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Keywords:

  • approaches;
  • assessment;
  • competence;
  • nurse education;
  • portfolios;
  • students;
  • theoretical base

Background.  The literature review presented here was conducted as part of an English National Board for Nursing, Midwifery and Health Visiting funded project to evaluate the use of portfolios in the assessment of learning and competence. Initial consideration of the topic revealed the need to clarify the terminology and approaches used to assess competence using portfolios, and therefore the literature review was conducted to inform the study.

Aims.  To clarify definitions, theoretical bases and approaches to competence and the use of portfolios in the assessment of learning and competence in nursing education.

Methods.  A comprehensive literature review was conducted using the CINAHL and MEDLINE databases and the keywords competenc*, portfolios and nursing. Articles published in the period 1989–2001 in English were obtained and their reference lists scrutinized to identify additional references. Twenty articles were found using a combination of the keywords competenc* and portfolios, and 52 using the combination portfolios and nurse education. Articles were included in the review if they focused on the use of portfolios in nursing, and those concerned with professional or transitional portfolios were excluded. This article will analyse definitions of and approaches to competence and its measurement and to portfolios and their use as discussed in the articles identified.

Results.  Three approaches to competence were identified, each with its appropriate forms of assessment. With regard to portfolios, a number of definitions were again found, but there was a consensus that the theoretical basis of their use is theories of adult learning. A number of reasons for and advantages and disadvantages of their use were found, as well as varying ideas about what a portfolios should consist of and how it should be assessed.

Conclusions.  A holistic approach to competence seems to be compatible with the use of portfolios to assess competence in nursing students, but the concept and its implementation is still evolving. A variety of assessment methods are needed for assessment and portfolios appear to have the potential to integrate these. Reflection is an essential component of a portfolio, as are the student–teacher relationship and explicit guidelines for constructing the portfolio. Issues of rigour in assessment of portfolios need to be addressed, but the assessor's professional judgement will inevitably enter into this assessment.