Strategies for Designing Authentic Assessment

Many educators feel a bit of tension about education research.

It’s often not because research reveals something with which educators disagree.

In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

In many cases, research uncovers and champions a truth that educators have known about, or at least felt, for a long time because they’ve watched it unfold in their classrooms.

There’s nothing like preaching to the choir.

What is a bit more rare, but desperately needed, is research that presents an idea and couples it with practical advice on how to implement solutions that account for teachers’ real challenges: lack of time, too many students, bureaucratic requirements, and the like.

The work to reconcile research and the practical environment never ends.

Educators have been using student-centered learning strategies to improve student learning outcomes for quite some time (DeBoer, 2002; Norte, 2005; Scott & Buchanan, 1998).

Personalised learning, too, has been leveraged by schools and universities to give students what they need when they need it.

And while it looks like the verdict may still be out regarding the research substantiating personalised learning, or even clarity on what we mean when we say personalised learning, teachers know that the more opportunity for student-to-teacher interaction, the better a teacher can assess how a student learns.

This empowers teachers to craft tailored opportunities for each student to grow.

So why, then, do teachers use student-centered learning activities and create classrooms that make more time for teacher-to-student interaction, but still largely assess student knowledge in traditional ways?

The question is a good one, but implies a more corrosive question: why can’t teachers just do it all?

Crafting a thoughtful learning environment, that doesn’t just address each student’s needs but provides equitable and intentional opportunities for development is a demanding task.

Assessing it authentically is an equally tricky endeavor.

“Authentic assessment focuses on students using and applying knowledge and skills in real-life settings. Authentic assessment helps students contextualise their learning and to see how real-life conditions or situations, in all their unpredictability, ambiguity and complexity, affect their theoretical knowledge” (UNSW Teaching, 2017).

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We’ve known about the power of authentic assessment for some time, and especially that it is contingent upon multiple opportunities for practice and feedback (Grant, 1998).

Teachers face a series of challenges when assessing, chiefly, creating summative assessments that can be taken across large groups of students for benchmarking, and then marked efficiently so turnaround is quick.

How much students really learn and the enduring skills they can carry with them often fall by the wayside.

Without downplaying the complexity of designing authentic assessment what are some effective strategies for creating authentic assessments? And how can educators be sure they’re measuring intentionally?

While notable progress has been made in the survey sciences when it comes to ensuring questionnaires accurately measure their intended purpose, educators don’t have the luxury of rigorous review and feedback from peers when designing assessment.

They can, however, implement some of the following strategies:

Start with the end in mind 

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Simple as it sounds, the principles of Understanding By Design are as important to assessment design as they are to unit design (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998).

Stating learning outcomes and designing assessments that specifically address the learning outcomes will ensure continuity, and more importantly, a focus on student understanding.

While it might be tempting to look at learning outcomes created at the beginning of a term and build the assessment to match that list, it is important to examine the extent to which those learning outcomes were in service of learning throughout the course.

In addition to clarifying how the assessment is tied to outcomes, taking the time to generate a rubric is a valuable exercise in authenticity.

The act of stating precisely what the assessment ought to measure, and the relative weight of each item will provide waypoints in the design process.

Frontloading the assessment design process with clear outcomes and rubric will take longer and be more arduous, but at least there is a structure for success in place.

Creating instructional rubrics, or rubrics that are written in student-friendly language and account for typical student error and misconception, have shown heartening results for improving student writing and support student learning.

Stagger the assessment

While using multiple choice question tests can enhance students’ learning outcomes and their appreciation for the quality of learning experiences, this is most true when the test is for formative purposes (Velan et al., 2008).

We’ve all taken multiple choice question tests for summative purposes, especially at the end of a class. While the summative multiple choice question tests can be designed and implemented thoughtfully, it is very difficult to do so.

Taking a divide and conquer approach can alleviate some of the challenges of assessment design and ultimately, better serve students.

If you must use multiple-choice questions, let students complete that assessment, auto-marked, and then hold feedback and Q&A sessions to provide students with the opportunity to address their misconceptions and seek guidance.

Ideally, multiple choice questions would measure students’ ability to recall facts and not address higher order thinking.  Instead, after providing feedback, administer a project, essay, simulation, lab, etc. that makes students apply their knowledge.

By building a feedback mechanism into the assessment, students will receive a critical piece of support in the learning process.

They will be encouraged to engage in important soft skills like asking for help and even providing clarification for other students, which are essential not just for success in school and the workplace, but in making learning stick.

Offer choice

One of the most satisfying experiences in teaching isn’t just watching students “get it” but watching them express ideas and solve problems in a novel manner.

The more opportunity students have to express original and creative thinking, the more authentic the learning experience.

It’s more rigorous, too.

By designing more than one expository opportunity, application question, scenario problem, business case requiring analysis, etc. students will be able to choose tasks that interest them most.

We know that intrinsic motivation is essential for deep learning, but accessing intrinsic motivation can be elusive.

Providing choice not only enhances intrinsic motivation, but positively impacts effort, task performance, and perceived competence (Patall, Cooper and Robinson, 2008).

By affording students agency in the assessment experience, students can mitigate their stress and concentrate on sharing their insights.

Better yet, by offering choice over time, teachers can develop choice types and then require students to select from certain choice types.

For example, perhaps students are meant to develop divergent thinking and synthesis skills. On the first assessment, allow students to select from long form questions that contain a divergent thinking question and a synthesis skill question. On the second assessment, require that students select a long form question that is of a different type than they have selected previously.

By balancing opportunities for choice and nudges for growth, students will experience rigorous learning in a supportive manner. 

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By respecting teacher time, workload and surfacing relevant research, the education community can make gains in highlighting authentic strategies for teaching and learning, and not just assessing for assessment’s sake.