Demystifying Authentic Assessment: What It Means, Why It Matters, Tips to Use it

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Learning is a fundamentally human experience. Whether it's students in classrooms, individuals acquiring new skills, or even companies trying to train their employees, learning is something that we all share and no two people experience it in the same way. So how do we know what we’re doing is effective?

One way that’s becoming more common over time are skill-based evaluations known as authentic assessments. Authentic assessments are challenging, evoke reflection, encourage collaboration, and replicate real-world scenarios and tasks. They’re designed specifically to measure students’ ability to apply what they have learned in meaningful ways. While it may sound like a jab to traditional assessments, it's not. Traditional assessments, like standardized tests and quizzes, are just as important to measure student progress and success. (You can read more about them and their impact.) 

Authentic assessments work by requiring students to demonstrate their understanding through practical, applicable tasks. This can range from project-based learning and group collaborations to case studies and reflective essays. By using them alongside traditional assessments, instructors are provided a more holistic evaluation of student learning and understanding. Keep reading for examples that illustrate what authentic assessment looks like in action.

The concept of authentic assessment is not new. It first gained traction in the late 1980s and early 1990s amidst growing criticism of standardized testing. Educators and researchers recognized their limitations in measuring learning and began to advocate for assessments that could better capture students' abilities to apply knowledge in real-world contexts. While over time more and more K-12 schools and universities began intentionally integrating authenticauthentic.PNG assessments into their curricula, that was not always the case. 

To this day, traditional assessments remain the predominant way of measuring learning: when Macmillan Learning recently surveyed instructors, we found that 57% of respondents currently use all or mostly traditional assessments. Although many instructors don’t use authentic assessments at all, many do incorporate authentic assessments but don’t use this formal name for it. This tracks with our research on the topic, as we learned that only half of the instructors were familiar with the term “authentic assessment”, and only 18% reported using the term in their professional life.

Benefits of Authentic Assessment

Just because instructors aren’t using authentic assessments regularly doesn't mean they don’t want to. In that same instructor survey by Macmillan Learning, 69% of all respondents report wanting to increase, to some degree, the amount of authentic assessments they offer. And with good reason—the benefits of authentic assessment are manifold. 

By simulating real-world challenges, these assessments help students develop essential skills that are directly applicable to their personal and professional lives. For instance, working on a group project can enhance teamwork and communication skills, while conducting a case study can improve critical thinking and problem-solving abilities. 

Additionally, authentic assessments foster a more inclusive and equitable learning environment. They allow students with different strengths and learning styles to showcase their abilities in ways that traditional assessments might not capture. This helps to ensure that all students have the opportunity to succeed and be recognized for their contributions.

Practical Ideas for Authentic Assessments

While group projects and real-world applications are more commonly thought of in social sciences and humanities, they can be used successfully across disciplines. When ChatGPT 4.0 was prompted to develop  assignments that would be considered authentic assessments within different disciplines, it offered a variety. However, there’s more to authentic assessments than just generating interesting projects; the true value lies in how these assignments are designed to reflect real-world relevance.

Below are a selection of assignments, but improved and revised with additional details on how to use them and how they benefit students. They have in common their real-world relevance, practicality for the college classroom, requirement of higher-order thinking and integration of skills and knowledge from across multiple areas of study.

Literature Analysis Project. Students can choose a novel or other written work (either from an instructor-created list, an era, or just about any criteria) and create a multimedia presentation analyzing its themes, characters, and historical context. Two poignant examples that remain relevant today and could be on a list include "1984" by George Orwell, where students can analyze the themes of totalitarianism, surveillance, and individuality; or the graphic novel "Maus" by Art Spiegelman, where students could examine themes of the Holocaust, memory, and trauma. This task goes beyond memorization, asking students to analyze, synthesize, and present information in a format that mimics real-world literary analysis and scholarly presentation.

Economics: Taylor Swift Concert Tour Case Study. Students are tasked with analyzing the economic impact of Taylor Swift’s concert tours on local economies. This project involves researching various aspects of her tour, including ticket sales, local business revenue, and broader economic effects. Using a popular figure like Taylor Swift makes the assessment engaging and relevant, potentially increasing student motivation and interest in the subject. It requires students to apply economic principles, analyze data, and synthesize their findings into a coherent report. (You can read more about some “Swiftienomics” assignments, including the impact of her concerts and her impact on the NFL.)

Historical Research Paper. Students can research a historical event or figure and write a detailed research paper, including primary and secondary sources, and present their findings in a mock academic conference setting. For example, they could research and then present on the rise and fall of the Byzantine Empire by reviewing the events and factors that contributed to it, learning about the role of emperors, military strategies, economic factors, religious conflicts, and external invasions. This assessment replicates the actual work of historians, who conduct thorough research, critically evaluate sources, and communicate their findings through scholarly papers and presentations. It emphasizes critical thinking, research skills, and effective communication.

Engineering Design Challenge. Students are given a real-world problem, like designing a sustainable water filtration system, and must apply engineering principles to develop a prototype. They can present their design process and prototype in a mock industry showcase. This task replicates the real-world process of engineering design, from problem-solving and prototyping to presentation and feedback. It requires practical application of engineering concepts, creativity, and communication skills, closely aligning with the work engineers do in their professional roles.

Biological Experiment and Report. Students design and conduct an experiment to test a hypothesis related to a biological concept, for example, the effect of light on plant growth. They collect and analyze data, then write a scientific report and present their findings. Going beyond the typical science fair project because it requires controlled environmental conditions, systematic and repeated measurements of specific growth parameters, and detailed analysis of physiological responses to different light wavelengths over an extended period. It involves designing an experiment, collecting and analyzing data, and communicating findings, which are key components of scientific inquiry. Ultimately, it helps students develop critical thinking, data analysis, and scientific communication skills.