The pandemic has undoubtedly shone a light on the need for alternative assessment approaches. Within schools it’s sad to see authorities ‘hoping’ to return to exams; I am rather hoping that we never return to a high stakes examination system since it brings stress and burden to so many. The pandemic has provided a jolt to the education system which we can use as a trigger for change; with regard to technology, this change is advocated through the Gravity Assist report, but the same call to action around assessment is being made by many educational developers and practitioners. There is much we can learn and take forward in relation to assessment, if we now step up and seize the opportunity (said gently, with full awareness of colleague well-being!).

Within higher education the case for authentic assessment is well made across decades of literature, when for most of us a pandemic was just a farfetched Hollywood film. Its well documented benefits include: working as a driver for learning, motivating students, developing higher order thinking skills, developing a wide range of skills, keeping assessment interesting and rewarding, providing opportunities for inclusive practice, helping to fight cheating (though the evidence for this is disputed) and it can feed in to real-world challenges when combined with industry, professions or civic groups.

Authentic assessment could be a tenet of a new way forward, post-pandemic.

In various presentations, and after a synthesis of literature, I have come to see authentic assessment as being characterised by realism, cognitive challenge and evaluative judgment with relevance to self (relevant to my own individual aspirations), discipline community, or professional community. It is assessment which is relevant to me, us or them. Authentic assessment is not just training for work – that would be sadly utilitarian. Ashford-Rowe, Herrington and Brown (2014) helpfully deconstruct the idea of authentic assessment as they identify eight key characteristics which help define the approach, these are: Challenge to the student; Performance or product; Transfer of learning (between contexts or combinations); Metacognition (reflection, self-assessment and evaluation); Recognisable as authentic by a stakeholder; Fidelity (of environment and tools in-use); Discussion and feedback; and, Collaboration.

While the incentive to change away from traditional methods of assessment is clear to many (in light of the the limitations of the status quo), and the vision of what is possible is well explained (in the literature), we may need to do more if change is to follow. I observe, through everyday practice, a widespread apprehension when operationalising the principles of authentic assessment. We need to exemplify what is possible, discuss how existing practice may be adjusted to become more authentic, talk about the workload of change, and we need to gain collective confidence to make changes. Making change to assessment can feel daunting, we need to be clearer about what is OK!

Reflective Cards – Let’s Cause a Conversation

As a small contribution to helping this work along, I have created Authentic Assessment Top Reflective Trumps (a clear twist on the game I spent a decade playing with my sons – though based around Star Wars, Cricket and Harry Potter rather than assessment!).

These are a set of cards that can be downloaded. Each card contains an outline of an assessment that may be considered to be authentic. You may not agree, and that’s fine 🙂 The assessment type is briefly explained. On each card there also is a panel which lists each of Ashford-Rowe, Herrington and Brown’s eight characteristics of authentic assessment. The assessment type on the card is then given a star rating (out of five) for each characteristic. The idea of the cards is that they provide a simple starter for discussions about how assessment may become more authentic, and what options could be drawn upon.

The cards have been formed from my ongoing list of authentic assessments which I have collated over many years – the ‘Talking Heads’ example was something we used back in 2004/5, so not all of these are new. I have added three specific assessments with attribution, these are great ideas that my colleagues have been working on in recent years. I arrived at the ratings with a great deal of pondering. The ratings, on the extent to which the assessment types provides scope for each characteristic of authentic assessment, are really a personal judgment based on how I imagine the activity to happen; these are not fixed and different people in different contexts would inevitably have different views. The ratings on the card are to work as a stimulus. And before using these with colleagues, you can adjust them as needed.

How to make the most of the cards:
• Flick through the cards and look for ideas of what types of assessment you might try.
• Work with colleagues to shortlist assessments that appeal and discuss their feasibility.
• Discuss the criteria ratings provided for some or all of the assessments and consider whether you agree, and perhaps more importantly, consider how you might strengthen some of the ‘scores’ by building in specific feedback or collaboration opportunities, or by increasing the level of challenge or by increasing the fidelity of the task. By example in response to one rating a colleague may say something like: “The cards gave an infographic 4 for feedback, but I use this type of assessment and would give it 5 – because when I do it I ensure that there is an opportunity for feedback on the initial ideas and on the outline, I then run a peer poster fair to facilitate peer feedback before submission” – these are the kinds of conversations and peer sharing that I hope that the cards may trigger.
• You might add criteria and ratings that matter to you – so if your institution or school is focussed on prioritising digital skills or creativity, then you may add these as additional lines to the ratings panel and then add your own scores.
• You can fill in the blank cards at the end of the pack as you discuss ‘what else?’ you may do. If you do add new ideas and want me to add them to the pack (with attribution) then please just mail them to or catch me on Twitter @LydiaJArnold .
• You might even set about making an institutional set of your own cards!

The cards are provided as a PDF and a PowerPoint.

The cards are available under creative commons, so please use and adapt non-commercially, but please refer back to the original source material.

A PS reflection

  1. In making the cards, I became even clearer that it is possible to make small changes as well as big ones that move us towards a more authentic assessment diet. We don’t all need to throw-out all existing practices to get five stars against each of the characteristics of authentic assessment, we may be able to make small changes to make what we do more authentic and engaging.
  2. There is a world of possibility with authentic assessment, and it is important that the whole student journey hangs together so that feedback from one part of a course feeds in to the next. In moving towards authentic assessment, take care not to introduce so much diversity and demand that students are confused and over-whelmed. A programme level coordination is ideal.
  3. There is a need to evaluate changes that are implemented in your specific context. These cards are not a prescription, they are a reflective tool to cause conversations. To complete the conversation over what works, then be sure to assess the success of any changes (and please go beyond voluntary feedback from the students who say they like it!).

Ashford-Rowe, K., Herrington, J. and Brown, C. (2014) ‘Establishing the critical elements that determine authentic assessment’, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 39(2), pp. 205–222. doi: 10.1080/02602938.2013.819566