E-Portfolios for Problem-based Learning: Scaffolding Thinking and Learning in Preservice Teacher Education

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E-Portfolios for Problem-based Learning: Scaffolding Thinking and Learning in Preservice Teacher Education

Woon Chia Liu, Albert K. Liau,* and Oon-Seng Tan
National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore;
*HELP University College, Malaysia


The use of electronic portfolios, or e-portfolios, is an emerging practice in preservice teacher education. This chapter describes the development of an e-portfolio to support the problem-based learning process, with the aim of using it to scaffold knowledge construction, document students' learning, and facilitate idea sharing. The e-portfolio was piloted in a preservice educational psychology module, and preliminary results and feedback indicate that it provided the anticipated benefits.


Education must foster the creation of a critical mass of individuals with greater creativity and higher levels of thinking skills. (Tan, 2003, p. 10)

With unprecedented advances in technological innovation and ease of access to information, the twenty-first century is both an exciting and a trying time for educators. It is clear that the traditional ways of teaching, where good pedagogy equates to providing clear explanations to students in disseminating content knowledge, are no longer adequate to prepare our next generation for the knowledge-based economy. The challenge now is for educators to equip students with learning, thinking, and problem-solving skills that will enable them to cope with the demands of a fast-changing world. As a result, educators are charged with the responsibility to find new ways of looking at knowledge and at students' participation in the learning process. They also need to provide evidence of the process and progress of student learning over time for the purpose of evaluation (Wickersham & Chambers, 2006).

Obviously, if there is going to be any change in how we perceive teaching and learning, the change must begin in teacher education with student teachers. This chapter describes the development and use of an e-portfolio within a problem-based learning context in a core educational psychology module for student teachers in Singapore. The e-portfolio is designed to serve as a scaffolding, documentation, and collaborative tool.

Problem-based Learning and Teacher Education

Problem-based learning (PBL) can be defined simply as a model that organizes learning around problems. It is a pedagogical methodology that is in line with the constructivist principles of learning (Hendry & Murphy, 1995). It is an active-learning, learner-centered approach that provides students with opportunities to construct their own knowledge through peer interaction and collaborative inquiry.

In PBL, problems are designed to trigger as well as anchor learning. They are usually real-world problems that appear unstructured and illdefined. It is important for the problems to call for multiple perspectives in their solution so that students are "forced" to exercise their critical and creative thinking. Presented with a problem, students work collaboratively and cooperatively in small groups to identify the current state of their knowledge, generate hypotheses, identify learning objectives, seek sources of further information, analyze and evaluate the information obtained, reflect on and integrate the new knowledge, and come up with plausible solutions for the problem (Askell-Williams et al., 2007). An integral part of the learning process is self-directed learning, where students assume responsibility for the acquisition of information and knowledge. The PBL cycle ends with students presenting their solutions as well as evaluating and reviewing their experiences and the learning process (see Tan, 2003, for details).

PBL has been credited with a whole range of cognitive and affective outcomes. Capon and Kuhn (2004) propose that students exposed to the PBL pedagogy are better at synthesizing new information into existing knowledge structures. Their contention is supported by meta-analyses. Specifically, compared with traditional teaching approaches, PBL appears to enhance knowledge construction, reasoning skills, and understanding of underlying principles that link concepts (Albanese & Mitchell, 1993; Gijbels et al., 2005). In addition, Breton (1999) documented that students engaging in PBL were able to relate theory to practice and they developed a greater ability to recall and reuse what they had learned. Likewise, Spencer and Jordon (1999) argue that PBL provides the benefits of better knowledge retention, deep thinking, self-directed learning, increased motivation, more stimulating environments, and improved student–teacher interaction. In the context of teacher education, significant gains over time have been documented in PBL on students' self-rated competence in communication skills, discipline knowledge building, personal development, and interpersonal development (Murray-Harvey et al., 2005).

Taken together, there appears to be consensus that PBL is a promising educational innovation, one that looks ideal for teacher education. Not only that it provides an environment for active learner engagement and a platform for developing real-world skills such as thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and communication, it appears to be able to bridge the gap between theory and practice. However, if PBL is to be adopted as the pedagogy, it must be accompanied by changes not only in the curriculum but also in instruction and assessment (Barron et al., 1998).


An educational portfolio can be defined as a collection of students' works demonstrating their learning process and progress (Wickersham & Chambers, 2006). It should contain artifacts selected by students to showcase their best work, to demonstrate development, and to provide opportunities for reflection on their learning process. An e-portfolio, then, is a compilation of portfolio items—audiovisual, graphical, or text—stored in electronic formats (Barrett, 2001).

Portfolios and e-portfolios can be employed for many different purposes, such as for assisting learning, formative or summative assessment, and seeking employment (Barrett, 2002). In fact, Frank and Barzilai (2004) assert that traditional assessment strategies will not be appropriate for gauging the goals of project- or problem-based learning. In their place, they propose the use of portfolios to document students' reflections for different periods, their progress, and their goals. Other proponents of portfolios have argued that these tools facilitate the demonstration of critical thinking when learners engage in reflective writing about their construction, selection, and revision of artifacts (see, e.g., Lynch & Purnawarman, 2004). In particular, Ahn (2004) contends that e-portfolios not only offer students the chance to reflect upon their learning but also give teachers the opportunity to provide detailed feedback on students' work. In addition, Garthwait and Verrill (2003) claim that e-portfolios are able to "keep students focused on learning rather than on individual projects or products—e-portfolios are part of the learning process, not the result of it" (p. 23), while Hewett (2005) emphasizes that "as a model for learner-centered classrooms, e-portfolios give students ownership and responsibility for their own learning" (p. 27).

Despite the overwhelming support for portfolios, much more research is warranted. To-date, most of the studies on the use of portfolios, especially e-portfolios, have focused primarily on demonstrating students' achievement of standards (e.g., in teaching or nursing) or their technological competence (e.g., Barrett, 2002; Chambers & Wickersham, 2007; Ledoux & McHenry, 2006; Wickersham & Chambers, 2006). Very few have employed portfolios to scaffold and document students' learning in project- or problem-based learning. One of the closest attempts was a study that looked at integrating PBL with a practice portfolio, in which students saw their practice portfolio as a useful reference source for future practice (Oberski et al., 2004). In particular, as a student commented, the portfolio "helps you find out more information on an issue and explore your own objectives in depth" (p. 214). Students also contended that the portfolio provided a structure for learning and encouraged reflection, and they felt positive about working with other group members and sharing ideas through the portfolio. Nonetheless, the students lamented that the PBL approach was time-consuming and they needed more clarity and guidance about objectives and requirements. Taken together, the investigators concluded that the combination of PBL and portfolios proved too demanding for the students, most of whom had no prior experience of either.

Likewise, Spendlove and Hopper (2006) found that the e-portfolio helped teacher trainees develop an understanding of the complexity of the processes involved in design and technology activities. Moreover, the e-portfolio helped change "trainee practice and increased the effectiveness of the teaching and learning of design-focused work" in initial teacher training (p. 188).

In another study, Gulbahar and Tinmaz (2006) examined the use of the e-portfolio as an assessment tool in a project-based learning context. In this case, preservice teachers were required to work individually to develop educational software for another undergraduate course. Each student had to select one topic for research, which would be the anchor for the whole semester. Following topic selection, needs, content, and media analyses were conducted before the actual development, piloting, and evaluation of the software. Finally, students submitted their e-portfolios for assessment, which included written reports, multimedia presentations (e.g., flowcharts and storyboards), statistical analyses, and two versions of the software. Overall, the students' response was favorable. They felt that the weekly feedback on their work and the opportunity to redesign their assignments before final submission offered a great chance for self-improvement, and they gained more knowledge about the software development process and learned more from their class when they engaged in the creation of their own e-portfolios. In addition, they were better able to link their existing knowledge with real-life contexts, which enhanced their discipline-related skills and abilities.

Clearly, these findings underline the potential of e-portfolios to provide a structure for learning, encourage reflection, and facilitate collaboration. Nonetheless, limited research means that very little is known about how an e-portfolio should be designed for the project- or problem-based learning context. This study seeks to fill the gap by developing and piloting an e-portfolio for a PBL-based educational psychology module for preservice teachers in Singapore.

The PBL Module

At the National Institute of Education, Singapore, the core educational psychology module, Educational Psychology I: Theories and Applications for Learning and Teaching, provides the foundation for student teachers to understand learners, their development, and the psychology of learning. Specifically, in the module student teachers explore how students learn or fail to learn, and apply psychological principles and learning theories to explain how and why, using the PBL approach. The decision to adopt PBL as the pedagogical approach was made a couple of years ago mainly because of its potential to foster the development of skills essential for today's workplace, as discussed earlier in this chapter.

Problem Scenarios

Before each semester, PBL case scenarios were developed by tutors specifically for the module. The tutors strived to design problems that needed to be considered from multiple perspectives in order to stimulate critical and creative thinking, as well as problem scenarios that were ill- structured with no single correct answer. The following is an excerpt of a case scenario designed to illustrate Piaget's and Vygotsky's learning theories:

"I really dislike Science," Beng Kwee complained. "It's so utterly boring. Our teacher, Mr. Lim, just drones on and on and I find it so hard to concentrate. The other day he ticked me off for not paying attention. How does he expect us to sit still and listen to all that boring stuff?"

"Oh, I enjoy Science!" said James. "I always look forward to it. It's so fun. The other day, Ms. Chong showed us a video on the human circulatory system. Now I finally know what red blood cells look like. We had such an interesting lesson 'tracking' the movement of red blood cells through the circulatory system."

"No such luck in our class," said Beng Kwee. "We had to listen to boring lessons. Occasionally Mr. Lim would ask us some questions at the end of his lesson to help us recall, but I can't answer his questions most of the time—just can't remember what he said in the first place. Anyway, who cares what are elements, mixtures, and compounds?"

The PBL Framework

In class, students were given a choice of three scenarios, all based on real-life challenges in the classroom. They worked in small groups of four to five to develop possible solutions for the given problems. The conceptual framework for the PBL process, based on Tan (2003), is shown in Figure 13.1. The whole process included five weekly face-to-face tutorial sessions lasting two hours each, corresponding to the five stages in the PBL process. The tutorials were facilitated by tutors. In between tutorials, students engaged in self-directed learning to research into the problems.

Structure of the E-Portfolio

Since little is known about the design of e-portfolios that would suit the PBL classroom, a decision was made to develop the e-portfolio specifically for our student teachers based on our course objectives and our PBL framework. The choice of an e-portfolio rather than a paper one is consistent with the observation of Strudler and Wetzel (2005) that a major reason for the diffusion of e-portfolios in teacher education programs is the difficulty of sharing and moving large paper portfolios around.

Before we could proceed to design the e-portfolio, the tools for creating and publishing students' e-portfolios had to be selected. A number of tools are available; utilizing common software applications (e.g., templates, authoring tools, and Microsoft Office applications such as PowerPoint) to construct hyperlinked portfolios and making use of Web-accessible databases to collect the evidence and provide an online structure for the portfolio are the two most common approaches (Barrett, 2002). Bearing in mind that the combination of PBL and portfolios could prove too demanding for students (Oberski et al., 2004), we decided to construct hyperlinked portfolios using PowerPoint, in which all student teachers are well-versed. This would allow our students to focus their attention on the content of their e-portfolios instead of spending long hours trying to learn and experiment with unfamiliar tools. The e-portfolios would then be uploaded onto Blackboard for other team members and the rest of the class to share.

Once the decision was made, a team of three tutors got together to develop the template for the PBL e-portfolio. The e-portfolio was de- signed specifically to scaffold knowledge construction, document learning, and facilitate idea sharing, as well as to guide students through the PBL process by informing them of the learning objectives at each stage, their tasks, and the expected deliverables. We were also mindful that the e-portfolio should facilitate the PBL process by making students record their plans and actions, as well as offering scope for reflection and evaluation.

After hours of brainstorming and discussion, the structure of the e-portfolio for the pilot study was established. In essence, it comprised five main stages that corresponded to the PBL framework. The objectives, instructions, and deliverables of each of the stages are outlined below.

Stage 1. Problem Encounter

At this stage, the aim was for students to gain a clear understanding of the scenario and to reach a group consensus on the problem statement. Students were instructed to read through the scenario on their own, underline key words, and highlight main points, after which they were to discuss in their own groups to establish the same understanding of the scenario. Team members were asked to each describe the scenario in their own words and link it to their own experiences and prior knowledge. To guide group discussion, the following questions were provided in the e-portfolio:

  • What are your thoughts on this scenario?
  • What comes to mind?
  • What do we know?
  • What are the statements of facts that we can identify?

The discussion was documented in the e-portfolio with the use of notes, mind maps, or a journal of problem inquiry.

After obtaining a clear understanding of the scenario, each group had to reach a consensus on the nature of the problem and make a commitment to finding plausible solutions. Questions were posed to help students summarize the problem:

  • What is the nature of the problem?
  • Can you restate what the group discussed?
  • Does the group have the same mental picture of … ?

The problem statement formulated was included in the e-portfolio to guide the group through the rest of the PBL process.

Stage 2. Problem Analysis

During this stage, the groups had to brainstorm and generate possible explanations or hypotheses about the problem that they had chosen to study, as well as formulate learning objectives. Students individually came up with possible explanations or hypotheses before combining all team members' inputs into a comprehensive list. This process ensured that every team member played an active role. Questions were provided to help students generate ideas:

  • What additional information might we need?
  • What do we need to know?
  • Could you think of anything else?
  • What does that link you to?
  • Have you considered all the possibilities?

The second part of this stage was possibly the most pivotal of the PBL process—the identification of learning issues and formulation of learning objectives. To guide students, the following questions were asked:

  • What is important for you to solve the problem?
  • Have you listed all the key questions?
  • What makes you include … ?
  • What kinds of resources might be helpful?

Once the learning objectives were determined, the groups were instructed to assign tasks for self-directed learning to each member. These tasks would be to identify sources of information and conduct research with a view to finding an informed explanation for the problem and teaching peers on the topics related to the problem.

Deliverables that were deemed useful at this stage were lists of explanations, ideas and/or hypotheses, statements of learning issues, and KND charts. A KND chart defines what the group already knows, what else it needs to know, and what it has to do to fill the knowledge gap. To ensure accountability, each group member was required to compile a set of pointers and notes from his or her self-directed learning to share with and to teach others at the next stage.

Stage 3. Discovery and Reporting

Following self-directed learning, group members shared what they had discovered in their research. They needed to integrate and consolidate information as a group and help each other ensure the accuracy, reliability, and validity of the information obtained. To help them, students were encouraged to focus on the following questions:

  • Describe what you have learned about …
  • Explain what you understand by …
  • How do you know?
  • Could you elaborate on … ?
  • How would you connect what you learned to … ?

The deliverables at this stage included statements on the sources of learning, information, and research.

Stage 4. Solution Presentation

The purpose of this stage was for the groups to present plausible solutions to the problem and clarify doubts through a question-and-answer session. Each group had to synthesize their findings for a final presentation. Questions were posted in the e-portfolio to help students develop plausible solutions:

  • What solution might you propose? Why?
  • Explain the strategy/solution.
  • What is at stake if we include/exclude … ?
  • What are the pros and cons?
  • What are the consequences?

The deliverables included each group's hyperlinked PowerPoint pre- sentation, a script, and other materials needed for the presentation, such as a report and video clips or photographs of any model or artifacts. Among others, the final presentation had to cover the problem that the group had focused on, the theory or theories related to the problem, and the proposed answers to the questions posed during problem analysis.

Stage 5. Review and Evaluation

The final stage required the tutor to round up the PBL process in a verbal review and evaluation session with the students. Thereafter, students were asked to reflect on their own research and learning process. To aid individual reflection, the following questions were raised:

  • What are the three key things that you have learned?
  • What did you learn about yourself and your peers?
  • What did you learn about your problem-solving approaches?
  • How do you apply what you have learned to another situation?

The reflections were then added to the e-portfolio for the class and the tutor to share.

It has to be noted that the PBL e-portfolio was designed to be a scaffold, so students were given the autonomy to modify and adapt it for their own learning journey. Ideally, the groups should regularly upload their e-portfolios, or part of them, onto the Web-based course management system for the tutorial group to share. In the pilot study, however, time constraints meant that most groups only managed to upload their e-portfolios once or twice over the five weeks of the module for their tutors to give comments and suggestions.

Piloting the E-Portfolio

Research Objective

The purpose of the pilot study was to conduct a preliminary evaluation of student teachers' experiences with the e-portfolio. Lam and Mc-Naught (2004) recommend that students' perceptions of the e-learning environment should form an important part of any evaluation. Hence, the following research questions were posed for investigation in this pilot study:

  1. Was the e-portfolio easy to use? In other words, were the instructions provided clear enough and the content organized in a logical manner?
  2. Did the e-portfolio enable student teachers to develop generic learning skills that were called for in the PBL process, such as problem solving, team collaboration, communication, and presentation?
  3. Did the e-portfolio scaffold student teachers' learning process with regard to knowledge construction?
  4. Was the e-portfolio effective in helping student teachers document their learning in the PBL process?


The participants in the study were 442 student teachers from 17 tutorial groups for the core educational module, Educational Psychology I, in the Diploma in Education program. Women made up 72.2 percent of the participants, and men 25.5 percent, while the remaining 2.3 percent did not report their gender.


Four subscales were employed to assess student teachers' perceptions of the e-portfolio. Two of the subscales were modified from Lam and McNaught's (2004) evaluation instruments. Lam and McNaught have developed a variety of instruments to evaluate Internet learning systems in their e3Learning project. In particular, we modified and shortened the lists of items in their Usability subscale and Generic Learning Skills subscale. In our study, the Usability subscale comprised four statements assessing the user-friendliness of the e-portfolio, while the Generic Learning Skills subscale consisted of six statements gauging the perceptions of learning skills that were fostered by using the e-portfolio. Two more subscales were developed by the authors for this study. They were Scaffolding, with five statements evaluating the ability of the e-portfolio to guide knowledge construction, and Documentation, with three statements assessing the perceptions of how well the e-portfolio helped to document learning during the PBL process.

The participants rated the statements on a five-point Likert scale, where 1 = not true at all, 3 = somewhat true, and 5 = very true. The reliability of all four subscales was high, at.84,.92,.92, and.86 respectively.

Besides the quantitative survey, the student teachers were also asked two open-ended questions regarding the e-portfolio, to which they were to respond in writing: "What are the strengths of the e-portfolio?" and "How can we improve on the e-portfolio?" The qualitative data were used only to substantiate the quantitative findings; they were not analyzed in depth in this study.


The results of student teachers' perceptions of the e-portfolio are presented in Table 13.1 with the mean and standard deviation for each

Item no.StatementMean (SD)% agreeing
Subscale: Usability3.53 (.82)
1.The e-portfolio was easy to use.3.40 (1.06)77.8
8.Clear instructions were provided in the e-portfolio so that we knew how to proceed and navigate.3.72 (.99)86.1
11.The content of the e-portfolio was arranged in a clear and logical manner.3.75 (.93)87.7
16.The e-portfolio was visually attractive.3.24 (.99)76.6
Subscale: Generic Learning Skills3.65 (.80)
2.The e-portfolio helped us improve our problem-solving skills.3.57 (.95)85.0
4.The e-portfolio helped us learn how to solve problems in a systematic and effective way.3.73 (.92)87.7
6.The e-portfolio helped us build up team-collaborative skills.3.83 (.94)87.5
9.The e-portfolio enabled us to better express our thoughts in writing.3.68 (.91)87.5
13.The e-portfolio improved our presentation skills.3.58 (1.04)82.6
17.The e-portfolio helped us build up communicative skills.3.52 (.95)83.3
Subscale: Scaffolding3.79 (.77)
3.The e-portfolio scaffolded the PBL process for us.3.77 (.87)89.4
7.The e-portfolio helped us structure our learning.3.86 (.89)90.0
12.The e-portfolio helped us navigate the PBL process systematically.3.79 (.92)87.5
15.The questions in the e-portfolio were useful in guiding our discussions at each stage of the PBL process.3.80 (.85)91.0
18.The aims of each stage in the PBL process were clearly spelled out in the e-portfolio.3.73 (.88)88.7
Subscale: Documentation3.84 (.76)
5.The deliverables that we included in our e-portfolio documented what we did at each stage.3.90 (.80)92.4
10.The e-portfolio helped us to document what we read individually for the self-directed learning.3.83 (.87)91.0
14.The e-portfolio was a useful tool for "recording" our group discussions.3.80 (.90)93.2

statement and for each subscale, as well as the percentage of respondents who agreed with each of the statements. Participants were considered to agree with a statement if they rated it 3 (somewhat true) or above.


The quantitative results show that the majority of the participants agreed that the e-portfolio was easy to use. Their comments concurred with these findings, for instance:

"it is clear and easy to navigate through it"

"clear and easily understood. Very systematically presented"

However, although the perceptions of usability were positive, the overall mean was the lowest among the four subscales. Possible areas of improvement for the e-portfolio were suggested by some participants:

"make it more visually attractive/appealing"

"the instructions can be clearer. It will help if the slides include the week that the input is expected. Example, week 1, week 2, etc."

Generic learning skills

Likewise, the results establish that the participants mostly agreed that the e-portfolio facilitated the development of generic learning skills required by the PBL process. These findings were again substantiated by participants' comments:

"provides platform to share research topics"

"it helps me to solve problems systematically and effectively"


Most of the participants agreed that the e-portfolio acted as a scaffold for the PBL process. Their comments were consistent with the quantitative findings:

"the structure of the e-portfolio served as a guideline to help my team understand how our presentation or our PBL final product should be structured. There were clear instructions given for each step"

"very detailed scaffolding is provided. Thus, it made it easier to under stand what was expected from us"


This subscale on the e-portfolio's usefulness in documenting learning during the PBL process received the highest overall score. Specifically, 91 to 93 percent of the participants agreed to the statements in this subscale. These findings were again substantiated by the comments:

"help us record our data after each discussion"

"helps us put down our thoughts throughout the process consistently"


The pilot study reveals that the e-portfolio has immense potential for scaffolding the cognitive processes that are facilitated by PBL-based pedagogy. Both the quantitative and qualitative data indicate that the e-portfolio facilitated the development of important PBL-related skills, such as problem solving, collaboration, and communication, besides providing a structure for guiding and documenting learning during the PBL process. The participants also felt that the tool was easy to use. More importantly, there was evidence that the e-portfolio promoted the ideals of PBL by facilitating a learner-centered approach that provides students with opportunities to construct their own knowledge, as the following student response shows:

"collaborate individual's strength, think through a logical sequence and weigh the pros and cons of the different available solutions, gets all in the group thinking, improves teamwork/team spirit"

Our findings are consistent with those documented by the studies described earlier. While further research is needed to corroborate the claim that e-portfolios are able to increase the effectiveness of teaching and learning (Spendlove & Hopper, 2006) or that their use makes learners better able to link existing knowledge with real-life contexts (Gulbahar & Tinmaz, 2006), preliminary evidence from our research lends support to the view that e-portfolios provide a structure for learning by scaffolding and documenting the learning process as well as facilitating the acquisition of generic learning skills.

In terms of usability, despite its ease of use, our students felt that there was room for improvement, including making it visually more interesting and providing clearer instructions. To this end, future versions of the fairly text-heavy pilot e-portfolio could include illustrations.

In conclusion, in changing the way we teach and learn, we need to provide scaffolds instead of knowledge, to facilitate instead of lecture, to focus on learning skills instead of learning content, and to help students document their learning process instead of teaching them how to create a learning artifact. Clearly, the challenges are many, but the potential that PBL and e-portfolios hold for guiding students on their learning journey is immense. This potential is perhaps succinctly put across by a participant who remarked that the experience "creates an interesting learning journey instead of waiting to be spoon-fed by our tutor."


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