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A guide to structuring your professional portfolio

Donna Davenport RGN BSc (Hons) PGC/AP
Senior Lecturer Manchester Metropolitan University
Sue Spencer MA MSc PGCE BA NDNCert RN
Senior Lecturer Pre-registration Nursing Northumbria University

It is important to develop some structure to your continuing development portfolio, and to continue to build on your knowledge and skills by the action of organising your learning

In a recent edition of Nursing in Practice Marilyn Eveleigh considered the need for registered nurses to keep a portfolio of evidence to demonstrate engagement with continuing professional development.1

You may be someone who takes the shopping trolley approach to portfolio collation: ‘I'll stick it all in a box and one day I will write a commentary and show everyone how much I know'.2 However, it is possible to find a more organised, focused approach in a way that suits your learning style.3

What is a portfolio?
Timmins and Duffy suggest that “a nursing portfolio provides evidence of previous experience and presents a dynamic record of your growth and professional learning over time”.4
The key words in this definition are ‘dynamic' and ‘growth'. This gives permission to be much more creative as to what the portfolio might contain - not just a collection of certificates of attendance and a list of key learning but a more personal exploration of where you are at the moment and where you want to develop your practice.

This approach may not be the one you wish to take, but the issue here is that there is no right or wrong way to develop a portfolio. Your portfolio is yours, and should mirror your approach to practice and be relevant and appropriate to the context of your professional practice.4

So, if a portfolio is more than a simple collection of information how might you approach its development? Some decisions
you might want to make include whether you want the portfolio to be:

  • A snapshot of your professional learning; for example, using a specific example of your learning to demonstrate a range of skills or knowledge.
  • A more broad view of your practice taking bite-size examples of a range of experiences.

These are easier decisions to make than you might think and provide a solution to what you could keep and use as evidence to support your learning. Certificates of attendance are not evidence of continuing professional development (CPD) - but proof that you were there. To provide evidence of learning requires some engagement with the subject matter and a method of capturing how attendance at the event, study day or lecture has contributed to your practice.

There are other legitimate sources of information that contribute to your practice. Study days are important as they give us time out from work and might give us space to think about our practice - but in the current climate this is a rare luxury. More often than not you might find yourself rushing back to work and forget to capture your thoughts and feelings about the event you have just attended.

Reflective practice is a key contributor to CPD and allows you to explore what knowledge and skills you are using in your practice, as well as helping you to identify where you might need to develop further knowledge and skills.4

Building a portfolio can clearly identify these issues; and a coherent and a well structured presentation of this can help communicate to managers and colleagues why you might want to study particular subjects or attend certain study days. In essence, it is a record of your professional journey. Ways to overcome the challenges to demonstrating effective CPD are shown in Table 1.

[[Tab 1. Portfolios]]

Portfolios are increasingly being used to demonstrate knowledge, skills and competence, and are a frequently used method of assessment both pre- and post registration; for example, in specialist practice, non-medical prescribing programmes, mentorship, independent study and clinical skills, such as family planning. They are an invaluable tool to support your CPD and can be used to demonstrate lifelong learning, as well as for personal, academic and professional purposes.5,6

However, while evidence suggests that nurses value portfolios as a learning tool, it would seem they are often unsure about their usefulness in terms of their purpose, either in relation to academic study or to professional practice.7,8 As a result, students often feel challenged when asked to present a portfolio as evidence of professional development and require support to develop one that is meaningful and coherent.

Anecdotally, evidence suggests that on completion of training many nurses do not continue to keep their portfolio up to date. If you were requested to submit a profile to the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) as evidence for the PREP CPD standard would you be able to submit a quality document that demonstrates your professional journey and provides evidence that you are up to date and have met this standard?9 Many of you will have been required to compile evidence of CPD for your annual personal development review (PDR) within the NHS Knowledge and Skills Framework.6,7 It makes sense to use a portfolio to demonstrate this as an ongoing process.

While there is no set format for what your portfolio should look like there is a plethora of guidance to get you thinking about the types of learning activity you might include, depending on the area you work in, using examples related to professional standards.4,8

It is important to remember that learning takes place in a wide range of settings and in different ways, not just when you attend a study day or course. Merely presenting a folder of certificates does not demonstrate what has been learned and how you have developed your practice as a result of that learning. Every portfolio is unique and, as such, offers the owner an opportunity to reflect on their own personal learning and development within their specific area of practice throughout their career. Reflection offers the opportunity to really think about your practice and using a model of reflection provides a framework to structure your thinking in a systematic way so that, ultimately, practice develops and is enhanced.4 

There are a range of different approaches to the format of a portfolio but it is suggested that a portfolio should demonstrate a visual representation of the individual, their experience, strengths, abilities and skills.10 In other words, it is an opportunity to showcase yourself and celebrate your achievements and successes, as well as demonstrate learning from events that have not been so positive.

Paper portfolios are the simplest, most common format but can become difficult to keep up to date and manage, particularly as careers develop over a number of years. Connecting sections of a paper portfolio can also be problematic both for the owner and the person reading or assessing it.4 However, with the advent of technology and the world wide web it is clear that there is a place for portfolios to be developed in this way to keep up with developments in information technology. 

Examples of e-portfolios include Pebblepad (www.pebblepad.co.uk) and the Learning Assistant (www.learningassistant.com), both useful tools in the context of healthcare and vocational qualifications.
Advantages of using an e-portfolio include:

  • Easy to update.
  • Less waste, eg, paper.
  • Way of improving IT skills/knowledge.
  • Link to other useful resources.
  • Easy to demonstrate how they link to relevant standards.
  • Allows instant feedback.
  • Sharing with peers.

However, clearly there is a need to be IT literate to use an e-portfolio and more mature students may need support and additional training. A good place to start is to ask your line manager about in-house training and development, or
alternatively access nationally recognised courses such as the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) if you want to develop your confidence, skills and knowledge in using technology (www.learndirect.co.uk/qualifications/it_qualifications/ecdl).

It is clear that the benefits of this type of portfolio are immense and work can still be presented in different ways ensuring its individuality. However, the strength of e-portfolios lies in the quality of the information and its capacity to link to digital evidence, while also providing more opportunity to be shared with colleagues, peers, managers and also receive almost instant feedback.4 Box 1 provides suggestions of key areas you might include in your portfolio whether paper based or electronic.

[[Box 1. Portfolios]]

This article has aimed to encourage you to take a more organised, focused approach in a way that suits your learning style. If you are starting from scratch then it can feel a little overwhelming and by being organised and structured in your approach some of this anxiety can be overcome. Portfolios are individual and there is no right or wrong way but there are different ways you can present the material to make it a visual representation of your lifelong journey and importantly say something unique about you and your CPD.

References
Eveleigh M. CPD and the professional portfolio. Nursing in Practice 2011 60:93-5.
Endacott R, Gray M, Jasper M, McMullan M, Miller C, Scholes J, Webb C. Using portfolios in the assessment of learning and competence: the impact of four models. Nurse Education in Practice 2004;4(4):250-7.
Reece I, Walker S. Teaching, Training and Learning - A Practical Guide, 6th edn. Tyne and Wear: Business Education Publishers Ltd; 2007.
Timmins F, Duffy A. Writing your Nursing Portfolio: A Step by Step Guide. Berkshire: Open University Press; 2011.
Klenowski V. Developing portfolios for Learning and Assessment. Oxford: Routledge Falmer; 2003.
Department of Health (DH). The NHS Knowledge and Skills Framework (NHS KSF) and the Development Review Process. London: DH; 2004.
Royal College of Nursing (RCN). Discussing and preparing evidence at your first personal development review: Guidance for RCN members on the NHS Knowledge and Skills Framework. London: RCN; 2006.
Nairn S, O'Brien E, Traynor V, Williams G, Chapple M, Johnson S. Student nurses' knowledge, skills and attitudes towards the use of portfolios in a school of nursing. J Clin Nurs 2006;15:1509-20.
Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC). The PREP handbook.
London: NMC; 2010. Available from: www.nmc-uk.org/Documents/Standards/nmcPrepHandbook.pdf
McCready T. Portfolios and the assessment of competence in nursing: a literature review. International Journal of Nursing Studies 2007;44:43-151.