Making portfolios work in practice


  • Julie Scholes MSc DPhil RN DANS,

  • Christine Webb BA MSc PhD RN RSCN,

  • Morag Gray MN PhD RGN RCNT RNT,

  • Ruth Endacott MA PhD RN CertEd DipN,

  • Carolyn Miller BA DPhil,

  • Melanie Jasper BA BNurs MSc PhD RGN RHV RM NDNCert PGCEA ILTM,

  • Mirjam McMullan BSc MSc SRCh

Julie Scholes,
Centre for Nursing and Midwifery Research,
University of Brighton,
Mayfield House,
Village Way,
Brighton BN1 9PH,


Background.  A portfolio captures learning from experience, enables an assessor to measure student learning, acts as a tool for reflective thinking, illustrates critical analytical skills and evidence of self-directed learning and provides a collection of detailed evidence of a person's competence.

Aims.  This paper reports data on how assessors and nursing students match learning outcomes and/or competencies to their practice and then reconstruct those experiences into the format required by the portfolio documentation. The data were gathered as part of a larger study to evaluate the use of portfolios in the assessment of learning and competence in England.

Methods.  This three phase stakeholder evaluation was designed to gain the views of those involved in designing, implementing and using portfolios in nurse education. In phase 2, 122 students and 58 nurse teachers were interviewed about their perceptions of portfolio use, and a further 32 students and 26 assessors were interviewed after they had been observed taking part in an assessment process. Thematic data analysis was used.

Findings.  Assessors and students underwent a complex process of deconstructing learning outcomes/competences to fit these to their practice. These then had to be reconstructed through the written medium to fit the structure of the portfolio. Confirmation that this met teachers’ expectations was essential to allay feelings of insecurity.

Conclusions.  To achieve maximum benefit from the portfolio as a learning tool to link theory and practice, there needs to be a clear fit between the model of portfolio and the professional practice that is to be assessed. Outcomes and competences, as well as the type of evidence required to demonstrate their achievement, and integration of the whole experience should match the students’ stage of professional and academic development. Over-complex approaches to practice assessment, particularly in the early stages of students’ careers, can detract from clinical learning in favour of learning how to complete the portfolio successfully.