What is Authentic Assessment?

Assessing student learning as part of any study programme can be challenging since judging their true understanding of learning material is not always easy. Facts and statistics can be memorized and regurgitated without being understood, or they can be plagiarized with minimal effort.

Authentic assessment addresses these issues by looking at methods of evaluating students’ understanding of a subject, and their academic abilities, by requiring them to apply their knowledge to real-world (or at least realistic) scenarios and contexts.

As quoted by Mueller, J. (2005), Wiggins (1993) describes authentic assessment measures as “engaging and worthy problems or questions of importance, in which students must use knowledge to fashion performances effectively and creatively.”

This involves tasks and scenarios that simulate the complexities of real-world applications of the subject matter, using either genuine problems and challenges or recreating versions that are ‘authentic’ to the real world. It’s not just about assessing what students have memorized from their course content but how they can apply that knowledge to think critically, solve problems, and communicate effectively.

Authentic assessment also promotes academic integrity in evaluation (Asgarova et al., 2023), as it presents students with the opportunity to demonstrate judgment and application of knowledge by engaging in messy, real-world situations rather than simply quoting textbooks. It offers the fairest way to assess student development within higher education.

Criteria of Authentic Assessment

Genuine authentic assessment must meet certain criteria if it is to accurately measure and evaluate students’ abilities, and align with the sound pedagogical principles of ensuring that students are being properly developed through their learning.

As explored by Indiana University Bloomington, according to Grant Wiggins (1998), an authentic assessment criteria is fulfilled when the assessment:

  • Is realistic – relying on real-world scenarios
  • Requires clear judgment and innovation, using knowledge to think critically
  • Requires that students embody their knowledge and ‘do’ the subject
  • Replicates genuine contexts in which adults are tested either in their workplace or in civic/private scenarios
  • Assesses the student’s ability to apply a range of knowledge and skills to negotiate a complex task, with efficiency
  • Provides opportunities for practice, resource consultation, reflection and refinement.

Unless it meets all of these criteria, an assessment can’t be considered truly authentic, as it won’t provide the right measure of a student’s development.

The Benefits of Authentic Assessments in Online Learning

Here’s a look at the main benefits of using authentic assessments in online learning and assessment, both for educators and for students:

Educator BenefitsStudent Benefits
Provides an accurate assessment of students’ learningDevelops critical thinking skills
Educators can tailor instructions to meet the diverse needs of studentsIntroduces variety, increasing motivation, interest and engagement
Opportunity to provide more meaningful, in-depth feedbackHelps prepare students for life-long learning and real-world scenarios (Nguyen & Walker, 2016)

Let’s dig a little deeper into each of these benefits.

Educator Benefits

Provides an Accurate Assessment of Students’ Learning

Authentic assessment is a much better tool for understanding just how well students have grasped their subject. Rather than asking them to memorize information, it tasks them with applying it, in ways that will be relevant to them. 

It allows educators to understand who is succeeding and who needs additional support to either understand the subject or develop the surrounding skills needed to apply that knowledge.

Educators Can Tailor Instructions to Meet the Diverse Needs of Students

Traditional assessments take a blanket approach to each student cohort and each individual student, which can unfairly disadvantage some students who may have certain needs or ways of learning and proving their skill sets. With authentic assessments, educators can adapt the tasks to fit the particular student(s) in a way that remains challenging but best fits their individual needs for skill development.

Opportunity to Provide More Meaningful, In-Depth Feedback

Students and educators both benefit when feedback can be constructive, detailed, and fully understood. Unlike traditional assessments which are often graded against predetermined answers or approaches, authentic assessments allow educators to clearly see the processes involved in a student’s approach to a task, and feedback at each stage, whilst also giving students the chance to reflect on their own understanding throughout.

Student Benefits

Develops Critical Thinking Skills

Critical thinking skills are some of the most valuable skills students will develop when enrolled in any study programme. Understanding how to question data and information and how to process it in real-world contexts is a core skill and authentic assessments are the best way to encourage students to refine those skills.

Introduces Variety, Increasing Motivation, Interest and Engagement

Students who participate in authentic assessments are more likely to remain engaged with their subject, as they are not simply learning facts or answering standard test questions. By being challenged to use information in realistic scenarios, they can feel like they are already working in their field, which deepens their engagement with their learning.

Helps Prepare Students for Life-Long Learning and Real-World Tasks

By giving students experience of how to apply their knowledge in the workplace or other civic/personal situations, authentic assessments give them the best preparation for then repeating those same processes once they are in the real scenarios. And it also helps students to understand that learning never stops, and that they will still be adapting and developing new skills when in these scenarios in future. 

How to Incorporate Authentic Assessment into Online Learning

There are several ways to include authentic assessment in online learning, but generally, there are some core steps that educators must always take:

  • Select the right learning outcomes
  • Define the relevant tasks
  • Set out the essential performance criteria

Selecting the Right Learning Outcomes

If you are redesigning an assessment to include a greater degree of authenticity, it serves as an opportunity to check the alignment of your learning outcomes to your assessment.  You may be able to map an existing blend and change the content, or perhaps even reduce the assessment burden by the incorporation of learning outcomes currently separately assessed. 

Define the Relevant Tasks

With the outcomes identified, the next step is to look at the tasks involved in meeting those outcomes. Again, these should be relevant, so consider what students would be expected to do in their future professional careers and incorporate those challenges into the assessment. Make sure it’s clear – students will engage better if they understand why an assessment is suitable for their career path.

Set Out the Essential Performance Criteria

Finally, educators must establish the performance criteria – what will students need to do to demonstrate their learning and prove they have successfully met the objectives and completed the tasks? It’s a fallacy that authentic assessments don’t leave room for grading at various levels, but educators need to have set guidelines of what good and great look like. It’s also important to remember that these are students – while educators might be using professional-style assessments, holding students to the same standards as professionals is often (but not always) unrealistic.

Using Inspera to incorporate authentic assessment into your online learning makes these steps very simple and straightforward. Its functionalities enable the utilization of real-life applications and multimedia, as well as offering document services, all within a secure setting.

The software can allow you to define your learning objectives and ensure they are clearly available to all through the user-friendly interface, and allow you to set flexible assessment tasks that are relevant to students. You can then incorporate your feedback cycle so that students can clearly see your grading and justifications, and continue to iterate on their work.

Examples of Authentic Assessment

There are no set standards for what an authentic assessment would look like – they are designed to be relevant to each subject area, and so the type of assessment will always vary. 

As a guideline, here are some example authentic assessments by subject area as defined by Indiana University Bloomington:

NursingProvide a patient case study and create a plan of care based on it.
BusinessDevelop a business or marketing plan for a real/imagined business within a student’s area of interest.
Computer ScienceTroubleshoot a faulty/problematic piece of code.
Public Affairs / PoliticsConsider how a community agency might be impacted by a challenge or change, e.g. budget cut, or health crisis.
Biology/ChemistryDraw a diagram of how a process works, and indicate what happens when X occurs.
HistoryEngage in a role-play of an event, and describe what may have happened had an event been changed.

The Challenges of Using Authentic Assessment in Online Learning

There are several challenges to using authentic assessment in online learning. Many of these will be specific to subjects and specific educators/cohorts, but there are also general challenges to bear in mind.

  • Time-Intensive for Students and Instructors
  • Geographic Diversity 
  • Subjectivity in Grading

Time-Intensive for Both Students and Educators

Designing an assessment takes time. Educators must spend more time researching the professional scenarios they want to incorporate while making sure the tasks they set are related to the learning objectives. 

Educators do need to consider that students may not be used to authentic assessments and may need extra time to adjust to this style of learning.

Geographic Diversity

Within online learning, educators may teach students across a diverse geographic area. It can therefore become more challenging to create scenarios that are relevant to all students, though this can vary depending on the field in particular. 

Course writers and educators must always remember that students could be based anywhere in the world, and ensure that assessments can be understood and are suitable for anyone, regardless of geography.

Subjectivity in Grading

Authentic assessments could be perceived as more  subjective than traditional tests and quizzes, which means that grading could take longer and be more intensive to ensure  consistency. While the personalized and detailed feedback inherent to authentic assessments is positive, it does require additional time.

Best Practice for Using Authentic Assessment Effectively in Online Learning

The online learning space is primed for authentic assessment, opening up exciting opportunities for students. They can benefit from additional spaces for reflection and significant improvements in communication with colleagues and educators. 

Students can also access data and information faster and get connected to the actual devices and practices relevant to their real-world scenarios, giving each task more meaning.

But in developing authentic assessment effectively, there are several key steps, including following the process mentioned above carefully.

Develop a Rubric

The best way to fulfill the criteria element is to develop a rubric. Rubrics allow clear guidance to students so that they understand what each element of the process should involve and what good/better/best would consist of.

It’s a clear set of guidelines that still allow for the flexibility required by authentic assessments but ensure a level of fair consistency for students and educators.

Other Considerations

There are several other considerations for setting authentic assessments within online learning, as explored by the University of Illinois Chicago:

  • Assessment Literacy
  • Complexity of the task
  • Educator’s role
  • Student ownership
  • Formative feedback
  • Manageability 

Assessment Literacy

Educators must consider the education and experience level of students, especially within online learning where students can come from a range of backgrounds, and ensure that assessments are considerate of these differences.

Complexity of the Task

It’s vital to ensure that the complexity of the task meets the learning objectives – not so difficult that students are unable to develop, but not so easy that students are not actually meeting the required objectives.

Educator’s Role

Educators must establish their own role within assessment – how will they support students through the task, and what boundaries are being set to ensure students properly apply their own level of critical thinking. Communication is a key consideration for authentic assessment, which should be established from the briefing stage.

Student Ownership

It’s important to establish what level of choice students will have within the parameters of the assessment, and how that will impact the way they approach the task and the challenges that could provide for assessment. Educators need to consider what level of prescriptivity is needed to ensure they are capable of grading them consistently.

Formative Feedback

Students will need formative feedback as part of their assessment. Educators should establish at what stages this will be provided and the method of delivery.


Educators for an online course should consider how to manage the assessment from a practical perspective – ensuring that assessments are scaled to the right level so that feedback can be provided in a timely manner. It’s also important to consider how students could peer assess work, and provide additional evidence where needed outside the framework established by the educator.

Use Inspera to Power Your Online Authentic Assessment

Inspera is capable of meeting the challenges that authentic assessment presents, giving educators the resources needed to set challenges to a global student base and establish the communication and feedback checkpoints on a flexible basis, relevant to the specific subject and task.

Get in touch to learn how Inspera can facilitate authentic assessment with ease, and be tailored to your own individual requirements.