The views of students and teachers on the use of portfolios as a learning and assessment tool in midwifery education

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  • Nune Education T&y (1994) 14,3%43 @ Longman Group UK Ltd 1994

    The views of students and teachers on the use of portfolios as a learning and assessment tool in midwifery education

    Mary Mitchell

    As the introduction of devolved continuous assessment in midwifery education has led to the introduction of new and varied learning and assessment strategies, there is a need to evaluate their use. The focus of this study is on the views of students and teachers and on portfolios as a learning and assessment tool in midwifery education.

    In a small exploratory study questionnaires were used to obtain both quantitative and qualitative data from 24 student midwives. Eight tutors were also interviewed. Data was analysed using an adapted version of grounded theory.

    Many students had negative feelings about the use of portfolios. In particular problems related to lack of motivation, uncertainty about what was expected of them, difficulty in expressing personal thoughts and feelings and the subsequent anxiety that this created. Tutors showed some awareness of the relative merits associated with the use of portfolios for learning and assessment. Although some of the students problems in keeping the portfolio were appreciated by the tutors, the students perceived there were few attempts made to rectify or minimise these difficulties.


    In 1990 the curriculum for post-registration education and training of student midwives was revised to incorporate a system of devolved continuous assessment. This system allows indi- vidual institutions to use innovative methods of

    assessment. Thus an entirely different strategy

    of assessment had been devised. This study is

    Mary Mitchell Cert Ed ADM RM RGN Midwifery Tutor, Avon and Gloucestershire College of Health, Midwifery Education Department, Southmead Hospital, Bristol BSlO 5NB. UK (Requests for offprints to MM) Manuscript accepted 2 June 1993


    concerned with one particular component of the

    assessment scheme:

    A portfolio which is kept throughout the

    course and follows the students progressive

    development, clinically and theoretically,

    towards the full understanding of, and ability to fulfil the role of the midwife. The portfolio

    should demonstrate reflection on practice, the

    ability to draw constructive conclusions and

    originality of presentation. (Post-registration

    Midwifery Training Document. Avon College

    of Health 1990)

    Shortly after this new assessment strategy was

    implemented, it became apparent that the students were experiencing difficulties and expressing anxieties concerning the portfolio.

  • They were unsure of the requirements expected of them and it was perceived that there was little consensus in agreement among tutors. This led to a kindling of interest in portfolio development and ultimately to this study. The main aim of the study was to seek a greater understanding of students and teachers perceptions, feelings and experiences regarding the use of portfolios.


    The use of portfolios as a learning and assess- ment tool has attracted little attention in mid- wifery or nurse education. Indeed, there is little written about portfolios in British literature. In considering the philosophy and principles of portfolios a review of work on the use of diaries, logs, journals and autobiographical writings was also undertaken.

    The concept of portfolios was developed in North America. A working definition is given by Paulson et al ( 199 1, p 60):

    A portfolio is a purposeful collection of student work that exhibits the students efforts, progress and achievements in one or more areas. The collection must include student participation in selecting contents, the criteria for selection, the criteria for judging merit. and evidence of self-reflection.

    The system of portfolio use in this study reflects all of these areas, except that students do not stipulate their own criteria forjudging merit. The constraints of the curriculum and statutory requirements dictate that consistent criteria are used for assessing student work. Smith & Mur- phy (1990) use examples of three portfolio systems to illustrate the point that there is no such thing as the Portfolio. Different groups within a variety of subject areas may use differ- ent portfolio systems depending on their pur- pose and what best suits local needs.

    Paulson & Paulson ( 199 1) see the portfolio as having the potential to be a powerful edu- cational tool for developing student autonomy in learning. It is considered that when portfolios are used for assessment purposes then this assessment is placed at the heart of the learning

    process. Keeping a portfolio is believed to facil- itate the students to develop their ability to become independent self-directed learners. The students have complete freedom over the con- tent of their portfolio and this should give them the motivation to follow and develop areas of individual interest. Krest (1990) using portfolios in the area of writing skills, cites this as the main advantage to their use.

    Keeping a portfolio encourages students to enhance their skills of reflection (Walker 1985). Learning from experiences both within and outside the classroom setting is facilitated. It is argued that through the process of reflection students develop an insight into their own atti- tudes, values and behaviour and those of others (Boud et al 1985). Students gain confidence as they watch their ideas take hold and witness their own development through the portfolio. The portfolio provides the teacher with an oppor- tunity to assess students in a broader context rather than merely focusing on the acquisition 01 skills and knowledge. However, most of these beneficial claims for the use of portfolios are as yet unsubstantiated. The discussions reflect the views of teachers who express the advantages of portfolio use without the support of empirical evidence to support their claims.

    There is little critical appraisal in the literature on the use of portfolios. This may be attributed to the newness and relative lack of experience in the use of portfolios in learning and assessment. Krest (1990) found that a number of students failed to be challenged or motivated in keeping their portfolio. This problem was rectified by adapting the portfolio to meet individual needs. However a number of key issues and concerns are highlighted. There may be a potential con- flict for portfolios serving both purposes of learning/individual assessment and large scale assessment. Can portfolios be assessed if con- tents and work have not been standardised? Walker (1985) might argue that the demon- stration of individual growth and development is sufficient but where professional practice and public accountability is concerned, as in mid- wifery education, this may not be satisfactorv. What criteria should be involved in making judgements about students attitutes. feelings


    and behaviour? Other areas of concern surround issues of privacy and confidentiality. Krest (1990) found her students exhibited a high level of ownership of their portfolios and were often reluctant to share their portfolios with teachers or other students.

    Little reference is made to the views of students in the literature. The authors concen- trate mainly on the theoretical advantages to the students and individual teachers experiences of portfolios. What is missing as Pinar 8c Crummet (1970) point out is the study of the students point of view from the students point of view.

    Portfolios in learning and assessment have some similarities to portfolio keeping for accre- diting prior experiential learning. Literature on student perspectives in this context reveals simi- lar advantages to those already discussed. Also cited are an increased self-awareness and insight into personal strengths and weaknesses (McGrath & Skelton 1984), greater choice, per- sonal input into education (Lambeth et al 1989) and an increase in confidence and sense of personal achievement (Oeschle et al 1990). Criticisms were few, those mentioned included comments on how time consuming it is to pre- pare a portfolio and the anxiety they created until the students became familiar with their use (Budnick 8c Beaver 1984).

    The growth in use of portfolios in America has some similarity to the continuing movement within general education in the UK towards the use of records of achievement and profiling. Although a great deal of research and evaluation is currently being conducted into profiles, rela- tively little is known about how the students themselves respond and whether in practice they fulfil the intentions meant of them. Broadfoot (1988) highlights a number of problems occurring with the practical implementation of profiles. Many students have expressed their unease to the intrusion of privacy posed by portfolios. Teachers have also experienced diffi- culty in encouraging students to write about their personal feelings and behaviour; and report that students show a lack of enthusiasm in keeping their profile.

    There has been a surge of interest, in recent years, in the role of writing to promote reflec-

    tion. Educational literature includes a variety of methods and approaches to enhance learning experiences. Diaries, journals and autobiogra- phical writings share a common factor with portfolios in the desire to attend to the affective domain of learning experiences. Powell (1985) encourages autobiographical writings for students to explore the nature of their own learning. Kainer (1980) believes writing pro- motes catharsis, problem solving and creative skills. Butlers (1982) students evaluating their own journals upheld these beliefs.

    Problems may arise when portfolios are used for both purposes of learning and assessment. Summative assessment included as a purpose of portfolio use, may have a profound affect on the way students contribute to their use. It may also affect their experiences and perceptions of the benefits to themselves of portfolio use.


    This was a small exploration study involving 24 post-registration student midwives and 8 teachers. The teachers were those who were involved in giving advice and guidance to the above students with regard to their portfolio.

    Questionnaires with open and closed ques- tions were used to investigate the students per- ceptions of portfolio use. Semi-structured interviews were used to obtain data from the tutors. Data was analysed manually. The method used to categorise and code the interveiw trans- cripts and qualitative part of the questionnaire was an adapted version of Burnards (199 1). The main aim was to produce a detailed and systema- tic recording of themes and issues found in the data and to link these to a category system.

    Initially the interview notes and the responses to the open questions in the questionnaires were read through and notes made of the themes and patterns which emerged. With further examin- ation these themes were grouped together to form a list of categories. The notes were worked through again and coded according to the list of categories. Multiple copies of the notes were made to enable all the coded sections to be cut up


    and kept together. The original notes were kept whole so that it was possible to refer back to them

    and in order that comments which were cut out could be seen in their original context when writing up the findings.


    Overall the students responses were marginally negative. The majority of students found the portfolio did not motivate them to learn. A number of students found keeping their portfo- lio a time consuming chore. Another found the portfolio impeded learning opportunities by having to devote time to it. it has frightened me and put me into a panic was a worrying remark made by a student explaining why the portfolio failed to motivate her.

    Of those who responded positively the most frequent explanation given was that the portfo- lio encouraged further reading. These responses do not tie in with the philosophy of the portfolio motivating students by allowing auto- nomy in choice of content. The students did not seem to be taking advantage of the flexibility and freedom inherent in the philosophy of portfolio keeping. This may have been due to a failure in the introductory process or the continued advice and guidance given by the tutor. This was highlighted by one student who writes you read and write what you think you should concentrate on not what interests you and another you include what you think the assessor wants to see Broadfoot (1988) in attempting to explain her students lack of enthusiasm in profiling remarked that the students positive and nega- tive attitudes appeared to be derived from the attitudes of the teachers. The students percep- tions in this study may certainly have been influenced by their tutors. However, all but one of the tutors spoke very positively about the use of portfolios for learning and assessment, although there did seem to be some lack of awareness among the tutors of the various theo-

    retical advantages and disadvantages to the student of keeping a portfolio. Six of the tutors saw the main aim or philosophy behind the use of the portfolio as to demonstrate personal growth and professional development, the emphasis then being very much on assessment rather than the portfolio as a valuable learning tool. This finding is not surprising due to the limited experience teachers have in the use of portfolios and the lack of discussion in literature.

    The anxiety experienced by the students could also have a negative effect on motivation. This anxiety related to the uncertainty of what was expected of them and the time consuming nature of keeping a portfolio alongside the many other demands on their time. It was surprising how some of the students 6 or 8 months into their course and portfolio keeping were still not sure of whether Im doing it correctly and 1 dont have a clue what is being asked of me. This could be due to the introductory process and the insufficient guidelines available which both students and teachers expressed as a concern.

    Portfolio keeping appeared to contribute little to increasing students self-awareness of strengths and weaknesses. Indeed, in some students the portfolio seems to have reinforced weaknesses without pointing the way for development. This finding is in contrast to that found in the literature. However in many of the examples quoted in the literature the portfolios were not subject to external scrutiny and assess- ment. It may be that those students safe in their knowledge of privacy, found this self-awareness from the self-expression from writing these

    down. Certainly the students in this study experienced difficulties in writing about their innermost thoughts and feelings. This was expressed by many of the students some of whom thought it was an invasion of privacy. This fi...


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