Helping Our Partners Make Data-Driven Decisions Through Research

by Tiffany Marra, Ph.D.


Can the experiences, stories, and artifacts that students share in portfolios be an influencer for prospective students’ enrollment decisions?

Many of us are already aware that portfolios can be hugely beneficial to the student learning process. In fact, a growing body of research validates the impact that intentional portfolio programs can have on student engagement, learning outcomes, and reflection.

But can portfolios impact a student’s decision to stick with their course of study, or a prospective student’s decision to enroll in a course of study?

Screenshot of an example portfolio

To answer questions like these we’re launching research in a number of areas. We hope to contribute to existing research to extend what we know about the potential impact of portfolios to enhance learning. The schools and programs we work with are joining us in this effort to gather insights that can add value to a student’s educational experience. Our work will explore four main areas:

  • Portfolio impact on enrollment
  • Portfolio impact on student retention
  • Portfolio impact on student career preparedness and readiness
  • Portfolio impact on intentional learning and assessment

In fact, some of our initial research has already begun. In November 2014, we surveyed a random sample of 226 prospective students (ages 18-59) with the intent to apply to a 2- or 4- year institution in 2015.

I constructed this survey with Steve Lonn, one of my colleagues from the University of Michigan. Our survey was constructed using a conglomeration of nationally normed items related to preferences, goals, and beliefs about higher education. As a part of the survey, respondents were randomly presented with one of three scenarios:

  1. A scenario in which they were accepted into an institution of higher education with a standard admissions letter constructed from a sample of actual admissions letters from existing higher education institutions.
  2. A scenario in which they were accepted into an institution of higher education with an admissions letter that also included a picture and link to a mock student portfolio matching the respondent’s gender and ethnicity
  3. A scenario in which they were accepted into an institution of higher education with an admissions letter that contained additional language on portfolio-based learning, a link to an example student portfolio matching the respondent’s gender and ethnicity, as well as a link to a gallery page that included a diverse set of student portfolios.

Examples of letters shared with survey respondents

After respondents viewed these letters they were surveyed on how, if at all, the content included influenced their decision to attend the institution.

Initial findings suggest that portfolio content can have a positive impact on 18-25 year old students considering a medium-size university. We plan to further investigate this population to better understand this initial finding and how schools can better connect with prospective students.

We are excited to continue to explore the positive impacts that portfolios can have on the student lifecycle and hope you’ll join us in these efforts. To explore collaborative research opportunities, please contact us at