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What is authentic assessment and do we need it in higher education?

There are many fad and buzz words in the higher education sphere. Most recently the terms ‘authentic learning’ and ‘authentic assessment’ have been spruiked as essential to good pedagogy. But what is authentic assessment and do we need it in higher education? The short answer is yes. However, it is more complex than it first appears.

Authentic assessment aims to provide students with the replication of tasks they will complete in “industry”, which in itself is a very broad term. Does this mean the tourism industry, auto industry, fashion industry, or some other yet to be defined industry for Gen Z graduates (born after 1995)? In addition, given the relatively new focus on authentic assessment, does this mean that what we have previously provided students was inherently inauthentic assessment? Hopefully not.

Yet, while providing a real-world context for assessment appears logical, the continued dominance of essays and exams across many disciplines suggests we have a way to go in terms of “authenticity”.

Authentic assessment and student engagement

In addition to forging stronger industry knowledge, authentic assessment is heralded as the answer to dwindling student engagement in higher education, especially for on-campus learners. Indeed, attendance at most universities has dropped significantly as technology provides students with the flexibility of studying from home, on the train or even at the beach or pub.

Authentic assessment is the application of “real world” tasks that enable students to demonstrate the attainment of new knowledge and skills within an educational context. There is growing evidence that authentic assessment can enhance student engagement and learning outcomes. This assessment can come in a variety of forms, including simulation of a discipline-relevant task, conducting field research, or pitching an idea to industry, academics or peers.

The role of “Industry”

Most definitions of authentic assessment claim that having links to industry, and even co-creation of assessment, enables more authentic assessment.  Yet, this in itself creates issues in terms of quality and academic rigour and compliance, as employers are usually unaware of tertiary education standards or the importance of curriculum mapping. It is arguable that most industry training is better suited to the vocational education sector rather than higher education, where more lofty aims are postulated.

This said, there can be little argument that the workforce of tomorrow will be more volatile and complex than that of today, signifying the importance of strengthening industry engagement. It is argued that more active involvement with industry provides students with a taste of the future that awaits them outside of university, and therefore better prepares them for the future world of work.

Is authentic assessment the “cure” for student cheating?

Despite earlier claims by some that implementing authentic assessment means cheating will be non-existent, we now understand this is not entirely true. Authentic assessment can help reduce the likelihood of plagiarism and contract cheating, however, it does not provide a silver bullet.

Although authentic assessment is widely recognised as an important feature of good assessment design, even the most authentic and personalised assessment task can still be outsourced. As previous scholars have suggested, what is important is that the motivation and opportunity to cheat is minimised. The best thing we as academics can do to reduce student cheating is to design engaging, and perhaps even fun, assessment tasks where the inherent value in completing that task is obvious to the student.

Developing a shared understanding of authentic assessment

Authentic assessment has the potential to benefit all parties, including students, teachers, administrators and ultimately employers. However, a clear understanding of what authentic assessment is, and how to successfully implement it throughout a degree, is needed.

Importantly, this involves a recognition that authentic assessment occurs on a continuum and that there are degrees of authenticity. Indeed, not all assessment tasks must involve working directly on an outcomes-based project for an industry partner. Not only would this be a logistical nightmare, given the number of units in a degree, but it would also be difficult to accomplish given the number of students in some units. It is also unfair to expect first year students to be able to produce work that is of an acceptable standard for industry. After all, this is what they are at university to learn, otherwise they would most likely be employed already.

Instead, other forms of authentic assessment such as case studies using real-world data, analysis of recent media articles, or the development of role-play scenarios, may be more appropriate. To embrace authentic learning, teachers need to better understand the opportunities and limitations of authentic assessment and be prepared to move away from the comfort of more traditional assessment tasks. Universities and administrators need to support teachers who want to create innovative and authentic assessment tasks that motivate and engage students. This means providing time, technical support services, professional development opportunities and potentially even financial support to staff.

At the same time, industry needs to understand the broader objectives of higher education, around skills development, communication, problem-solving, etc, and work within the existing regulatory frameworks that govern the quality of higher education courses. Students, too, need to understand the benefits of more authentic assessment, and realise that not every assessment will be an exact replication of what they will (hopefully) be doing upon graduation. Some tasks will help to develop more generic skills, such as communication and team-work skills.

If all stakeholders understand and commit to their role of engaging with authentic assessment, then the potential benefits for all parties, including society, will be realised.

Dr Ryan Jopp has co-ordinated a range of undergraduate, postgraduate, and online units at various institutions, across the fields of management, tourism and marketing.  After completing his PhD in 2012, he has had several articles published in top-rated journals and has presented his findings at international conferences. In his role as Academic Director at Swinburne University, he is responsible for ensuring quality and consistency of course delivery. He has also developed his research in scholarship of teaching and learning, particularly relating to authentic learning and assessment.

The full version of this article was first published in Teaching in Higher Education:1-17.

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2 comments

  1. Are you talking about TAFEs or Universities? The above article seems more relevant to TAFEs.

    • Hi Tracy, thanks for your comment. The article relates to both TAFE and Universities. While the former may have more obvious links to industry, there is increasing demand for university graduates that are “work-ready”, and this is where authentic assessment comes in.

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