Authentic Assessment Guide 

Leading universities in the UK are increasingly adopting authentic assessment strategies to enhance student learning and better prepare graduates for their future careers. Authentic assessment involves tasks that reflect real-world challenges and require the application of knowledge and skills in practical contexts. This involves students in higher order thinking, such as problem solving and critical thinking. GenAI will only be useful in a supporting role in such assignments. Let’s take a closer look… 

What is the goal of authentic assessment? 

To assess students’ performance in situations and tasks they may encounter as part of their professional life, personal life, or as citizens. 

When was the concept of ‘authentic assessment’ developed? 

It was a term coined by Grant Wiggins in 1989. It was developed as a counterpoint to the abstract assessments undertaken by schoolchildren in the USA at the time. It has since enjoyed a popularity in higher education for improving the employability of students, and more recently for developing GenAI-responsive assessments. 

What does it test?

Authentic assessment is normally used to assess the student holistically, looking at multiple dimensions of activity, such as interpreting data; selecting and executing a problem-solving strategy, and the ability to evaluate and reflect honestly on one’s own performance. Authentic assessment also often involves group-work and therefore develops and assesses collaborative skills, such as interpersonal communication and emotional regulation. 

Can you tell me more about common features of authentic assessment? 

According to Villarroel et al’s 2018 systematic review of literature around authentic assessment there are three key features to authentic assessment: 

  1. Realism: there is a real context that frames the task to be undertaken  
  1. Cognitive challenge: the creative application of knowledge to novel contexts, and  
  1. Evaluative judgment: learners must determine which information and skills are relevant to this context and how they should be used 

In practical terms, it can be useful to divide this up into 6 scales. These were identified by the University of Exeter-Jisc Collaborate project in 2013 led by Richard Osborne. Through a series of focus groups, they invited teaching staff to consider authentic assessment on the following scales: 

  1. Problem/Data – a real-world problem based on real-world, raw data. 
  1. Audience – this could be a client (real or putative) or a wider audience, e.g. for a health promotion leaflet. 
  1. Social – collaborative working is a common feature of authentic assessment, echoing its prevalence in real-world work situations. 
  1. Structure – authentic assessment is often lightly structured leaving students free to choose or design their own approach to solving the problem, albeit students may be directed to useful tools to assist them in project planning, e.g. Trello boards and Gannt charts. This will, of course, depend on students preparedness for such tasks. 
  1. Review – regular review of individual and teamwork would be built in, mimicking real-world projects where superiors often check in on progress or redirect teams. This might be at short notice. Students would also be encouraged to review each other’s progress and their own. Please note: where students are asked to review the work of their peers, they should be given a clear set of criteria and guidelines on how to do this. You may wish to read about group peer review in Moodle.
  1. Timing – to enable the development of appropriate skills and of substantive outputs, a reasonable time scale, often of a whole semester, will be required. However, it is also possible to create authentic assessments that have a truncated timeline. 

Can you give me examples of authentic assessment? 

Example 1. A group of Engineering students is tasked with the design and development of a rainwater harvesting system for a building on campus. In the initial weeks, the students meet with their client, a member of staff from Estates, to understand the specific needs and constraints of the building. They must then brainstorm ideas before refining proposals to develop a workable solution. They then move to prototyping and presenting their work to the client. Throughout the process students must keep a reflective diary assessing their self-development, including their own and others’ ability to collaborate effectively.  

Example 2. A social policy student is set the task of developing a policy brief. This involves researching a current social issue, such as homelessness or healthcare access; analysing data and statistics to understand the scope and impact of the issue, and finally drafting a policy proposal that outlines potential solutions or interventions to stakeholders and decision-makers (real or posited). 

How does authentic assessment respond to the potential misuse of GenAI? 

GenAI is particularly good at generating the knowledge and communication aspects of an assessment, however, application of learning requires significant human input. In the case of authentic assessment, the specific needs of the client – or audience, depending on the task – is context unavailable to the AI. This will need to be gathered and interpreted by the students themselves. Similarly, the reflective diary is also an output for which AI does not have context, since this exists only within a student’s own mind. GenAI may be useful to the students for elements of the overall project; however, coordinating the whole will require the student to be fully engaged. For other ideas on generating GenAI responsive assessments you may be interested in this case study.

Do you have any tips for developing authentic assessments? 

Authentic assessments may not be suitable for all units, especially where the content is highly theoretical. Where you have a unit that is more application-focussed and you want to increase the ‘authenticity’ of your assignments, the graphic below may be helpful. The different elements are expanded on below.

An infographic showing the different elements of authentic assessment: 
1. A real-world complex problem
2. Stakeholders interested in solving the problem (real or simulated)
3. Students work collaboratively in well-balanced groups (optional but highly valued by students)
4. Consider how much time to give them to cement their teams
5. Consider how much scaffolding to give based on learners' experience
6. Consider how to enable each student to best evaluate each other (peer review)
Based on the categories discussed in the Collaborate project at the University of Exeter. 

You may want to begin by auditing your existing assessments: 

Do any of them relate to a real-world problem? Would it be relatively easy to adjust the focus of an existing assessment? For example, if you standardly ask your students to solve a series of mathematical compound interest problems using a formula, could you instead ask your students to analyse the growth of an investment portfolio over time to predict future returns and make informed investment decisions? Or if you ask students to test stress and strain in different materials, could you instead ask them to stress test prosthetic limbs? These examples shift the focus from the theoretical to real-world uses. 

Once you have identified a real-world problem, can you think of stakeholders who would be particularly interested in solving this problem. Perhaps there is a particular industry that students often join after completing your degree? For the above examples interested parties could include the banking industry, or biomedical companies. If you’re feeling adventurous you could even bring in an employer as a second marker of students’ work. Another option is to include another part of the university. For example, the earlier rain-harvesting example brings in the University’s Estates department. Alternatively, the audience could simply be imagined, however, it is still important to specify what said audience is looking for. 

Depending on how large-scale you would like to make your authentic assessment, and whether collaborative skills are an important part of your learning objectives for your unit, you may decide to include groupwork as part of your assessment. Working in a group is often cited as an important element of authentic assessments, since collaboration is such a common feature in the world of work. Students often struggle initially with working in groups, but the Exeter Collaborate project found that ultimately students cited collaboration as the most rewarding part of authentic assessment and where they learnt the most. If you decide to embrace groupwork you will need to consider how much time you give the groups to embed, the amount of scaffolding they require to support this, and whether and how you want students to review each other’s work.

How much time are you able to give your students to bond as a team? Tuckman pointed out the phases groups must go through before they can be truly effective: forming, storming, norming and then performing. Are you able to accommodate enough time into your curriculum to allow students to go through these phases? Perhaps you can knit the pre-existing assessments from your unit together into one overarching project? This new project would have multiple components that test a full range of skills in the students, such as creating a physical artefact, giving a group presentation, and submitting a personal reflective diary tracking the design of the artefact. 

How much scaffolding will be needed to support students to complete the assignment? Will you need to introduce them to project management tools and methods, or particular formulae, for example? Authentic assessments can be quite light touch, mimicking the lack of structure often found in the world of work, or in our personal lives. However, you might find that first-year undergraduates in particular require more structure. Consider the form of teaching, learning and assessment that your students have been used to and plan your support accordingly.

Can you envision how students could be asked to work together on this task? Will you ask the students each to take up a different role within the task with a different output? If students do not have discrete tasks, it may be important to have a mechanism for judging whether students have contributed equally. Some kind of peer review could help in gaining a sense of this. You may be interested to read about setting up peer review in Moodle for assessment or for further discussion do get in touch.

  

References

Brown, S. (2024) Kay Sambell and Sally Brown: Covid-19 Assessment Collection. Available at: https://sally-brown.net/kay-sambell-and-sally-brown-covid-19-collection (Accessed 4 April 2024).   

Koh, K.  (2017) ‘Authentic Assessment’, in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education. Available at: https://oxfordre.com/education/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190264093.001.0001/acrefore-9780190264093-e-22 (Accessed 4 April 2024) 

McArthur, J. (2020) ‘Student involvement in assessment: Involving the whole student in pursuit of social justice and the social good’, RELIEVE, 26(1), pp. 1–14. Available at:  

Osborne, R., Dunne, E. and Farrand, P. (2013) ‘Integrating technologies into ‘‘authentic’’ assessment design: an affordances approach’, Research in Learning Technology, 21, 21986. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.3402/rlt.v21i0.21986 

Tuckman, B. (1965) ‘Developmental sequence in small groups’, Psychological Bulletin, 63(6), pp. 384-399.  

University of Sussex (2024) Authentic Assessment. Available at: https://staff.sussex.ac.uk/teaching/enhancement/support/assessment-design/authentic (Accessed 4 April 2024). 

Villarroel, V. et al. (2018) ‘Authentic assessment: creating a blueprint for course design’, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 43(5), pp. 840-854. 

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