It is critical to (re)define authentic assessment in part because assessment in higher education is deeply broken (as we have discussed in parts 1 and 2 of this blog). The internecine tensions between the assurance and pedagogical aims of assessment have exerted so much stress on the frameworks and foundations of our practice. The result is that the emotional and ontological state of the student has been excluded from the process of designing and delivering assessment. The sense of transition and uncertainty that define the nature of a higher education are replaced by a certainty of purpose and outcome (for the student assumed by us and for the staff bound in compliance), an absolute clarity that the skills assessed are the skills deployed in work and that authentic assessment (whatever that is) must be better than traditional assessment (even though we are still enraptured by exams).
In the light of these challenges, I would like to posit a new definition of authentic assessment. One that locates assessment not as something that is done to an abstracted student, but something that is designed for them and considers (as a learning opportunity) the ontological and emotional states of the learner.
The (co)design, conduct and marking of meaningful assessment that recognises the reflexive, uncertain, and uncanny experiences of student learning and belonging within the situated context of work, life and play.
- The (co)design, conduct and marking of meaningful assessment…
Authentic assessment must have meaning for both the teacher and the student. If it’s only meaning is the number written on the front of the paper, then we have already lost the assessment for learning argument. Feedback is a site for meaning, but if its only function is to provide justification for the same number, then assessment is nothing more than a postscript to learning, not the catalyst for it. Meaning enables action, meaning enables reflexivity and meaning rewards thinking, doing, making and creating.
- …that recognises the reflexive, uncertain, and uncanny experiences of student learning and belonging…
The students lived and living experiences are critical for the effective design and delivery of authentic assessment. It is also critical to understand that many of the contexts that assessed skills and knowledge will be used in are yet to be experienced. Students are in liminal transition between states of unknowing and knowing, states of youth to adulthood, states of learning to working. The anthropologist Victor Turner argued that liminality is a phase where the individual reflects on their place within a social structure, to be able to return to ‘society’ with a new identity and reasons for being. He adds that being in a liminal state runs counter to the human desire to make sense of uncertainty in the world and leaves the liminal individual with a sense of ambiguity, indeterminacy and vulnerability.
Assessment needs to be designed and delivered through and in transitional spaces for learners that replicate not just the skills of practice but the risks, affordances, opportunities and connectivity of it, in safe ways to experiment. This recognises students are not ‘complete’ or ‘oven ready’ but are lifelong works in progress. The capacity for reflexivity (Majgaard, 2016) and the capability for students to engage in wayfinding through complexity and liminality initiated and guided by authentic assessment is critical. Both liminality and reflexivity are states defined in part by the notion of unsettlement, where through transition learners question the social structures that they are transitioning from and to (learning and assessing ethical and moral structures are good examples of unsettlement) (Cunliffe, 2009; Czarniawska & Mazza, 2003).
- … within the situated context of work, life and play.
Students are the experts in interrogating and sharing their own experiences of learning (countering the fact that most teachers are not experts in being a modern student) (Gibbs & Wood, 2021). Authentic assessment represents the positionality of students within sequences of liminal space (personal, professional, cultural, recreational, technological, and educational) that intersected with their shared expectations and outcomes of studying at university and living their lives. For some students, situating learning within these liminal spaces is disruptive and uncomfortable, exposing the unsettlement of the student experience, the understanding of which is critical to the effective co-design of diverse and supportive learning. It also serves the purpose that many definitions of authentic assessment address, which is the preparation for work, as well as the preparation required to enhance learner’s capabilities of working and thriving within a civil society. It is in those situated contexts that transitional space becomes even more critical as a way of creating safe spaces to learn through assessment, with moral, achievement and progression consequences tailored according to the degree of transition being affected.
Where we are dealing with fluid and subjective notions such as transition, reflexivity and uncertainty, a singular rubric or framework cannot define or indeed provide design guidance for authentic assessment. Each time we attempt to do that, we inch closer to the metricisation of learning and the measurement of things that are already known. Authentic assessment needs to be deeply rooted in the epistemology of the learning design, the pedagogy of the teaching and learning practice, the boundaries and affordances of the (trans)disciplinary domain the assessment is located within and the lived and living experiences of the students and how the assessment prepares them for the yet to be experienced.
A. Epistemological authenticity
Is the assessment design and practice authentic to the knowledges, philosophies, aesthetics and ethics of the disciplinary field/s or domain/s (or the spaces in between them)?
For example, does the assessment task reside within the legitimate, responsible and ethical framing of the area? Does it draw on the language and theoretical approaches requiring them to be integrated into a solution, or challenged, remixed and reapplied as opposed to being able to recite them chapter and verse?
B. Educational authenticity
Is the assessment design and practice authentic to the pedagogical intention and approach of the educator and the student (if co-designed)?
For example, if you have designed a unit which is deeply informed by a case study approach, does the authentic assessment tasks allow the students the opportunity to apply those skills to varying contexts (cases)? Are the cases themselves relevant to the emotional, ethical, ontological and connective values of the student cohort (or of the expectations of the (trans)disciplinary field? Does the task and the case reinforce existing knowledge or does it push the boundaries of knowing, challenging the students to draw on a wide variety of data and ideas to craft solutions, as opposed to looking for the ‘one right answer’? (see the ‘Lost at Sea’ case as an example of exactly how not to create an authentic case).
C. Experiential authenticity
Is the assessment design and practice authentic to past, present and future experiences of students, within their journeys through work, life and play?
For example, if your pedagogical intent is to develop a unit at a postgraduate level for experienced students seeking to transition to the next level of the journey, does the assessment task support them on that transition through the assessment? Does the authentic task accentuate and illuminate their skills to scaffold them into this different state of knowing, as opposed to assuming every student is an empty vessel bereft of knowledge about your unit (until you start filling them up from the beginning)?
These questions are not designed to be yes/no answers, nor should they ‘define’ authentic assessment. Authentic assessment is a critical framing tool to redesign the learning experience, from expectation through to outcome and all points between. It is part of the design process that includes information engagement and how students are part of an active and connected learning experience (principles that inform the Connected Learning at Scale project at the University of Sydney Business School). But for me, most critically, authentic assessment is a site for learning that can and should equally support the institutional imperative to assess learning in meaningful, valid and reliable ways to ensure the quality of the degrees we are privileged enough to offer. When well designed, there is no zero-sum game required.
Marina Warner in her book Joan of Arc observed that:
Creating simplicity often makes the heart leap; order has been restored, the crooked made straight. But order is understanding that things cannot be made simple, that complexity reigns and must be accepted.
Authentic assessment is a complex beast, and it is through this complexity that the capacity to support the glorious diversity of learners to learn with and through each other, their discipline and the academy is truly enlivened. We must resist the counter pressures of order and simplicity even if scale demands as close to the lowest common denominator or the nirvana of fantasy rewards of economies of scale as we can get. Revelling in complexity is a part of being in transition. The swirling winds of inspiration, perspiration and fear intersect through authentic assessment design in ways that are not simple. They require skill sets from teachers and students (and acceptance of different ways to represent order from leadership and administration). But the rewards can, in Marina Warners words, make the heart leap, and fulfil the social contract we have to transform, to inspire, to educate and to prepare.