Principles of Authentic Assessments

What are Authentic Assessments?

Consider the following definitions of authentic assessment:

[Authentic assessment is]… a form of assessment in which students are asked to perform real-world tasks that demonstrate meaningful application of essential knowledge and skills. (Mueller, 2018)

…Engaging and worthy problems or questions of importance, in which students must use knowledge to fashion performances effectively and creatively. The tasks are either replicas of or analogous to the kinds of problems faced by adult citizens and consumers or professionals in the field. (Wiggins, 1993, as cited in Mueller, 2018)

An authentic assignment is one that requires application of what students have learned to a new situation, and that demands judgment to determine what information and skills are relevant and how they should be used. Authentic assignments often focus on messy, complex real-world situations and their accompanying constraints; they can involve a real-world audience of stakeholders or ‘clients’ as well. (CITL, n.d.)



All three definitions highlight the key features of authentic assessments:

  • the application of knowledge and skills in new ways,
  • an element of performance,
  • alignment to real life tasks, problems, and situations.

Characteristics of Authentic Assessments

Let’s examine authentic assessments in more detail.

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Traditional versus authentic online assessments

The following table highlights some of the differences between traditional online tests and authentic online assessments:

For example, consider an applied mathematics course where learners must demonstrate their ability to use analytical geometry to determine the optimum volume of different shapes.

person solving equations on paper
Source: “Crop person solving equations on paper” by Monstera from Pexels

In a traditional approach, learners might take a timed test through the online course site and solve several math questions related to volume optimization. Dimensions for the calculations would be provided on the test, resulting in only one correct solution to each problem. Learners are evaluated on their ability to apply the correct formulas and perform the calculations. At the end of the test, they receive feedback on whether or not they arrived at the right answer.

While this type of traditional assessment is easy to set up and grade, it evaluates a limited set of skills, provides limited feedback to learners, and makes little connection between the tested knowledge and its future applications to real life.


students measuring a cardboard box
Source: “Team Discussing How to Package Their Finished Product” by Thirdman from Pexels

In an authentic assessment, learners could be asked to determine the best packaging dimensions for various products of different sizes and shapes. They would be free to select items from their home and would need to take measurements of those items. As a result, each solution would be unique. Learners would also need to explain their optimization strategy and justify their choice of packaging shape for each product. To complete the authentic task, learners must integrate a variety of critical thinking, computational, and communication skills, and would receive feedback on their thought processes. Learners are able to clearly understand the relevancy of what they are learning.

Although potentially more challenging to develop and grade, authentic assessments provide a superior and valued learning experience. Later in this module, we present strategies for effectively and efficiently designing, implementing, and evaluating authentic assessments.


Benefits of Authentic Assessment

In Module 1 we summarized the benefits of traditional assessments. As the preceding section shows, online tests offer standardized, easy-to-grade, familiar options for evaluating a learner’s grasp of knowledge and facts.

But as Villarroel et al. (2019) points out,

It is difficult for tests in themselves to promote a deep approach to learning, that requires the construction of knowledge, reflection and collaborative work, which limits the achievement of central objectives of higher education (Endedijk & Vermunt, 2013).

Let’s examine how the characteristics of authentic assessments translate into improved learning opportunities.

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Authentic assessments address online assessment challenges

Authentic assessments are widely promoted as solutions to online assessment challenges. Here are a few of the positive contributions authentic assessments make to quality online learning.

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Develop autonomous, self-regulated learners.

Reduce online testing barriers.

Address academic integrity concerns.

Document mastery of competencies.

When To Use Authentic Assessments

Authentic strategies can apply to diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments. In addition to acting as graded evaluations of student learning, formative authentic tasks may be used to introduce learners to course concepts in relevant, engaging ways that tap into their interests. By performing these low-stakes authentic tasks, learners and instructors receive formative feedback to guide their learning and instruction.


Consider the following scenario about an authentic formative assessment. Use the arrows to navigate between slides.


Incorporating summative authentic assessments into your evaluation plan does not necessarily mean you need to eliminate traditional assessments from your course. Knowledge and comprehension of theoretical concepts, in some cases, may be best assessed through traditional testing methods such as quizzes and exams.  Achieving a balance between traditional and authentic assessment can maximize theoretical and practical learning for students.
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Your course learning outcomes will help guide the selection of assessment types. Consider using an authentic assessment to evaluate learning outcomes that:

  • target higher cognitive levels within Bloom’s taxonomy (apply, analyze, evaluate, create),
  • require performance (build, generate, create, use, etc.),
  • have obvious connections to real-world contexts.

The Road to Authenticity

sign next to a desert road that reads Authenti City
Adapted from: “Yellow road sign” by John Gibbons from Unsplash

As you reflect on your course evaluation methods, consider various ways to incorporate “authenticity” into your assessment practices. The following suggestions describe authentic assessment strategies that increase from low complexity to high.

Where are you on the road to authenticity?

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Rethinking Assessment Strategies for Online Learning Copyright © 2022 by Seneca College; Durham College; Algonquin College; and University of Ottawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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