Using Authentic Assignments to Assess Student Learning
As an administrator, I often ask myself whether learning has taken place—although my language may be a little more colorful. I want to avoid wasting my student’s time and effort, and even more so, I really do want to make sure that my students have learned something. In addition to my professor role, I serve as an administrator and have served as a graduate program director in the past; in that role I often encouraged other faculty to use authentic assignments to assess student learning. As administrators, if you have never heard of authentic assignments, this article will be a helpful overview as you think about how to encourage your faculty to develop strategies for authentic assessment. It begins by framing authentic assignments within the context of student learning and assessment before offering practical advice and suggestions.
In his book Super Courses (2021), Ken Bain says this about student learning and student motivation:
Any learner must remain highly motivated to stick with the arduous process of building a new paradigm and thinking about its implications and applications. To maintain such dedication, students must believe that their learning will make a difference to themselves and others . . . to learn deeply we must intend to do so. (p. 21)
Bain, in part, is reminding us that for our students to learn—truly learn—they must be motivated to learn. Without this embedded motivation, either intrinsic or extrinsic, their learning potential will be limited. That said, faculty and administrators alike must still remind ourselves of our end goal: what we want our students to know, think, or do as a result of our courses or curriculum. But without subsequently determining how to keep our students engaged and motivated, our efforts may fall flat.
Once we have determined what we want our students to know, think, or do, we have to actually measure this progress. This is where holistic and transformative assessment can be helpful. First, for assessment to be holistic, it must address the whole person (student), meaning our assessment should measure knowledge, affect for content, and skill. We strive to educate the whole person; therefore, when we measure learning, we want to measure those holistic elements that can help us refine our teaching and achieve greater student learning. Second, we want to make sure our assessment is transformative, that we close the loop, so to speak, and encourage a culture of assessment within our departments. Transformative assessment matters; it is not busywork or a top-down data collection initiative solely for the purposes of collecting data. Instead, it is student-centered, always looking to increase teaching effectiveness.
How do we encourage learning environments where learning can take place and where we can measure student learning using authentic assessment? I believe we can strategically use authentic assignments to increase student engagement and assess student learning in our courses. Authentic assignments require students to apply what they have learned to a new situation and demands that they determine what information and skills are relevant and how they should be used. The goal, then, is pure application of course material. An assignment is authentic when it is realistic; requires judgment and innovation; asks the student to do the subject; replicates or stimulates 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 different knowledge and skills to negotiate a complex task; and allows opportunities to rehearse, practice, consult resources, and get feedback on and refine performances or deliverables (Wiggins, 1998). The goal of authentic assignments is to encourage higher-order thinking and answer disciplinary questions using real-life concepts. Through this replication of real-world performances, faculty can assess performance measures (i.e., assess student learning) and encourage the development of applicable skills. Typically, authentic assignments are scaffolded, and students can practice skills learned in class and receive consistent and helpful feedback from key stakeholders, including the faculty member. Unlike a typical test or evaluative mechanism that asks what, authentic assignments ask how.
As you seek to encourage authentic assignments in your programs, there are a few key concepts to remember. First, assignments are authentic when there is a meaningful connection between the grade and project participation (Frey et al., 2012). And generally, students must apply course content to real-world scenarios by completing meaningful assignments. As you can imagine, these authentic assignments can increase student motivation, build communication skills, aid in holistic assessment, and engage students in higher-order thinking and problem-solving. It is important to note, however, that the development of authentic assignments can be time-consuming for both the student and the teacher, especially as you navigate details and align real-world clients and participation. There is also always a possibility that students will resist authentic assignments because they are different. But students may find this real-world emphasis engaging and refreshing.
If you want to encourage faculty members to use authentic assignments in their courses, here are five strategies to use:
- Remember that authentic assignments are typically scaffolded and allow skills to build over time. Do not expect students to be completely competent overnight.
- Encourage faculty to follow good instructional strategies related to assignment creations. Provide clear expectations and a rationale or purpose for the assignment. (The University of Nevada, Las Vegas has incredible resources related to transparent teaching that highlight why assignment rationale is necessary). Be clear, thorough, and specific with your expectations.
- Before beginning the authentic assignment process, ask yourself what you want your students to do. How should they demonstrate actual mastery of the course content?
- Identify learning objectives, define relevant tasks, identify performance criteria, and develop a rubric to assess these authentic assignments.
- Allow students to construct their own learning and demonstrate their skills.
Authentic assignments can be extremely rewarding for students and the teacher, and there are many ways to embed authentic assignments in any discipline. For example, students can assess or analyze a case study and suggest a plan of action, develop real-life strategic plans for real-life clients, create a deliverable to solve a real-world problem, analyze the impact of a new public policy, or role-play and analyze if-then scenarios. The process can be as involved as the faculty member and students want it to be.
One final note: authentic assignments can help increase students’ motivation and learning by allowing them to engage in real-world problem-solving. Allowing students to practice and develop skill-based competencies in real-life situations can be challenging but also rewarding. For those interested, Jon Mueller’s Authentic Assessment Toolbox is a wonderful wealth of authentic resources. I have also included a resource below to help faculty members begin to conceptualize potential authentic opportunities in their courses (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Authentic assignment questionnaire process map
Authentic assignments can reinforce holistic, transformative, and authentic assessment in your academic programs and can serve as a wonderful complement to traditional evaluative measures.
Bain, K. (2021). Super courses: The future of teaching and learning. Princeton University Press.
Frey, B., Schmitt, V. L., & Allen, J. P. (2012). Defining authentic classroom assessment. Practical Assessment, Research, and Evaluation, 17. https://doi.org/10.7275/sxbs-0829
Wiggins, G. (1998). Educative assessment: Designing authentic assessments to inform and improve student performance. Jossey-Bass.
Michael G. Strawser, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Nicholson School of Communication and Media at the University of Central Florida. He is also the managing editor for the Journal of Faculty Development.