When considering how to assess student learning in a course, most instructors would agree that the ideal assessment would be one that not only assesses students’ learning; it also teaches students and improves their skills and understanding of course content. One fundamental aspect of such assessments is that they are authentic.
An authentic assignment is one that requires application of what students have learned to a new situation, and that demands judgment to determine what information and skills are relevant and how they should be used. Authentic assignments often focus on messy, complex real-world situations and their accompanying constraints; they can involve a real-world audience of stakeholders or “clients” as well. According to Grant Wiggins (1998), an assignment is authentic if it
- is realistic.
- requires judgment and innovation.
- asks the student to “do” the subject.
- replicates or simulates the contexts in which adults are “tested” in the workplace or in civic or personal life.
- assesses the student’s ability to efficiently and effectively use a repertoire of knowledge and skills to negotiate a complex task.
- allows appropriate opportunities to rehearse, practice, consult resources, and get feedback on and refine performances and products.
Authentic assessments can be contrasted with conventional test questions, which are often indirect measures of a student’s ability to apply the knowledge and skills gained in a course. Conventional tests have an important place in college courses, but cannot take the place of authentic assessments. The table below, drawn from Wiggins, illustrates the differences between typical tests and authentic assessments.
Indicators of authenticity
Require correct responses
Require a high-quality product or performance, and a justification of the solutions to problems encountered
Correctness is not the only criterion; students must be able to justify their answers.
Must be unknown to the student in advance to be valid
Should be known in advance to students as much as possible
The tasks and standards for judgment should be known or predictable.
Are disconnected from real-world contexts and constraints
Are tied to real-world contexts and constraints; require the student to “do” the subject.
The context and constraints of the task are like those encountered by practitioners in the discipline.
Contain items that isolate particular skills or facts
Are integrated challenges in which a range of skills and knowledge must be used in coordination
The task is multifaceted and complex, even if there is a right answer.
Include easily scored items
Involve complex tasks that for which there may be no right answer, and that may not be easily scored
The validity of the assessment is not sacrificed in favor of reliable scoring.
Are “one shot”; students get one chance to show their learning
Are iterative; contain recurring tasks
Students may use particular knowledge or skills in several different ways or contexts.
Provide a score
Provide usable diagnostic information about students’ skills and knowledge
The assessment is designed to improve future performance, and students are important “consumers” of such information.
Authentic assessments have several advantages over conventional tests. They are likely to be more valid than conventional tests, particularly for learning outcomes that require higher-order thinking skills. Because they involve real-world tasks, they are also likely to be more interesting for students, and thus more motivating. And finally, they can provide more specific and usable information about what students have succeeded in learning as well as what they have not learned.
However, authentic assessments may require more time and effort on an instructor’s part to develop, and may be more difficult to grade. To address the difficulty of grading authentic assessments, it is often useful to create a grading rubric that specifies the traits that will be evaluated and the criteria by which they will be judged. (For more information, see the CITL resource on rubrics.)
Examples of Authentic Assessments
Provide a case study of a patient and ask students to assess and create a plan of care
Develop a business/marketing/sales plan for an imaginary (or real) company in a student's area of interest.
Troubleshoot a problemmatic piece of code; Develop a website/app to solve a particular problem and/or meet a set of criteria
Examine/critique a case study from multiple theoretical positions
Public Affairs or Service Learning Courses
Consider how a community agency might be impacted by a particular challenge (budget cuts, infrastructure outage, public health crisis, etc.)
Draw a diagram of how a process works, indicating what happens if X occurs
Engage in a role play of a particular event in history; Describe what might have happened if one element of a historical event had changed.
Who Is Doing This at IUB:
Professor Joshua Danish, in the School of Education, asks his students to apply the cognitive theories they have learned in class to help them interpret children’s behaviors in the classrooms they are observing, in this faculty spotlight.
Professor Alwiya Omar, Clinical Professor of Linguistics and director of IUB’s Swahili Flagship Program, has her students learn Swahili by engaging in an activity with strong roots in African languages and cultures: storytelling. She describes her approach in this faculty spotlight.
Wiggins, Grant. (1998). Ensuring authentic performance. Chapter 2 in Educative Assessment: Designing Assessments to Inform and Improve Student Performance. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, pp. 21 – 42.
For More Help or Information
To get help in designing authentic assessments, contact CITL to meet with a consultant.