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What is authentic assessment? A full guide for educators

Nhi Nguyen
Rebecca LeBoeuf
Rebecca LeBoeuf
July 18, 2023
Table of Contents

There has been a shift in the role of assessment in higher education. That is, assessment needs to provide an objective, holistic reflection of students' performance; and address varied students’ learning needs, while closely aligning with the learning outcomes. With the rise of AI tools, it has become more urgent that assessments embrace this technology and helps students to utilize AI.

Authentic assessment is an effective approach to address this goal, by focusing on measuring students' success in skill-relevant and real-life situations. This article presents a comprehensive guide to authentic assessment by elaborating on the definition, its impact, its design, and how to integrate AI tools to support the implementation of this approach.

A selection of use cases and rubric templates for self, peer, and group assessment, which have been designed and successfully adopted by institutions worldwide.
Join Cole Groom of FeedbackFruits and Patricia Luna of TAMU for an in-depth webinar exploring authentic assessment and how it can transform your approach to student evaluations

What is authentic assessment?

In the paper – Defining and measuring authentic assessment: a case study in the context of tertiary science, Tiffany Gunning, Madeleine Schultz, Karen Young, and Michelle Harvey of Deakin University proposed a concrete definition of authentic assessment:

Authentic assessment requires students to engage with a problem or task that is contextualized within a realistic environment and assesses the knowledge skills and attitudes required in  the workplace community and for lifelong learning.”

Prof. Jon Mueller, Professor of Psychology at North Central College, the author of the Authentic Assessment toolbox provides another comprehensive definition of authentic assessment, referring to the approach as:

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

An assessment considered to be authentic will need to ensure the 5 following characteristics

  1. Be based on realistic, real-life situations: Since the approach aims to measure how students apply the attained knowledge and skills in real-world situations, teachers need to design an assessment activity that replicates authentic, real-world scenarios.
  2. Deliver clear objectives and goals: This is to make sure students understand what is expected of them upon completing the assessment task, and how the assessment helps students gain workplace-relevant knowledge and skills by the end of the course.
  3. Allow for collaboration and teamwork: Developing the ability to work together is among the most desirable real-life skills. That’s why authentic assessment needs to create a collaborative learning environment that encourages students to work together effectively in any setting (face-to-face, online, or hybrid).
  4. Take the form of a formative assessment: Authentic assessment needs to take place constantly and continuously to generate a holistic evaluation of student progress while providing timely feedback and support for the learners.
  5. Encourage feedback and reflection: Authentic assessment calls for authentic feedback, which needs to be consistent, timely, specific, and constructive. Such input encourages students to critically reflect on their work and make an effort to adjust to match the required standard.

We have written an article detailing these 5 components and how to optimize them in online classrooms.

Why use authentic assessment?

There are several reasons why authentic assessment has become more and more popular in

Nurture real-life skills

In authentic assessment, students are encouraged to engage in authentic tasks (group projects, video making, portfolio, case study, etc.), which require them to utilize and develop several skill sets such as problem-solving, teamwork, negotiations, and more. These competencies are absolutely critical for students when working in real life.

Support an inclusive learning environment

Authentic assessment embraces the core values of the UDL framework, specifically encouraging multiple means of representation. Students vary in abilities, preferences, and backgrounds, which leads to differences in how they learn and how they demonstrate what they have learned. Authentic assessment allows for utmost flexibility and variability in knowledge and skills representation. Students are presented with plenty of options, from creating a video, making a presentation, and writing a research paper, to compiling a portfolio. While learners have control over what they can do as a demonstration of their knowledge, instructors can better understand their students, their strengths, and their weaknesses.

In fact, the benefits of authentic assessment extend beyond these two bullet points. You can check out this article to learn more about its positive impact in teaching and learning.

How to build an authentic assessment activity?

According to Grant Wiggins – Founder and President of Authentic Education, an authentic assessment task always involves:

“…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."

In short, there are two main components of an authentic assessment activity: a real-life task for students to perform and a rubric by which their performance is evaluated. In order to design and implement a successful authentic assessment, instructors need to consider both of these elements, as well as several factors such as the learning outcomes and inclusivity.

How exactly can instructors curate a successful authentic assessment that promotes lifelong learning and transfer of skills? Below you can find the 4 main steps to design and implement this approach proposed by Dr. Mueller.

Step 1: Define clear activity outcomes

For any type of assessment, we should start with defining the end goal. This entails deciding on the desirable knowledge, skills, and product that students should be able to demonstrate upon finishing the assessment activity. Clear and transparent activity outcomes would be the north star for instructors in designing a suitable authentic task, and for students to fully understand the rationale behind the assessment activity.

To come up with effective activity outcomes, instructors should consider the following steps:

  • Reflect on what you really value and want your students to gain in terms of skills and knowledge, then come up with a list of all the most important points for students to learn.
  • Review the overall course objectives and your institution’s standards to help you filter out the appropriate activity outcomes.
  • Write your final activity outcomes. Make sure that these learning objectives are observable and measurable; not too broad or too specific; clear and accessible to both students and parents. The Bloom taxonomy is a great resource to help you in using the right words for activity outcomes.

It is always good to consult how others have curated their activity goals to help you draft your own. Below you can find several examples shared by different institutions:

Step 2: Create an authentic task

Once you have come up with a neat set of learning outcomes, it is time to develop an authentic task that addresses these goals. A task is considered to be authentic when:

  • It allows students to develop the skills and knowledge outlined in the learning outcomes. For example, if you want your students to develop the ability to communicate effectively in writing with the managers, you can require students to research a company and draft a series of emails to the management board.
  • It replicates challenges and problems that arise in the real world.
  • The students are asked to construct their own responses
  • The students need to work on the assignment throughout the course
  • It creates opportunities for interactions, collaboration, and feedback

To address these elements, instructors should employ different innovative teaching methods like flipped classrooms, team-based learning, problem-based learning, and more.

Below you can find plenty of examples of authentic tasks:

Step 3: Design assessment rubrics

To implement effective authentic assessment, the use of rubrics is absolutely critical since they help promote fairness and consistency across faculties, and increase student engagement, retention, and success while saving teacher time on grading, and teaching. Most importantly, well-crafted assessment rubrics allow instructors to measure how well students are performing in accordance with the learning outcomes.

As you start designing the assessment rubrics, ask yourself "What does good performance on this task look like?" or "How will I know they have done a good job on this task?". By answering these questions, you will be able to identify the criteria for good performance on that task. In fact, designing quality rubrics requires a certain understanding and effort from the instructors. That’s why we have curated a detailed guide to help you save time designing inclusive, holistic rubrics:

Step 4: Provide sufficient student support and guidance

Since an authentic assessment usually takes place over a long period of time, it is important that students receive support and feedback throughout the assessment activity to help them overcome challenges and improve their performance. To achieve this, instructors can rely on:

  • Self, peer, and group assessment: Consider adding smaller tasks in the authentic assessment activity where students provide feedback on peers’ work and that of themselves to help them develop critical thinking and identify room for improvement. Group member evaluation is also an effective activity to enhance accountability and responsibility in authentic group projects.
  • Social annotation: Enrich the study content (whether it is a document, video, or audio recording) with questions or discussion points for students to respond to, at the same time encouraging them to highlight queries they have regarding the materials. Instructors also interact with students by commenting on students’ responses. This activity allows students to gain a deeper understanding of the content, and instructors to maintain constant interactions with their class. The flipped classroom is a prominent method that utilizes social annotation, read more here.
  • Synchronous and asynchronous discussion forums: You can organize a clarification session at the beginning of the course to elaborate on the assessment task and resolve students’ questions on the content; or an online discussion forum where students can exchange ideas over the assignment, and more. These activities help to strengthen a sense of community and increase student engagement as they know they always receive help and support from both peers and instructors.

Step 5: Select suitable technology to support the authentic assessment process

A big challenge when designing and implementing authentic assessment is to ensure authenticity and scalability to different class sizes, subject domains, and modalities (online, hybrid, blended, or hyflex). Plenty of manual tasks like designing rubrics, forming groups, giving feedback to students, and more take up a lot of time and effort for instructors and learning designers. This is where technology comes in, offering endless potential that allows faculties to relieve the workload and scale up the authentic assessment process.

The next section will be dedicated to how institutions can utilize available teaching tools and especially AI technology to enhance the authentic assessment process.

AI and pedagogical technology for authentic assessment

AI and authentic assessment

As AI will be here to stay and continue to play a crucial role in every aspect of our lives, thorough understanding and proper skills to utilize this technology are of great importance. Instead of considering AI as a threat, faculties need to explore the potential of AI and help students navigate through this technology. Especially when it comes to authentic assessment, there are plenty of ways that faculties can leverage AI to optimize this approach. Here are some suggestions to do so:

  1. Write activity learning outcomes and rubric criteria with AI. Believe it or not, AI generative tools (e.g. ChatGPT, NotionAI, BingAI, etc.) have proven their potential in ideas generation and content generation. By sending the right prompts to the platform, you can receive a complete set of learning outcomes and assessment standards. You just need to review and revise this AI-generated content to better align with your overall curriculum objectives. You can read Dr. Phillipa Hardman’s article to understand how can AI be utilized to craft quality learning objectives.
  2. Address classroom diversity and provide timely support. AI can act as a feedback deliverer, giving instant, formative feedback on students’ work; a student tutor that provides explanations to students’ questions; and a feedback coach that generates personalized suggestions to help students create and deliver quality feedback during the peer or group assessment activity. While students enjoy continuous, personalized support thanks to AI, instructors can free up their time to focus on more challenging pedagogical authentic assessment tasks like analyzing data and student evaluation.
  3. Become part of the authentic task. Understanding and being able to use AI is and will be an absolutely necessary skill to possess in real life. Authentic assessment tasks should be designed to help students develop such skill sets. Dr. John Fitzgibbon and Dr. Nathan Riedel shared several authentic activities that employ AI tools to nurture deep understanding, critical analysis, and reflection of AI-generated content.

Pedagogical technology and authentic assessment

Implementing a complete authentic assessment activity can take up plenty of time and effort due to many manual tasks: data entry, group and reviewer allocation, feedback rubric design, grading, and more. This is where pedagogical technology comes in, allowing instructors to streamline and scale up the authentic assessment across different class sizes and course modalities. Here is how faculties can utilize teaching tools to optimize the evaluation approach:

Create interactive activities for continuous engagement and active learning

In authentic tasks, students are often required to study certain materials before class and then apply the learned knowledge to solve a problem or come up with a product. However, students often end up not engaging in asynchronous comprehension activity, thus coming to class unprepared and instructors have to go over the materials again. With teaching technology like FeedbackFruits Interactive Study Materials, you can turn passive content activities into interactive learning experiences, where the study materials are enriched with questions and discussion points for students to respond to.

An asynchronous discussion forum is another strategy to enhance interactivity throughout the course. By integrating this component at different stages of the assessment, instructors encourage students to engage in deeper conversations with peers and teachers to better understand the lessons. This approach helps students to develop the ability to effectively collaborate and discuss on an online platform, which is critical in professional work life. FeedbackFruits Discussion on Work and Discussion on Topic can be effective tools to help educators organize this discussion platform.

Streamline self, peer, and group feedback process

Authentic assessment calls for the use of multilayer assessment: self, peer, and group. Combining these three evaluation approaches would generate rich information that empowers students to actively develop skills needed for learning outside of the classroom and throughout life. However, three major concerns when facilitating multi-layer assessment in any course modality are 1) students’ lack of skills and experience to self-reflect and provide peer feedback; 2) the time-sink of facilitating the 3 assessment types; 3) a lack of motivation and engagement among students.

Pedagogical technologies (when utilized correctly) can be a wonderful sidekick to help instructors overcome these barriers.

Instructors can rely on different teaching tools to design assessment tasks (portfolios, presentations, videos, etc.) where students can submit assignments and then review their peers’ work, evaluate group members’ performance, as well as reflect on their own performance. Finally, instructors provide comments on students’ submitted work on the digital platform, identifying misconceptions and providing explanations to help students.

For example, using Group Member Evaluation, Linda Lee – Director of Instructional Design, and her team at the Wharton School enabled group configuration, group feedback and evaluation, self-assessment, and student analytics for their hybrid course of nearly 1000 students.

Examples of authentic assessment activity

Here you can find several examples of entire authentic assessment activities with the aid of teaching tools and AI technology

Case study analysis

  • Instructors create interactive study materials activities, in which an authentic case study is enriched with questions and discussion points for students to respond to.
  • Instructors organize a synchronous forum to clarify students’ questions regarding the case study.
  • Based on the input from the preparation step and in-class discussion, students work in groups to discuss the solution to the case study problem and then come up with a written report.
  • Students submit the first draft to a review platform where they can provide comments on other groups’ submissions based on a rubric.
  • Groups improve and finalize the report based on the feedback and teacher insights. They then submit the work and receive teacher feedback through a review platform tool.
  • Besides the report, groups are required to deliver a presentation summarizing their solutions. Feedback from peers and instructors is given during this step.
  • Students reflect on their own and others’ contributions to group work based on a set of collaborative skills criteria within a group review platform.

For a full overview of how this activity design works, you can take a look at our Authentic Assessment journey, which outlines step by step how to incorporate peer and self-assessment to support the writing process with the aid of teaching tools.

Group project

  • Students work in groups to select a company in groups, prepare interview questions, and interview them to collect the necessary information to prepare a business plan.
  • Groups submit their business plan drafts to a peer review platform, where they provide feedback on other groups’ work based on a set of criteria.
  • Based on the received feedback, groups improve their business plans then deliver a presentation and receive feedback from instructors.
  • Students engage in group feedback and self-evaluation based on the collaboration skills criteria. Instructors can facilitate this activity via a group evaluation platform.

Again, a detailed description of this activity flow along with relevant tools to use can be found in the Authentic group project journey.

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