Portfolio as a tool for enhancing learner autonomy and life-long learning

Jaana Oinonen
Lecturer in Finnish and Communication
JAMK University of Applied Sciences, Language Centre, Finland

Suvi Uotila
Senior Lecturer in English and Swedish
JAMK University of Applied Sciences, Language Centre, Finland

Paula Vuorinen
Senior Lecturer in English and Swedish
JAMK University of Applied Sciences, Language Centre, Finland

Urn-address: http://urn.fi/urn:nbn:fi:jamk-issn-2343-0281-6


This article discusses the portfolio pilot project carried out at JAMK University of Applied Sciences in the fall semester 2014, describing the goals, challenges and outcomes of the three learner groups that participated in the project.

The challenging operating environment in language teaching – heterogeneous groups (students from different degree programs, varying levels of language skills from A2 to C2), short courses and the increasing amount of virtual learning – made us look for ways to better meet the students’ individual needs and to increase the field-specific content and student autonomy in language learning. There was a need to develop a learning method that would work in contact, blended and virtual learning, and that would support the students’ autonomy and with that their lifelong learning.

There is an ongoing project at JAMK University of Applied Sciences for student portfolios that would also demonstrate the students’ language skills. Utilizing the research on the European language portfolio and the different portfolio models and experiences (e.g. Engrand-O’Hara 2012), we started developing a portfolio model suitable for the English and Finnish courses at our university. The language portfolio emphasizes the positive aspects, as the evaluation is based on what the students are able to do. Self-evaluation and peer-evaluation are important elements in the evaluation process. (Kantelinen & Hilden 2012; Eurooppalainen kielisalkku n.d.)

The European language portfolio is based on the Common European Framework of Reference (hereafter CEFR) (Kantelinen & Hilden 2012). In CEFR language learners are seen as social actors, who produce, use and learn a language in certain environments, circumstances and fields. The meaning of language is created by the social context in which it is used. These are the aspects of CEFR that we in particular want to focus on in our portfolio model. The language learning needs of the students in different degree programs are related to the situations and social contexts of their field, and this should be taken into account in both language learning and evaluation.

Language courses piloting portfolio

The pilot courses for our portfolio model were obligatory English (English for Working Life, 4 ECTS credits), elective Remedial English (5 ECTS credits) and elective Write in Finnish (3 ECTS credits). The courses consisted of some mutual components (self-evaluation, goal setting, portfolio) and a pattern of assignments related to the topics of each course. Also the assessment criteria was co-operatively created. First, the students write a self-evaluation and an essay in which they describe their learning strategies and level of language skills. In the essay, each student also sets goals for the upcoming course. Then they select and complete assignments from each part of the course. In the end of the course, students create their own portfolio: they pick the most representative assignments and add reflection and self-evaluation.

Write in Finnish is an online course aimed at students who wish to improve their writing skills in Finnish. The course is available for students of any area whose language skills are at least at the level B1 (CEFR). The course covers three themes: media texts, job applications and CV´s and study writing.

Remedial English is a course aimed at students who wish to review some basic grammar and vocabulary and practice their speaking skills in English before taking the obligatory course English for Working Life. A group of second-year agrology students participated in the course and the portfolio pilot project.

Four themes – Finland, Studies, Work life and My field – were covered during the course. Each theme consisted of two contact meetings (six 45-minute lessons/theme) and assignments related to the themes. From each theme the students got a list of possible assignments to choose from, or they were allowed to suggest their own ideas. The students had to complete two assignments per theme; one had to be individual work and the other one could be done in pairs or small groups. It was also required to produce both written texts and audio/video recordings.

English for Working Life is obligatory for all degree students. The course in this study was a contact course offered for degree students in Health and Social Studies. Most of the students were in their first year of studies studying in five different Bachelor level degree programs: Physiotherapy, Rehabilitation Counselling, Nursing, Social Services and Occupational Therapy. The curriculum for the students is the same regardless of their degree program but they all have very specific language needs in their own field.

The course focused on five main themes: Everyday English and culture, Me and my studies, Working life, Professional English and Academic writing. There were one or two contact meetings per theme (three to five 45-minute lessons) and after each theme the students were given a list of assignments to choose from. The assignments included both written and spoken tasks and the students were asked to return all their work online.

Results and outcomes of the project

Offering a possibility to pick the assignments that are suitable for the students’ own language skills and learning goals has been a good answer to the question of how to meet the challenges of a very heterogeneous group. According to student feedback, the portfolio tasks helped them to learn about the topics in question as well as specific vocabulary in their field. The assignments and topics covered felt meaningful and relevant to their studies.

In general, the students liked the flexibility that portfolio work gave them in choosing what they wanted to focus on. Some students mentioned that working independently taught them time management skills and working to deadlines. Many liked to work together and produce recordings while written tasks were generally done alone.

During the course the students worked independently with the assignments and asked for further directions when they needed help. Many students struggled with selecting the tasks from the list and they needed to be reminded to pick tasks that were relevant to their goals and their level. Many students chose tasks that they felt were nice and easy and did not always look for challenges. In addition, they did not seem to have a clear idea how to select their final work so that it would demonstrate their skills and improvement. Many students seemed to have made the choice randomly and merely copy-pasted the work in the portfolio as they were without any editing. In the future, this is something that should be emphasized when instructing the students.

During the Write in Finnish course students got feedback on every assignment they wrote. Rewriting the texts for the portfolio was obligatory. This seemed to be a very good way for improving the students’ writing skills, although it meant a lot of work for the teacher.

For the teacher it was refreshing to get to evaluate assignments that were different, personal and even surprising instead of reading 20 more or less similar essays. Most of the assignments were traditional compositions or short written descriptions, but there were also some Powerpoint presentations, pictures with captions and short video clips. Using this kind of method allowed the students to focus on the topic areas that were the most interesting or relevant to them, and also to use their creative skills in designing and implementing the assignments, working at a level that is suitable for their current language skills and that best serves their language learning goals.

However, it is difficult to decide on the criteria for evaluation and how much emphasis should be placed on language skills and how important is seeing that the students have been able to work towards their individual goals despite their command of the language. The evaluation criteria for the courses describe the skills shown so the portfolio needed its own evaluation criteria. How this is linked to the final course grade and if the course includes some other tasks or an exam affecting the grade needs to be clear to the teacher and clearly communicated to the students as well.

In addition, it has also been quite challenging to guide students to reflect and evaluate their own language learning. Some students are used to self-reflection, others have never tried anything like that. Furthermore, students often have difficulties in evaluating their actual language level on CEFR.

Despite the challenges, we have reached the goals of the portfolio model: Students had the choice to pick the assignments that serve their goals and needs. They have found ways for life-long learning and ideas on how to learn and study languages by themselves outside the classroom. Even though there are clear challenges in instructing the students in the process, at their best, portfolios can excellently show the learning process and development of the language skills during the course.


Engrand-O’Hara M. 2012. Self-Customization: Using Portfolio to Enhance Learner Indepence. Linguistik online 54. Referred to 14.5.2014. http://www.linguistik-online.ch/54_12/engrand-ohara.html.

Eurooppalainen kielisalkku. N.d. Opetushallitus. Referred to 9.3.2015. http://kielisalkku.edu.fi/.

Eurooppalainen viitekehys 2003. Kielten oppimisen, opettamisen ja arvioinnin yhteinen eurooppalainen viitekehys. Helsinki: WSOY.

Kantelinen, R. ja Hildén R. 2012: Eurooppalainen kielisalkku vihdoin suomalaiseen perusopetukseen! Kieli, koulutus ja yhteiskunta. Kielikoulutuspolitiikan avoin verkkolehti. 10.10.2012. Referred to 14.4.2014. http://www.kieliverkosto.fi/article/eurooppalainen-kielisalkku-vihdoin-suomalaiseen-perusopetukseen/.

URN: http://urn.fi/urn:nbn:fi:jamk-issn-2343-0281-6