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Weekly Tip: Revisiting Authentic Assessment

Educators hope that students will transfer learning from one problem to another within a course, from one year in school to another, between school and home, and from school to workplace. Assumptions about transfer accompany the belief that it is better to broadly “educate” people than simply “train” them to perform particular tasks.

—Broudy, 1977

In October we discussed Student-Driven Approaches to Authentic Learning. One of the suggestions for creating an authentic learning experience was to allow students to choose context. Here, we will take an in-depth look on how to include student ownership into assessment.

Authentic Assessment Helps Students Connect the Dots

Traditional assessments often ask students to recall and recognize information to demonstrate their understanding of specific concepts. Further, traditional assessments typically approach concepts in a siloed manner, rather than as a necessary piece of a larger idea. That said, traditional assessments aid in:

  • Gauging basic knowledge
  • Determining if students are ready to move on to more complex concepts
  • Preparing students for application

Traditional assessments can be helpful for the reasons noted above, but how do we know that students aren’t left wondering how the concept is truly applied beyond the course?

Authentic Assessment Brings the Concept to Life

Finding out what the student knows and if they can apply their knowledge in context are the results of a well-rounded authentic assessment. A key component of authentic assessment is allowing students ownership of the context in which their knowledge is applied. By allowing students autonomy in this way, we can get a true perspective of their understanding.

Let’s look at a few variations of how to assess conceptual understanding with a math example. For this example, it is assumed that the instructor has adequately taught the concept of average rate of change and students have been exposed to both simple and more complex word problems regarding the concept.

Common Teacher-structured Traditional Assessments

Example One: Recall/Recognition

The student is presented with the following statement:

Calculate the average rate of change given (1971, 26815.90) and (1975, 33570.14).

The student recalls the average rate of change formula and performs the necessary calculations to provide an answer. Synthetization of concepts and deep conceptual understanding are not needed. Recalling and recognizing are all that is required here.

Example Two: Recall/Recognition Word Problem

The student is presented with the following statement:

Using the data in the table below, find the average rate of change of the cost of a home from 1971 to 1979. Let  represent the median home price at the end of year , in the United States.


Data Source

The student is introduced to a scenario where the math concept is applicable (assuming the student has been introduced to data charts prior to the assessment). They then recall the average rate of change formula and perform the necessary calculation which includes a complete sentence stating their result. Although this feels “real world” it still only requires recalling and recognition.

Student-structured Authentic Assessment Question

The student is presented with the following statement:

Up to this point we have looked closely at

  • The definition of a function and functional relationships
  • How to “see” the data as a set of (x,y) pairs
  • How to calculate average rate of change using data points.

For this assessment, you will collect data from a reputable source pertaining to a subject that you care about and apply this same analysis. The goal is for you to identify where there was greatest and least change between two consecutive points.

Your report should include the following elements:

  • Introduction to the scenario
  • Data source and process of data collection
  • Data table with variable definitions
  • Data plot with trendline
  • Analysis of data and explanation of findings

Here, the student is given the opportunity to produce a report that provides average rate of change analysis on a subject matter of their choice. Learners should be able to identify the formula they will need to use to provide the information requested. Not only are students tasked with recalling information (e.g., identifying the formula that needs to be used), they are also applying the formula. What makes this assessment truly authentic is that in addition to recalling and applying the formula, students are providing evidence of analytic understanding, synthesizing information, and evaluating their results. For shorter assessments, the requirements can be adjusted.

Beyond the example above, what authentic assessment drives for is students, in the future, being able to use a concept, formula, etc. unprompted to analyze data and help answer questions when appropriate. In some ways, it is a matter of recognizing what tool is needed at the right time for the right question. In the case of the example above, the tool students need to be able to use is the average rate of change formula.

A healthy balance of traditional and authentic assessment provides our students with a well-rounded picture of what the concept is and how it is applicable in the real-world.  While traditional assessments can be helpful in determining if students are prepared and ready to apply their knowledge in an authentic manner, authentic assessments allow students to directly apply what they’ve learned.

There are many simple ways to tweak the authenticity of your assessments. For support implementing any of the tips provided, join us in our On-Demand virtual space Monday through Friday from 9 am to 3 pm.


Broudy, H.S. 1977 Types of knowledge and purposes in education. Pp. 1–17 in Schooling and the Acquisition of Knowledge, R.C.Anderson, R.J.Spiro, and W.E. Montague, eds. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum

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