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What is authentic assessment? Bringing authentic assessment to life

Learn more about authentic assessments in the classroom and how they can more accurately measure student comprehension compared to traditional assessments.

Audrey Campbell
Audrey Campbell

Authentic assessment is an approach that can enable learning by measuring additional components of knowledge. Assessment, as we know, is a crucial part of the learning process, where educators can see what students know and don’t know, as well as why students do or don’t understand a particular concept. As Dylan Williams says: “Assessment is the bridge between teaching and learning—it is only through assessment that we can find out whether what has happened in the classroom has produced the learning we intended” (2011).

Prioritizing the learning experience for students doesn’t conclude with the end of an activity, lecture, or course module; it is part of a continuum. Assessments, too, can be a part of the process when teachers understand how to supplement student learning and when students receive feedback on next steps.

Assessments come in different forms. Traditional assessments are typically time-bound and require students to choose or offer a response. They test the recall and recognition of knowledge. However, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that authentic assessment not only enhances academic integrity, but is a more effective way to assess student learning. Authentic assessments, in turn, are typically iterative and ask students to perform a task, calling for the application of knowledge.

But what is an authentic assessment? And what does it entail? In this post, we dive into the definition of authentic assessment and its benefits. Furthermore, we offer examples of authentic assessment that can be used in a variety of grades or subject areas to reflect the depth of authentic learning.

What is the definition of authentic assessment?

When determining how best to assess student knowledge, most educators would choose an assessment that not only accurately measures a student’s learning, but simultaneously helps to improve their understanding of the skills taught in that course and their relevance beyond the classroom. Such assessments would be considered “authentic” because they involve the application of knowledge in situations beyond the classroom.

Authentic assessment is a type of assessment that requires learners to apply their knowledge and skills in a real-world context. It measures what students know by demonstrating how they can apply their knowledge. This type of assessment is designed to measure students' ability to think critically, solve problems, and communicate effectively.

In constructivist philosophy, learning is optimized when the students base their understanding on their own concrete experiences gleaned from relevant learning. John Dewey, an educational reformer and one of the forefathers of constructivist theory, valued real-life contexts and problems as an educational experience. As Saul Mcleod, Ph.D. goes on to say: “[Dewey] believed that if students only passively perceive a problem and do not experience its consequences in a meaningful, emotional, and reflective way, they are unlikely to adapt and revise their habits or construct new habits, or will only do so superficially.”

Through a constructivist lens, authentic learning leads to deeper understanding and authentic assessment explicitly measures that understanding. When instructors can create tasks that mirror the very challenges faced by that discipline in the real world, then students can adequately transfer what they’ve learned to various contexts, scenarios, and situations.

In this way, authentic assessment helps learning go beyond memorization and helps deepen understanding and relevance of course content.

What are the characteristics of authentic assessment?

There are a variety of ways to approach creating an assignment or assessment that is authentic. According to Grant Wiggins, an assignment is authentic if it:

  • is realistic.
  • requires judgment and innovation.
  • asks the student to “do” the subject.
  • replicates or simulates the contexts in which adults are “tested” in the workplace or in civic or personal life.
  • assesses the student’s ability to efficiently and effectively use a repertoire of knowledge and skills to negotiate a complex task.
  • allows appropriate opportunities to rehearse, practice, consult resources, and get feedback on and refine performances and products (1998).

Conventional tests and conventional test questions such as those in standardized multiple-choice exams are often an indirect measure of a student's ability to apply the skills and knowledge gained in the classroom. While students may know the facts, do we know if they can apply them? And how deeply do they understand concepts? While conventional tests play an important part in curriculum–and are frequently easier to grade and create—there is value in considering an authentic assessment over a conventional assessment for many reasons.

Firstly, students are often more engaged in authentic assessments because they involve real-world tasks, which makes them more interesting and motivating. Next, instead of rote memorization, these assessments require high-order thinking and problem-solving, asking students to choose which skills to apply, how, and where. If instructors can provide a rubric that details the specific criteria by which the assessment will be graded, oftentimes the challenge of grading authentic assessments can be mitigated.

Consider the table below, drawn from Wiggins and created by Indiana University Bloomington (USA), which illustrates the differences between typical tests and authentic assessments:

Typical tests
Authentic tasks
Indicators of authenticity
Require correct responses
Require a high-quality product or performance, and a justification of the solutions to 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 students as much as possible
The tasks and standards for judgment should be known or predictable.
Are disconnected from real-world contexts and constraints
Are tied to real-world contexts and constraints; require the student to “do” the subject
The context and constraints of the task are like 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 that for which there may be no right answer, and that may not be easily scored
The validity of the assessment is not sacrificed in favor of reliable scoring.
Are “one shot”; students get one chance to show their learning
Are 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.

Authentic assessments can be contrasted with conventional test questions, which are often indirect measures of a student’s ability to apply the knowledge and skills gained in a course. Conventional tests have an important place in courses, but should be coupled with authentic assessment wherever possible.

What are examples of authentic assessment in the classroom?

Authentic assessment can take many forms, some with a lighter lift than educators may expect. In fact, there can be robust opportunities for students to illustrate their learning with projects, oral presentations, and other hands-on options that ultimately makes grading less tiresome for an instructor and possibly more enjoyable for students.

Below are a just a few ideas for authentic assessments that can be adapted for different grade levels and subject areas:

  • Portfolios: Portfolios are collections of student work that demonstrate their learning over time. Portfolios can include essays, projects, presentations, and other artifacts. In a conference setting with parents and/or educators, students can then talk about their portfolios and explain areas of confidence and areas of growth.
  • Performance tasks: Performance tasks are activities that require students to apply their knowledge and skills in a real-world context. Performance tasks can include debates, presentations, and experiments.
  • Projects: Projects are long-term assignments that require students to use a variety of skills and knowledge to complete a task. Projects can be individual or group projects, and they can be completed in or out of school.
  • Debates: Debates are opportunities for students to argue for or against a particular point of view. Debates can be held in class or in a public forum.
  • Simulations: Simulations are computer programs that allow students to experience real-world situations. Simulations can be used to teach a variety of subjects, including science, history, and economics.

Instructors in university or graduate programs may be interested to see how Indiana University Bloomington approaches authentic assessment with the diagram below:

Examples of authentic assessments
Nursing
Provide a case study of a patient and ask students to assess and create a plan of care.
Business
Develop a business/marketing/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/app to solve a particular problem and/or meet a set of criteria.
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.).
Biology/Chemistry
Draw a diagram of how a process works, indicating what happens if X occurs.
What are the benefits of authentic assessment?

The University of New South Wales (AUS), maintains that “Authenticity is a fundamental characteristic of good assessment practice” and that “students usually value it highly.”

When a nursing student is asked to participate in, say, a simulation or role play of a scenario in place of writing an essay on “The benefits of good bedside manner,” the student must contextualize their learning and react to the real-world unpredictability and complexity that a scenario presents. Instead of merely writing about how they would try to soothe a nervous patient in the operating room, they would have to engage in role play, apply what they have learned in their courses, and solve problems in real-time. In this situation, both the instructor and the students themselves will see the competency they have gained through study.

In addition to motivating students to learn and engage, the benefits of authentic assessment include:

  • Providing a more accurate picture of students' learning.
  • Helping students to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
  • Supporting students in increasing their communication and collaboration skills.
  • Allowing teachers to differentiate instruction for all learners.

Overall, the benefits go both ways: students glean a meaningful amount of information and can showcase their knowledge effectively when assessed authentically; educators can acquire a more accurate understanding and measurement of their students’ learning and see very clearly what they know and where they have potential to grow.

The link between authentic assessment and academic integrity

In one study, researchers discovered that authentic assessment tasks that include interactive orals help prevent academic misconduct: “The more relevant the assessment to real-world scenarios, the less likely students are to engage in misconduct.” The study goes on to say that “interactive oral exams enabled students to develop their professional identity and awareness, and communications skills, and help promote employability” (Sotiriadou et al., 2020).

In another study, a group of 18 students in New Zealand worked together to develop focused community projects to affect sustainable change. Upon reflection, the students themselves reported many benefits of authentic assessment including, “workplace realism, a greater level of personal investment and opportunities to draw on diverse skills” (Asgarova et al., 2023).

Authentic assessment is deeply tied to authentic learning, an approach to education based deeply in constructivism, which theorizes that learners ought to take an active role in building their own understanding rather than passively receiving information. When a student can participate in activities that not only require their presence of mind and involvement, but also connect to real-world scenarios, their learning then hinges on concrete skills that they can readily apply to their lives.

Conclusion: What is authentic assessment and what is its impact on teaching and learning?

In sum, authentic assessments are valuable for students and teachers alike. The complexity of tasks requires students to use a variety of skills and knowledge to complete the assessment. They are realistic because they simulate real-world situations that students will encounter outside of school. And they provide a more accurate picture of students' learning to help educators improve their instruction and students to develop the skills they need to succeed in the classroom, the workforce, and life.