This week Victoria Burns encourages authenticity in assessments

An extended transcript

“We often complain that students focus all their efforts on assessments, instead of learning for learning’s sake.  We urge them to focus on learning deeply, and reassure them that, if they do, success in the assessments will follow – but this pleading rarely works and can lead to frustration all around.  This focus on assessment isn’t anything new, that’s simply due to tuition fees or an unstable graduate job market; in 1997, when I was a student myself, Brown and colleagues wrote that “Assessment defines what students regard as important, how they spend their time and how they come to see themselves as students…If you want to change student learning then change the methods of assessment.”

One approach is to use “authentic” assessments, that require the students to complete tasks that are as similar as possible to tasks that would be completed by a professional in that discipline.  Could you ask them to write a grant proposal, explaining what study could be done to explore their chosen gap in the literature?  In fact, could they review an actual grant proposal, or each other’s proposals, and decide if they should be funded and why? Could they explain basic concepts from your field as learning materials for more junior students? Could you then share the learning materials with other year groups? Could you get the students to write a policy briefing, using expertise from their discipline to make recommendations to ministers? Even better, could this be in response to a real decision that’s being made, and actually send the best recommendations to the committee? Could you give students a draft academic article and reviewers’ comments and ask them to revise and resubmit with a response letter?  Could they organise a poster conference, where each group summarises a key paper in your field in the form of a poster and then assess each other’s contributions? Could they produce videos, blogs or events that engage with the wider population outside of the university?

By setting authentic assessments, you help students develop a wider range of skills, and to apply their knowledge in different contexts.  Instead of simply encouraging them to engage in deep learning, you make such engagement a fundamental part of the assessment.  It’s not always straightforward – sometimes there is resistance from students who are used to being judged on “content” alone, and there being a “right” answer.  You also need to be prepared to manage uncertainty and justify more subjective criteria.  However, there’s lots of support available in HEFi and the resources associated with this video (including my book!).  In my experience and that of the many people around the university who have introduced new and exciting assessments, the benefits for student and staff are profound.”


Lots of ideas for assessments, and helpful hints and tips, can be found in my book “53 Interesting Ways to Assess your Students”.  I would also recommend this introduction to authentic assessment by Grant Wiggins, who first coined the phrase, and the Higher Education Academy report “A Marked Improvement” which explains the model below. 

Wiggins G (1989) A True Test: Toward More Authentic and Equitable Assessment. The Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 70, No. 9 (May, 1989), pp. 703-713.

Higher Education Academy (2012). A Marked Improvement: Transforming assessment in higher education.