I have been struck recently by the way that authentic assessment is often simplistically contrasted with ‘traditional assessment.’ A recent THES article asks “whether traditional assessment still has its place, even in the face of new, more holistic and/or “authentic” evaluation options becoming available.” I would observe some other warning signs about this polarisation: I have seen lecturers making a robust defence of the exam or the essay with a sense of deep frustration; I’ve noticed in casual language, in person and online, that assessment is either authentic or it is not, and I have observed evaluation work being formulated which seeks to identify the benefits of authentic as if it is one thing. We need to be careful here, and here is why.

Many of us struggle to even define authentic assessment with ease (see for example this Twitter thread). Logically, on that basis alone, it is therefore difficult for this practice or approach to be seen as a single thing which is superior. Are we all even talking about the same thing? When I talk about authentic, I mean more than real-world or work-based assessment. Others, deliberately use the term for being ‘like work.’ Some include authenticity as having relevance to long-term personal self-fulfilment, while others do not include this component. Likewise, what do we mean when we say traditional – is it just exams, or do we include essays and debates which have long traditions? We need to be careful with terminology.  

If we sign up to ‘authentic’ as being a multi-dimensional concept i.e., with a list of features which are present to a greater or lesser extent, then there is hope that we can nudge all assessments to have more authenticity. Traditional formats can be made more authentic for example, by adding real-world-ness through scenarios, through careful inclusion of complexity to stretch and challenge students, and, by allowing students to draw on their experiences and views alongside any recall. We need to take care to see traditional assessments, which are often highly valued, as being simply ‘not authentic.’ Wouldn’t it be better to look at those formats and see how they could become more authentic? 

Some thinking around authentic assessment includes overt respect for discipline traditions. If we accept that authenticity includes relevance to discipline, and the research traditions therein, then authenticity and tradition are not, conceptually, always opposite. Again, we must take care not to polarise.  

Finally, we need to take a great deal of care in inadvertently framing authentic as ‘good’ and ‘traditional’ as the enemy. There is much else going on across higher education right now, and we do not need an assessment paradigm war, or even more complex tribes, to divide us into progressives and dinosaurs. It is simply not helpful when developing practice for the good of students.  

This may seem an odd argument for someone who openly advocates for authentic assessment, but I am simply seeking to highlight the risks of oversimplification and of ever inserting a ‘vs’ between authentic and traditional. I am flagging that authenticity is not always a binary choice. 

(PS I have no doubt that I have fallen into all these traps, so this is written as a reflection on my own practice as much as a piece to share!)