Credit by Portfolio

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Credit by portfolio assessment is an opportunity for students who feel they have gained knowledge equivalent to a specific course through experiential learning to validate their claim. It was designed to provide those students who have acquired knowledge through legitimate means outside an academic environment to establish the legitimacy through careful explanation and insight into the knowledge they have gained. While this is indeed an opportunity for some students, it is also a significant responsibility; the onus of proof is squarely on the students’ shoulders. Therefore, students wishing to earn credit by portfolio assessment must be prepared to describe, reflect, and synthesize their learning experiences carefully.


How do students approach such a task? A central challenge in this process is for students to provide documentation (the “proof”) that demonstrates an appropriate balance between theoretical learning and practical application. That is, students must be able to separate and examine the “doing” (the experience) from its result (the learning that occurred). In other words, it is not enough to have simply done something well – it is necessary to know why certain actions were successful (e.g. produced results) and what leaning occurred – how did one’s understanding grow, change or become more complex through the course of your experience. To quote Vito Perrone, an educational psychologist, “understanding is about making connections among and between things, about deep and not surface knowledge, and about greater complexity, not simplicity.”

As a student endeavors to compose a portfolio, the following key questions may be useful:

  • In what ways did your experience promote or modify your understanding the subject?
  • What were the different parts or pieces of the experience and how did they contribute to your understanding?
  • What kind of choices did you make throughout the experience and how did these choices affect what you learned, “found out” or discovered about your subject?
  • What do you know about the subject that someone without the experience might not know?
  • What have you learned though your own initiative—reading, talking to people, doing? What do the experts say and how does or does not your experience support this information?


There are several goals portfolio assessment seeks to address. In a successful portfolio, the student:

  • Identifies course(s) for which she or he would like to document equivalency
  • Demonstrates knowledge equivalent to a particular course offered at Penn State
  • Carefully reflects and document his or her experience to prove learning occurred
  • Accepts the portfolio assessment process as a rigorous, authentic undertaking and not an “easy way to earn credits”

Demonstration of Educational Objectives (Bloom 1956)

The following categories illustrate the different categories that demonstrate learning has taken place. Take some time to review these categories and think about the ways your experience encompasses them. You may want look over the list of verbs in each category that suggest what you’ve accomplished through your experience. Use them as prompts to help you show clearly that learning – and what kind of learning – has taken place.

  • Knowledge of terminology; specific facts; ways and means of dealing with specifics (conventions, trends and sequences, classifications and categories, criteria, methodology); universals and abstractions in a field (principles and generalizations, theories and structures): Knowledge is (here) defined as the remembering (recalling) of appropriate, previously learned information.
    • defines; describes; enumerates; identifies; labels; lists; matches; names; reads; records; reproduces; selects; states; views.
  • Comprehension: Grasping (understanding) the meaning of informational materials.
    classifies; cites; converts; describes; discusses; estimates; explains; generalizes; gives examples; makes sense out of; paraphrases; restates (in own words); summarizes; traces; understands.
  • Application: The use of previously learned information in new and concrete situations to solve problems that have single or best answers.
    • acts; administers; articulates; assesses; charts; collects; computes; constructs; contributes; controls; determines; develops; discovers; establishes; extends; implements; includes; informs; instructs; operationalizes; participates; predicts; prepares; preserves; produces; projects; provides; relates; reports; shows; solves; teaches; transfers; uses; utilizes.
  • Analysis: The breaking down of informational materials into their component parts, examining (and trying to understand the organizational structure of) such information to develop divergent conclusions by identifying motives or causes, making inferences, and/or finding evidence to support generalizations.
    •  breaks down; correlates; diagrams; differentiates; discriminates; distinguishes; focuses; illustrates; infers; limits; outlines; points out; prioritizes; recognizes; separates; subdivides.
  • Synthesis: Creatively or divergently applying prior knowledge and skills to produce a new or original whole.
    • adapts; anticipates; categorizes; collaborates; combines; communicates; compares; compiles; composes; contrasts; creates; designs; devises; expresses; facilitates; formulates; generates; incorporates; individualizes; initiates; integrates; intervenes; models; modifies; negotiates; plans; progresses; rearranges; reconstructs; reinforces; reorganizes; revises; structures; substitutes; validates.
  • Evaluation: Judging the value of material based on personal values/opinions, resulting in an end product, with a given purpose, without real right or wrong answers
    • appraises; compares & contrasts; concludes; criticizes; critiques; decides; defends; interprets; judges; justifies; reframes; supports.

Assessing Students Considering Portfolio Assessment

Students will present themselves at very different levels of understanding of the portfolio process. Some will believe that their undocumented experiences justify portfolio review and credit, and they will be ill-prepared, and perhaps unable, to provide the required documentation.

In order to minimize frustration for the student or faculty, it will be to the benefit of all involved to fully understand the criteria for portfolio assessment, including an understanding of the standards to which students will be held as they document their learning. Emphasis cannot be made too strongly that it is not the experience, itself, that justifies credit, but rather the learning that occurs from the experience. How learning is documented and proven is the crux of portfolio assessment.

All students are required to complete and submit an “Initial Application for a Review of Prior Experiential Learning.” As part of this application, students are required to submit:

(1) a syllabus for the course for which credit is requested
(2) a brief description of the experience(s)
(3) a statement of the learning that occurred from that experience(s), and
(4) a list of possible documentation

This application will serve as an official notice to faculty that the student intends to pursue portfolio assessment. Signatures as required on the application will indicate that the student had provided sufficient descriptions of intended documentation to justify the development of a full portfolio. Signatures do not guarantee that credit will be awarded, but rather that the student has presented sufficient documentation to develop a portfolio.


There are many resources available to help students gain a better understanding of the nature of experiential learning as well as the demonstration of its outcomes. While composing their portfolio, students may find the following resources, among many others, helpful:

Anderson, L. & Krathwohl, D. A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. New York: Longman, 2001.

Bloom Benjamin S. and David R. Krathwohl. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals, by a committee of college and university examiners. Handbook I: Cognitive Domain. New York, Longmans, Green, 1956

Boud, D. et al (eds.) (1985) Reflection. Turning experience into learning, London: Kogan Page. 170 pages.

Boud. D. and Miller, N. (eds.) (1997) Working with Experience: animating learning, London: Routledge

Brookfield, S. D. (1983) Adult Learning, Adult Education and the Community Milton Keynes Open University Press.

Dewey, J. (1933) How We Think, New York: Heath.

Houle, C. (1980) Continuing Learning in the Professions, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Jarvis, P. (1987) Adult Learning in the Social Context, London: Croom Helm. 220 pages.

Kolb, D. A. (with J. Osland and I. Rubin) (1995a) Organizational Behavior: An Experiential Approach to Human Behavior in Organizations 6e, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice Hall. 256 pages.

Marrow, A. J. (1969) The Practical Theorist. : The Life and Work of Kurt Lewin, New York: Basic Books

Mezirow, J. (1991) Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 247 + xix pages.

Schön, D. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner, New York: Basic Books


Searchable terms: adult education, education work relationship, educational practices, educational theories, educational trends, experiential learning, learning models

Evaluating Prior Learning Portfolios: A Guide

The development of a portfolio is a rigorous process that requires students to document learning – theoretical and practical – equivalent to a particular Penn State course.

Students must have completed a minimum of three Penn State credits.


  • Student identifies the specific Penn State course for which equivalency is requested.
  • Student obtained approval to develop a portfolio using the “Initial Application for a Review of Prior Experiential Learning.” Approval indicates that student’s intended documentation appears to justify the development of a portfolio; it does not guarantee that credit will be awarded.
  • Student submits complete portfolio within 10 weeks of approval of “Initial Application for Review” but not later than the fifth week of the semester prior to the semester of intended graduation. PORTFOLIOS WILL NOT BE ACCEPTED DURING THE SEMESTER OF INTENDED GRADUATION.
  • Portfolio and “Credit by Portfolio Assessment Application” is brought to the Bursar for payment of the nonrefundable portfolio fee ($390).
  • Finance Officer enters the payment in the “fee paid” block and signs the form where indicated.
  • Student submits the form and portfolio to the department head for forwarding to the faculty reviewer (the faculty member who signed the initial application for review.)
  • After review, and in consultation with the Department Head, faculty member forwards the portfolio and Credit by Portfolio Assessment Application to the Dean. Signatures of the faculty reviewer, Department Head, and the Dean of the College indicate approval of the portfolio.
  • Student will be notified of approval or lack thereof within 8 weeks of faculty receipt of the portfolio. Adhering to this timeline will allow students to meet their intended timeline for graduation, particularly if a portfolio is not approved for credit.
  • When approved, the portfolio is submitted to The Liberal Arts Undergraduate Studies Office, 138 Sparks Building, University Park, Pa. 16802.

Students are allowed a maximum of two opportunities to prove learning – (1) through the original portfolio submission and (2) one additional submission if additional information or revisions are requested by faculty upon the first review.

Portfolio Standards:

  • Does the portfolio document learning, not just experience?
  • Is the learning at the appropriate level?
  • Is there a balance between theoretical learning and practical application?
  • Is the learning equivalent to a Penn State course?
  • Is there sufficient evidence that this learning does not duplicate credit already awarded?

Parts of the Portfolio

Portfolios may differ, but the items listed below are usually part of any portfolio:

  1. College of the Liberal Arts Credit by Portfolio Assessment Application
  2. Table of Contents
  3. Resume and/or Autobiography/Educational Goals Statement

This section provides an important overview by introducing the student to the faculty member through a chronology of life experiences relevant to the portfolio submission. The goals statement is generally 300-400 words in length.

4. Detailed description of experience(s) *

5. Description of the learning

The description of the experience and learning may be blended into one essay. This section is generally 8-20 pages in length. Students are expected to review relevant course textbooks and to refer to the course syllabus in demonstrating learning equivalent to the content of the course. Through observation and reflection, students are expected to demonstrate, when appropriate, conceptual and theoretical knowledge derived from their experiences.

6. Documentation (direct and indirect)

7. Annotated bibliography
* The portfolio can include knowledge or skills gained from a wide variety of sources. Some of the more common sources for portfolio assessment are:

  • full- or part-time jobs
  • independent reading or study
  • training programs or in service courses
  • volunteer work
  • cultural and artistic pursuits hobbies and recreational activities
  • community service
  • military service
  • travel study
  • organizational memberships


The Two General Categories of Documentation: Direct and Indirect

Suggested Documentation

 To help you think of your documentation, a list of suggested forms is included. This list is not complete nor are you limited to these alone. Appropriate documentation may be used in more than one portfolio.

  • Letters from employers (see “Letters of verification for Documentation”)
  • Licenses and Certificates (see “Description of licenses and certificates”)
  • Certificates
  • Newspaper clippings
  • Audiotapes and videotapes
  • Resumes
  • Photographs
  • Products of your work
  • Proposals
  • Job descriptions and/or classifications
  • Official forms or records such as records of promotions or performance evaluations. (class or training program)

Indirect evidence verifies and confirms your accomplishments.

Examples are:

  • Letters written on your behalf
  • Newspaper articles, and

Programs of your performance.

The following example shows how both direct and indirect documentation are used as evidence of learning.

Direct evidence is documentation of your actual learning in a particular subject area.

Examples are:

  • Samples of your work (poems, plays, artwork, reports of projects, tapes of music you performed)
  • Official verifications that show your mastery of the subject, licenses and certificates
  • Descriptions of the process of your learning (course outlines and evaluations for non-credit/training courses, notes you took in a Jack is seeking credit for college-level skills as a sculptor. In his portfolio, he provides a number of pictures of a sculpture he sculpted and donated in memory of his late wife to her college’s sculpture garden. The sculpture looks beautiful in the picture, but there is no identification of the sculpture. Therefore, the direct evidence, though interesting, does not verify that Jack is the sculptor and has college-level learning. However, in the narrative section of his portfolio, Jack describes how he traveled to Italy, the process he went through in choosing the particular piece of marble, the problems incurred, and how he solved them. In addition, Jack provides sketches of the proposed sculpture along with additional narrative that describes the thought processes of how he decided what the finished sculpture should look like as well as the techniques he used for carving the marble. Newspaper articles, a letter from the college president, and a critique by a well-known professional sculptor are additional pieces of indirect evidence to verify not only that Jack was the sculptor, but also the level of his knowledge of the art form.

Letters of Verification for Documentation

Letters can be used to corroborate any type of activity and are usually one of the more common forms of documentation. Since letters occupy an important role in the documentation process, use the guidelines listed below. You may wish to copy this information and p resent it to the person you request to write a letter of verification for you to include in your portfolio. It is the responsibility of the student to make clear to the author that the letter is to be one of verification and not one of recommendation.

Be sure the person knows or has the opportunity to observe the works and learning for which you are seeking academic credit.

Letter of Verification

  • The author must indicate knowledge of the student and the learning for which the student wishes to receive prior learning credit.
  • The letter should be written on the official letterhead of the company or organization with which the author is or was associated, if available.
  • The content of the letter should focus on the duties, responsibilities, tasks, and/or activities which were a part of the learning experience that is under consideration. The letter should say who, what, when, why, where, and for how long.
  • The author of the letter should state clearly the nature of the relationship between author and student. Family members, friends, and ministers are not good sources as they may be biased and may not have firsthand knowledge of the learning.

Letter of Verification Example

October 23, 2003

To Whom It May Concern:

I have been (student’s name) immediate supervisor in the Information Systems department for more than two years. His position involves, among other things, system administration and programming of a Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-11l/73 computer running the RSX-11M-PLUS operating system as well as the setup and support of numerous MS-DOS-based computers.

I believe that he has a knowledge of the fundamentals of operating systems as well as an understanding of the specifics of the above-mentioned systems which is equal or greater than that of a college student in an operating systems course.


Information Systems Coordinator


An annotated bibliography of books and periodicals and a listing of people and other resources should be included in each portfolio. (“Annotated” means that you have explained and identified your sources in enough detail so that someone who is unfamiliar with the material can find them in a library or similar repository, and that you have described what you have learned from the materials indicating how helpful or unhelpful the resources have been.) Included below is part of the bibliography of an adult student who included in his portfolio a tape describing his learning experiences in music as a percussionist.

1. Podemski, Banjamin. Podemski’s Standard Snare Drum Method, Melville, New York: Belwin Mills, 1940.

“This book was the most technical book, musically speaking, that I went through. It contained a complete musical vocabulary and exercises that had examples which employed the musical terms. It taught note values and note groupings. This book was the most important book in terms of my sight-reading development. The information contained in the book still applies today and is used to instruct drum students. I use this book as a reference whenever I don’t recognize terms in the church music. I have used this book as a warm-up tool prior to playing for pit orchestras for stage shows. It helps me to get my mind ready for reading the kinds of charts used in these shows.”

2. Jones, Steve. Drummer in the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Interviewed: December 19, 1992.

Steve Jones was interviewed as personal resource on December 19, 1992, after the Christmas concert. Mr. Jones described his own training. He listened to a two-minute tape of my playing and invited me to practice with a group of Birmingham musicians. He commented on my sense of rhythm, temp, wrist action, etc. He also agreed to a series of twelve advanced lessons beginning on January 13, 1993. An evaluation of my progress is enclosed along with a tape of my playing before and after the lesson.

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