Thursday, 03 September 2015 16:31

Authentic Assessment Explained

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"Can you think of professions which require some direct demonstration of relevant skills before someone can be employed in that field? Doctors, electricians, teachers, actors, and others must all provide direct evidence of competence to be hired. Completing a written or oral test or interview is usually not sufficient. Shouldn't we ask the same of our students before we say they are ready to graduate? Or pass a course? or move on to the next grade? (Jon Meuller, Authentic Assessment Toolbox, 2014)

Striving to make assessments "authentic" has become a best practice in recent years. The definition of authentic assessment can vary depending on which research literature is consulted. The term "authentic assessment" seemed to arise as a reaction against using multiple choice exams as the primary way to assess student performance (Terwilliger, 1997). 

When defining authentic assessment, some believe that the only way to authentically assess a skill or concept would be to directly replicate what a student may expect to find in industry or the real-world. An example of this may be a nursing student who performs a role play with a simulation robot and performs the same procedures they would perform on a patient in the hospital.

Others may define authentic assessment not by the literal physical replication of the learned concept, but instead by the cognitive thought processes that the student used to arrive at the same conclusion. Perhaps this same student had to give a presentation of the step by step procedures they would go through with the patient. They are still going through the same thinking process, but the product to prove their learning is different. Some may argue that multiple choice exams could be considered a form of authentic assessment, depending on the thought process that the student is using to arrive at the answer. Is it simple recall of a fact? Or does it lead the student to visualize themselves in a situation, perhaps drawing from knowledge in the course and applying it to answer the question. Even though some multiple choice questions do require higher order cognitive processes which may be considered authentic, it may not be considered a best practice to use multiple choice exams as the only form of assessment. Students learn and demonstrate learning in many ways and a variance of assessment tools will give the best overall feedback.

Although definitions of authentic assessment do vary there seems to be common themes that are present across the research. These are some broad principles which apply to authentic assessments.

Authentic Assessment Principles

  • Use a range of tools to access learning
  • Involve multiple roles and perspectives
  • Are reflective
  • Lead students to create collaborative knowledge
  • May use relevant real world examples or stimulate tasks from industry
  • May require an application of learned concepts or skills

Why is it important to assess authentically?

It is important that we strive to create authentic assessment experiences for our students. Here are four important reasons to strive to assess students authentically in your class (adapted from the Authentic Assessment Toolbox by Jon Mueller, 2014). 

  1. Authentic Assessments are Direct Measures: Authentic assessments give students the chance to not only know the content, but to actually apply the knowledge in a meaningful way. It allows for more direct evidence of learning the skill through demonstration or application.
  2. Authentic Assessments Capture the Constructive Nature of Learning: Research in education and learning has concluded that students need to construct their own meaning and knowledge, not simply be fed knowledge to be received passively. Students need to create their own meaning and construct knowledge based on their own experience of the world combined with the new information they receive.
  3. Authentic Assessments Integrate Teaching, Learning, and Assessment: When authentic assessments are integrated throughout the course, it allows students to work with the instructor and build their own learning while completing the assessment. An example of this would be a scenario that allows students to construct their own knowledge while moving through the experience, picking up pieces of knowledge as they go. This integrated teaching, learning, and assessment experience is in contrast to traditional assessment where the teaching and learning come first and the assessment happens after – independent of the teaching and learning.
  4. Authentic Assessments Provide Multiple Paths to Demonstration: Research shows that multiple and varied assessments give the best indication of student learning (Wiggins, 1998). We all have different learning styles and also best demonstrate what we have learned in different ways. Using only one method to assess students may not show the big picture as some students may express themselves better using different mediums.

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Faculty Focus. Assessing Online Learning: Strategies, Challenges and Opportunities. Retrieved from (Links to an external site.)
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Mueller, J. (2014). Authentic assessment toolbox. North Central College, Naperville, IL. Retrieved from: (Links to an external site.)
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Erin Howard

At work I pride myself on being a helpful resource for our online instructors- troubleshooting technology issues, creating resources, and helping them feel confident in the online classroom. I feel that by working with instructors it will lead to a greater experience for online students. I also enjoy finding technological solutions for instructors that can enhance their existing pedagogy - taking what they already do well and making it more efficient for the instructor and engaging for students. When I’m not at work, I am usually busy doing something active with my family, friends or dogs. I love running, kickboxing, weight training, hiking, wakeboarding, yoga, biking, dancing and basically anything that gets me moving!