“Authentic assessment” is a bit of a buzzword these days. Posing assessment tasks that resemble problems that students would encounter in the real world later on sounds like a great idea. It would make learning, even learning “for the test”, so much more relevant and motivating, and it would prepare students so much better for their lives after university. So far, so good. But what does authentic assessment actually mean when we try to design it, and is it really always desirable to its fullest meaning?
Ashford-Rowe, Herrington & Brown (2014) have reviewed the literature and, through a process of discussion and field testing, came up with eight critical elements of authentic assessment, which I am listing as the headers below, together with my thoughts on what it would mean to implement them.
1. To what extent does the assessment activity challenge the student?
For assessment to be authentic, it needs to mirror real-world problems that are not solved by just reproducing things that students learned by heart, but by creating new(-to-the-student) solutions, including analysing the task in order to choose the relevant skills and knowledge to even approach the task with.
This clearly sounds great, but as an academic developer, my mind goes directly to how this is aligned with both learning outcomes and learning activities. My fear would be that it is easy to make the assessment way too challenging if the focus is on authentic assessment alone and students are not practising on very similar tasks before already.
2. Is a performance, or product, required as a final assessment outcome?
Real-world problems require actual solutions, often in form of a product that addresses a certain need. In an assessment context, we need to balance the ideal of a functional product that provides a solution to a problem with wanting to check whether specific skills have been acquired. I.e. what would happen if students found a solution that perfectly solved the problem they were tasked with, but did it in some other way without demonstrating the skills we had planned on assessing? Would that be ok, or do we need to provide boundary conditions that make it necessary or explicit that students are to use a specific skill in their solutions?
This facet of authentic assessment strongly implicates that assessment cannot happen only in a matter of hours in a written closed-book exam, but requires more time and likely different formats (even though many of my authentic products in my job actually are written pieces).
3. Does the assessment activity require that transfer of learning has occurred, by means of demonstration of skill?
Transfer is a highest level learning outcome in both Bloom’s and the SOLO taxonomy, and definitely something that students should learn — and we should assess — at some point. How far the transfer should be, i.e. if skills and knowledge really need to be applied in a completely different domain, or just on a different example, and where the boundary between those two is, is open for debate though. And we can transfer skills that we learned in class to different contexts, or we can bring skills that we learned elsewhere into the context we focussed on in class. But again we need to keep in mind that we should only be assessing things that students actually had the chance to learn in our courses (or, arguably, in required courses before).
4. Does the assessment activity require that metacognition is demonstrated?
It is obviously an important skill to acquire to self-assess and self-direct learning, and to put it into the bigger context of the real world and ones own goals. If assessment is to mirror the demands of real-world tasks after university, reflecting on ones own performance might be a useful thing to include. But this, again, is something that clearly needs to be practice and formative feedback before it can be used in assessment.
5. Does the assessment require a product or performance that could be recognised as authentic by a client or stakeholder? (accuracy)
This point I find really interesting. How close is the assessment task to a real-world problem that people would actually encounter outside of the classroom setting? Before reading this article, that would have been my main criterion for what “authentic assessment” means.
6. Is fidelity required in the assessment environment? And the assessment tools (actual or simulated)?
Continuing the thought above: If we have a task that students might encounter in the real world, do we also provide them with the conditions they would encounter it in? For an authentic assessment situation, we should be putting students in an authentic(-ish) environment, where they have access to the same tools, the same impressions of their surroundings, the same sources of information as one would have if one was confronted with the same problem in the real world. So we need to consider how/if we could even justify for example not letting students use internet searches or conversations with colleagues when working on the task!
7. Does the assessment activity require discussion and feedback?
This follows nicely on my thoughts on the previous point. In the real world, we would discuss and receive feedback while we are working on solving a problem. If our assessment is to be authentic, this also needs to happen! But do we also assess this aspect (for example in the reflection that students do in order to demonstrate metacognition, or by assessing the quality of the discussion and feedback they give to each other), or do we require it without actually assessing it, or do we just create conditions in which it is possible and beneficial to discuss and give&receive feedback, without checking whether it actually occurred? Also, who should the students discuss with and get feedback from: us, their peers, actual authentic stakeholders? Literature shows that peer feedback is of comparable quality to teacher feedback, and that students learn both from giving and receiving, so maybe including a peer-feedback loop is a good idea. Real stakeholders would surely be motivating, but depending on the context that might be a little difficult to arrange.
8. Does the assessment activity require that students collaborate?
Collaboration is of critical importance in the real world. (How) do we include it in assessment?
I really enjoyed thinking through these eight critical elements of authentic assessment, and it definitely broadened my understanding of authentic assessment considerably, both in terms of its potential and the difficulties to implement it. What are your thoughts?
Ashford-Rowe, K., Herrington, J., & Brown, C. (2014). Establishing the critical elements that determine authentic assessment. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 39(2), 205-222.