Designing Authentic Assessments (#NEELC14)

On November 6, the Instructional Design team attended the day-long Northeast E-Learning Consortium Conference at Villanova’s Conference Center. This year’s theme focused on student engagement. The sessions included strategies and ideas for engaging today’s diverse students across a variety of course formats (traditional face-to-face classes, synchronous online class meetings, asynchronous online experiences, teleconference classes, and even gamified learning experiences). 

This is the fourth post in a blog series on our key takeaways from the day’s sessions. Contact us if you would be interested in applying these ideas and strategies into your classes!

Are you concerned about students using technology to cheat on your tests and papers? While the task of maintaining academic integrity in today’s digital world may seem daunting, there is a form of assessment that can help you circumvent the cheating and plagiarism issues that go along with traditional assessments. Authentic assessment is a form of assessing students in what they should be able to do with content knowledge rather than just what they know.

In a study of authentic learning journal articles, Audrey Rule of SUNY identified the four major components as:

  1. involving real-world problems,
  2. open-ended inquiry and thinking skills,
  3. a community of learners,
  4. student-directed project work.
(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by  giulia.forsythe
(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by giulia.forsythe

Rather than give students multiple-choice tests, think about ways that you can give them tasks that closely mirror the kinds of problem-solving work of professionals in the field. When students are able to work together to construct knowledge, they can create a shared meaning of the content knowledge unique to their group work as well as develop the 21st century skills like using communication and knowledge sharing technologies that they will need in the modern workplace. In addition, providing students with options to input their own choice and voice in how they demonstrate competencies will imbue their work with more personal relevance and make it more memorable. It will be much harder for students to fake competencies or cheat on assessments when the tasks take place in the context of projects unique to their own interests, depend on collaboration, and involve open-ended, real-world pursuits.

The presenters at the recent Northeast E-Learning Consortium Conference at Villanova shared some strategies on how to apply authentic assessment techniques to instruction. Keynote speaker Dr. Fred T. Hofstetter of the University of Delaware recommended finding ways to make student thinking visible as they work on projects. In his courses, he asks students to blog or journal about their work processes, which enables him to check on students when they need it most and coach them through frustration points. Giving students feedback while they work on projects allows them time to make adjustments to their thinking patterns and implement changes. This strategy of formative, authentic assessment can result in more meaningful and applicable learning that may not occur if students only receive feedback after they have already completed their work.

Dr. Hofstetter also acknowledged the importance of having discussions with each student about their goals for the course early in the semester. Not only do these goal-setting conversations create an empathetic bond between the instructor and student, they also let the instructor understand the topics about which students feel most passionately and tailor their instruction accordingly. Some other strategies mentioned were to use rubrics as assessment measures to monitor student progress and to use online discussion forums to build class community.

In their session on active, collaborative learning environments, Bill and Liesl Wuest of Temple University outlined a way to create an active assessment in an organic chemistry course. To help students study for exams, they assign an extra credit option in which students create music videos about course concepts. The students work together to develop the video concept, lyrics, and production, resulting in some entertaining and educational videos. Bill Wuest noted how each semester he is impressed at the students’ creativity and the production value of their video projects. He lets the class vote on their favorite video and awards extra credit points to the winners. Not only is this project a great way to engage current students, it generates a collection of reusable educational videos that he can share with future students. Check out an example:

Some final recommendations for authentic assessments come from a session on preparing and engaging the online learner from Michelle Simms and Susan Darlington of Gywnedd Mercy University. These presenters recommended that faculty use an authentic assessment technique called digital storytelling that involves using digital tools to present engaging and interactive narratives about course content. In one example, they assign new faculty training to teach online a project beginning with a story-telling prompt: imagine that a man from the future comes back to the present day with the mission of rebuilding the educational system. Then, as a class, training participants are given the task of writing a collaborative script based on this story premise using a shared document tool like Google docs. Once the story is finished, participants then have to create a multimedia project related to the story. For example, they could create a Google Lit Trip to show all the different settings and locations of the story, or they could design a book cover for the tale using a digital image editing tool.

The assignments above are just a few examples of authentic assessment using digital storytelling tools like blogs, YouTube videos, or Google Lit Trips. Many more ways to authentically assess students are out there, and odds are, you or one of your colleagues are already using them as in the case of La Salle Communication professor Huntly Collins’ student-generated news site, Germantown Beat.

Do you use authentic assessment in your instruction? Or are you interested in integrating this concept into an upcoming course? Please share your experiences in the comments section or email us at

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