Many people talk about ‘authentic assessment’ and how its use enables ‘assessment for learning’ by engaging students in assessment activities to which they can relate. Asking students of mathematics to solve complex equations is authentic because that’s what mathematicians may do in their professional lives but what about asking applied scientists to write an essay? Are they likely to write essays in the work environment? Are there not other activities more related to their future professional roles, mastery of which will equip them better for their successful employment?

Synonyms for authentic include genuine, real, original, reliable, true. Some argue that all assessment is therefore authentic (if one disregards the use of past papers, which eliminates original). However, the way in which the term is used in Higher Education relates to the ‘real-world’ applicability of the tasks students are asked to do. These takes enable students to demonstrate the application of knowledge and skills in a meaningful way. In some disciplines, this is automatically true, particularly of skills-based assessemnts (such as objective, structured, clinical examinations in nursing and other allied health disciplines).

Two well accepted definitions of authentic assessment are:

“A form of assessment in which students are asked to perform real-world tasks that demonstrate meaningful application of essential knowledge and skills” (Mueller, J)

“…Engaging and worthy problems or questions of importance, in which students must use knowledge to fashion performances effectively and creatively. The tasks are either replicas of, or analogous to, the kinds of problems faced by adult citizens and consumers, or professionals in the field.” (Wiggins, 1993 p229)

This suggests that authentic assessment involves some sort of task that a student must perform whilst demonstrating in an original or meaningful way,  the knowledge, skills and understanding demanded by the learning outcomes being assessed. The task should reflect one that might be expected of a professional in the field.

Traditional assessment versus authentic assessment and the aligned curriculum

Firstly we must consider what we mean by traditional assessment. Some familiar types are listed in the table below.

Traditional Assessments (TA)
Multiple choice questions Short answer questions
Filing the blanks Essay table of contents
Matching pairs Essay
True/False Blog post

Traditional assessments typically require students to select an answer or recall information they have temporarily memorised in order to pass. The efficacy of these tests depend upon the skills of the authors to design questions that stimulate thinking and reasoning. Generally, however, such tests allow students to demonstrate they have, (at the point of testing) a certain body of knowledge and skills as required by the learning outcomes. In order to achieve this, the staff must teach this body of knowledge and skills and therefore drives the curriculum.

Thus, in the traditional assessment model, the body of knowledge to be learned is determined first and then the curriculum drives assessment. Then the assessments are designed to see if this knowledge has been acquired. What it does not do is allow for student choice, for questioning and exploration, all aspects of learning which encourage the creation of new knowledge.

Authentic assessment

Employability is a key element of a higher education degree. Universities are tasked with creating citizens who can feel the skills gaps in society but also to be the creators of future developments in an ethical and sustainable way. In order to do this, our graduates must be able to reason, argue and synthesis information in a way that creates new ideas and solutions to problems. To achieve this, students must be able to understand and perform tasks they will be expected to do in the world of work. In order to determine if graduates are likely to be able to fulfil these expectations, assessments should enable students to perform such tasks in a meaningful way. Most institutions encapsulate what they graduates will be able to do in their graduate attributes and this is why these attributes should determine learning outcomes and authentic assessment should drive the curriculum. So teachers determine what assessments will allow a student to demonstrate their learning outcomes (real world problem solving etc) and then determine the curriculum which will enable students to perform the desired tasks through the acquisition and synthesis of knowledge and relevant skills.

Despite the obvious advantages of authentic assessment and its ability to drive learning, rather than being a test of memorisation, traditional assessments still have their place. For example, students in the first year of a new programme of study must learn the disciplinary language and so repetition and testing of this knowledge is acceptable but at higher levels of study the expectation is that students are applying their knowledge and even creating new knowledge (especially in capstone projects) and so authentic assessment is more appropriate.

Comparison of traditional versus authentic assessment

Traditional Authentic
Type Explanation Type Explanation
Response selection Given several responses & asked to pick correct one. Task performance Students demonstrate understanding by performing particular, complex, meaningful, task
Inauthentic Rarely asked repeatedly to choose correct answer out of four to show proficiency Real-life Expected to perform a task proficiently and effectively
Recall Tend to test ability to recall information that has been memorised

Construction/

Application

Construct product or performance from information, ideas and suggestions. Requires analysis, synthesis and application of learning and construction of new meaning .
Teacher-centred Teachers develop and construct the assessment. Students focus on ‘will we be tested on this’ Student- centred Students have more choice in what they can include to demonstrate their learning in the creation of a product or performance – but presents challenges to assessors.
Indirect evidence MCQs etc only tells us students have the correct answer, not what they have learned or how their thinking about the problem is constructed. No meaningful evidence of application of skills Direct evidence

AA offer direct evidence of how the student is thinking and constructing knowledge. Provides meaningful evidence of how students have applied their learning and skills in preparation of the pro

duct.

Developing assessment literacy in students.

One of the tasks that confronts us as educators, is developing assessment literacy in our students. We write in academic language which we assume they understand and tell them we will assess them using rubrics (also written in academic language) which they may not understand. Assessment is not a trap, it should be a tool to drive and support learning and this is where authentic assessment also has advantages over traditional assessments.

Traditional assessments (MCQs, short answer questions, unseen tests) do not lend themselves to us helping students understand what is expected of them. Demonstrating their learning outcomes in unseen tests (regardless of type) means that we cannot discuss their approach to the problem or what is required of them. Also, we tend to not use assessment rubrics as the answers may be either right or wrong. Tests only assess a sample of student learning and so teachers are encouraged NOT to teach to the test. If a teacher does teach to the test, then the good performance which results does not really represent the students knowledge and understanding of all the material.

In authentic assessment, teachers are encouraged to teach to the assessment because the assessment is a meaningful task and the learning outcomes being assessed are those of reasoning, analysis, synthesis, interpretation etc. Although the student needs to demonstrate the practical skills in producing the product/performance they also need to theorise, rationalise and justify their arguments about how they arrived at their final product. Typically, authentic assessments do not lend themselves to copying or plagiarism, because there is no, one, correct answer. By helping students to understand what a good product or performance looks like and by knowing the characteristics that comprise these good outcomes, they can develop their skills, knowledge and understanding so they can perform well.

What are the reasons for using authentic assessment

We want our graduates to succeed and to do so, they not only need to ‘know’ certain things, they need to be able to understand them such that they can communicate them to others and can use them to stimulate ideas, innovations and lead to knew knowledge and understanding. By using authentic assessments we can be better assured that a student can actually apply their learning in real-world situations. Testing knowledge, does not give us confidence that a student can apply that knowledge.

When students learn, they need to construct their own meaning of the knowledge they have acquired both through being taught and through their own experiences. Thus authentic tasks can support this learning as well as providing a means to assess what learning has taken place. A good example is problem-based learning where the problem is something that might be encountered in the world of work. Some institutions work closely with industry who provide such real-world problems. The students work together and explore potential solutions as well as researching the subject area as a whole. The process is facilitated by the teacher and the solution is the assessment artefact. Another benefit of authentic assessment is that different people learn in different ways and such an approach allows everyone to learn in their own way – through conversation, through studying text, through visualisation etc, whilst developing an understanding for how other ways of learning can be effective.

It has been suggested that we should use multiple types of assessment to determine student learning. This is challenging to students, particularly if they are not repeated, since feedback they receive cannot be applied to future assessments. However, with authentic assessment, students must use a range of learning techniques within a single assignment and so they develop a range of skills and feedback is generally applicable to future tasks.

Designing authentic assessments

There is a required flow to designing authentic assessment tasks as with curriculum design. It goes to say that assessment design should be part of the bigger process of designing your curriculum.

We adopt an outcomes approach to curriculum design in the UK. Our graduate attributes describe the skills, knowledge and understanding that an individual should possess upon achieving their award. These attributes include knowledge, skills and attributes associated with the subject of study. Learning outcomes for each level of study are underpinned by the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications (as well as benchmark statements and professional and statutory regulatory body requirements). Defining level learning outcomes, provides you with the first stage in designing authentic assessments. These learning outcomes are the standards/criteria that your students have to demonstrate through their authentic assessment tasks. Having decided on the task you must decide what ‘good’ looks like so that you can design your criteria. Someone who meets these criteria has passed and the extent to which they surpass these criteria determines their grade. Any one assessment may have several criteria and you need to decide upon the balance of these, the relative importance of the criteria, to develop your rubric. The rubric should help students what they need to do to improve (feedforward) as well as identifying what they have done well. This provide students with information on how to improve moving forward but also provides the teacher with information where the programme needs enhancing.