The Centrality of Assessment
When wearing our curriculum developer hats, one of the first questions we need ask a new client is: “What do you want your learners to know?” And on the heels of that question comes: “How will I know that they know it?”
Assessment can shape the entire learning experience, including what content instructors/trainers, present and how to present it. To that end, assessment should be considered very early on in course development.
Aligning Assessment with Desired Outcomes
Assessments should be aligned with clearly articulated outcomes to ensure clarity. For example, when we say we want our students to “write strong essays” what exactly do we mean? Strong mechanics and technique? Mastery of a particular set of facts? Demonstrated complexity in their overall argument? By aligning outcomes with assessment, we can be sure to measure what we intend to measure, and help our students know where to direct their efforts.
We recommend this excellent guide to writing measurable learning objectives & outcomes.
Authenticity in the Context of Assessment
Another way to describe these sorts of assessments is ‘authentic’. Authentic assessments (AA) require learners to apply what they have learned to a new situation. The learner is asked to do something to show that they have acquired the learning outcomes set forth by the instructor.
Here are a couple of academically acclaimed definitions of AA:
“A form of assessment in which students are asked to perform real-world tasks that demonstrate meaningful application of essential knowledge and skills” – Jon Mueller
“Performance assessments call upon the examine to demonstrate specific skills and competencies, that is, to apply the skills and knowledge they have mastered.” – Richard J. Stiggins
Or, as Grant Wiggins describes it; “engaging and worthy problems or questions of importance, in which students must use knowledge to fashion performances effectively and creatively. The tasks are either replicas of or analogous to the kinds of problems faced by adult citizens and consumers or professionals in the field.”
Authentic Assessment is also commonly referred to as:
- Performance Assessment – AA which requires students to perform meaningful tasks. Some educators (such as Stiggins above) treat authentic assessments like performance assessments using real-world or authentic tasks or contexts. Since we should never really ask students to perform work that is unauthentic in nature, I choose to treat these two terms as synonymous.
- Direct Assessment – AA which provides direct evidence of application of knowledge and skills. If a student does well on a multiple-choice test we might be able to infer indirectly that the student could apply that knowledge in real-world contexts, but it would be a much more reliable inference if it came from a direct demonstration of that application, such as in the golf example below.
A golf instructor usually teaches the skills and mindset required to perform well. Testing a golfer’s skills and abilities with a multiple choice test would I would not yield much data on their progress. It would be better to test their abilities by putting them out on the golf course and asking them to perform under competition-like pressures.
Although this makes most sense for athletic skills, it is also true for academic subjects. We can teach students how to do history, do mathematics and do science, not just know them. Then, to assess what our students had learned, we can ask students to perform tasks that “replicate the challenges” faced by those using mathematics, doing history or conducting scientific investigation.
Designing Authentic Assessment Tasks
What do we mean by authentic tasks? These can range from analysing an article to making observations of patients – if it’s a medical course – to estimating the number of resources needed to complete a project to performing in a stage show.
Similarly, authentic tasks can range from elaborate projects spanning several weeks to short activities. Instructors should take care not to equate authentic assessment with extensive assignments requiring considerable investment of time and effort for teacher and student alike.
However, adult learners often face simpler and briefer tasks in their work or life for which we can use as authentic tasks for students. In the case of vocational qualifications, such as apprenticeships, work-based authentic tasks are much easier to identify since they can be extracted from the job description.
To give another example, a psychology teacher might ask his/her students to evaluate a claim they encounter in the media (e.g., “Low self-esteem shrinks brains”), distinguish causal from correlational claims, and then ask them to determine whether or not the research described in the article justifies such a claim. (Hopefully, the research in the example article is not consistent with the headline’s claim! 😁)
Of course, capturing a more authentic performance does not ensure validity. To be valid an assessment must effectively address the learning goals it was designed to assess.
Multiple-choice questions can be designed to capture some ability to apply or analyse concepts, but filling in the corresponding circle on a scan-tron sheet does not begin to have the face validity of asking students to complete engaging tasks that replicate real world ones. Thus, ‘good’ assessment of any kind begins with the development of meaningful goals and standards.
Typical vs Authentic Assessments
Grant Wiggins further developed the concept of authentic assessment by distinguishing between typical and authentic assessments, as shown below:
|Typical Tests||Authentic Tasks||Indicators of Authenticity|
|Require correct responses||Require a high-quality product or performance, and a justification of the solutions to problems encountered||Correctness is not the only criterion; students must be able to justify their answers.|
|Must be unknown to the student in advance to be valid||Should be known in advance to students as much as possible||The tasks and standards for judgment should be known or predictable.|
|Are disconnected from real-world contexts and constraints||Are tied to real-world contexts and constraints; require the student to “do” the subject.||The context and constraints of the task are like those encountered by practitioners in the discipline.|
|Contain items that isolate particular skills or facts||Are integrated challenges in which a range of skills and knowledge must be used in coordination||The task is multifaceted and complex, even if there is a right answer.|
|Include easily scored items||Involve complex tasks that for which there may be no right answer, and that may not be easily scored||The validity of the assessment is not sacrificed in favor of reliable scoring.|
|Are “one shot”; students get one chance to show their learning||Are iterative; contain recurring tasks||Students may use particular knowledge or skills in several different ways or contexts.|
|Provide a score||Provide usable diagnostic information about students’ skills and knowledge||The assessment is designed to improve future performance, and students are important “consumers” of such information.|
Embedding Diversity in Authentic Assessments
Like many classroom activities, assessment can risk propagating certain cultural norms. Often, traditional types of assessments (i.e., essays, multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, etc.) are heavily language dependent.
For Limited English Proficient (LEP) students, these types of content-based assessments can quickly become English proficiency tests rather than a measure of what students know. LEP students frequently have difficulty expressing their mastery of content unless they have a certain level of English proficiency.
While designing your assessments, be mindful of the language, the accessibility of your content and the types of examples you use to ensure that you are catering for a diverse range of learners, potentially with special learning or linguistic needs. And ensure that you embed reasonable adjustments accordingly.
For example, if a student is struggling with sequential vocabulary, they may not be able to write an essay on the water cycle. However, if given the opportunity to do a hands-on type of assessment through experimentation or pictures, the same student may be able to demonstrate knowledge of that content, confirming for the instructor their knowledge of science, rather than their limitations in English.
While some authentic forms of assessment can be time-consuming, they are worth the effort when working with students who often have high anxiety levels under traditional testing situations and who may simply need additional time to complete a test or task.
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