• How to use authentic assessment to engage online learners

    by Melissa Johnson

    Online student smiles as he speaks into a headset while working on a laptop at a wood table.

    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’s realistic.
    • 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.
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