Authentic assessment

As anyone who has ever taken a driving test knows, there is a huge difference between theory and practice. The theory is of course really important – it’s good to know which side of the road to drive on before you start, and what all those signs mean, and how on earth roundabouts work. But you wouldn’t want to be on the road with someone who only knew those things in theory.

Similarly, university degrees are not just about gaining knowledge. So when we design assessments, we have to make sure it is not just knowledge we are testing for. We need to give students the opportunity to practise, and be recognised for, their skills and application of knowledge to real-world problems. Further, a really good degree gives students a host of other skills and experiences that are more widely applicable – self-knowledge, working with others, curiosity, global citizenship, critical thinking, time management, leadership, overcoming challenges, seeing different perspectives…

Because of this breadth, the traditional exam-and-essay combination for summative assessment is perhaps a bit lacking for modern degree courses. Not that there is anything necessarily wrong with these methods, but they need to be accompanied by other things for a well-rounded experience.

What is authentic assessment?

Authentic assessment tends to have some combination of the following:

  • It addresses a real problem or brief, or a simulation of one (e.g. case studies).
  • It is complex, with interrelated aspects – not a series of discrete questions.
  • It makes use of real-world skills which may be subject-specific (such as software programming) or transferable (such as teamwork).
  • It is authentic to the student and allows them a measure of self-expression (e.g. freeform portfolio or reflective journal).
  • There is the opportunity for practice and feedback, and the student’s progress as well as the final product may be documented.
  • There is the opportunity to gain and integrate new knowledge (i.e. it is not closed-book).

Inclusive assessment and the awarding gap

The awarding gap is the phenomenon of students from different demographic groups receiving very different results, in spite of their personal effort or previous performance. In other words, it is a function of how institutions measure success, not how well students learn.

For example, if you only assess with exams you disadvantage the people who aren’t very good at exams, regardless of how brilliant they are in the field. Difficulty with exams does not necessarily mean a student doesn’t know the subject. It could be due to neurodiversity (if they have difficulty concentrating or processing written instructions quickly), emotional factors such as feeling nervous, or cultural expectations. And a single point of assessment always has the potential to fall at a point where a student is just not having a good day.

For these reasons, authentic assessment is an important tool in the inclusive assessment toolkit. A variety of assessment types will enable students to show their true potential, and authentic assessment practices may overcome some of the cultural or neurodiversity barriers.

Practise, practise, practise

While an exam is generally an endpoint, designed to assess what has already been learned, authentic assessment is part of the learning itself. Instead of applying previous knowledge to an unseen question, the problem or task is stated and students seek the means to complete it. In this way it more closely resembles ‘authentic’ situations. Feedback may come from the teacher, from peers, from comparison with new knowledge, or from tangible results of the exercise. But this cycle of practice – feedback – improvement means that learning is happening throughout the assessment. It shifts the focus from assessment of learning to assessment for or as learning.

Three nested circles - Assessment of learning: Summative assessment (outer), Assessment for learning: Formative assessment (middle), Assessment as learning: Self/peer assessment (inner)

Of course, assessment of learning is still taking place, and authentic assessment can still be summative. But it makes the most of valuable learning time, and gives students wider skills to take out into the world.

Further information


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