Destination Digital Student Portfolios

So many of us teachers find it hard to fit regular self-reflection into our teaching. With the introduction of the new curriculum, our goal is to help our students understand themselves as learners and become aware of their own personal growth. In particular, we want the students to reflect on their use and development of the Core Competencies as these are the tools that drive all learning. The difficult part is teaching our students how to meaningfully and regularly reflect on their learning, without taking away too much of our precious instructional time.

How do we go about this as painlessly as possible?

Initially, I wanted to have the students write their reflections in a Google Doc in Google Classroom, like we do for everything else. However, Classroom’s Assignment and Materials system of organization doesn’t lend itself well to quick review and monitoring of growth. At the end of the year, we’d like students and parents to be able to reflect on growth in the Competencies over the course of the year.

We needed a digital portfolio.

And so, in Grades 5-7, our first attempt at this was using  Google Sites.

As it turns out, Google Sites was a bit of a nightmare. Along with teaching the Core Competencies and teaching the students how to reflect, we now had to teach them the ins and outs of a brand-new platform. In Grade 5, the teachers painstakingly took the time to guide the students click-by-click to build identical sites so that everyone had the same links in the same spots to ensure ease of use for everyone involved.

Example of a Google Sites Portfolio

In Grade 7, I let the students go wild. As long as they had the headings I wanted, they could organize and decorate their sites however they wished. My feeling was that Sites was quite user-friendly and I liked the idea of students exploring how to build a website.

Bad idea!

Each student had their own unique troubleshooting issues that I would have to deal with. Plus, since they were all organized differently, it took me ages to double-check each student’s site to ensure they had completed the assigned reflections. So, whether you chose the cookie-cutter approach or the free-for-all approach, using Google Sites meant wasting precious time.

Seesaw to the Rescue?

If you’re looking for a platform for your students’ Core Competency reflections, consider your objectives and how each platform might address them.

I’ll admit, my experience with Google Classroom and Sites left me a bit gun shy when it came to learning and teaching another new platform. So when I was introduced to Seesaw, the interface made me think it was simply Instagram for school.

However, after giving it a go, I was sold on Seesaw simply because it SAVES TIME. It’s quick to learn the teacher platform and it’s even easier for the students to use. There was zero setup time because the classes were already created for us by Classmate. The tools are so simple that it took about 5 minutes to show my Grade 7s how to use each one. I can easily see every student’s portfolio in an instant and through the Activities feature, I can ensure every student has completed all assigned reflections.

It also opens up possibilities because of it's easy to use integrated tools. If a student wishes to reflect on their Creative Thinking within a certain piece of artwork, they’re able to take a photo to support their reflection. If a student struggles with written output, they have the opportunity to make a verbal recording rather than writing a paragraph reflection. The user interface is so simple that it requires very little instruction when getting started.

Example of a Seesaw class

I’ve been using Seesaw for about a year now and I particularly enjoy the Activities tool, Folders tags, and killing two birds with one stone by doing differentiated Math assessments right in Seesaw.


Once you’ve set up your Seesaw classroom, your students can begin to post reflections immediately. However, I like to take an extra minute to create an assignment Activity before I have my students post a reflection of their work. An Activity is a teacher-created task in Seesaw which simply contains your instructions to the students.

In other words, these are the questions to guide your students’ reflections. Rather than writing them on the board, I like to include these directly on Seesaw. This allows the students access to the guiding questions as they work whether they’re at their desk, sitting on the carpet, or working in the hallway.

Believe it or not, I’ve even had students immediately respond to an Activity that I’ve posted while they’re at home sick. It also means the instructions are available later on if a student needs more time to finish or if they are away. An Activity also tracks which students have responded to the reflection task. This means I can identify missing work within seconds. When I was using Google Sites for reflections, I had to go through each student’s site with a checklist to ensure they had a good variety of reflections.

Reflecting meaningfully also means reflecting often. Unfortunately, the students can find this to be tiresome. I find that the best way to encourage engagement in reflection is through task-specific, detailed questions. The general outline I use for guiding questions is the following:

  1. Describe the assignment.
  2. How did you demonstrate your ability to prototype your design for your spaghetti bridge?
  3. How did you use the Creative Thinking Core Competency to develop a design and create a prototype of your spaghetti bridge?
  4. If you were to build another spaghetti bridge, what improvements would you make?
  5. Tag the relevant Core Competency folders. -- I’ll talk about this in a minute.

This ensures that the students are taking the time to reflect on each task more authentically rather than regurgitating similar responses to all tasks.

Students are more engaged when the format is varied. The Seesaw platform allows students to post images, take a photo directly through the app, or post an assignment from Google Drive. On these, the students can add a caption with their Core Competency reflection.

A reflection caption under a PDF added from Google Drive.

Students can also add videos where they can show their work product while verbally sharing their learning and how they’ve developed their Core Competencies.

Lastly, there is a drawing feature which allows students to draw and record their voices. I find this one especially useful for Math -- I’ll explain in more detail later.

The best part about the Activities feature is that you can reuse them the following year or even the next time you reflect on a similar task. If your school subscribes to Seesaw for Schools, you can also share them with other staff members at your school.


Whether the student is creating a new post or posting to an Activity, be sure to utilize the “Folders” feature. These are essentially tags on posts. When viewing a particular folder, you can see all the posts within that category. This means that over the course of the year, the students are able to hone in on each Core Competency at a time and assess their own progress with greater perspective. You may even wish to tag each facet for more detailed self-reflection.

At the beginning of the year, I direct the students to reflect on a certain Core Competency during and after a learning task. During this time, I will select the relevant Folder(s) when I create the reflection Activity. This way, each student’s response will be automatically categorized according to the Core Competency we’re focusing on.

Later in the year, I encourage students to identify and tag the Core Competencies on their own. This way they’re given the freedom to reflect on and develop areas of their choosing.

These Folder tags also allow me to do some of my own reflecting. For individual students, I can see areas they wish to further develop and I can try to provide them with more learning opportunities in those areas. I can also view Folder tags of the whole class at once.

Last year, for example, my students posted about Communication 171 times but only 10 times about Social Responsibility. This is clearly an area I need to further develop in my planning and one that we as a class need to reflect on more explicitly.

Differentiating Formative Math Assessments

At our school, we use Seesaw strictly for Core Competency reflections. It makes sense to have a centralized portfolio for reflections but that also means not being able to use Seesaw’s diverse tools for other reasons. This made me realize that I wasn’t taking full advantage of the tools Seesaw has to offer.

I also realized that I tend to have my students reflect on tasks with a picture-perfect final product. We didn’t have any reflections on mini quizzes or assessments. I decided to try doing a Math assessment in Seesaw and it worked out exceedingly well. I was able to kill two birds with one stone: I could easily differentiate the assessments and the students could immediately reflect on their process and use of the Core Competencies.

The biggest struggle I have teaching Grade 7 is differentiation. Students are particularly self-conscious at this age and I’m always looking for ways to differentiate as subtly as possible. The way I did this was to create separate Activities with area and circumference word problems at three different levels. I made sure they all looked very similar to each other and told the students they would be assigned different questions at random. I then assigned the activity to individual students based on their level.

The students answered these word problems directly on their iPads using the Drawing tool. They could write out their solution while verbally explaining their thinking as they went along. I then had them write a short reflection as a caption to the video.

Example of one activity posted with different instructions

I’ve done similar mini assessments in the past where the students filmed each other answering Math problems on their whiteboards. Using Seesaw was much more efficient as the students could work independently. It was also better for differentiation because they wouldn’t see each other’s questions.

Because the students explain their thought-process along the way, these mini assessment videos are an excellent formative assessment tool for me and can also help the parents to know where to further support their children.

It’s important to note that only the problem solving should be assessed. I have the students add their Core Competency reflection as a caption afterwards. Their self-reflections are not meant to be assessed.

I hope that by giving you a sneak peek into our digital student portfolio journey, I've saved you some troubleshooting and time! As you can probably tell, this process is always a work in progress. Any insight, questions or comments would be gladly appreciated.

What are you doing at your school?

This article was written by Gillian Armstrong, a Grade 7 teacher at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Vancouver
She can be reached at garmstrong[at]olphbc[dot]ca
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