Creating the Conditions for Authentic Assessment

There is a good deal of advice and guidance available for how to design authentic assessment, but how do we ensure that authentic assessment is more widely embedded as a coherent institutional approach to assessment? Some thoughts …

Define and align authentic assessment

We need to be clear what is meant by authentic assessment. For some it is about being work related; for others it is about a closeness to discipline tradition; and for others is relates to ideas of autonomy and self-determination, and being true to one’s own goals and values. If an institution is developing a strategy for authentic assessment then it is essential to be clear what is meant by the term in the given context, so that it is widely understood and ideally aligned with the wider aims, values and culture of the institution.

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A land-based, performing arts, contemporary music, or medical institute, with a clearly defined professional focus, may obviously be able to connect with the idea of authentic assessment. For universities with a broader discipline mix and broader mission, perhaps involving civil, environmental, creative and cultural outcomes, there may be a greater need to locally debate and articulate the role and value of authentic assessment. Where authentic is just being used as a proxy for ‘work related’ assessment it may initially be seen as having limited fit with wider institutional aims and values. However, where authentic assessment is defined as like the real world, or as impactful in the real world, or as aligning with the individual’s own social and environmental goals, then authentic begins to feel more relevant to universities with a range of missions. Defined this way it can drive assessment (and therefore learning and action) which involves personalisation, and perhaps elements of authentic civil engagement; authentic environmental action and authentic social change, and/or alignment with professions. To align authentic assessment with institutional mission the concept needs to be understood and made meaningful in the local context.

 Realistic ambition

In some of the talks I undertake on authentic assessment, I share practical examples which range from written reports which have a degree of choice in their content, through to remarkable industry facing, student led exhibitions and client management projects. It is important that any plans to move towards authentic assessment are realistic in terms of resource, staff confidence, time available and factors in the local context. What is possible may really depend on class sizes, timetable constraints, planning time available, the place of team teaching vs. individual teaching, external connections, staff confidence (and even staff well-being) and a range of other factors. Recognition of practices which have shifted to be more authentic within the available constraints is as important as the spectacular forms of authentic assessment, since all are valuable to students.

Dual professionals and second career academics

It can be incredibly difficult for academics to develop authentic assessments; there may be a tendency to add too much unnecessary gloss to scenarios, or to draw on practices which are perhaps a little dated. After working in a university for a long period it can be hard to keep track of the detail and nuances in operational, real world situations. Working with colleagues who hold a dual role industry, charities or civic life, and/or working with colleagues who have a considerable experience in different roles can provide opportunities to develop meaningful authentic learning and assessment opportunities. This can be enabled through long-term appointments or short-term visiting lecturer roles. Having a diversity of staff in teaching roles can be incredibly helpful in the formation of authentic assessments. More on dual professionals can be found n the 2018 Practice-Informed Learning Publication from GuildHE.

 Pedagogic incubators

In recent years internal research and development grants haven’t always been sustained; a sign of tighter budgets perhaps. Providing some space and resource through pedagogic innovation schemes can be incredibly productive for growing approaches to authentic assessment. Within such schemes colleagues can develop changes to practice while gaining from mentoring support, resource and the enforced requirement of evaluation. These schemes provide a safe space, they make us brave to try new things. New approaches don’t need to be new to the sector, perhaps just new to the institution. Where such programmes are associated with dissemination elements too, their benefit is amplified still further. To grow new and better types of assessment, pedagogic research, development and/or innovation schemes may be very useful catalysts.

A tolerance of risk

When changes are implemented sometimes there can be a dip in ‘module scores’ and/or the positivity in student feedback as colleagues find their feet with a new approach. If institutions are moving to change their assessment strategy then temporary wobbles in the student feedback may need to be tolerated and understood. Of course, the ‘risk’ of negative student reaction is limited when students are full partners in the change, rather than being passive recipients of change, but still in practice, sometimes things don’t work out first time. Support to try again in a second iteration, learning from the first wave of change, is a necessary environment for the development of assessment practice. The message that it is OK to try new things needs to be loud and clear from coffee rooms to performance reviews. Failure to achieve this means that good people with good ideas will be too afraid to step up and try.

 Permissive quality frameworks and support for assessment revision

I very often here colleagues (locally and nationally) say ‘I didn’t think we were allowed to do this’ and I also hear colleagues in quality roles say ‘of course that’s ok – you can do that’. Misinformation, myth and fear around quality management can impact innovation and enhancement in assessment. Having clarity about what is and really is not possible within regulations is very helpful. Having someone to go to with ideas for assessment to explore the quality implications of ideas may also be enabling.

Changing assessment types within a validation cycle is perhaps a little trickier than it once was. Nevertheless, institutions can make it simpler to make well thought through changes. Examples of things that might help include: offering relatively frequent opportunities to make changes; ensuring any revision process welcomes and supports submissions from any member of staff – especially more junior academic who may be brimming with ideas but uncertain of how to navigate institutional processes; and, using Teaching Fellows or Educational Developers to act as consultants to the process of assessment revision to help develop robust approaches.

 Enabling technology for assessment and learning

Authentic assessment products may involve media and formats which draw upon different technologies and platforms. It is therefore important that regulations are flexible enough to cope with technology variety (does everything really need to go through an originality checker!?) and it is important that platforms are made available to encourage different approaches to assessment. An ePortfolio tool is a particularly powerful platform to collate a great range of artefacts and interactions. This format can cope with mixed media, it allows for high degrees of personalisation and learner control, and it is still able to link back to institutional processes. The ePortfolio has a good level of fit with the idea of authentic assessment (a recent #LTHEChat shows how ePortfolios are being used and details some of the associated challenges). Other tools and technology might include commercial systems, widely available office tools, including Office 365, and specialist simulation technologies. A flexible, broad ranging technology environment must of course be coupled with high levels of digital skills from staff. Colleagues don’t need to be tech experts, but they do need the will to engage and the ability to learn to use new tools as they become available.

A long-term professional development strategy

A few one-off professional development sessions will never cause serious change. A strategy to continually encourage professional development regarding assessment is very helpful to support change, confidence and ongoing evaluation of practices. Coverage might include new to teaching courses, post-grad certificates, conferences, communities of practice, online elements, well-stocked reading and resources, and external events. External voices can have an especially strong role in the mix of professional development; bringing in and seeding new approaches.  A professional development programme should strongly link back to the definition of authentic assessment and where it fits in strategic terms as well as the pedagogic and evidence base for this type of practice. Professional development events can provide a space to collectively navigate some of the tricky issues associated with authentic practice – issues of quality management, approaches for marking varied submissions, ensuring an inclusive approach and managing uncertainty for example.

Course level planning

Operating assessments, in relative isolation, at a module level can be problematic as it can lead to repetition, workload bunching, gaps in coverage and sometimes assessments that don’t ‘fit’ with the ethos of the course. In developing a whole institution approach to authentic assessment, elevating the role of the course team in planning and coordinating assessments through the whole student journey can be very helpful. The course team, their students and relevant stakeholders may usefully consider what authentic looks like in their context rather than relying on individual module leaders to seek and find inspiration. The success of this approach does rely on all voices being heard – a strong minded programme leader who dismisses ideas may do more harm than good – but a good degree of coordination can assist in ensuring coherence in the approach.

Don’t forget the teaching

Teaching and assessment are inseparable. Changes to one inevitably impact the other. Simply, if we want students to succeed in a particular type of assessment we need to ensure the teaching aligns. If assessments are changed – teaching must follow. Otherwise projects, performances and other types of authentic assessment will be misaligned, students will be unprepared and will not succeed. Changing the teaching may well have wide implications. If students are to be supported to take risks, this may need to be supported by a pedagogy of letting go; if students are to engage in team work – we may need to give up lectures and look at alternative approaches that foster group and team skills; if we are to encourage self-awareness and personalised assessment output then we may need to provide more opportunities for feedback to guide personal development. There may be a need to invest in facilities and equipment, and changes to workload modelling. It doesn’t have to be sudden and dramatic change though – I visualise a scale of authentic teaching and assessment from activity which doesn’t demand a great shift in resource and pedagogy, to one which is transformational and requires a new way of seeing teaching and assessment. Not all shifts to authentic need to be seismic, but it remains important that teaching and assessment evolve together.

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 Student voice

Last but definitely not least – students need to be partners in the shift to authentic assessment, at every stage. Ensure student views on assessment are heard, consider engaging students in searching for ‘our’ kind of authentic and consider engaging students in the development of assessment. The forums, of course, will vary from place to place but engaging with students on the following questions may be helpful:

  • What types of assessment are valued and why?
  • Where are the challenges in the assessment landscape? Can authentic assessment help?
  • What does valuable, relevant assessment look like to students?
  • What does valuable, relevant assessment look like to alumni, with the benefit of hindsight?
  • How much alignment to a professional area is desirable? How much is too much?
  • What are students’ own authentic goals? How can they be realised through assessment?
  • Are all students able to access newly devised assessments? How can we ensure no one is disadvantaged by design?
  • How can students help evaluate revisions in a constructive manner?
  • Are students able to feedback on difficulties with assessment approaches?

I’m sure that this list is not definitive – reward and recognition may be important too, so to curriculum frameworks and graduate attributes that support authentic assessment. In thinking about the conditions that help foster authentic assessment though, it is clear that it takes more than individual practitioners making changes for widespread, embedded  meaningful change to occur.

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