Aromatawai Tūturu

Authentic assessment

“We propose moving strongly away from traditional exams’ inflexibility towards more authentic, (Villarroel et al., 2018) life-relevant tasks that foster self-regulation, present high order cognitive challenges rather than measuring low order thinking skills in a decontextualised way (Villarroel et al., 2020), and place as much emphasis on process as on outcome. (Brown & Sambell, 2020)

Why incorporate authentic experiential assessment into your programme/course?

Traditional exams and tests generally focus on measuring students’ ability to remember and record course content. The deep thinking, problem-solving, transferrable skills and ethical attitudes called upon in real life are those we need to focus on in making assessment more meaningful and more authentic.

The new directions set out by the Curriculum Framework Transformation project, Taumata Teitei and refreshed Graduate Profile all indicate a need to review our assessment approaches and design in terms of greater relevance and impact, capability development, and enhanced student experience. Designing more authentic assessments can help prepare students for lifelong learning and their role in the world, and to develop community engagement, cultural identity, social justice, and sustainable practices as civic duty. Making assessment tasks personal and meaningful, and providing elements of student choice, also ties in with the University’s goal of more relational forms of learning.

Bearmann et al. (2020) also identify that many assessment designers still do not take advantage of digital opportunities. Their chapter in Re-imagining University Assessment in a digital world asks, “how can assessments support living and working in a digital era, with its networked and rapid access to both people and information?” They discuss how online assignments (such as writing a blog, creating a portfolio, or constructing different digital personas to portray professional skills in a range of digital environments) can help students to build effective skills for self-presentation online—all essential skills for the workplace.

In our Introduction to this resource ‘Why rethink assessment?’ we quote Lucas, Rapanta et al. and others on the need to realign assessment with pedagogy and the skills students need for the modern world. Lucas identifies some common themes in reviews of ‘high quality assessment’ including authenticity:

  • Increasing interest in strengths-based approaches, especially from employers.
  • The need to design better performance-based assessments.
  • A move towards scenario-based, authentic assessment.
  • A move towards assessments of investigations over longer time periods.
  • Some interest in assessment on demand.
  • Increased opportunities for student involvement and agency in the process. (Lucas, p. 22)

We need to ask:

  1. What are we assessing? Are we assessing for learning, and are we capturing what employers look for in a graduate?
  2. Does this assessment activity have relevance and encourage student involvement and agency?

What does authentic assessment look like?

Authentic assessment uses and applies knowledge and skills in real-world experiences or plausible situations. For example, as well as being realistic, the assessment might replicate or simulate the context in which adults are tested in the workplace, civic, or personal life.

The University of Western Sydney has an excellent resource on teaching challenges, which includes a reading on Authentic contexts.

“An authentic context is an essential component of an authentic learning task because students need to ‘buy in’ to the scenario or context that you wish students to engage in. It is important to create a context that reflects real-world complexity and that is as authentic as possible so as to encourage your students to immerse themselves in the problem space. An authentic context will typically pose a problem that can end up having various solutions.

The context does not have to be delivered using sophisticated technologies. The most important feature is its fidelity to real-world problems rather than a high-fidelity approximation of the real world.” (Western Sydney University, n.d.)

How can we design more authentic assessments?

  1. Change the nature of the questions used in written assessment. Incorporate scenarios that are more realistic and relevant to students, self, and community to encourage agency and belonging.
  2. Encourage a cognitive challenge (possible social, cultural or sustainable) that requires evaluative judgement to practice problem solving and synthesis.
  3. Embed strengths-based approaches by identifying graduate capabilities that can be observed or measured.
  4. Encourage social, environmental, and community engagement in tasks or activities to build towards and complete assessment artefacts.

Brown and Sambell (2020) point out that focusing more on coursework that is “fully explained to students with ample opportunity for learners to study appropriately and prepare” is also likely to result in greater student engagement and responsibility for their own learning, and therefore ongoing development and lifelong learning (p. 2).

Acknowledging that in-course assessment may take more time to design than an exam, they have created a helpful, simplified ‘task generator’ to help with transforming assessment to be more authentic.

Example of context-specific modifiers, relevant your subject area
Context relevant to your subject area Verb/ educational outcomes What? i.e., object Outcome/ evidence of achievement Modifiers/ developments/ range statements (context specific)
You are working for a social enterprise which is struggling to maintain momentum during the COVID-19 crisis. Interpret. A range of complex and at times incomplete financial and other data. Compile a meaningful summary leading to a forward action plan. That will give your funders confidence in your abilities to remain viable.

From (Brown & Sambell, 2020)

What might work better? Examples of alternative assessments

Three alternatives to traditional exam questions (from Brown & Sambell). More examples are included in the JISC report.

Early years teacher education course

Exam question: “What approaches to struggling young readers are available to teachers, and what are the benefits and disadvantages of each?”

Alternative: Open-book case study. In your class you have a boy, Kai, from a disadvantaged background who is really struggling to get beyond sounding words out. From your experience and from your reading around the topic (which you should reference), draw up a table to help you consider the potential advantages and disbenefits of each of the following interventions to support Kai, and say how each might help him to make progress. Please also suggest one more course of action derived from your wider reading. Provide a conclusion in which you show your plan of action for the next twelve weeks and justify your choices of approach.

  1. Sending home a letter to Kai’s parents asking them to read with him every day for the next 12 weeks.
  2. Asking your classroom volunteer (Granny Sally) to come in for extra sessions every week for the next twelve to work intensively with Kai.
  3. Make time yourself to work several times a week with Kai using flash cards to help him become very familiar with a number of targeted high-frequency words.
  4. Work with the whole class over 12 weeks to learn ‘the word of the day’ thereby helping Kai and all the others gain confidence and familiarity with 60 new words.

Physical education, health and well-being

Exam question: Outline the health risks associated with an inactive lifestyle and poor diet for Type 2 diabetic older females and describe what remedies could improve their health and well-being.

Alternative: Learning pack. As a community sports facilitator, you have been asked to support a group of older women with Type 2 diabetes who take little exercise and whose diet is less than optimum.

Produce a digital learning pack targeted to help this group that might contain, for example, self-produced and collated visually attractive and clearly written fact sheets, check lists, recipes and invitations to participate in group activities.

Your pack should contain at least five items and no more than eight.

Provide a reflective commentary outlining your rationale for choices about what to include (max 200 words), a reference list to your scientific sources (both text and community-based) (max 300 words), a short note on how you accessed, identified and prioritised your information sources (100 words) and a statement of the extent to which your own perceptions and beliefs have altered during the course of this assignment (max 200 words).

Business and law

Exam question: Outline the legal and professional responsibilities of a company importing children’s toys and games into Hong Kong and the UK in terms of health and safety.

Alternative: Consultant’s opinion. This scenario assumes you are working in a consultancy advising clients on importing and exporting goods into Hong Kong and the UK. You have been approached by a client who has discovered that one of her suppliers of children’s toys and games has been found to have been using unsafe lead-based paint on some items for at least five years.

Draw up a brief immediate response for your client, advising her with due caveats of the range of implications this is likely to have for her business in Hong Kong and the UK, and indicating what actions she needs to take as a matter of urgency.

Provide a short report (max 800 words) including your opinion of what steps to take immediately and longer term, with an appendix that lists relevant legislation, reference material and other information to back up your advice.

Scalability: Authentic assessment with large classes

Large cohorts and mixed-mode groups in a single Canvas course can present challenges when it comes to managing engagement, community, interactivity and assessment. Offering choice and making assessment tasks authentic will help in immersing students in problem-solving and making them feel their efforts are relevant to their personal development in life.

Making use of a peer review process with sections/groups of students can provide more feedback than a single lecturer is able to offer and help to build that sense of community. For more information, see collaborative and peer assessment.

For formative assessment tasks, platforms that offer self-marking and automated feedback can be an option to reduce marking workload for large classes. For example, H5P offers content types that can be used to present tasks in scenarios, such as interactive videos where you can pose questions at particular points (e.g., predict what will happen next); or branching scenarios that require decision making and problem solving on the part of the student, which then flows on to different pathways based on their choices. These take some investment in time and effort to create, but if designed with long-term sustainability in mind, can be used iteratively as engaging online activities that can save on marking workload.

The theme of Authentic assessment relates to the TeachWell core capabilities:

  • Aligning intended learning outcomes, teaching approach and assessment.
  • Designing assessment opportunities that enable students to develop and demonstrate their capabilities.

… and the University’s principles of assessment:

  1. 1. Assessment is learning-oriented through tasks which require the understanding, analysis, synthesis and/or creation of new information, concepts, and/or creative works.
  2. 3. Assessment tasks are demonstrably aligned with course-level learning outcomes, and programme and University-level Graduate Profiles.

Useful tools

  • A helpful, simplified ‘task generator’ to help with transforming assessment to be more authentic.
  • Employability or work integrated learning is just one aspect of authentic assessment, but there is a collection of assignments that may provide inspiration from the University of Auckland’s Employability Community of Interest group.
Taumata Teitei Vision 2030 and Strategic Plan 2025

The theme of Authentic assessment links with the values and principles of:

Recognising the importance of kinship and lasting relationships.

Valuing stewardship and guardianship and our relationship with the natural world.

Authentic assessment offers a way of engaging students to make a difference to their communities and environments, fostering a sense of meaning and belonging and contribution.

Respect and integrity
We are values-led in our relationships, creating genuine opportunities for the communities we serve to engage in ethical and responsible partnerships.

An ethic of active service and civic responsibility underpins all engagements with our communities. We engage with our communities in genuine partnerships to promote their prosperity and help them to realise their aspirations.

Thoughtfully designed assessment that partners with groups in the community or considers the local context and authentic real-world scenarios, offers students the opportunity to engage with and give back to their communities.

In our world as a world-class university, we work to graduate the leaders of tomorrow. We believe that excellence in teaching and research provides a means of engendering transformation in the lives of many people.

How we design learning experiences helps students build their capabilities. Using a strengths-based approach to assessment, guided by the Graduate Profile Capabilities, helps empower and engage students in their development. More than just a method of demonstrating student achievement of the intended learning outcomes in a course, assessment provides opportunities for the personal development of the student as a whole person for their future, and for the benefit of their communities.

Additional resources




Bearman, M., Dawson, P. Ajjawi, R., Tai, J. & Boud, D. (2020). Re-imagining University Assessment in a Digital World.

Brown, S., & Sambell, K. (2020). Writing better assignments in the post-Covid19 era: approaches to good task design.

Lucas, B. (2021). Rethinking assessment in education: The case for change. CSE Leading Education Series, 2.

Rapanta, C., Botturi, L., Goodyear, P., Guàrdia, L., & Koole, M. (2021). Balancing technology, pedagogy and the new normal: Post-pandemic challenges for higher education. Postdigit Sci Educ 3, 715–742.

Western Sydney University. (n.d.). Authentic contexts.

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