A Reflective Portfolio is a set of writings that summarise the insights and experiences a student has gained from practical assignments. It is used to assess the student’s engagement with their fieldwork, and their ability to use theoretical knowledge in an applied setting. The portfolio itself can take many forms, including an extended written piece, a notebook or binder of short writings and documentary evidence, or an online archive of such pieces.
The reflective portfolio is very different from traditional assignments because it allows students to explore their own learning process. Whereas traditional academic projects expect students to be objective and impersonal, a Reflective Portfolio asks students to highlight their own personal perspectives, opinions and feelings. It provides an honest summary of the work undertaken and the skill sets that were developed. The key to success is demonstrating genuine engagement with the course of study rather than a simple ability to score highly on an exam or essay.
The contents of a Reflective Portfolio will vary according to the discipline, but in general it contains short written pieces that summarise and reflect on the experiences of practical work placements. It can include the following:
Many students feel that Reflective Portfolios are far more helpful to their academic development than traditional assignments. This is because it allows them to develop a critical awareness of their own skill development, which helps them identify their own strengths and weaknesses. The Reflective Portfolio also instils confidence in the student as they learn to apply their theoretical knowledge to practical situations. Through a Portfolio, students reflect back on the thoughts, feelings and insights that they developed over the course of their degree programme, and this creates a more holistic educational experience than many other types of assignment.
Be critical. Although the content of a portfolio will be more personalised than other assignments, you should use the same level of critical analysis as you do for any essay or exam.
Be comprehensive. Make sure that you include a good range of experiences that exemplify your work throughout the duration of your practical assignment. You might choose to highlight one or two periods of your work, but these should be contextualised within your overall experience.
Don’t be afraid to reveal your weaknesses. Writing about your professional insecurities and weaknesses shows examiners how much you’ve developed throughout your course. It also enables you to reflect on theories and methods that might benefit you in future.
Devise a plan for development. Your Reflective Portfolio should testify to your development as a practitioner throughout the duration of your course. However, to write a really strong portfolio you should also demonstrate an action plan for future development. Think about what knowledge and skills might address the professional weaknesses that your reflections reveal, and indicate how you intend to develop these.
The most common mistake in Reflective Writing is to be either too objective and scholarly, or too emotional and non-critical. Either mistake is equally wrong. Students should aim for a middle ground in their writing, in which they highlight their own personal feelings and reflections but analyse these with reference to the theoretical course material.
Another common mistake is not providing enough relevant evidence to support your reflections. Be sure to include documents from your practical experience, including summaries of assignments, mentor/employer feedback, client ratings and so forth.
Finally, be sure to keep your portfolio well organised and professional-looking. It is true that Reflective Portfolios entail a less formal style of writing, but students sometimes believe that this allows for disorganised presentations with jumbled notes, illegible handwriting and poor grammar. Remember that this is still an academic assignment, and all the normal standards of achievement apply!
Higher Education Academy, 2009. Portfolios. Available: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/hlst/resources/a-zdirectory/portfolios. Last Accessed 01 May, 2013.
Higher Education Academy, 2009. Reflective Learning. Available: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/hlst/resources/a-zdirectory/reflectivelearning. Last Accessed 01 May, 2013.
Southampton Solent University, 2013. Reflective Thinking and Learning. Available:
http://mycourse.solent.ac.uk/mod/book/tool/print/index.php?id=2732#ch1103. Last Accessed 01 May, 2013.