Using Portfolios for Alternative Assessment

Using Portfolios for Alternative Assessment

Dr Samantha Jones, School of Geosciences


Dr Samantha Jones, School of Geosciences describes the use of a portfolio as an alternative assessment to replace the formal exam.


Traditionally, the Bioarchaeology course AY4014 has a class size of 15-20 students and included an unseen, two-hour conventional exam assessment. Due to the COVID-19 situation, the teaching team has devised an alternative, portfolio-based assessment to replace the formal exam, which traditionally tested students’ learning via short answer questions and essays. The new, portfolio assessment incorporates a range of summative and formative exercises and has been adapted from a 2nd year Archaeology course. It has been specifically designed to meet the intended learning outcomes of the Level 4 Bioarchaeology course and measures student learning in three topics - Palynology, Isotopes and DNA.


The portfolio assessment counts towards 50% of the overall course grade and consists of different summative and formative tasks that the students complete on a weekly basis. Students then submit their completed tasks as a portfolio PDF file at the end of the course for final marking.


Examples of activities completed for the Palynology topic include:  

  1. An image of an excavation - students identify where microfossils might be preserved and why
  2. A general knowledge quiz to recap topics
  3. Pollen identification exercises
  4. Fossil pollen data analysis and interpretation
  5. A novel, interactive pollen identification game.

The Portfolio can incorporate many different types of appropriate learning activities, ranging from quizzes, statistics, computer assignments, critical reviews, reports, identification etc. Tasks support students’ active learning and scaffold key learning from practical sessions. Using the portfolio enables students to illustrate their progress and achievements during the course.


Based on the experience of the 2nd year Archaeology course, portfolio assessment provides an opportunity for students to learn as they develop and build their assessment submission. It also provides a much deeper learning experience compared to the previous formal, unseen exam assessment method, as this type of assessment often focused on a student’s ability to memorise and recall. Given the intense nature of the course, an exam is not always the most appropriate form of assessment as students tend to cram the revision in at the last minute, causing unnecessary stress rather than experiencing a continual learning process. In contrast, the portfolio approach facilitates students’ learning through small practical tasks over an extended period of time and reinforces students’ subject knowledge through learning and reflection, rather than memorising at the last minute for the exam.


The measurement of student learning through their portfolio assessment performance will help the teaching team to evaluate the extent to which meaningful learning has occurred in the Bioarchaeology course. Students will also provide feedback via the Course Feedback Form (formerly SCEF, Student Course Evaluation Form) on the portfolio assessment design and delivery. In addition, students will also be able to provide feedback at the Staff-Student Liaison Committee (SSLC). This approach is vital for staff and students to reflect on the course teaching, enabling the teaching team to continually improve the portfolio assessment tasks.


This case study is an initial approach to share portfolio assessment practice internally, enabling effective and innovative assessment practice to be disseminated across academic Schools and disciplines as we transition to a more blended learning context. In addition, there are several different dissemination opportunities available to share the design, delivery and evaluation of our portfolio assessment across the University more widely, including the Annual Academic Development Symposium and the monthly Learning & Teaching Network meetings