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Helping Students Become Better Writers With Digital Portfolios

digital portfolios, student writing, classroom tools, mahara, google docs

Image by Criterion


This is the latest in our series of Expert’s Columns. Stacy Zeiger is an 8th grade teacher dedicated to bringing technology into the classroom in a variety of ways (and on a small budget!). She writes about her experiences using technology with students, and elucidates what works and what doesn’t. Her columns appear on Tuesdays and Fridays.


Teachers use portfolios to track a student’s writing progress and display some of the student’s best work. Portfolios may be used to track progress throughout the school year or passed from teacher to teacher to track writing progress over multiple grade levels. I’m a strong proponent of the use of portfolios in the classroom, but instead of just being a way for teachers to track a student’s progress, I think portfolios need to be used to help a student see her progress and to grow and develop as a writer.  To serve that purpose, digital portfolios work better than traditional portfolios.

Creating a digital portfolio

You can choose to have students create digital portfolios in multiple ways:

  • Flash drive
  • Website
  • Blog
  • Folders on a school server
  • A shared file program

I like the idea of using a blog or website best because it gives students a larger audience for their work. A website requires more effort and students may focus more on the creation of the website rather than the content itself, but a blog is simple to update and edit and also has a comment option which allows students to get feedback on their portfolios or leave feedback for themselves. Using tags and categories with blogs also makes it easier for students to organize their portfolios.

For teachers who are worried about student safety, shared file programs or folders on a school server allow students to easily save their pieces as they write them and make changes where necessary, but may be harder for teachers to leave comments without creating a separate file or marking up a student’s work. However, Google Apps solves some of these problems when you use it to help students develop their digital portfolios.


Image from Google


While I have not had the ability to use it with students yet, Mahara appears to combine the benefits of both website or blog digital portfolios and those through a shared file system. With the system, students have the ability to upload files, blog, create goals and connect with other students and teachers to give them access to their portfolio.  Students are also able to add pictures, videos and other file types, which expands the types of writing they can add to their portfolios.


digital portfolios, student writing, classroom tools, mahara, google docs

Image from Mahara


Editing and reflecting

A student-centered portfolio requires students to regularly look at the pieces in their portfolio and develop them over the course of the school year, then write reflections about the changes they made and what they have learned about the writing process. However, when students write an essay using the traditional pencil and paper method, they are often resistant to editing. My students dislike seeing eraser marks, red pen, crossed out words or comments on their papers, even if they put them there, and rewriting an entire paper by hand is tiring and time-consuming, especially when you discover you’ve made a mistake ¾ of the way through. With a digital portfolio, students have the ability to edit a piece and make small changes without messing up the original or rewriting the entire piece.

In order for digital portfolios to be truly useful, every time students edit their digital portfolios they must also write a reflection which discusses the changes that were made, why they were made and what was learned or how the piece has become stronger because of the edits. Even if my students are just making changes that I have suggested, I require them to write a reflection, because the process of reflecting improves their writing.



Images from Criterion, Google and Mahara

Nell Wulfhart By Nell Wulfhart
Nell Wulfhart is an editor at Her interests are digital culture, developments in publishing and proper punctuation.

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