Guidance on authentic assessment and where to start in practice.
What’s in this guide?
This guide is designed as an introduction to authentic assessment. There are some ideas for you to consider, followed by links to further reading, guidance and support. Please get in touch if you want to chat about incorporating more authentic assessment into your curriculum.
- What is Authentic assessment?
- Why make assessments ‘authentic’
- Get Inspired (examples of authentic assessment)
- Review your existing assessment
- Build in authentic assessment
- Important considerations
- References and further reading
What is authentic assessment?
An authentic assessment is, in essence, one that requires students to ‘do’ the subject. It is no more or less valid or rigorous than other forms of assessment, nor does the title imply that other assessment approaches lack ‘authenticity’.
Rather, such assessments require students to apply their knowledge and judgement in response to ‘authentic’, real-world, situations or problems and is one of many models which are rooted in ‘real-world’, experiential, teaching and learning such as: ‘integrated’; ‘work-related’; ‘contextual’; ‘alternative’, ‘team -based’ or ‘situated’ learning, ‘education for sustainable development’, and many more.
The many authentic assessment approaches, models and definitions provided in the literature can typically be characterised (see Villarroel et al 2018) by their incorporation of the following characteristics:
Realism – that is the presence of a ‘real context’ that describes and delivers a frame for the task or problem to be solved.
- just as with most real-world problems, there may be no one right answer
- outcomes should, ideally, be those likely to be encountered in a ‘real-world’ context, such as a presentation, report, website or product.
Cognitive challenge – they require learners to draw on their higher level cognitive skills through problem solving and the creative application of knowledge to novel contexts. Such approaches challenge students to integrate new ideas with prior knowledge, apply theory to practice, engage in thoughtful analysis, evaluation and decision-making, and solve novel problems.
Evaluative judgement – they require students to:
- determine what information and skills are relevant and how they should be used
- engage with creating and using feedback to help them improve their understanding of quality and to self-regulate their own work.
Why make assessment ‘authentic’?
Three key drivers for integrating authentic assessment into our curricular are that:
- it is an approach to assessment that both develops, and tests, student learning
- students want it
- student world readiness, employability and inclusion.
Click through each of the sections below to learn more.
- It is assessment FOR learning
Authenticity has been identified as a key characteristic of assessment design which promotes learning (Villarroel et al 2017). In part, this is because authentic assessments focus as much, if not more, on engaging students in a learning process, than they do the final product. As such, they are an example of assessment FOR learning, whereby assessment and teaching are intertwined, rather than simply assessment OF learning.
The focus on developing students’ evaluative judgement in authentic assessment is a key part of such assessment for learning. For example, engaging students with evaluating their own and others’ skills, and with creating and using feedback, can contribute to students’ feedback literacy (Carless & Boud 2018). Additionally, Authentic Assessment can help students engage productively in the kinds of feedback practices they may encounter during their studies and after they graduate (Dawson et al, 2021).
- Students want it
There is good evidence that integrating well designed and thought provoking authentic assessments within curriculum design will result in greater student satisfaction in the short term and better graduate employability in the long term (James and Casidy 2018).
The focus on developing students' evaluative judgement foregrounds providing and engaging students with feedback, which is also something our students tell us they want more of.
- Student world readiness, employabilty and inclusion
“All students, regardless of location, situation, programme or mode of study, should have equitable access to opportunities to enhance their employability, make successful transitions and manage their career” (Advance HE, 2019).
Including authentic assessment in your curriculum, as part of a wider strategy of embedding employability and Universal Design for Learning, will help to equip your students with a range of specialist and transferable skills and provides an inclusive approach to enabling them to identify and achieve their aspirations.
“Assessment can be a powerful force in shaping individual students’ identity and sense of self-worth….it’s about who they are and who they go on to be in our society” (McArthur, 2021)
The social, economic and environmental problems facing society will require creative and flexible minds able to engage with such complex (‘wicked’) problems and offer inclusive solutions (MacArthur 2021). Authentic assessments can mirror the world as it is, but can also push the possibilities of what the world could be by helping students to make connections between knowledge learned and how that knowledge might be later applied. This might be within existing structures, systems and workplaces, or those that will replace them. Those your students will be responsible for shaping.
Authentic assessment can help to enhance student employability. It has been found to have a positive impact on basic skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, communication skills and teamwork (Singh, Thambusamy, and Ramly 2014) and on student learning, autonomy, motivation, self-regulation and metacognition (Villarroel et al 2017), all abilities highly related to employability in any sector (including academia).
As noted above, because the outcomes of authentic assessments should, ideally, be those likely to be encountered in a ‘real-world’ context, they can be designed to provide opportunities for students to curate experiences and outputs they can draw on in job applications and career development (Advance HE, 2021; Blaj-Ward and Matič, 2020).
Although our students have access to a wide range of extra-curricular opportunities to enhance their employability, the only opportunities we can be confident are available to and accessible by ALL are those embedded within the curriculum. Thus, inclusion is another key driver for including more experiential learning and authentic assessments in the curriculum.
For example, by offering students flexibility through a choice of ‘real-world’ topics or outputs we can enable them to meet learning outcomes in a personally meaningful way, i.e. tailored to their lived experience or future aspirations.
How to ensure authentic assessment
There are some ways in which you can go about authentic assessment.
Please note that this checklist is simply a tool for reflecting on your assessment practices. Your assessment doesn’t need to meet all of these criteria for it to be considered ‘authentic’ or valuable.
Hopefully, this checklist, and the examples of authentic assessments provided above, will help identify existing assessments which fit the authentic assessment model. Or, there may be some that, with a little bit of tweaking or re-framing of the tasks, could easily be made more ‘authentic’.
Build in authentic assessments:
As noted above, authentic assessment models emphasise assessment FOR learning. So, if you’re keen to develop and embed new authentic assessments, it’s necessary, therefore, to plan how you will integrate them into your module delivery. There’s no denying this can be time consuming. However, it is also an opportunity to get creative and try something new and, maybe, kill a few birds (institutional targets) with one stone.
The model below provides a stage-based process for building authentic assessments in higher education. Adapted from Villarroell et al (2018) the model is rooted in the principle of constructive alignment, whereby the assessment is designed to support the student in constructing relevant learning through alignment between the learning outcomes, the teaching methods and the assessment.
- Step One: Real World Context
Reflect on the following questions in order to map out how your module(s) and assessment can contribute to developing your students’ academic and transferable skills. Ask yourself:
- how does my subject connect and contribute to achieving the competences of the graduation profile that this programme is committed to develop in students?
- how is the knowledge and skills learned in my subject related to the typical problems faced by society and/or by professionals in the world of work?
See also the Embedding Employability and Entrepreneurship Toolkit where you will find links to a wide range of case studies which include adaptable examples of problem and scenario based learning, real world case studies, and many more.
- Step Two: Design Authentic Assessment
This is your opportunity to get creative. Working with employers to devise tasks is a great way to identify a context or problem and identify a task and outcome that has real-world relevance (see the examples provided above also). However, while realism in authentic assessments is important, using simulations of real-world situations is absolutely fine. Whatever context you choose, it should urge your students to make decisions about what they need to do. In this way, Villareoll et al (2018) suggest, it is not a matter of the student reproducing course content but of discriminating what areas of their learning are needed to answer the question, be it in a multiple choice test or an extended group project.
For inspiration see:
- Sally Brown and Kay Samball’s six steps towards designing more authentic assessments in their March 2021 compendium of examples of authentic assessment in practice from diverse disciplines
- The Active Learning Network. An Active Learning approach is one where, rather than your role being one of transmitting knowledge, you engage your students in activities, such as reading, writing, discussion, or problem solving, to promote analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of class content. Cooperative learning, problem-based learning, and the use of case methods and simulations are some approaches that promote active learning
- Contextualise your questions within ‘wicked’ problems which have no simple answer or one-size-fits-all solutions, but require insight and collaboration from all areas of society, and impact on all workplaces. For more see the Advance HE Practice Guides for Education for Sustainable Development.
- See also the links to examples, papers and case studies provided in the Examples of Authentic Assessment section of this resource.
- Steps Three and Four: Judgement & Feedback
Steps three and four of developing your authentic assessment is to consider how to embed guidance and feedback loops which will enable students to both improve their learning and develop evaluative judgement.
It is important here to identify how and when you will provide opportunities for your students to engage with and reflect on the course or module ILOs, the assessment tasks and your marking criteria. This could be via discussion or via feedback on one or more contributory or non-contributory formative assessments.
Embedding opportunities to give and receive feedback will also help your students to understand the purposes of the assessment task and to reflect on, and improve, their own work. At the same time you will contribute to developing your students’ feedback literacy (their ability to interpret and apply feedback) and confidence in seeking and constructively applying feedback - all vital skills for lifelong learning.
Things to think about before changing your assessments. Click the headings below to learn more.
Students should be provided with guidance and support in tackling any kind of assessment. The same goes for authentic assessment tasks. Indeed, the more ‘authentic’ your assessment task, the more it will engage students in new ways of applying and reflecting on their knowledge and skills, and the more guidance and support you will need to provide.
We recommend therefore that you:
- discuss with your students how your ILOs constructively align with the assessment tasks. Identify why and how the assessment will develop their practical and academic skills; emphasise where they might be applied, e.g. in other modules or in the workplace, and how your students might use their work to evidence skills to employers
- make use of your module Canvas site. Provide clear guidance and, where possible, exemplars to (a) show your students what is being assessed (b) Manage your marking workload (c) ensure consistency among markers. Students should have no ambiguity in where to focus their efforts as a result of reading the rubric. Also, consider how you might use your rubrics as a teaching tool, to help engage your students develop their evaluative judgement.
- Quality Assurance
In addition to ensuring constructive alignment between your ILOS and module assessments, ensure you also consider:
- module changes: You may need to submit change requests, for example if you want to change a presentation (PRE) to a portfolio (POF)
- equivalencies: When adding new forms of assessment outcomes, e.g. a video, written or audio submission, providing students with a suggested word count is standard practice. This should be supplemented with equivalent length/volume of other mediums. See page 5 of Don’t Panic: The Hitch-hiker's Guide to Alternative Assessment [PDF 862KB] by Damian Gordon for one such suggested table.
References and further reading
(2014) Establishing the critical elements that determine authentic assessment, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 39:2, 205-222.
Burns, V. (2018) MicroCPD: Authentic Assessment. University of Birmingham Higher Education Futures Institute. Posted online on 15 Jan 2018.
Carless, D. & Boud , D. (2018) The development of student feedback literacy: enabling uptake of feedback, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 43:8.
Dawson, P., Carless, D. & Pui Wah Lee, P. (2021) Authentic feedback: supporting learners to engage in disciplinary feedback practices, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 46:2, 286-296.
Lincoln Then, J. & Casidy, R. (2018) Authentic Assessment in Business Education: its Effects on Student Satisfaction and Promoting Behaviour. Studies in Higher Education 43 (3): 401–15.
McArthur, J. (2021, 18/07/2021). Rethinking student involvement in assessment. Centre for Global Higher Education working paper series. Working Paper no. 58, February 2021.
McArthur, J. (2022) Rethinking authentic assessment: work, well-being, and society. Higher Education (online)
Jorre de St Jorre, T. & Oliver, B. (2018) Want students to engage? Contextualise graduate learning outcomes and assess for employability, Higher Education Research & Development, 37:1, 44-57.
Mitchell, J. E., Nyamapfene, A., Roach, K. & Tilley, E. (2021) Faculty wide curriculum reform: the integrated engineering programme, European Journal of Engineering Education, 46:1, 48-66.
Sridharan, B. & Mustard, J. (2015) Authentic Assessment Methods: A Practical Handbook for Teaching Staff Part-I. Deakin University Faculty of Business and Law.
Tai, J., Ajjawi, R., Boud, D. et al. (2018) Developing evaluative judgement: enabling students to make decisions about the quality of work. Higher Education 76, 467–481
Villarroel, V., Bloxham, S., Bruna, D., Bruna C. & Herrera-Seda, C. (2018) Authentic assessment: creating a blueprint for course design, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 43:5, 840-854.
Wiewiora, A. & Kowalkiewicz, A. (2019) The role of authentic assessment in developing authentic leadership identity and competencies, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 44:3, 415-430.