Learning Paths






Luciano Mariani


Paper given at the British Council 20th National Conference for Teachers of English

Venice, 15-17 March 2001





In the past few months there has been, and there still is, a lot of debate on the concept of competence as a key issue in curriculum reform. We know that today we need to equip our students with a range of competences, and we need to make these competences observable and assessable, so that they can eventually be certified. This is a trend and a need which is common to all curricular reforms, and not just in Europe. The labour market, and society at large, need standards which should be comparable across different countries. So the emphasis has switched to the problem of specifying levels of competences, in the language field as in many other fields. Within this context, which I think is very familiar to all of us, I’d like to focus on three key ideas in my talk:

· first idea: we need to keep the concept of competence closely linked to the concept of process, because process is what we go through to develop competence;

· second idea: just as we feel the need to document and assess competence, so we should feel the need to document and assess process, to make process as visible and as tangible as possible. The idea of a learning portfolio is a good example of how this could be done;

· third idea: it is worth considering the approach behind a learning portfolio with great care, because it is an example of promising innovation in teaching, learning and assessment.


Competence and process

As for my first key idea, I would like to discuss a few issues which I think are crucial for the present debate about curricula:

· what do I mean by these two terms, competence and process, and why do I think that it’s worth keeping them close together?

· why is it useful to make process explicit, and why is it also useful to assess it?

· and finally, in what sense and in what ways can we document and assess process?

Competence has been defined in several different ways, and my feeling is that we are still far from a definition which is shared and accepted by everybody. This, of course, does not make things easier for us. In this paper I will keep to the definition which was given some time ago by the Associazione Progetto per la Scuola, and which reads, in translation, like this: “What, in a given context, one can do (i.e. ability) on the basis of what one knows (i.e. knowledge), to reach the expected outcome and produce new knowledge“. On the basis of such a definition we can talk of final or expected competences, be it at the end of a cycle of instruction or at the end of a single module. The expected outcome, the final product, is some observable and assessable behaviour, the student’s performance which is, in practice, an action, a representative sample of what the student can do, the evidence that he or she has actually achieved a certain level of competence.

When we talk about competence we are obviously concentrating on the product, on the result of learning – it seems to me that this product, which is made explicit by some kind of objective performance, is only the tip of an iceberg, what we may call the “explicit curriculum” (Fig. 1).




“explicit curriculum”



“implicit curriculum”




















Fig. 1 - “Explicit” and “implicit” curriculum




Beneath the surface lies what we may call an “implicit curriculum”, which is just as important because it affects the way that competence is achieved. This “implicit curriculum” is made up of all those forces, both within and without the individual, which affect learning – and obviously teaching. At this level we are not talking about products, results, performances – we are rather talking about what makes those products and results achievable – what I call “process”.

Let’s have a closer look at what lies beneath the surface of the iceberg (Fig. 2).







Fig. 2 - “The curriculum iceberg”




If competence is concerned with what I can do, it is logical to expect that beneath that we should find how I come to be able to do that – my learning process. Between competence and process I like to put in strategies, as a bridge between what lies in the depths of process and the actual performance that I can exhibit as evidence of my achieved competence. When I talk of strategies I refer to learning strategies, but also to communication and intercultural strategies. The place and role of strategies in a curriculum are still matters of debate – do they belong to the sphere of process, or to the sphere of communicative activities, or in other words, to the level of competence? One may think that this is a purely theoretical question, but I do not really think so. If you look at the European Framework, for example, and compare the first edition with the second, you will find that one of the most significant changes is indeed where strategies are placed within the overall structure. On top of that, there is a more concrete question – whether strategies should be part of summative evaluation. In other words, should strategies be assessed just like the competence that they help to achieve? For example, should we assess the range of strategies that I have used to understand a text, or should we be content to assess the simple fact that I have eventually been able to understand it? Should we assess the strategies I have used to keep a conversation open, or should we be content to assess that, after all, I have kept it open, no matter how? Again, if you look at the Framework, you will find some tentative examples of scales for strategy assessment – so, the question is open.

I like this idea of treating strategies as a kind of bridge between what I can do and how I manage to do it. But let’s dive deeper into our iceberg. So far we have been concerned with what I can do (competence) and how I become able to do it (process and strategies). Deeper below, we come to the question of why I can do something just in that particular way I do it – we are talking about my learning style, the ways I use my sensory and cognitive modalities and my different intelligences, even my own peculiar aptitudes – in a word, my unique way of learning. Why, for example, is it so difficult for me to resist the temptation of reading a text line after line, while my friend seems to be quite happy to skim and quickly get to the gist of it? Why do I need to plan in advance what I have to say or write, and am always worried about how I say or write it, while my friend throws herself into the conversation and does not seem in the least concerned with grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation? Why do I prefer to work alone, while my friend is at his best when he can work in a group?

As we move even deeper, we find my beliefs and attitudes towards language, communication and culture, towards learning tasks and even towards myself as a person and as a learner, together with the structure of my motivations to learn. Again, we are concerned here with a why question. Why can’t Jim stand structural practice and mechanical exercises, while Steve seems to be anxious to find a rule for each and every aspect he is studying? Why does Jane manage to react positively even in the face of negative results, while Louise seems to have given up the hope of learning a language? So at the bottom of the iceberg we come to the very basic why, why I eventually can or can’t do something.

But then we know that icebergs rarely go alone. They come in groups – and me too – at school I am not alone, I am learning in the context of a class and a school – a place where learning does not (or should not) happen only by chance but through the combined efforts of a number of people. So what happens between me and my teacher, me and my classmates, what we sometimes call “class climates” or “class cultures” belong to the sphere of process, because they are part of what people do, on one side, to try to learn, and on the other side, to try to help people learn.

I feel that in the present debate about school reform and changing curricula the process – the process in the sense we have been talking so far – very often remains “in the shade”, so to say - it often looks as a grey area which is hardly explored because it is so difficult to explore. So my feeling is that we tend to keep to the surface, to what is visible, tangible, observable, assessable, and eventually certifiable. But should it indeed be so? Can’t we and our students come out of the shade into the light, can’t we and our students turn this grey area into something full of bright colours?

If want to make process more explicit, if we want to be concerned not just with what is achieved but also with the how and the why, does this mean that we should also assess process? And even before that, we might want to ask ourselves: can process be assessed?

I think that process can be assessed, but not for the same purposes and in the same ways in which we assess competence (Fig. 3).







Fig. 3 - Summative and formative evaluation




When we assess competence, we are concerned with a summative form of evaluation: we know that this form of evaluation is in a way “public” (and indeed, it can eventually be certified), and is based on some observable performance by the student. When we assess process, on the other hand, we’re talking of a formative sort of evaluation: this has a private character, in the sense that it allows the student (but also the teacher) to monitor and adjust learning while it is taking place. As we have seen, what is involved in process cannot be assessed only on the basis of direct observation – often it is necessary to use other sources of information which are indirect and qualitative, like interviews, questionnaires, reports, self-assessment cards, and so on. But then, you might ask, how can we make this sort of evaluation as valid and reliable as possible? Well, validity and reliability in this case depend on a number of factors: for example, the fact that students and teachers can collect data, that is, information, over a medium and even long term; the fact that students and teachers can compare data which come from different sources, maybe from different people, on different occasions; the fact that all this information, which is constantly changing, can be processed and interpreted both by students and by teachers.

I would like to sum up the first part of my paper. I have tried to argue that it is important to document and assess process, and not just competence, and this for three main reasons:

· in the first place, and although this may sound a bit banal, because it is through process that competence is achieved – there are no easy shortcuts;

· secondly, because the ability to monitor and manage process is a competence in itself: you may call it in different ways – metacompetence, ability to learn, cross-curricular thinking skills, or whatever – but there remains the fact that today everybody, but especially young people, need to be equipped not just with specific knowledge and competence, but also with the flexibility to train and re-train themselves and to adapt to a changing world;

· and finally, a third reason why I think that process should be documented and assessed is, because I do believe that what is not made explicit in a curriculum is not assessed, and what is not assessed is not taught. To put it bluntly, if a curriculum pays little attention to process, the chances are that process is easily forgotten or, to say the least, underestimated.


Process in a learning portfolio

I can now proceed to my second key idea. If we agree that process should be documented, or rather, that each individual student should be given the opportunity to document his or her own ways of going through process, then the learning portfolio points to one of the possible ways in which this could be done.

The function of the portfolio is the one suggested by its basic meaning: if we think of an artist’s portfolio, or a model’s portfolio, or a journalist’s portfolio, we think of a collection of documents – drawings, photos, articles - which can be shown as evidence of what one can do at a certain time in one’s professional career. It’s a collection which can be updated from time to time as one develops new skills or goes through new meaningful experiences. In the education field, portfolios have long been used with two basic functions:

· a reporting function: this refers to its administrative uses. What is sometimes called “showcase portfolio” is one of the many possible ways to implement alternative forms of assessment, which can coexist with more traditional forms of assessment or can even replace them;

· a pedagogic function: this refers to its classroom uses. We may call this “learning portfolio”, and this is not necessarily linked with formal, institutional assessment – rather, it is a collection of items which document how each individual student goes through the process of achieving certain competences – and this is what I am concerned with here.

Before providing an example of what I have in mind when I think of a learning portfolio, let me spend a few words on the European Language Portfolio, the Council of Europe project which, for many Italian foreign language teachers, has been the first contact with the very idea of a portfolio. The European Language Portfolio consists of three parts:

· first, there is a “Language Passport”, an overview. To quote the official document, this overview shows at a glance “the level reached in different languages, the levels for which certificates and diplomas have been obtained, and the extra-curricular experiences gained in the process”. This first part clearly has an administrative value, although it includes valuable self-assessment checklists;

· the second part is called “Language Learning Biography” and contains “a very brief summary of one’s personal language learning history, self-assessment checklists for the different languages, statements about aims and plans for future learning, and information about the objectives of courses already taken”. I think that this idea of a “learning biography” is a powerful one, and I will refer to it later;

· third part, the “Dossier”, is certainly the part which comes closest to the original concept of “portfolio”: it is a collection of documents which are selected as evidence of one’s competences, together with a list which describes the essential features of these materials. These can be anything, from examples of written work to audio or video cassettes, projects on CD-Roms, anything that can prove what one can do in a foreign language. Again, I think that the idea of a “dossier” is a really powerful one.

The main function of the Portfolio, in its original version, is then to document and certify your competences at any given point in time, although it includes specific tools to record not just what you have achieved but also what you are going to achieve, and your objectives for future language study. Now comes my modest proposal: why not use the idea of a portfolio to record and assess the process, and not just the competence? Why not put together and organize in some systematic way documents and materials which are evidence of your personal, dynamic learning profile, your individual on-going biography as a language learner?

I would like to be as concrete as possible here. At school we sometimes provide students with opportunities to think and talk and write about what I have called “process”. Think, for example, of what many schools do at the beginning of the school year, especially for “first graders” … think of study skills lessons, of remedial courses, of questionnaires on learning styles or learning strategies … think of the self-assessment cards which most coursebooks now include at the end of each unit or module … think of all those informal times when we stop “teaching to the syllabus”, so to say, and allow our students and ourselves a little rest, a few minutes to talk about what we are doing, how we are doing it and why. So I think that there are a few opportunities at school when students are prompted to think about process, that is, about their individual ways of learning, about their changing profiles as learners. However, most of the times these opportunities are lost, or perhaps they are not exploited to the full, because they are not linked together in any organized way - something is missing, a thread, a pattern which can give both students and teachers a sense of continuity. Colleagues often ask me: “I’ve done a questionnaire on study skills, now what do I do with it?”, or: “We’ve done some really good work with first graders, but how can we keep it up through the following months?”, or: “We’ve put aside a few hours or a few days for self-assessment, how can we make the most of them?”.

To try and answer these questions, I would like to suggest that we use the idea of a learning portfolio, and specifically the Learning Biography and the Dossier, to provide a place, a physical place, to record and link together all those documents through which a student explores the evolution, so to say, of her or his learning profile. Put it differently, I think that we need a simple but powerful tool to record, organize and assess what students discover about themselves and their changing ways of learning through time. I am not thinking of anything complex – the basic tool could be a simple card like the one in Fig. 4.




Today …(date)

in the context of …

I’ve found out that…

key-  words


a grammar exercise at home

it’s useful to revise class notes



a class discussion

a written list of points helps me



watching some Italian video clips

it’s fun to spot English words





Fig. 4 - Example of a “learning biography” (from Mariani L. 2000. Portfolio. Bologna: Zanichelli Editore)




It is a sort of a diary, with just a few basic entries:

· there is a date and a context, to remind me that I can discover something about myself as a learner any day, any time, in any context: for example, today … (date) … while doing a grammar exercise at home … during a class discussion … while watching some Italian video clips …

· there is a synthesis of my discovery: I’ve found out that … for example, … that it is useful to revise my class notes … that it is easier for me to make a written list of points … that it is fun to spot English words in Italian programs …

· there is a further synthesis of my discovery in the form of essential key words: for example, “revise class notes” … “use writing” … “be ready to spot English words” …

Why do I think that it is so important to make a synthesis? First of all, when I try to summarize, I “squeeze out the juice of my discovery”, get to the heart of it. Then, if I further summarize by finding a few key words, it is easier to remember what I have discovered, and it is also easier to transfer the essence of it to the other basic tool of my learning portfolio, which is “My personal profile” (Fig. 5).







Fig. 5 - Example of a “personal profile” (from Mariani 2000, op. cit.)




As you can see, this is an extremely simple mind map, or spidergram, you can call it in different ways: it is empty, but ready to receive and treasure my key words, which I can then arrange and rearrange in any way, delete, add and change as I think it fit. In this case, for instance, I have put in my key words and have arranged them into three main areas – Styles (“use writing” ), Strategies (“revise class notes”), and Beliefs/Attitudes ( “be ready to spot English”). But this is just an example, and I could arrange the key words in any other way, into different areas, or by using any other headings, or no headings at all.

So this is one possible way to use the idea of a learning biography. But what about the so-called “dossier”? This is meant to be a collection of documents and materials which would work as evidence of what I have discovered and recorded in my learning biography. For example, if I have answered a questionnaire on learning strategies and I have spotted something new about my ways of learning, then I will enclose this questionnaire. If I have filled out a self-assessment card at the end of a module, and I have realized something about my strong and weak points, then I will enclose this card. If I have written an article or a report at the end of a research project using the Internet, and have found out how good I am at surfing the web, I can enclose this article or report. However, I cannot just fill in my dossier with papers at random. Once again, I think we need some simple tool to describe and classify the documents I am enclosing (Fig. 6).






Kind of work

Reasons for inclusion



CD review for school’s web page

group      typical         free

my friends liked it - linked to my great interest - music



questionnaire on study habits


I’ve realized I need to manage my time better





Fig. 6 - Example of a “dossier” introductory card




This particular card is inspired by the Swiss experimental version of the European Portfolio. For each document which I decide to enclose in my dossier, I jot down a number, a title or description (for instance, “A CD review for the school’s web page”), the type of work done (for instance, whether it is an individual or a group work, whether it is a standard, typical work or an example of the best type of work I can produce, whether it is the result of a free, spontaneous production or the final version of a work which I have corrected and redrafted one or more times, and so on), the reason why I include the document (for instance, “because my classmates liked it and it’s linked to one of my great interests – music”), and the date. Notice that the reason is particularly important, because I have to justify the rationale for my choice and, by doing so, I become better aware of my own abilities and how they are changing over time.


Pedagogical implications of a learning portfolio

I will now proceeed to my third and final key idea: it is worth considering the idea of a learning portfolio because it is an example of promising innovation in teaching, learning and assessment. Perhaps the best way to talk about this is by considering the practical implications of the sample materials which we have just considered.

First, it is fairly obvious that using some form of learning biography and dossier with a minimum of continuity and consistency requires time, space, and energies. We must find slots in the curriculum which we can allot to a project like this. I know that today more than ever we are trying to squeeze lots and lots of things into a 30-hour weekly timetable, and it seems blasphemy to ask for a little time on top of all the other pressing demands. But, on the other had, consider that the situation today, in a way, is not worse than in the past. I think that today the changing status of our schools, their chance to exercise more autonomy, gives us the opportunity of managing time, space, human and material resources with some more flexibility. Obviously, a portfolio project is a “project” in its own right, that is, something to be planned in advance, to be monitored while we are implementing it, and to be evaluated at the end, just like any other project we embark on at school. The problem, as I see it, is not just one of time and energies. It is also, and I would say above all, something to do with what we think and feel about the worth of a portfolio approach. This is why I think it is important to be very clear about the advantages of this approach for learners, but also very frank about the implications for our own teaching practice.

First, set clear – but “open” – targets. A portfolio approach implies that both we and our students are very well aware of the competences we are trying to achieve, or, to put it in simpler terms, of the targets we are trying to meet when we do certain things. We can decide to implement an extensive reading programme, for example, or to watch a series of videos, or to produce a hypertext, but we need to be very explicit about how each of these activities contributes to which curricular goal. This does not mean that everything can be foreseen in advance – in fact, by doing certain things we may discover that we have acquired new skills or new knowledge that were not part of the planned outcome. This is very important, and I will come back to it at the end of this paper.

Second, set up concrete learning experiences. To be able to draw something useful out of an activity, the activity needs to be meaningful and provide people with an opportunity to meet a challenge, to gain something in terms of new abilities and new knowledge. For example, we need to provide at least some activities and exercises which require the use of strategies, because it is only by facing a problem and trying to solve it that I do a real experience and gain from it.

Third, value personal experiences, by selecting and documenting them, and by reflecting on and assessing them. For the value of personal experience not to be lost, we need to make a record of it. This is the function of such physical tools as the learning biography and the dossier. However, that is not enough. Experiences need to be examined and assessed to draw the most out of them. If I have done something, I need to think about it to give it a meaning, to realize what I have earned by doing it. What have I learnt from reading a book, or from watching a video, or from building a hypertext? What have I discovered in terms of my learning styles, my aptitudes, my learning strategies, my motivations to learn? I may have learnt something unexpected, I may have discovered things about the language, about learning, about myself, which I had not even dreamed of at the start. So I need time to do things, but also some time to think about what I have done and how I have done it – even if it were only a few minutes at the end of a lesson or at the end of an exercise.

Fourth, update personal profiles regularly – and share them. People do change, young people especially. Experience shapes and moulds our skills, our knowledge, our beliefs and attitudes, so we need to keep track of our changes. That is why I think that a mind map or a spiderweb are nice tools to capture the spirit of this work-in-progress. But I would not want to give the impression that a portfolio is something strictly individual, a sort of secret diary to be kept out of everybody’s sight. In fact, one of the terms which are often used to describe one function of portfolios is “showcase portfolios”: “showcase” – something to be shown, to be shared with others. An important part of a portfolio project would be to provide opportunities for students to show and discuss their portfolios with their friends, their teachers, even their parents. In other words, self-assessment goes hand in hand with peer-assessment and teacher-assessment.

Fifth, and finally, aim at increasing intrinsic motivation, self-esteem, self-efficacy. These are “big” words, but I think they are all embedded in the approach that I have just outlined.

I would like to end my talk by playing the devil’s advocate. I have a feeling that some of us may be thinking, “How will my students be able to cope with such a project? What if they don’t know what to write in their learning biography? What if they can’t manage their dossier?”. Well, I am tempted to say, if we do not give them a chance to try, they will never make it, and for sure, they will need a lot of guidance and support, as I have tried to show. But I would like to finish by saying that my modest proposal focusses on each person for what he or she actually is, for what he or she can actually do. As David Nunan recently wrote,

“at this stage in our work we are not looking for averages, norms, or generalizability, and we are not interested in populations and sample. In fact, we are happy to celebrate through our work the particular, the atypical, the unique”.







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COUNCIL OF EUROPE EDUCATION COMMITTEE (1997), European Language Portfolio: Proposals for Development. Council of Europe, Strasbourg.

COUNCIL OF EUROPE (2001), Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

FARR R. (1991), Portfolios: Assessment in Language Arts. Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) Digest, Washington, D.C.

FRENCH R.L. (1992), Portfolio Assessment and LEP Students. Proceedings of the Second National Research Symposium on Limited English Proficient Student Issues: Focus on Evaluation and Measurement. OBEMLA.

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KOHONEN V. (1993), “Facilitating Learner Autonomy Using Portfolio Assessment” in HUTTUNEN I (ed.), Report on Workshop 2B - Learning to Learn Languages: Investigating Learner Strategies and Learner Autonomy, pp. 53-60. , Council of Europe, Council for Cultural Cooperation, Strasbourg.

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Internet sites


  • You can find one of the richest and best structured bibliographies on the use of portfolios (Bibliography of assessment alternatives: Portfolios), c/o Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, at the following address: http://www.nwrel.org/eval/library/bibliographies.html
  • A site devoted specifically to issues in portfolio use, including teacher portfolios, care of Courtney Zmach (Resources: Authentic Assessment and Portfolios), can be found at: http://www.oise.utoronto.ca/
  • The Council of Europe Portfolio site can be found at: http://culture2.coe.int/portfolio/inc.asp?L=E&M=$t/208-1-0-1/main_pages/we lcome.html
  • For the Swiss version of the European Language Portfolio, go to: http://www.unifr.ch/ids/Portfolio/



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