Keeping learners engaged in pursuing their degrees, certifications, or development of new skills is essential to keeping them enrolled. And for adult learners, engagement and value go hand in hand. Take for example, Jan*. At the start of COVID-19, Jan’s position was eliminated, so she decided it was the perfect time to go back to school.
Excited to continue her education — and excited to be able to do it from home — Jan jumped into her first few courses expecting the best of what 21st century online technology had to offer. What she found instead was a lot of discussion prompts asking “reflective” questions, written assignments, and a few quizzes along the way.
After only three courses, Jan was fed up. It was not so much the money she was paying for her online program, but the lack of any learning that she could use in the real world. She was not in this for a grade — she was in this to up her skills, learn new things, and re-emerge into the job market better than when she left it.
Communicating value through authentic assessment experiences
Jan is not unique. She is an example of the 74% of past, present, and prospective online college students that Magda and Aslanian (2018) found are pursuing their degree program for career-focused reasons, including:
transitioning to a new career field
updating the skills required for their job
increasing their wages/salary
Today's online students want learning they can immediately put into practice, so institutions will have to meet their needs with learning experiences designed with career preparation and upskilling in mind.
Unfortunately, many online courses do not provide the opportunities students need to practice and immediately implement the skills they’re learning. So, like many online students, Jan decided that the lack of actual application of the things she was supposed to be learning was enough to make her quit.
While quitting is an extreme swing of the pendulum, student frustration stemming from the lack of real-world application in online courses isn’t the only concern. What about the hordes of students who graduate and haven’t put their nursing, or engineering, or accountancy skills to the test in a safe learning environment? What about their patients and clients? We can solve both of these concerns using authentic assessments.
What is authentic assessment exactly?
Authentic assessment is a form of evaluation that asks students to perform real-world tasks that demonstrate their understanding of and ability to use the skills they’ve learned.
Wiggins (1998) identifies a few key criteria for an assessment to be considered “authentic”:
It requires judgement and innovation.
It asks the student to “do” the subject.
It replicates or simulates the contexts in which adults are “tested” in the workplace, in civic life, and in personal life.
It assesses the student’s ability to efficiently and effectively use a repertoire of knowledge and skill to negotiate a complex task.
It allows appropriate opportunities to rehearse, practice, consult resources, and get feedback on and refine performances and products.
Let’s break this down into its three elements: objectives, creativity, and buy-in.
Identify course objectives to assess
First are the objectives. What are students expected to be able to do when they have completed the course?
There will always be objectives around explaining, defining, and analyzing — what you are looking for are objectives that indicate action. Examples include:
Students will demonstrate...
They will implement...
Students will apply...
They will show...
As you can see, action verbs are perfect for creating authentic assessment as a measurement of student learning.
Get creative in testing how students demonstrate learning
Once you’ve picked your objective, this is where the creativity element kicks in. You’ve informed students that they will be doing something — now you must produce an assessment that meets this requirement. How will students demonstrate, implement, apply, or show?
This is what frustrated Jan. Even when she was told she was going to demonstrate her learning by doing something, she was still asked to complete old, tired assignments like asynchronous discussions, quizzes, or term papers — none of which provides students an opportunity to learn by doing, or to immediately practice.
Examples of authentic assessments in different disciplines include:
Nursing – Provide a patient case study where students are expected to assess and create a plan of care.
Computer Science – Have students create a website or app to solve a problem.
Marketing – Provide the criteria and budget for a marketing campaign and have students create actual online marketing materials.
Leadership and Development – Using video, have students practice conducting a strategic coaching session.
Accountancy – Have students create financial documents based on a set of criteria. Include a peer review process where students analyze other students’ documents.
Finding the right measurement and creating real-world assessment is the easy part. One of the biggest challenges around authentic assessment is getting institutional buy-in, especially from already overworked faculty.
The most common argument against authentic assessment is the additional time it takes to create and grade these kinds of assignments. Quizzes and exams can be an almost 100% automated task. Discussions and papers are comfortable and familiar. But grading and providing feedback on individual videos or lines of HTML code for websites is a manual and time-consuming process — one that most faculty argue they don’t have time for.
While every institution is different, there are some common approaches you can use with faculty to get their buy-in. Here are some tips.
Authentic assessment tools don’t have to be used on every assignment, only where appropriate.
Creating a rubric and general feedback responses saves time and energy during grading.
Remind faculty that assignments are as much for student learning as they are for faculty assessment.
Real-world situations provide students with a safe place to fail, allowing them to learn from their mistakes in a low-stakes environment.
Use teaching assistants to help with grading. If you create a rubric and have general feedback already created, multiple people can grade these assignments with consistency.
When thinking about online programs and courses, creating an environment that encourages and supports authentic assessment can be instrumental in achieving student satisfaction and success. As most students participating in online programs are doing so for career advancement, or to upskill, it’s now more important than ever to provide students with opportunities to practice their learning in real-world situations.
Jan is still looking for this kind of a program. So are tens of thousands of other students. Connect with students like Jan by exploring Pearson online learning services.
*name changed for privacy
Magda, A. J., & Aslanian, C. B. (2018). Online college students 2018: Comprehensive data on demands and preferences. Louisville, KY: The Learning House, Inc.
Wiggins, G. (1998). Education assessment: Designing assessments to inform and improve student performance. San Francisco: Joey-Bass Publishers.