Authentic Assessment: approaches and practices

The term ‘authentic assessment’ is likely to unfamiliar to many reading this blog, however, it is a concept that Falchikov (2005) observed ‘appears to be increasingly used in further and higher education’. So what explains this discrepancy? Falchikov herself offers one reason, explaining that ‘my own work… has involved my students in all of the activities [I regard as authentic]. However, I have not used the term ‘authentic’ to describe the type of assessment being carried out.’

In some recent research that Denise Whitelock and I have been doing within the OU we have been examining the concept and practice of authentic assessment – and in particular, how to make visible those assessment approaches associated with concept but not understood as such. It’s been great to have the opportunity to explore the term a little and in this post I hope to outline a few of my initial impressions.

The current use of the term emerges from a discourse around ‘authentic’ and ‘genuine’ testing that had become established by the mid-1980s and which combined with the broader social constructivist project to become part of what Serafini considers to be the most recent of three assessment paradigms: ‘assessment for enquiry’.

The notion of ‘authentic’ certainly appealed to those interested in getting closer to ‘real’, ‘meaningful’ learning and represented an idea with an innate capacity to help problematise traditional assessment practice. Early definitions include Wiggins who defines it as ‘[the extent to which] student experience questions and tasks under constraints as they typically and ‘naturally’ occur, with access to the tools that are usually available for solving such problems’, Newmann et al. (1996), and Torrance who suggests ‘[it is the] assessment tasks designed for students should be more practical, realistic and challenging than what one might call ‘traditional’’ and that it is ‘a generic term… to describe a range of new approaches to assessment.’

By 2000, overlapping interpretations of what authentic assessment meant and authentic assessment tasks comprised of were emerging (e.g. McTighe and Wiggins (1999) and the review by Cummings et al.). There were also efforts to instantiate these in to guidance or advice on designing authentic assessment tasks (Darling-Hammond & Snyder; Williams; Hughes) or integrating the idea of authenticity in to principles for instruction (for example, Merrill).

The upshot of this is a range of emphasis and interpretations about what ‘authentic’ means (sometimes in respect to particular disciplines) and what constitutes an ‘authentic’ assessment task. In the itemised paragraphs below I attempt to identify some of the components of the authentic assessment discourse. However, before I do it’s important to acknowledge that this is to a degree a contested term and one that perhaps has as much utility as a driver for debate and reflection, as it does for directing practice. We must bear in mind for example: the argument that assessment itself, in any form, may be considered inauthentic (Spolsky; Spence-Brown); that there may be concerns over reliability or the relationship between the criteria used to judge assessed performance and ‘real-world’ judgements; the view that tasks are only authentic is students themselves treat them and behave as such; that students and teachers perceptions of what authentic means may differ (Gulikers, et al.); that this may not necessarily lead to reductions in cost; and that, as is often the case, the empirical base to support the ideas is developing more slowly (Kleinfled).

So how has ‘authentic’ been understood?

  • Authentic intellectual work: a recurring theme seems to be the need to assess how students construct and use knowledge, skills and judgement, not just their ability to memorise and repeat. This is about ‘students ability to efficiently and effectively use a repertoire of knowledge and skills to negotiate a complex task’
  • Authentic situations: this draws on theories of situated learning that insist the physical context is important underlie much writing on authentic assessment. The notion of a ‘real-world’ is often evoked here and it ‘requires [a] fidelity of context to reflect the conditions under which the performance will occur – rather than contrived, artificial or de-contextualised conditions’ (Harrington & Herrington). Brothwick et al. (2007) describe three types of authentic learning associated with situated learning: the apprenticeship model where students become part of a workplace and are mentored by a relevant professional thereby providing an authentic work experience in the ‘real world’; the simulated reality model where the ‘real world’ moves in the classroom and learning activities aim to simulate aspects of authentic work conditions; and the enminding model where authenticity comes from the connection between a student’s experiences and the disciplinary ‘mind’. Here the authentic activity is the student ‘engagement with the discipline through a connection with themselves, which may encourage a desire to continue learning beyond the classroom’. In developing the ‘fidelity’ of the situated space a number of considerations may be required; for example the authentic social context.
  • Authentic competence or performance: this is about expecting students to ‘demonstrate methods and procedures used by experts in the field’ and is drawn from vocational education and training where there is a need for satisfactory performance of skills or activities. Unlike situating assessment, this is more about the tasks themselves and, indeed, the terms ‘authentic’ and ‘performance-based’ assessment have been used interchangeably. Performance may not just mean ‘performing’ a task, but also using modes of ‘performance’ for assessment (such as presentations, portfolios, video diaries, and other multimedia) and the potential issues associated with students ‘performing’ to the assessor
  • Authentic Learning Experience: this focus on the experience of learning seems to be a common theme, be it concerned with integrating learning and assessment or providing for ‘worthwhile, ‘meaningful’ and ‘significant’ experience to the student. Learning experience is considered by Cunningham et al. as the second of two major considerations resulting from the notion of authentic assessment. Underlying much of this is the assumption that students will become more motivated, interested and inspired if assessment seems to them to be more authentic (although whether this is achieved by teachers is another matter). This overlaps with a view of authenticity as an emergent process that ‘lies in the learner-perceived relations between the practices they are carrying out and the use value of these practices’. Other aspects of an authentic learning experience may be considered to be: Authentic problems: drawing squarely on the problem-solving approach or enquiry based learning this view focuses on the authenticity of the problem (Segers et al.) and promoting higher-order thinking and complexity; Authentic materials and resources: often teachers and learning designers will talk of how materials and resources (including computer resources) have been constructed from material derived from an authentic place or time – such as raw data from scientific study (e.g. Meyers); and Authentic collaboration: another proposed characteristic of authentic assessment is associated with interaction; that it ‘requires significant student time and effort in collaboration with others’ (Herrington and Herrington).
  • Authentic measurement and criteria
  • Authentic audiences: this focuses not on the student or teacher but the role and position of the assessor (be this teacher, peers or a computer) and the relationship between them.
  • Authentic personal trajectories: this marks the association between ‘authenticity’ and the promotion of life-long learning, competency, professional and even cultural practice. This appears to have been developed further within the concept of ‘sustainable assessment’ and the importance of offering learners multiple pathways – what I could perhaps call providing authentic options.
  • Authentic design structures: Linked to the notion of authentic ‘experience of activities’, this looks wider to the broader issue of authenticity of course or curriculum design. Frick et al. argue for an authentic structuring of the tasks through a unit of learning or course from the simple to complex. Such work I think may be considered to refer to an authentic learning journey, rather than focus on authenticity of a specific tasks, practice or place (as above). This is perhaps more about authentic pedagogy and learning and aligns with Leung and Lewkowicz’s view that since schooling takes up a meaningful portion of ones life, school assessment tasks are authentic in their own right.
  • Authentic reporting of teaching and learning: although perhaps more tangentially related to assessment, I’ve included this point anyway! This is about particular descriptions of learning and assessment that are given by teachers which, whilst perhaps not rigorous or research-led, are seen to give an ‘authentic’ account of the experience and process from a teaching perspective.

So there we go… a few initial observations which have helped inform our writing of a staff survey about assessment approaches. This questionnaire survey has been open during September and Denise and I looking forward to beginning to analyse the responses. As in earlier posts, I’ve given a few references; the rest are available on request.

Falchikov, N. (2005). Improving Assessment Through Student Involvement, RoutledgeFalmer, USA.

Grant, S.G., Gradwell, J.M., Cimbricz, S.K. (2004) A question of authenticity: the document-based question as an assessment of students’ knowledge of history, Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, 19, 4, 309-337

Meyers, N. (2009) How to use 5 curriculum design principles to align authentic learning environments, assessment, students’ approaches to thinking and learning outcomes, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 34 (5), 565-577

Newmann, F., Marks, H. and Gamoran, A. (1996) Authentic Pedagogy and Student Performance, American Journal of Education, 104, 286

Spence-Brown, R. (2001) The eye of the beholder: authenticity in an embedded assessment task, Language Testing, 18 (4), 463-481


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