Is anybody else getting tired of the discussions about raising the standards of our teaching?  I am!  Not because I don’t wholeheartedly agree that we need to improve teaching and learning through better delivery, but because I think this only tells half of the story.

To have educational impact teaching improvements need to be coupled with a change in our approach to assessment.  Brown et al. (1997) strongly emphasize that “if you want to change student learning then change the methods of assessment”.

Image Credit: Flickr UGL_UIUC CC
In research intensive universities we have traditionally focused on developing assessment relating to research skills.  This focus is reflected and encouraged through the research skills development framework.  If we had the available jobs in research science for all our graduates (coupled with a student desire to actually follow a research career) there would be nothing wrong with this approach, but this is clearly not the case.   The majority of our students will follow alternative pathways and we need to develop authentic assessment to reflect these pathways.

Authentic assessment described simply is the development of ‘real world skills’ in our students.  Using authentic assessment principles we need to first decide on who’s ‘real world’ we are thinking about.  Given only a small proportion of our students will become researchers, I believe that science assessment should enable the development of generic skills used by the wider workforce. When I talk about the real world I mean the one outside of academia. 

The research 

If your thinking about how to develop authentic assessment, I find the seven propositions in the OLT project Assessment 2020 provides useful guidance.  

Taking the ‘Assessment 2020’ propositions one step further is a recent paper by Ashford-Rowe et al. (2013) which defines eight critical elements of authentic assessment.  These elements suggest that authentic assessment should:
  • Be challenging enough so that it reflects real world situations and tasks with a requirement to do more than just reproduce knowledge.
  • Focus on the creation of a product (or performance) that demonstrates the application of skills and knowledge.
  • Develop knowledge, skills or attitudes that are more widely applicable and transferable to situations outside of the assessment task. e.g. the knowledge should not be domain specific.
  • Produce a product or performance that accurately reflects the needs of the real world.
  • Use tools and tasks during the assessment that are reflective of real world situations.
  • Give students the opportunity to receive sufficient feedback throughout the assessment process and provide feedback to the teacher.
  • Give students the opportunity to collaborate with each other.
  • Give students the opportunity to develop their own metacognition through self-reflection and evaluation.
Providing authentic experiences? Image credit: Flickr GlacierNPS CC

Putting it into practice

Using the principles of authentic assessment I developed an assessment task for my environmental monitoring unit.  In this assessment, the students had to contribute to citizen science projects of their choosing and then critique the scientific methodology and design of the experiment.  This gave them the opportunity to contribute to real science projects across national and international boundaries. The assessment task wasn’t perfect first time around, but the students seemed engaged and they made significant contributions to community projects.

While developing research skills is an example of authentic assessment and undoubtedly provides many useful skills in science students (e.g. critically evaluating information and developing arguments), I think that we need to get real about where our students end up and ensure that we pay appropriate attention in the curriculum to develop skills for them to succeed.


Ashford-Rowe K, Herrington J & Brown C  (2013)  Establishing the critical elements that determine authentic assessment, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education doi: 10.1080/02602938.2013.819566                   

Brown, G., J. Bull, and M. Pendlebury. 1997. Assessing Student Learning in Higher Education. London: Routledge

Rowan Brookes is a lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences.  She coordinates the Bachelor of Science Advanced - Global Challenges and the Bachelor of Environmental Science.  You can find her on Twitter @FutureSciEd or her webpage