the e-Assessment Association

The road to authentic assessment – how universities can harness the practice in the year ahead

The road to authentic assessment – how universities can harness the practice in the year ahead

A blog by Shane Sutherland, founder and CEO of PebblePad

I’m looking forward to speaking on the eAA panel at the Bett Show later this month, together with colleagues from Bolton College, Academies Enterprise Trust, NCFE and Learnosity, to discuss trends in assessment in Higher Education for the year ahead.

It’s no secret that the Covid-19 pandemic has turned the world of education upside down, not least in the area of assessment. And while cancelled exams made most of the headlines in 2020 and 2021, it wasn’t just this sort of measurement and assessment which suffered. It’s been tough for many students to secure and undertake work placements, particularly at the height of the pandemic – and universities had to think hard about how they could test students’ skills and knowledge in realistic situations when life has been anything but normal.

The good news is that there are some great examples of educators who are really delivering on ‘real world’ assessment practices – even in the toughest of times. And, now we’ve moved beyond the immediate need of operating in a pandemic, many university leaders are harnessing innovative approaches to authentic assessment for the long-term. During the Bett panel, I plan to share examples of best practice, together with concrete advice for educators who want to ensure that assessment techniques go hand-in-hand with learning design and curriculum development.

What is authentic assessment anyway?

There are plenty of academic articles about what authentic assessment is – and it can get pretty complicated. But, there’s a simple explanation to be had: authentic assessment relates to what students experience in the real world. Instead of testing students’ proficiency in completing tests, authentic assessment methods are designed to assess knowledge and test how students apply that knowledge in real world situations.

Indeed, we’ve seen that the extent to which an assessment demonstrates the purposeful application of knowledge in practice is increasingly more important than knowledge recall. In short – knowing ‘stuff’ is important, but knowing how to apply that ‘stuff’, in different contexts, is invaluable.

Importantly, authentic assessment mechanisms give students the ability to focus on how they solve problems. In an exam situation, a student might correctly answer a question – but that doesn’t mean they did it purposefully – or that they could reach the same answer again. Instead, authentic assessment, which includes the opportunity for reflection, allows students to show their ‘workings out’. And importantly, they can decide what they’d do better or differently in future – allowing for continuous improvement.

The good news is that there are plenty of educators which are already harnessing authentic assessment to help develop skilled, capable – and importantly confident – students and graduates. Over the last year (although admittedly hamstrung by Covid) we’ve seen a significant increase in simulations, projects, work placements, and workplace assessment – all of which bears witness to its growing importance in assessment design.

Addressing the challenges

As well as demonstrating the benefits, I’ll use the panel session at Bett to talk about some of the perceived challenges to implementing authentic assessment, and how universities can overcome roadblocks to success.

One of the most discussed issues around authentic assessment has been around scale – just how do universities deliver this sort of in-depth assessment experience to thousands of students, both on and off campus? For us, some of the answer lies in the use of technology, harnessing mobile-optimised Learning Journey Platforms which allow students and teachers to gather feedback and guidance on the go.

This approach gives students access to an army of assessors wherever they are – from lecturers, to work placement colleagues, supervisors and peers. And of course, this extends to self-assessment – the reflective activity which is so vital to improvement.

We’ll also cover the importance of leaning into the thorny issue of validity versus reliability. This is a big jump for an industry which has traditionally prioritised the reliable repeatable assessment of tests and exams – but one worth making, as educators can harness the power of their experience to help students improve and develop.

How to get it right

So how do educators go about harnessing authentic assessment techniques in the year ahead?

This panel will argue that the key to success is to look holistically at the learning experience, and that assessment design, in particular thinking about how to assess a much broader range of outcomes than discipline knowledge and academic convention, is an integral part of wider curriculum design – and not just an afterthought.

Assessment should be a strategic priority right from the get go. As educators establish what they want students to be able to know and do as a result of their studies, they need to decide how they’ll assess if students have met those goals and whether they provide the requisite opportunity for developing the skills that allow learners to successfully engage with a range of assessment tasks. For some goals, exams will be appropriate (but not too many, please) – for others, workplace experiences will allow students to apply their knowledge and show what they can do in real (often unpredictable) scenarios. Self- and peer review have an important role to play, especially in helping prepare learners for increasingly fluid futures, and of course planning for and making sense of one’s own learning through reflection is essential.

So, it’s an exciting time in the world of assessment – with plenty of developments afoot. Factor in broader institutional initiatives to develop skills beyond the discipline-specific, that pay greater attention to student well-being and success, and with much greater attention being paid to future readiness, it is clear that assessment practice has to (continue to) develop to accommodate and leverage the process of learning, meta-learning, the application of knowledge in practice, self- and peer-assessment, and the greater inclusion of experts beyond the institution in the assessment process.

This points to assessment methods that have many touch points (and many stakeholders) that surface and recognise the process of learning and allow learners to articulate stories of their ‘failures’ as well as their magnificent achievements. My contribution to the session will be to shine a light on many such examples of practice – and I look forward to seeing many of you there. To register to attend the panel visit uk.bettshow.com