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Designing Authentic Assessment

Designing Authentic Assessment

The best types of assessments are those that not only provide an evaluation of student work, but also prompt students to deepen their understanding of course content and improve their skills and performance.  

Authentic assessment aims to test skills and knowledge in “real world” applications that are relevant to future disciplinary professions. An authentic task encourages student success and course completion by promoting an awareness of the value of the work to student goals and/or future professions, encouraging student self-directed learning, promoting a growing sense of competency in the student, and fostering a sense of relatedness, not just between theory and practice, but between students and various social groups.  

All of these factors encourage motivation, which promotes course completion and student success.

Components of Authentic Assessment

Since authentic assessments are based in real-world scenarios that are often complex and nuanced, they:

  • require application of theory to realistic professional practice,
  • require judgment and innovation, 
  • assess integration of student skills and knowledge to negotiate a complex task,
  • and, are iterative in nature, with timely feedback encouraging students to develop and improve their skill sets.

Comparison Between Typical and Authentic Assessments

Typical Assessment Authentic Assessment Indicators of Authenticity
Require correct responses Require a high-quality product or performance and justification of the solutions to the problems encountered Correctness is not the only criterion — students must be able to justify their answers
Must be unknown to the student in advance to be valid Should be known in advance to the student, as much as possible The tasks and standards for judgement should be known or predictable
Disconnected from real-world contexts and constraints Tied to real-world contexts and constraints; requires student to "do" the subject The context and constraints of the task are likely those encountered by practitioners in the discipline
Contain items that isolate particular skills or facts Are integrated challenges in which a range of skills and knowledge must be used in coordination The task is multifaceted and complex, even if there is a right answer
Include easily scored items Involve complex tasks; may not have a single correct answer; may not be easily scored The validity of the assessment is not sacrificed in favor of reliable scoring
Students get one chance to demonstrate learning Iterative: contain recurring tasks Students may use particular knowledge or skills in several different ways or contexts
Provide a score Provide usable diagnostic information about students' skills and knowledge The assessment is designed to improve future performance and students are important consumers of such information

Examples of Authentic Assessment

  • Biology or Chemistry: Draw a diagram of how a process works, indicating what happens if "X" occurs
  • Business: Develop a business, marketing or sales plan for an imaginary (or real) company in a student's area of interest
  • Computer Science: Troubleshoot a problematic piece of code, develop a website or app to solve a problem and/or meet a set of criteria
  • History: Engage in role play of a particular event in history; describe what might have happened if one element of a historical event changed
  • Nursing: Provide a case study of a patient and ask students to assess and create a plan of care
  • Psychology: Examine/critique a case study from multiple theoretical positions
  • Public Affairs or Service Learning courses: Consider how a community agency might be impacted by a particular challenge (budget cuts, infrastructure outage, public health crisis, etc.)

Considerations for Designing Authentic Assessment

As instructors consider authentic assessment for their course, it can be helpful to consider: 

  • How will you scaffold the learning outcomes? (How does acquisition of knowledge, a skill or set of skills relate to and depend on other skills or knowledge?)
  • How will you provide support for students during authentic assessment? Remember to consider your own time and/or availability.  
  • How long should coursework and assessments take for students? When planning the flow and timeline of coursework and assessments, remember that authentic assessments take longer for the students to complete.
  • How will you address student concerns? Students can feel anxious about how they will be graded. Allow time to discuss their concerns and share your grading criteria with them.
  • If your course is online, how will you coordinate teamwork? Online teamwork can be difficult to coordinate.  
  • What constraints may students be facing? Using a pre-course survey may help you determine what constraints students may be facing and allow you to consider adjustments to the depth of the assessment and/or the time allowed for completion of the task.
  • Encourage effective student collaboration 


Helpful steps to plan for instruction:  

  • Identify or review learning outcomes; consider whether they lend themselves to real-world scenarios.
  • When designing an authentic assessment, start by thinking about the activities of professionals in the discipline, and consider whether students could approximate such tasks.  
  • If a professional task cannot be carried out, consider whether the students could apply themselves to a relevant and new situation that is appropriate to their discipline — it can be useful to think about the learning outcome(s) as a verb and then design the scenario. Make it clear to the students how the scenario/task is relevant to their goals and/or future profession.
  • Select the performance criteria for grading and design a rubric that clearly outlines expectations, and share the rubric with students. This approach helps provide clarity to the students, and helps us to be consistent in our grading.


Key Takeaways

Remember that not all assessments must be “authentic assessment.” Instructors can use more typical, low stakes assessments to scaffold learning and build toward a summative authentic assessment.  

Sometimes, for any number of reasons — future graduate entry, professional school entry exams, etc. — instructors may want to retain more typical assessments (e.g. timed multiple-choice tests). The aim is always to help students succeed.  

If assessments allow students to practice skills that are necessary for their current or future success, they, too, are valid.