Tip: Authentic Assessment
Authentic assessments are real-life, creative tasks which ask students to apply knowledge, explore concepts and ideas more critically and at deeper levels, and are "sticky."
Image credit: Katrina Swanton of Swanton Sketches, in Sally Brown & Kay Sambell’s work. Full image here.
For many of us, teaching online is going to be a significant part of at least the next few semesters, and one of the hardest parts is figuring out how to assess students. I’ve previously shared some resources about non-proctored assessment and concerns with invasive proctoring techniques; some math- and science-specific resources, plus a wide variety of alternative summative assignments and talking about grading overall (specs grading). While many institutions are rolling out their plans for how instructors can offer proctored exams, I think this is a good time to consider our overall assessment plan for our courses and possibly experiment with some new assessment strategies.
When I think of authentic assessment, I picture activities which engage students in creative tasks that ask them to apply knowledge, and which mimic real-life situations. (By creative I don’t mean artistic, although there’s certainly room for that as well, but rather tasks where students are focused on producing something new.) There’s typically more variety of potential responses or work products that demonstrate mastery. Authentic assessments are “sticky” - I still remember the trial in my European history course where I had to defend Louis XIV, the Sun King, for his role in bringing about the French Revolution. Sadly, I lost! - and they encourage students to explore concepts and ideas more critically and at deeper levels.
To give a concrete example from my own work, students completing their English as a Second Language (ESL) sequence at my institution must complete a final writing exam. It’s typically a five-paragraph essay, with a choice of prompts they do not know about ahead of time. This assessment is particularly high-stakes: students must earn a passing score in order to “graduate” from ESL into college credit classes. This summer, I adapted the assignment to a non-proctored environment by turning the assignment into a real-life task of writing a persuasive letter. Here’s what the new assignment looked like:
Assignment prompt: NOVA will offer almost all classes for the fall semester online, with only a few classes offered in-person. Soon, however, NOVA will need to make a decision about the spring semester. I would like you to make an argument for what you think NOVA should do for the spring semester. Should all classes be online? Should all classes be in-person? Should NOVA do something different - if so, what?
Assignment audience: Think of this assignment as a letter that you could send to NOVA's president, Dr. Kress. Think about how to organize and support your argument in a way that will be convincing to the college president.
You should write a minimum of 5 paragraphs, but you are allowed to write more if you have more to say. [I understand that it’s not very “real-life” to have a length expectation, but my students really are much more comfortable when given some guidance about what the expected response “looks like.”]
Your response must address NOVA, and NOVA's students, faculty/staff, and community. The goal of this essay is to convince Dr. Kress to adopt your point of view about what NOVA should do for the spring semester. To achieve this goal, your response must address concerns that are unique to NOVA.
In writing your response, you are encouraged to refer back to readings you have done over the semester. You may also use other outside resources (newspaper and magazine articles, for example) if using evidence from these sources will support your argument. When you choose to use sources to support your argument, you must cite these sources as part of your paper with both in-text citations and a works cited list.
In writing your response, you should draw on what you have learned through writing about problems and solutions, and using evidence to support your views.
I really like the revised assignment for a number of reasons. It gets at the same overarching learning objective - demonstrating sufficient fluency with communicating in English to write an essay which includes a thesis (and, optionally, the use of supporting material) - but asks the students to place the task in their context of their real lives. By asking student to engage with a topic they are directly impacted by - their mode of class delivery for spring semester - and hopefully care about, this assignment is more intrinsically interesting as well. Finally, this task is hard(er) to cheat on. Since students have to connect their argument to our specific institutional context, and craft their argument to be convincing to a specific audience, they have to make a variety of rhetorical decisions that would make it difficult to Google for help. Of course, any dedicated student could find a way to not do their own work, but I’m happy with the very thoughtful responses I received - and students completed plenty of other assignments over the semester that allowed me to get to know their voices and engage them in revised writing tasks (which are even harder to cheat on).
In the reading list below, I curated what I hope are helpful articles and collections of authentic assessment examples. There’s a wide body of literature looking at authentic assessment in K12 classrooms, but I focused on resources for post-secondary.
Read more here:
This Authentic Assessment Toolbox site by Jon Mueller (North Central College) has many interesting activities (with rubrics) in a variety of disciplines
Indiana Univ.’s Center for Innovative Teaching & Learning’s article, Authentic Assessment, provides a good background on authentic assessment
Resilient Educator article, Advice on Using Authentic Assessment in Teaching
This blog post talks about two specific forms of authentic assessment: Place-Based Learning & Project-Based Learning
Article on Providing an Oral Examination as an Authentic Assessment in a Large Section, Undergraduate Diversity Class
Humane Assessment Shouldn’t Happen Only During a Pandemic, by Rosalie Metro
Making assessment future fit: ensuring authentic assessment approaches in the light of Coronavirus changes to HE practice, presentation by Sally Brown (Leeds Beckett University)
The Kentucky Community & Technical College system offers some Alternatives to Proctored Exams
I would love to hear about what you’ve done to make your assessments more authentic that works in an online/hybrid environment!
Upcoming (virtual!) events:
Online Writing Instruction Community’s second virtual symposium: Removing Barriers to Learning:Access, Design and Application. Tuesday, September 8 & Thursday, September 10, 3:00-4:30 EST (both days; register separately)
Proposals for the Virginia Tech Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy are due October 4th. I’ve attended this conference for several years now, and always find it a valuable event.
IUPUI’s Assessment Institute (free!) on October 25-28, 2020
The Human Element in Online Learning, sponsored by the Chronicle of Higher Eudcation, on Sep 21, 2:00 PM