Peer Review

Reflective E-portfolios: One HIP to Rule Them All?

As colleges and universities embrace high-impact practices (HIPs), we can envision a future—as yet a fantasy world—where they become more common, anchored in curricular pathways and designed to improve the retention and graduation rates of new majority students. At the same time, we see the accelerating adoption trajectory of electronic portfolios (e-portfolios), which suggests that they might also become commonplace in our higher education system. What would the educational landscape look like in this future where HIPs and e-portfolios took prominent places in the lives of students at colleges and universities?

We’re speculating in this article about a fantasy world where HIPs predominate in higher education, so we might profit from using one of the most widely recognized metaphors from fantasy literature—that of the One Ring that rules all other rings of power in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The One Ring in Tolkien’s universe is the physical means through which Sauron seeks to exert power in Middle Earth. The rings of power are bound together and were created by Sauron to corrupt and control men, elves, and dwarves. The metaphor can only be extended so far into higher education, but we are intrigued by the idea that the e-portfolio could be considered something akin to the One Ring—the high-impact practice that unites and connects all other HIPs. What is the current status of e-portfolios and HIPs in higher education? How will that status change in the near future? Are e-portfolios another HIP? If students experience multiple HIPs in the course of their studies, would they benefit from also showcasing and reflecting upon them in an e-portfolio? What roles do HIPs and e-portfolios play in assessing essential learning outcomes?

High-Impact Practices in Higher Education

Research supports George Kuh’s contention that the following teaching practices are notably beneficial to college students: first-year seminars and experiences, common intellectual experiences, learning communities, writing-intensive courses, collaborative assignments and projects, undergraduate research, diversity/global learning, service learning/community-based learning, internships, and capstone courses or projects. In addition, research suggests that participation in HIPs may also have compensatory effects for underprepared and historically underserved students (Kuh 2008; Brownell and Swaner 2010; Finley and McNair 2013).

When done well—and we should never forget that any high-impact practice can be designed or implemented poorly—HIPs share a set of characteristics that are the ultimate sources of benefit for students. They engage students as active rather than passive learners. To take one example, students engaged in undergraduate research can be actively (re)discovering discipline knowledge instead of passively receiving that knowledge in a lecture. HIPs engage students in relationships with faculty and other students that center on substantive and relevant material. For example, students working on a collaborative project can be asked to negotiate educationally relevant content at the same time that they are negotiating the dynamics of group work. A related feature of HIPs is that students are more likely to work with a diverse set of other people. HIPs also ask students to devote extended time and effort on tasks that are intentionally designed to result in tangible and specific—but unscripted—outcomes. Because of the way they are structured, HIPs frequently provide students with feedback on how well they are understanding concepts or learning new skills. Finally, HIPs tend to ask students to integrate, apply, and synthesize knowledge in meaningful contexts. Think about the demands for integration, application, and synthesis inherent in service-learning courses, internships, and capstone experiences.

E-portfolios as a High-Impact Practice

While evidence grows that effective e-portfolio use correlates with student success and deep learning (see Eynon, Gambino, and Török 2014), they have high impact for a few underappreciated reasons as well. Exploring these reasons reveals some of the characteristic features of high-impact practices more generally, deepening our understanding of what makes these educational practices high impact, and helps show why e-portfolios are potentially the unifying HIP.

The first thing to note about e-portfolios as a high-impact practice is that they are composed. When we say composed, we are referring to the fact that e-portfolios both include writing and are themselves written. Just the fact of writing invites us to consider how e-portfolios might share some features of one key HIP: writing-intensive courses. Writing across courses is itself a valuable activity because writing has been shown to support learning. The National Council of Teachers of English puts it succinctly in Beliefs About the Teaching of Writing (2004): “Writing is a tool for thinking.”

In using the term composed we also include the more global decisions students make when they engage in e-portfolio practice. When students compose e-portfolios, they make higher-level choices about matters of order and arrangement. They select which point to address first, second, third, and so on. They build the architecture of their ideas and make decisions about how they want to represent them hierarchically. Students make connections across various assignments and courses and, more importantly, decide how those connections ought to be displayed. We should not dismiss this work as a trivial matter of graphic design and presentation. E-portfolio work shares many of the key characteristics of HIPs as described by George Kuh (2008) in the seminal AAC&U report on HIPs, High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Making compositional choices requires both “time and effort” and a general understanding of how one’s work across courses fits together.

When students build their e-portfolios, they also enact a shift from being a consumer to being a producer of their own education. They become learners with agency. When we ask students to represent and reflect on their learning both within and across courses, we go beyond simply requiring another assignment. Instead, we are pushing students to demonstrate their education in ways they haven’t been traditionally asked to. In composing an e-portfolio, students do more than represent an educational experience that existed prior to their efforts to capture it. Instead, there is a sense in which students are literally composing their education as they build their e-portfolios. It is in the act of crafting their e-portfolio, in the act of making hard, thoughtful choices, that the educational experience is fully realized.

Asking students to represent their learning introduces another hidden benefit, the so-called “audience effect.” Writing in Wired magazine about the benefits of writing and social media (blogging, Twitter, Facebook), Clive Thompson (2009) points to research that shows a “shift in performance when we know people are watching.” Thompson defends social media (blogging, in particular) against those who argue that it somehow harms literacy. Literacy scholars like Deborah Brandt point to the fact that we are now a “nation of mass writers.” Say what you will about the distractions of social media, the fact is that they require people to write for an audience.

Thompson’s argument can help us better understand another high-impact feature of e-portfolios: their visibility. When students publish their portfolios online, they become beneficiaries of the audience effect. By asking students to represent their work beyond the walls of the classroom, we help them wed the e-portfolio’s benefits of composing and reflecting with an additional set of expectations that can elevate their performance. Thompson points to work that has “found that the effort of communicating to someone else forces you to pay more attention and learn more.” The visibility of e-portfolios pushes students to up their game.

That visibility can influence faculty performance as well. When students represent their work in an e-portfolio, they provide much greater visibility into the work of faculty. E-portfolios shed light on an institution’s teaching. Through e-portfolios, entire courses now have an audience of peers. Colleagues can see more than just a syllabus and assignment; they see the most important aspects of the course as it is experienced and executed by students. This new reality should shape our own performance as faculty just as the greater visibility of e-portfolios shapes the performance of students. Work that was once hidden behind the walls of the classroom now has a broader audience. For faculty, this can produce a kind of secondary audience effect.

E-portfolios for High-Impact Practices

Even if, as we contend, e-portfolio pedagogy is itself a high-impact practice, a well-constructed e-portfolio initiative anchored in the curriculum has a unique and beneficial relationship to other HIPs in an academic program or across an institution. Curated electronic portfolios are ideal venues in which to showcase the work that results from student engagement with HIPs. They allow for text to be combined with multimedia representations to create shareable exhibitions that transcend time and distance. As such, they allow student work to escape the confines of a discrete educational event and formally intersect with the broader range of curricular, cocurricular, and life experiences that define what it means to be liberally educated.

Imagine a student who experiences several HIPs in their general education program—a summer bridge first-year experience, a learning community, a study abroad semester—and additional HIPs in their major, such as undergraduate research, an internship, and a capstone course. And imagine that for each of these HIPs the student placed a significant artifact—a work sample produced during the course of the activity—and a written reflection about the experience in their e-portfolio. Over time the e-portfolio would become signature work itself, as it documented the student’s engaged learning arc, growing sophistication, and emergence as a reflective practitioner. Moreover, if reflection prompts in the e-portfolio were framed in particular ways, the student could more readily grapple with questions about how the HIPs promoted essential learning outcomes, challenged assumptions about academic work, or spoke to each other across the disciplines.

Batson (2010) has argued that e-portfolios are a “profoundly disruptive” technology in higher education, and indeed they challenge traditional understandings of student–faculty interaction, student ownership of learning, and the closed nature of courses. However, in the world of HIPs, e-portfolios might actually play a unifying and organizing function. They could very well provide the scaffolding upon which HIPs are anchored at an institution and through which HIPs are connected in students’ minds. They certainly allow institutions to directly assess the signature work that students produce in high-impact experiences.

Establishing E-portfolios at the Center of the Curriculum

The role we envision for e-portfolios is predicated on their placement at the center of the curriculum. Colleges and universities are figuring out how best to introduce e-portfolios into academic programs. In 2010 Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) instituted e-portfolios as a requirement in all general education courses. Students create one e-portfolio and use it to archive at least one signature assignment and reflection from each general education course. Signature assignments are the kinds of projects, papers, and presentations that are typically found in freshman and sophomore-level courses, but SLCC’s General Education Committee insists that they address at least two of the General Education program’s learning outcomes. By centering e-portfolios in general education, SLCC has ensured that they are used in its existing first-year experience, service-learning, study abroad, and writing-intensive courses. As the college strives to create curricular pathways rich with HIPs, e-portfolios are already a cultural norm that will help students make connections between those deep educational experiences. And e-portfolios are serving to provide a much-needed integrative force in SLCC’s cafeteria-style general education model.

SLCC’s approach has led to several important results. The school assesses the e-portfolios of recent graduates using internally designed rubrics, as well as AAC&U’s VALUE rubrics, resulting in annual snapshots of student performance on general education learning outcomes. By relying on e-portfolios for assessment, SLCC is able to directly assess student artifacts and reflections as they are experienced in the curriculum, rather than having to overlay an assessment regime disconnected from the curriculum. While the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities had concerns in 2004 about SLCC’s lack of assessment in general education, the accrediting body commended SLCC in 2014 for its assessment of general education using e-portfolios. Moreover, the e-portfolio appears to be leading an increased focus on general education learning outcomes across the curriculum. Internal surveys indicate that in the semester before e-portfolios were implemented, 27 percent of students said that they were introduced to general education learning outcomes in the course in which they took the survey, while in a follow-up survey in spring 2014, 63 percent of students said they had been introduced to the general education learning outcomes.

In 2012, Chattanooga State Community College (ChSCC) began its e-portfolio journey to generate assessment data for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools—specifically for a Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) called W.E. Succeed: Work Ethic First, centered around promoting the work ethic of ChSCC students. The W.E. Succeed initiative was also a central piece of the work ChSCC launched through AAC&U’s Giving Community College Students a Roadmap project. The college selected an e-portfolio platform that could support the diverse academic divisions, student support services, and extracurricular programs in addition to the W.E. Succeed initiative. The college developed a student template, named the Roadmap Template, to serve the dual purpose of introducing each new student to the various campus resources and opportunities for engagement, as well as encouraging the student to practice reflection and self-discovery to impact work ethic and career readiness. Surprisingly, many ChSCC faculty requested the tenure and promotion process be modernized within the e-portfolio platform. This resulted in truly campus-wide e-portfolio development, which encompasses a fully developed student template, a tenure and promotion template for faculty, and a template for staff to showcase their work with potential to support annual review as well. By spring 2015, all 180 full-time faculty were completing their annual reviews digitally, and more than 2,500 students from diverse areas of campus were developing their own personal e-portfolios.

The initial goal of the Roadmap student e-portfolio template was to build support for the W.E. Succeed work ethic QEP, but it has evolved into a robust template that has allowed students to much more easily envision their entire educational journey. With the assistance of customized forms within the e-portfolio platform, ChSCC annually combines and analyzes all student reflections with NVivo software. The resulting analysis identifies key themes and allows the college to document gains in work ethic learning as well as the other student learning outcomes. Below are some of the key work ethic themes that emerged in 2014:

  • College is hard work, in many cases harder work than expected.
  • It’s important to learn to balance life among school, work, family, and leisure.
  • Success in courses and programs is preparation for success in future careers, especially in the areas of working well with others and working diligently.
  • Working well with others means open communication and high levels of commitment from individual team members.

Overwhelmingly, students are connecting their actions and attitudes with their resulting academic success. Many directly credit specific learning activities with improved self-confidence and engagement in the learning process. Reflective writing is helping students naturally make connections between courses, HIPs, advising, student learning outcomes, and career goals, while at the same time providing excellent authentic assessment data to support institutional needs.


In a future world where high-impact practices are strategically located throughout curricular pathways, a well-designed e-portfolio requirement could be the one HIP that serves all the others. By asking students to be the curators and narrators of their education, reflective e-portfolio pedagogy showcases signature work in HIPs, allows institutions to authentically assess student learning artifacts, and ties HIPs together into a whole that is greater than the individual pieces.

Both SLCC and ChSCC have implemented e-portfolios strategically at the core of the student experience, positioning both institutions to use e-portfolio as a scaffold on which to anchor a growing list of HIPs. Both institutions hope to open up and link classrooms in high-impact ways that lead to student ownership of their learning. As SLCC student Matthew Curtis said, when speaking about his experience with e-portfolio, “If our knowledge stays in the classroom, it is useless. But if it travels class to class and to our homes it isn’t useless anymore. It becomes alive and effectual in our lives.” 


Batson, Trent. 2010. “A Profoundly Disruptive Technology.” Campus Technology 28, July 2010.

Brandt, Deborah. 2009. Literacy and Learning: Reflections on Writing, Reading, and Society. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Brownell, Jayne, and Lynn Swaner. 2010. Five High-Impact Practices: Research on Learning Outcomes, Completion, and Quality. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Eynon, Bret, Laura Gambino, and Judit Török. 2014. “What Difference Can ePortfolio Make? A Field Report from the Connect to Learning Project.” International Journal of ePortfolio 4 (1): 95–114.

Finley, Ashley, and Tia McNair. 2013. Assessing Underserved Students’ Engagement in High-Impact Practices. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Kuh, George D. 2008. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

National Council of Teachers of English. 2004. Beliefs About the Teaching of Writing.

Thompson, Clive. 2013. “Why Even the Worst Bloggers Are Making Us Smarter.” Wired, September 17.

David Hubert, interim assistant provost of learning advancement, Salt Lake Community College; Jason Pickavance, director of educational initiatives, Salt Lake Community College; and Amanda Hyberger, Quality Enhancement Plan director and professor of music, Chattanooga State Community College

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