps in keeping up with a changing and fast-paced society and perhaps to an education system focused on quick and easy standardized assessments. Lost, too, is reflecting on what we have learned. Thinking about what one has learned enables one to reinforce that learning and to apply it to future endeavors, thus making for a greater investment in one’s education (Hart, 1999). The term reflection is often used interchangeably with terms like self-assessment and metacognition. As I investigated the literature of reflection, metacognition, and self-assessment, it became difficult to understand the concrete differences between the terms; there is much overlap among them. In my teaching, though, I was looking for three aspects, or subskills, of the activity I call reflection—both here and with my students—recognizing that others may attribute these subskills more properly to self-assessment or metacognition. These subskills are: (1) Students can clearly articulate that they learned a skill and are able to name the skill (e.g., how to write a better introduction for an expository essay); (2) they are able to point to evidence in their work that shows that specific learning; and (3) they are able to set goals for future learning. The first without the second is important but not sufficient, in my mind. The last skill is the key to helping students (re)gain a love of learning. Ultimately, what we label these skills is less significant than the desired outcome of students becoming active and reflective learners.

One way to help students with all three of these subskills of reflection is through the use of portfolio assessment, which requires students to go through their work and choose pieces that best demonstrate their learning and progress. Used in this way, portfolios can help students begin the difficult work of “looking in the mirror” and becoming more active in their own self-evaluation (Silvers, 1994). Portfolios enable the student to act, along with the teacher, as an evaluator. Thus, students can share some of the power in the classroom. Sunstein and Lovell (2000) wrote that “portfolios give the responsibility of assessment to the assessed. . . .  Portfolios can empower the powerless; they invite voices to speak in places which usually value obedient silence” (p. xiii). For my students who, it seems to me, have learned to be “powerless” in their education, portfolios offer the possibility for them to take back some of the power from Teacher and thus assume that larger stake in their education.



When I’ve used portfolio assessment in past years to assess my students’ progress in reading and writing, it has seemed to me that something has always been “off.” Because the school year in New York City public high schools is separated into semesters, students complete one portfolio at the end of each semester, in January and in June. But my students’ portfolios never seemed quite like the samples I had seen at professional development sessions or in other teachers’ classrooms. I identified one of the problems as having to do with the students’ cover letters, which are supposed to be the reflective component of portfolios, the place where students try to communicate the reasoning behind their inclusion of certain pieces of reading and writing work. The cover letter is where students are supposed to do the real work of the portfolios: looking into the metaphorical mirror and telling themselves and others (usually the teacher) what they see. This type of self-assessment on the students’ part helps teachers move beyond guessing about what is going on in students’ minds, thus providing a starting point for improved instruction (Yancey, 1998). In this way, the student is claiming power over the educational process; instructional goals are not created simply through standards documents, test scores, or the teacher’s judgments, but include the student’s own insights into what has been learned and what needs work. But moments when this sort of connection truly happened were few and far between. Mostly my students put together the last few assignments they remembered completing and wrote cover letters that basically said, “You asked. Here it is!”

Unsatisfied with the experiences I was having with portfolios but still convinced of their potential, I spent the summer of 2005 contemplating what I was doing wrong and how I could help my students become more reflective learners through the portfolio process. I realized that I had to move beyond my own reliance on their cover letters. I had used them because that was what I had read in all the books and articles on portfolios, but after a couple of years of unsatisfying results, I had to admit to myself that they were not working. The communication I was asking my students to engage in was too one-sided; they seemed not to have the skills needed to do reflection well, and I had not figured out how to teach those skills. To really use the portfolios in ways that might get students to take a bigger stake in their learning and be more forthcoming about their thinking, I needed to listen to what they had to say and ask probing and follow-up questions when I didn’t understand.

As a result of this assessment, the cover letter was removed from the assignment and replaced with a 10-minute one-on-one conference during which students would be asked to present and discuss their portfolios with me at the end of each semester and then set future goals. To examine the effects of this new method, I decided to conduct an action research study and keep careful notes from the portfolio presentations in order to analyze what the students were saying during their presentations, as well as what questions seemed to help them talk more reflectively. Additionally, I developed a comprehensive rubric that could chart their strengths and areas of growth over the two semesters, one category of which concentrated on their reflectiveness (Table 1). My notes and their scores on the rubric became the data through which I analyzed our progress.

Table 1. Reflectiveness Rubric for Portfolio Presentations


Numerical score

Descriptive label

Reflective abilities exhibited by student



Student is able to talk reflectively about portfolio contents and communicate a deep and nuanced understanding of his or her own learning.



Student is able to talk reflectively about portfolio contents with little or no prompting from the teacher.



Student is able to talk reflectively about portfolio contents only with prompting from the teacher.



Student is not able to talk reflectively about portfolio even with prompting.



In the first semester, I began to carry out the plan I had developed over the summer. In preparation for the beginning of the semester, I developed a set of learning objectives to guide my instruction, which included goals surrounding reading (e.g., character analysis), writing (e.g., using evidence to support a thesis), and use of language conventions (e.g., subject–verb agreement). In January, students were given this set of objectives and were asked to demonstrate that they had fulfilled these objectives, using work that they would collect in a portfolio and present to me in an individual session. They could use as their evidence any classwork or homework, formal or informal, that they had completed. The 86 freshmen in my class prepared their portfolios, and I listened to their 10-minute presentations. In the first set of conversations, there was quite a range in the quality of their comments. Close to a quarter of my students said wonderfully reflective things about their work, but the rest did not. I could go from a student saying, “This is my short story and this is my persuasive essay and this is my book reflection” in one presentation to another in which a student might say, “Writing this piece really made me understand what it means to revise work.”

There seemed to be little correlation between students’ academic standing and their ability to talk about their work reflectively. Some students who had achieved high averages were not able to talk about what they had learned; some students with low averages were very thoughtful about their work and even about what might have gone wrong. One student who had struggled all semester with completing work (and who consequently failed the course) spoke memorably during his presentation about a new method that he learned to correct his spelling errors and how that method had helped him remember the spelling of difficult technical words in his biology class.

As I listened, I began to notice a pattern in the ways students talked about their work. Their comments fell into two major categories, which I have labeled reflective and nonreflective. In the nonreflective category, there were four types of statements:

Naming. The student might give the “title” of a piece of work: “This is my character sketch” (turns the page and shows me). “This is my free-writing” (turns the page and shows me). Naming appeared either alone or as part of another utterance. Students often named work and then had other comments to make about it. If the latter happened, the follow-up comment determined the reflectiveness of the utterance and moved it beyond naming. Much of the time, though, students just named the work in the mechanical way described.

Summarizing. The student explains what the assignment is about but does not discuss what he or she learned: “This is my character sketch. We made up a character and wrote a story about him.”

Giving directions. The student explains the steps of assignment: “This is my character sketch. First, we brainstormed on what kind of character we wanted to write. Then, we made up a whole bunch of facts about him like his birthday and his favorite color. Then we decided on the important traits about our character. . .”  This is closely related to summarizing but differs in that the student explains the steps of the assignment as if he or she were giving directions about how to complete it.

Teacher-centered assessment. The student claims that he or she learned something from the work because the teacher gave it a good mark. “I learned a lot from this piece of work, and you can tell because you gave me a good grade.”

One student had so much trouble describing his learning that when I asked him leading questions about what he had learned about each piece, such as, “What is one piece in your portfolio that shows your biggest learning accomplishment and what is the accomplishment?” he looked at his work and then looked at me and shrugged. 

Even during this first set of conferences, I was learning what questions helped students talk more readily about their work. Sometimes, just asking them, “What did you learn from completing this assignment?” or “What was easy and what was hard about completing this piece?” opened the floodgates of reflection. Some spoke reflectively on their own, but most did so only when I asked them leading questions. As noted, some spoke reflectively on their own, but more were able to do so when I questioned them more closely. There were three types of reflective statements that my students used:

Process-related. The student reflects on her own personal process in completing the assignment: “This is my character sketch and this was a really difficult assignment for me. I had a lot of trouble starting and thinking about what I wanted my character to be like.” This differs from “giving directions,” in that here, students discuss their own process and reflect on the positive and negative experiences they may have had with a piece of writing.

Criterion-based assessment. The student compares his work to criteria discussed in class. “I did well on my character sketch because I was able to show how my character was mean instead of telling the reader he was mean.” Students may or may not have pointed to evidence in the text to support their claim. I considered students being able to point to specific examples that corresponded to the criteria as more reflective.

Growth over time. The student compares two different pieces of work and shows how one is better by comparing it with a previous piece of work that was not as good. “You can see here that I did better with my free-writing because this first piece of free-writing in September I couldn’t write nonstop, but in December you can see that I wrote nonstop for the entire 15 minutes.”



 After the first semester of portfolio presentations, I was pleased with the overall experience with my students that January. The presentations helped me to engage them in a conversation, clarify statements I didn’t understand, and push them to do the reflective work I wanted them to do. The one-on-one presentations, with the opportunity to listen to and question students, took my use of portfolios to the next level. I was able not only to identify the ways that students could talk about their work but also to learn what types of questions I could ask that helped students who were struggling to do so. As patterns emerged in students’ responses and the categories of reflective and nonreflective responses began to become clear to me, I saw the need to ask questions that elicited the more reflective kinds of statements. Questions like “What is this piece of work?” only elicited naming of work rather than deep thought. Questions like “How does this work compare to another piece of work you have in your portfolio?” “What is your best piece of writing in this portfolio and why do you consider it your best?” and “What is the most important skill you learned this semester and what piece of work shows that learning?” seemed to help students make more nuanced judgments about their work and communicate their thoughts more effectively.

But still, I was disappointed by the quality of the students’ talk about their work and how much prompting they needed from me to tell me what they thought. As can be seen in Figure 1, two thirds of my students scored a 1 or 2, below the standard I had set for them.

Figure 1. Student reflectiveness scores on first-semester portfolio presentations

click to enlarge

On one hand, students had been able to select work that showed real learning, but on the other hand, for some reason, they weren’t able to describe their learning as demonstrated by that work without significant prompting from me. I think they knew (probably from what I had said in class and to them specifically) that it was good work, but they didn’t know how to say so, or why. I figured that if they couldn’t describe their learning on their own, they were not clear about what they had learned. This made me wonder whether reflection is something that we can teach our students. Are reflectiveness, self-assessment, and self-evaluation skills that can be taught in a mini-lesson and then practiced? If it was possible, it seemed to me that this was the time to do it. Emboldened by the work of D’Aoust (1992), O’Neill (1998), and Easley and Mitchell (2003), whose research suggests that self-evaluation is a life skill that can be learned using portfolio assessment, I decided to venture into what was for me uncharted territory.


I knew from D’Aoust’s (1992) research that “although the teachers considered reflection to be a critical component of using portfolios, they also discovered that it was the most difficult ‘to teach.’ The difficulty was that most students lacked a vocabulary enabling reflection” (p. 44). I also took to heart O’Neill’s (1998) finding that students aren’t comfortable evaluating their own work, but they can be taught how to do so to become more comfortable. In preparation for the portfolio presentation at the end of the second semester in June, I decided to take the types of reflective and nonreflective statements I had heard during the first portfolio presentations and share them with my students.

In June, I did a mini-lesson like any other lesson focused on a reading and writing strategy, which involved going over the different types of statements and examples of each. During their work period, the students filled out a chart that asked them for the name of their submission, what they were going to tell me about it during their presentation, and what type of reflective statement they would make. As I circulated as I would for any other lesson, I talked with students about their statements and the categories they were using. I changed nothing else about how the portfolios were planned or assembled. My goal was to change their part of the portfolio conversations, making them more reflective.


During the presentations at the close of the second semester (which followed the same parameters of the previous semester), I noticed a profound difference in how students talked about their work. There was less reliance on identifying my assessment as the reason students gave for selecting a piece of work. I heard, “I picked this paper because it was my favorite” more often than “I picked this paper because I got a good grade.” Students seemed to be relying more on their judgments as to what made good work and even engaging me in conversations about why they thought some grades were unfair. When I invited students to share their opinions about their work with me and showed them what that sharing looked and sounded like, a small crack developed in the traditional teacher-as-sole-assessor dynamic. This invitation, accompanied by guided support for students as assessors of their own work, helped students become more independent and exercise more power in looking at and reflecting on their work.

Out of 100 students presenting portfolios of more than 15 pieces each, I heard only a handful of nonreflective statements. It seemed that they had taken what they learned in the mini-lesson on reflective statements and applied it directly to their presentations. I repeatedly heard students making the three types of reflective statements that I had described to them. As can be seen in Figure 2, the percent of students scoring in Categories 3 and 4 rose from the first set of presentations to the second; the percent of students scoring in Categories 1 and 2 declined from the first set of presentations to the second. In short, after being taught about the different types of reflective statements that they might make during their presentations and receiving instruction and guidance from the teacher, more students were talking reflectively about their work, and fewer were talking nonreflectively. Two thirds of my students were now “meeting the standard.”

Figure 2. Student reflectiveness scores during two portfolio presentations

click to enlarge

My students still had major strides to make. They were able to talk about their work, but much of their talk about what they had learned was still not centered on specific examples from the pieces they had included in their portfolio. They rarely pointed to their texts and identified specific examples in those texts that demonstrated that they, for instance, learned how to use better details in their persuasive essays, or made an insightful analysis of a book they read. They would simply say, “I learned how to use better details in this essay” but did not point to what those details were. I did have one student who had circled different areas of his papers and talked about paragraphs or sentences at the level of specifics I was hoping to hear; this is the kind of talk that I wanted to help my students do more of because it would show deep reflection on their learning. I want them to see that learning to be deeply reflective is valuable work that will help them feel more positive and powerful in school. 


This experience certainly suggests that students can be taught how to speak and think reflectively about their work. Looking back at the June portfolios and comparing them with January’s, it is clear to me that my students made substantial progress. They were more able to talk to me about what they learned and, as a result, the power of assessment was shared between them and me. How do I know that the students actually learned to be reflective and weren’t just repeating the types of statements I wanted to hear? I don’t, but I do know that getting them to take the first steps toward becoming reflective learners involved giving them the vocabulary with which to talk. As an adult learner, I improved my skills in creative writing by “parroting” the styles of other writers, trying on different personas and playing with what I could do. I felt that reflective talk was very much the same with my students. Giving them the vocabulary was the only way that I could see to help them take those first steps. The semester of this study, I have since found, was the first step in my own discovery that I could teach students to be more reflective. The successes I did experience with revising my portfolio practice sent me on the journey to find other ways to encourage students to be more reflective.

In the time since this action research study, I have continued to work on my use of portfolios and to search for additional ways to help students take the next steps and be more reflective about their work. I continue to use the reflective and nonreflective statements as a first-step teaching tool to aid students in thinking and talking about their work. Students also reflect on their work on a regular basis throughout the semesters, not just in the end. This constant reflective and formative practice not only helps students in the summative assessment, in the form of the portfolio presentation, but also encourages students to become reflective students year-round, not just at the end of each semester. In other words, a habit of reflection is created that achieves my larger goals.

Sometimes students will write a reflective essay about a book they read or about their writing process. Sometimes I will give them a 3-x-5-inch note card and 5 minutes at the end of the class to reflect on their behavior or some other aspect of that day’s lesson. As my students have become more reflective, I feel less and less “necessary” to them as they take more responsibility for the decision-making process in their learning. In their written work and in our face-to-face conversations, students have demonstrated more independent goal setting and more reflective tendencies about the progress they are making. For example, students come to writing conferences with goals for their writing and questions to ask me, instead of coming and telling me, “Just tell me what’s wrong so I can fix it.” My own improved questioning skills have resulted in my telling students less and asking more. For example, when students’ work suffered because of a lack of effort, I used to tell them that I’d noticed their work declining. Now I ask them how they feel about their quality of work. Students are almost always aware of the quality of their work, and by talking about how it is progressing (or not), there is less resistance than I previously experienced when I tried to tell them how they were doing. By asking questions that require reflective comments, I can help students transform the experience by looking at their own work and assessing it on their own terms instead of inviting the power-grabbing rebellious behavior that I witness in other classrooms when a teacher tells a student “how badly” he or she is doing.

Something remarkable happens when a teacher steps back and facilitates the power of assessment and reflection for the student. In a portfolio presentation at the end of the 2006–2007 school year, one of my students who had spent the entire year reading the same genre told me that she came to the conclusion that she wanted to branch out in her reading tastes. I had certainly noticed that she was a genre-exclusive reader but never said anything to her about it, deciding that she would advance her reading interests on her own terms more easily and naturally than if I forced such advancement. If she weren’t a reflective learner, as supported in my classroom, I wonder if she would have come to that conclusion. I also wonder if she would have dug in her heels and stuck with reading only the one genre if I had told her to switch genres. This unprompted moment of reflection and self-assessment told me that she had learned the skills of reflection that had been practiced throughout the year and in the portfolios.

My role has shifted from what now seems like “just another nagging adult” to a teacher who facilitates his students’ reflective lives. Students have begun to set goals and see me as an advisor rather than an evaluator. The power of assessment was switched from being solely the teacher’s responsibility to a shared responsibility between student and teacher. The young reader in the previous paragraph looked at her own experiences reading the same genre over and over and made the decision on her own to change. If she hadn’t looked at her own reading practice and analyzed what was happening, the practical shift would not have occurred. It is my hope that these kinds of shifts in student belief and practice will contribute to students taking a bigger role in their own education and, as they become more powerful in their own education, they will achieve more academically, which I hope will translate into more opportunities throughout their entire lives.

This change in student attitude also has put me in the fortunate position of rarely having a conflict with students about their grades. Because they are constantly looking at their own progress, they usually come to the same conclusion that I do or are very convincing when they advocate for themselves for a grade contrary to the one I had in mind—so much so that I’ve moved toward putting their grading almost entirely in their hands while keeping a veto power over their decision. The veto is rarely needed. During parent–teacher conferences, students can articulately explain to their parents where they are in the process of their learning, and the parents seem impressed with their children. This shift in ownership has led me to enjoy my job more and has made my classroom one of partnership and cooperation rather than constant power struggles between teacher and student.

This work takes a lot of classroom time and teacher (and student) energy. To an outsider, it may look like we spend a lot of time on reflection and not a lot on literacy skills. But looking specifically at work and talking about it requires higher level thinking skills than are measured by any standardized tests. Reflective thinking skills should serve students well in any endeavor, and this experience provides evidence that teachers are critical to this process. Furthermore, though reflection is most often associated with writing (D’Aoust, 1992), learning and teaching about reflection should not be limited to writers or teachers of writing. Reflection should be taught to all students in all content areas.

We need students and citizens who can do more than fill in bubbles. Donald Graves (2000) wrote, “Most [quick and easy] assessments do not engage the student in significant, self-evaluative, long-term thinking. Worse, when we speed up our curriculum and outstrip the possibility of the student as colearner/evaluator we bypass the consumer for whom the education exists” (p. viii). Our goal as educators has to be more than teaching students to become test-taking robots who do not connect with their learning. We have to give them the vocabulary that can help them make a personal and deep connection to their learning and become reflective, thoughtful adults.


D’Aoust, C. (1992). Portfolios: Process. In K. Yancey (Ed.), Portfolios in the writing classroom: An introduction (pp. 39–48). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Easley, S., & Mitchell, K. (2003). Portfolios matter: What, where, when, why, and how to use them. Markham, Ontario, Canada: Pembroke.

Graves, D. (2000). Foreword. In B. S. Sunstein & J. H. Lovell (Eds.), The portfolio standard: How students can show us what they know and are able to do (pp. viii–x). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Hart, D. (1999). Opening assessment to our students. Social Education, 63, 343–345.

O’Neill, P. (1998). From the writing process to the responding sequence: Incorporating self-assessment and reflection in the classroom. Teaching English in the Two-Year College, 26(1), 61–70.

Silvers, P. (1994, Spring). Portfolios and the student’s valuing process. Portfolio News, 4–6.

Sunstein, B., & Lovell, J. (Eds.). (2000). The portfolio standard: How students can show us what they know and are able to do. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Yancey, K. (1998). Getting beyond exhaustion: Reflection, self-assessment, and learning. The Clearing House, 72, 13–17.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 111 Number 8, 2009, p. 1916-1929
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15501, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 5:41:19 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Tim Fredrick
    New York University
    E-mail Author
    TIM FREDRICK is currently a candidate for a PhD in English Education at New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. His research interests include teacher–student relational power and how classroom power dynamics are reflected in and negotiated through classroom discourse, as well as secondary English curriculum and assessment methods. His article “Choosing to Belong: Increasing Adolescent Male Engagement in the ELA Classroom” was published in the April 2006 issue of Changing English, and he has presented at the National Council of Teachers of English, the New York State English Council, and the International Conference of Teacher Research.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue