You’ve heard the term ‘authentic assessment’, but do you actually know what it means? We’re breaking down the jargon to explain what authentic assessments are, why they’re important and how three academics have come up with creative ways to incorporate them into their classes today.
What would you do: Take a first-year nursing student to treat a critically ill patient in a real-life hospital emergency room? Ask them to write an essay to explain, theoretically, how they’d go about treating said patient? Or, have them demonstrate, on a simulation manikin in the UTS nursing labs, how they’d go about taking a patient’s vitals upon arrival at hospital?
If you selected option three, then you selected the best option for an authentic assessment.
An authentic assessment is a task that builds and gives feedback on the skills and knowledge students need once they get a job, in a form that’s similar to some work they might do. It doesn’t need to include every aspect of a full-scale problem they might face in their profession, but it should enable the student to show what they can ‘do’ with what they’ve learned, rather than which facts they’ve memorised.
Authentic assessments are also a great way for academics to see how students use higher-level thinking skills to solve complex problems and how far students have developed their faculty’s graduate attributes – those broad capabilities (like communication skills, Indigenous proficiency and critical thinking) which students should have acquired before graduation.
It’s all part of UTS’s learning.futures strategy, which aims to produce job-ready graduates who are prepared for the realities of the workforce today and into the future.
Exactly what authentic assessments look like, however, depends on the faculty, school and subject you’re teaching. For example, law students might be required to respond to a brief from a client, journalism students to write articles that cover live events or architecture students to design an outdoor kitchen for a community group, just to name a few.
But, as the precinct around us develops and we roll out newer technologies, there’s even more opportunity to develop real, interactive and engaging assessments for your classes.
Here are three creative ways academics are using authentic assessments in their classes today:
In the arcade – Happydays exam
Hundreds of screens and students. Blue light flooding the room. Curling piles of red tickets. Is it anarchy, arcade or assessment? Could you take a test in a games arcade?
Interaction Design students do. Every year, in Autumn and Spring session, these students complete an examination at Happydays Arcade, Ultimo. The assessment, which focuses on the practical aspects of interactive design, asks students to play with and analyse a number of arcade games in a two-and-a-half hour session.
“We have to be creative in finding ways to support student learning and this may involve slightly non-traditional approaches,” says Interaction Design Program Coordinator and creator of the assessment Associate Professor Tuck Leong.
He adds, “This style of assessment provides students with a hands-on, real-life opportunity to test their understanding of the subject’s theories by engaging with actual technologies and observing others engaging with the technologies too.
“To pass the exam,” adds Tuck, “students have to be able to identify, describe and critique how particular design and usability principles they’ve learned in the subject are used to guide players of the games without a lot of instructions. Or how designers of games purposely ignore them so as to make the games more interesting and engaging.”
Though the assessment is now par-for-the-course, Tuck says he initially found it challenging to get the exam off the ground. Not only were there difficulties in securing a location large enough to accommodate all the students, but he had to convince the faculty that this atypical program had educational merit.
Ultimately, says Tuck, it was his passion to “find ways that can best inspire and infect the students with this passion for designing for a better future” that motivated him to pursue the authentic model.
“I’m really encouraged when students have that ‘aha’ moment; when the pin drops and they start to see how what they learn connects palpably to everyday technologies,” enthuses Tuck.
Sandra Brand, an Interaction Design student who undertook the arcade exam last session, agrees. “In a nutshell, it’s fun! It barely felt like an exam and much more like an excursion.
“I thought it would be chaos as students ran around to play different games.
“I’ve never been to an arcade before so I didn’t know which games would be the most popular, and we weren’t told which ones we’d be analysing.
And, she adds, “I was terrified that I wouldn't get my turn to analyse a game due to its popularity.” But her fears never eventuated.
In fact, Sandra says, “The exam gave me a new way of thinking – the ability to analyse interactions and cues that I come into contact with as I go through my daily routine.
“It’s also helped me design websites and prototypes for other subjects. While I design, I ask questions about my target user group and their experiences, catering to what they would think is natural and easy to use.
“I believe it makes me employable,” adds Sandra. “As interactions with technology are becoming increasingly important, this subject lays a strong foundation for analysing and understanding how to design technologies to cater to the users’ requirements and experiences in the best possible way.”
Complex problem solving – antimicrobial resistance
“We don’t run classes as lectures, everything is experienced based,” explains Jacqueline Melvold, Co-Acting Course Director for the Bachelor of Technology and Innovation (BTi) and the academic in charge of the second-year subject Project: Global Grand Challenges.
In this subject, Jacqueline says, “Students focus on real challenges facing society today and tackle those really complex problems.”
In the first Global Grand Challenges subject, held this year, students have been handed one of the biggest problems facing the medical world today: antimicrobial resistance.
Second-year student Jake Harley says, “I’m so much more engaged with this type of learning. I retain so much more.
“I have ADD, so essays are terrible for me,” adds Jake. “Rote learning is not my strongest suit; I’m a far more hands-on and practical kind of person. Which is why I have found the assessments in this course so fantastic. I went from getting passes and low credits at Notre Dame to now getting Ds and HDs.”
So, how does the subject work?
Students are divided into different groups that play a role in the challenge, like the media, pharmaceutical industry or general public. They meet with stakeholders relevant to their group (including those from the media, government, and pharmaceutical, health and agricultural industries), understand the technicalities of the system that the problem exists within, and then identify points for intervention to make change. Finally, they present their recommendations to a real industry partner.
Jacqueline says, the assessment is all about putting students into the thick of complex, networked problems and rewiring the rigid thinking they learned in high school to create the agile and creative thinkers that industry crave.
"We live in an extreme, dynamic and uncertain world in which technology is driving a lot of change," explains Jacqueline. "The BTi equips students with technological knowledge, skills, perspectives and strategies to address the open, complex and networked problems, challenges and opportunities in today’s world."
This subject, she adds, enables students to "use the potentials of technologies to provide a modest but meaningful response to a real global challenge in a local setting, building an understanding of human emotions and values to design a meaningful experience that adds value to people’s lives’.
Though second-year student Hayley Tulich confesses, “I’m no scientist”, she admits she is enthralled by the subject’s challenge.
“The different ways they have taught us to think about a problem, to consider stakeholder mapping and make connections, it’s amazing. You pretty much see how big the whole system is.
“I used to think you could only be valuable to an industry or problem if you were an expert in that field,” adds Hayley. “But this type of learning allows you to see the value a unique perspective can have.
“The future of work is changing – there will be jobs that won’t be around in the future because there will be technology to do it for us. So the focus now is what value humans can provide – our creative thinking, our problem solving skills, and our empathy.”
Face-to-face – Industry panel assessment
Have you ever been anxious during a job interview? Or worried because you can’t find the right words to explain your new idea?
For many journalism students these were feelings they could relate to. Until Senior Lecturer in journalism Jenna Price stepped in. “I had some feedback from UTS Careers when we were first talking about designing this subject that our students were not very good at talking about themselves, which surprised me because they’re communicators.”
So Jenna created the Industry Panel Assessment, called ‘the vivas’, for the final-year Industry Portfolio subject. It’s a task where students are interviewed about a portfolio of their work and marked on their ability to explain their work in context and talk about their progress as journalists.
Jenna says, “What I tried to do was put together an assessment that would teach students how to talk about themselves; get them to actually talk about their work and prepare them for job interviews all in one go.
“The assessment takes place at the end of session after the student has had a chance to develop a portfolio of original journalism work for the subject. It's a panel of three – and over 15 minutes, each panellist has the opportunity to quiz individual students about their portfolio and themselves.”
Each panel consists of an industry professional, a journalism academic from another university, and a UTS staff member from another faculty who represents the public.
Subject Coordinator Eurydice Aroney says the assessment, which was first introduced to the subject 10 years ago, continues to evolve and remain relevant.
“This sort of assessment is not an easy fit into our schedule. It’s a lot of extra work not just for us but for the external people. They watch, listen or read hours of students work in preparation for the panel while expecting nothing in return. They really do go out of their way to be generous with their time and overall we feel it really pays off for us and the students and that’s why we keep persisting with it.”
Final-year journalism and Bachelor of Creative Intelligence and Innovation student Caitlin Bloor agrees. She says that while it might seem like an intimidating process, the assessment really pushes you into presenting the best version of yourself to a new audience.
“It’s just what a job interview is like,” enthuses Caitlin. “They’re not mean or horrible. They talk to you like you’re a human. It’s nothing to be scared about and it really gives you a lot of confidence that a panel of strangers takes you seriously.”
Caitlin started journalism in 2015 and while she has learned a lot in three years about writing stories, she’s never experienced ‘selling’ them.
“One thing I wasn’t confident with was pitching story ideas. I had no skill or experience in this really. But this assessment makes you really sell your story. You’re talking to journalists who are short on time, so you have to answer the questions directly.”
And though she hasn’t yet begun looking for a journalism job, she’s not worried. “It is good to know how to answer the tricky questions. Just being able to sell yourself and having that self-assurance to back yourself means everything.”
For more information about how you can create authentic assessments in your class, visit the Futures blog at futures.uts.edu.au and look out for authentic assessment events in the LX.lab.