Reflections Newsletter

Authentic assessment: Evaluating "real-life" applications of knowledge in higher education - Fall 2013

Wendy A. Crocker, E-Learning and Curriculum Specialist, Teaching Support Centre

In recent years, faculty members and researchers in higher education have given considerable thought toward assessment reforms and changes to current assessment practices (Reid & Fitzgerald, 2011). An important trend in this “re-thinking” of how knowledge and learning are evaluated is the use of authentic assessment tasks. By definition, authentic assessment asks students to “demonstrate understanding by performing a more complex task that is usually representative of more meaningful application” (Meuller, nd). Authentic assessment has been described as, “an assessment requiring students to use the same competencies, or combination of knowledge, skills, and attitudes that they need to apply in the criterion situation in professional life” (Gulikers, Bastiaens, & Kirschner, 2004, p.69).

Traditional assessment techniques can also be effective, so the adoption of authentic assessment tools does not require that tests, quizzes, and exams be abandoned. Instead, careful thought must be given to the “why” behind a certain type of assessment. It is the form of the assessment not the content that is being questioned. As an example: can a student be evaluated on how well she can swim by answering a short answer quiz? Certainly! But is that form of assessment the best method by which to ascertain the student’s ability to swim? In this instance, an “authentic assessment” that would require the student to swim lengths of different strokes, enter and exit the water safely, and show how she would restrict her energy use in the water if she tires would be a better choice. By selecting this authentic assessment of her skills as a swimmer, the teacher has a sense not only that the student can swim, but also how well, and what skills still need to be developed. Short answer and multiple choice tests as examples of traditional assessments cannot offer that same depth of evaluation of her swimming skills and ability.

What is Authentic Assessment?

Basic elements of authentic assessment include but are not limited to:

Why Use Authentic Assessment?

With the advent of outcomes-based learning in higher education, students are expected to know and demonstrate specific skills, knowledge, and values or attitudes as a result of successfully completing a single class, a course, or an entire program or degree. The regurgitation of content knowledge is not sufficient to gauge student understanding of complex skills and ideas. In creating a scenario, or context, where students must “show what they know”, they are being called upon to demonstrate higher levels of skills (evaluate, apply, synthesize, design) as opposed to the lower levels that require students to know, describe, or understand. Unlike traditional tests or quizzes, authentic assessment affords groups of students opportunities to demonstrate their understanding of a topic, often within a context that is “real-world”. Further, the students can create their own method of demonstrating the necessary knowledge and skills. An authentic approach to assessment highlights the constructive nature of learning and education.

The top ten features of authentic assessment tasks adapted from Jon Meuller’s Authentic Assessment Toolbox (nd) are represented by the following list:

  1. Have real-world relevance: Activities match as nearly as possible the realworld tasks of professionals in practice rather than decontextualized or classroom-based tasks.
  2. Are loosely defined, requiring students to define the tasks and sub-tasks needed to complete the activity: Problems inherent in the activities are ill-defined and open to multiple interpretations rather than easily solved by the application of existing algorithms. Learners must identify their own unique tasks and sub-tasks in order to complete the major task.
  3. Comprise complex tasks to be investigated by students over a sustained period of time: Activities are completed in days, weeks, and months rather than minutes or hours. They require significant investment of time and intellectual resources.
  4. Provide the opportunity for students to examine the task from different perspectives, using a variety of resources: The task affords learners the opportunity to examine the problem from a variety of theoretical and practical perspectives, rather than allowing a single perspective that learners must imitate to be successful. The use of a variety of resources rather than a limited number of preselected references requires students to detect relevant from irrelevant information.
  5. Provide the opportunity to collaborate: Collaboration is integral to the task, both within the course and the real world, rather than achievable by the individual learner.
  6. Offer the opportunity to reflect: Activities need to enable learners to make choices and reflect on their learning both individually and socially.
  7. Can be integrated and applied across different subject areas and lead beyond domain-specific outcomes: Activities encourage interdisciplinary perspectives and enable students to play diverse roles thus building robust expertise rather than knowledge limited to a single well-defined field or domain.
  8. Are seamlessly integrated into major tasks: Assessment of activities is seamlessly integrated with the major task in a manner that reflects real-world assessment, rather than separate artificial assessment removed from the nature of the task.
  9. Enable the creation of polished products valuable in their own right rather than as preparation for something else: Activities culminate in the creation of a whole product rather than an exercise or sub-step in preparation for something else.
  10. Provide for competing solutions and diversity of outcomes: Activities allow a range and diversity of outcomes open to multiple solutions of an original nature, rather than a single correct response obtained by the application of rules and procedures.

Creating an Authentic Assessment Task

The first step to create a rich authentic assessment task is to review the student outcomes for the course. What is it that was stated that successful candidates would know and be able to do? These demonstrations of knowledge form the basis of the task. Next, consider the best method for observing those demonstrated skills. Is it through a portfolio? A simulation or a case? A poster or a presentation? Next, list the criteria that you would consider appropriate to see as an active demonstration of what the student should know and be able to do. Finally construct a way to assess the quality of that demonstration. In some cases, it is a numeric scale from one to five accompanied by a descriptor such as limited, satisfactory, good, very good, and excellent. In other situations, it may only be a three point scale: unsatisfactory, satisfactory, and good. As the instructor, you determine the criteria and the descriptors of the demonstrations. The key to success in authentic assessment is clarity in expressing the criteria and the related performance at each level, and then sharing the assessment tool with the students before they begin the task so that they are well aware of your expectations.

Examples of authentic assessment tasks in the disciplines…


Gulikers,J., Bastiaens, T., and Kirschner, P. (2004). A five-dimensional framework for authentic assessment. Educational Technology Research and Development, 52 (3), 67-85.

McQuarie University, Learning and teaching centre (2008). Assessment toolkit resources: Creating authentic assessment. Retrieved from curriculum_development/ assessment/

Meuller, J. (nd). Authentic assessment toolbox. Retrieved from http://

Reid, C. & Fitzgerald, P. (2011). Assessment and employability. London: Higher Education Academy.

Teaching Support Centre
Room 122, The D.B. Weldon Library
Western University
London, Ontario N6A 3K7
(519) 661-2111, ext. 84622