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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Authentic assessment: assessment for learning

Robyn Collins
Principal Consultant, Independent Schools Queensland

The learning needs of today's students no longer fit the traditional model. Rather than simply learning facts and basic skills, they need to acquire more complex skills in conceptualisation and problem solving. They need affective and metacognitive skills, and the capacity to work collaboratively and to work across disciplines. They need the dispositions required to pursue such learning. They also need learning experiences of the kind of tasks that they may expect to meet in adult life. Such learning requires authentic assessment, designed to demonstrate their grasp of the skills and competencies needed to address real-life problems, and formative assessment, or assessment for learning, designed to provide learners with feedback on their progress to inform their development. The article discusses the application of higher-level questioning, marking and feedback strategies, the establishment of shared learning goals between teacher and student, and peer- and self-assessment..

This article originally appeared in the March 2003 edition of
ISQ Briefings, a publication of Independent Schools Queensland.

According to early theories of learning, complex higher-order skills were acquired bit-by-bit in a linear fashion. The role of teachers was to break learning down into a series of prerequisite skills, a building-blocks-of-knowledge approach. Students were, therefore, taught basic skills by rote in the belief that eventually they would gain complex understanding and insight. Since it was generally factual knowledge that was being taught, students could be assessed by how well they 'regurgitated' the facts.

Evidence from contemporary cognitive psychology indicates that learning is not, in fact, acquired via a building-blocks approach, but it proceeds in many directions at once and at an uneven pace. Learners must think and actively construct evolving mental models. They must be able to interpret the information they receive and relate it to knowledge they already have (Dietel et al, 1991). Furthermore, they must be able to transfer that information to a new context.

In this situation the presence or absence of discrete bits of information (as required in the traditional class test) is of far less importance than whether students can organise, structure and use information in context to solve complex problems. This requires that students acquire concepts rather than knowledge (although it does not suggest that content is not important), and that concept building is not something to be delayed until a particular age or until all the basic facts have been mastered.

More importantly, delaying the teaching of concepts to teach isolated facts and skills actually does students a major disservice. Students need to learn meaningful ways to organise information and make it easy to remember. They also need to apply what has been learnt to solve real-world problems so that understanding is complete.

Affective and metacognitive skills in learning

Recent brain research highlights the importance of affective and metacognitive skills in learning. It suggests that poor thinkers and problem solvers differ from good ones, not so much in the particular skills they possess as in their failure to use them in certain tasks. Acquisition of knowledge is not sufficient to make one a competent thinker or problem solver. Most educators can point to students they have taught who were able to regularly gain 100 per cent on tests which required rote-learning skills. The same students, however, had more and more difficulty as they moved through the school with many 'reaching their limits' in senior secondary.

The research says that this occurred not because the student didn't 'know' the work, but because he/she had not acquired the disposition to use the skills and strategies, as well as the knowledge of when and how to apply them. This is a very important finding for pedagogy and assessment. If the assessment tasks presented to students show that they have acquired 'the facts' but do not show that they have acquired understanding or transferability until late in the students schooling, there is a strong possibility that these students will never have the opportunity to develop or exhibit higher-order thinking skills.

The role of the social context of learning in shaping higher-order cognitive abilities and dispositions has also received attention over the past two decades. It has been noted that real-life problems often require people to work together as a group in problem-solving situations, yet most traditional instruction and assessment have involved independent rather than small-group work.

Now, however, it is postulated that groups facilitate learning in several ways: modelling effective thinking strategies, scaffolding complicated performances, providing mutual constructive feedback, and valuing the elements of critical thought. If the learning we want for our students is to be conceptual and transferable to real life, then group assessment is important.

Shifting emphases in assessment

Historically, assessment has often acted as a barrier rather than a bridge to educational opportunity. Assessments have been used to label students and put them on dead-end tracks. Traditional tests have been soundly criticised as biased and unfair to minority students. And heavy reliance on external testing, particularly if it is high stakes, has proved over many years to produce more negative than positive outcomes. It tends to promote 'teaching for the test' (Morrison & Tang Fun Hei, 2003) and, when seen to be irrelevant and high stress, it may turn students off formal learning forever (Harlen and Deaken-Crick, 2003).

The move away from behavioural to cognitive theory has moved the assessment emphasis:

  • from responding to constructing knowledge
  • from discrete isolated skills to integrated and cross-disciplinary activities
  • from accumulation of isolated facts and skills to application and use of knowledge
  • from paper-and-pencil tests to authentic assessments on multiple-choice, contextualised problems that are relevant and meaningful, emphasise higher-level thinking, do not have a single correct answer, have public standards known in advance, and are not timed
  • from end-of-term tests/exams to samples of work over time which provide a basis for assessment by teachers, students and parents
  • from individual assessment tasks only, to collaborative group-process tasks which mirror real-life learning
  • from assessment focused on reproducing information, to authentic assessment which measures student understanding as well as knowledge.

This change in emphasis has led to the development of what educators call 'authentic assessment'. Authentic assessment is any type of assessment that is aligned with the curriculum and requires students to demonstrate skills and competencies that realistically represent problems and situations likely to be encountered in daily life. Students are required to produce ideas, to integrate knowledge and to complete tasks that have real-world applications. Such approaches require the person making the assessment to use human judgement in the application of criterion-referenced standards (Archbald, 1991).

In authentic assessment, students use remembered information in order to produce an original product, participate in a performance, or complete a process. Students are assessed according to specific criteria that are known to them in advance. They do not simply recall information or circle isolated vowel sounds in words; they apply what they know to new tasks.

For example, consider the difference between asking students to identify all the metaphors in a story and asking them to discuss why the author used particular metaphors and what effect they had on the story. In the latter case, students must put their knowledge and skills to work just as they might do naturally in or out of school (Valencia, 1997).

Assessment for learning

Mark Treadwell (2008) characterises authentic assessment as 'assessment for learning'. He describes three major categories of assessment, based on definitions from the University of Bradford:

  1. Diagnostic Assessment provides an indicator of a learner's aptitude and preparedness for a unit or program of study and identifies possible learning problems.
  2. Formative Assessment is designed to provide learners with feedback on progress and inform development, but does not contribute to the overall assessment.
  3. Summative Assessment provides a measure of achievement or failure made in respect to a learner's performance in relation to the intended learning outcomes of the unit or program of study.

Assessment for learning (formative assessment) is different from assessment of learning (summative assessment), which involves judging students' performance against national standards (level descriptions). Teachers often make these judgements at the end of a unit of work, year or key stage. Test results also describe students' performance in terms of levels. However, an important aspect of assessment for learning is the formative use of summative data.

Key characteristics of assessment for learning are:

  • using effective questioning techniques
  • using marking and feedback strategies
  • sharing learning goals
  • peer- and self-assessment.

(Note: Information in this section of the article has been adapted from the Victorian Government resource Principles of Learning and Teaching P-12 Unpacked: Assessment practices are an integral part of teaching and learning and the British report Assessing pupils’ progress: learners at the heart of assessment).

Using effective questioning techniques

High-level questioning can be used as a tool for assessment for learning. Teachers can:

  • use questions to find out what students know, understand and can do
  • analyse students' responses and their questions in order to find out what they know, understand and can do
  • use questions to find out what students' specific misconceptions are in order to target teaching more effectively
  • use students' questions to assess understanding.

Some questions are better than others at providing teachers with assessment opportunities. Changing the way a question is phrased can make a significant difference to:

  • the thought processes students need to go through
  • the language demands made on students
  • the extent to which students reveal their understanding
  • the number of questions needed to make an assessment of students' current understanding.

For example, a teacher wants to find out if students know the properties of prime numbers. The teacher asks, 'Is 7 a prime number?' A student responds, 'Err...yes, I think so' or 'No, it’s not'. This question has not enabled the teacher to make an effective assessment of whether the student knows the properties of prime numbers. Changing the question to 'Why is 7 an example of a prime number?' does several things.

  • It helps the students recall their knowledge of the properties of prime numbers and the properties of 7 and compare them.
  • The answer to the question is 'Because prime numbers have exactly two factors and 7 has exactly two factors'. This response requires a higher degree of articulation than 'Err...yes, I think so'.
  • It requires students to explain their understanding of prime numbers and to use this to justify their reasoning.
  • It provides an opportunity to make an assessment without necessarily asking supplementary questions. The question, 'Is 7 a prime number?' requires further questions before the teacher can assess the student's understanding.

The question, 'Why is 7 an example of a prime number?' is an example of the general question, 'Why is x an example of y?' This is one type of question that is effective in providing assessment opportunities. Other types of questions that are also effective in providing assessment opportunities are:

  • How can we be sure that...?
  • What is the same and what is different about...?
  • Is it ever/always true/false that...?
  • How do you...?
  • How would you explain...?
  • What does that tell us about...?
  • What is wrong with...?
  • Why is...true?

Using marking and feedback strategies

Researcher, John Hattie (1992, 1999), has been instrumental in recent years in reminding educators of the significance of feedback as a focus for improving student performance. His research identified a huge effect size of 1.13 on student outcomes when teachers used effective feedback. He suggests that as educators increase the volume of feedback they use as part of the learning process and as students take increasing responsibility for their own learning, how their work is assessed must change.

First, when using assessment for learning strategies, teachers need to move away from giving work marks out of ten with comments that may not be related to the learning intention of the task (eg 'try harder' or 'join up your writing'), and move towards giving feedback to help the student improve in the specific activity. This will help to close the learning gap and move students forward in their understanding.

Second, they must provide opportunities for students to think about their own learning by offering formal feedback through group and plenary sessions. Where this works well, there is a shift from teachers telling students what they have done wrong to students seeing for themselves what they need to do to improve and discussing it with the teacher. Giving feedback involves making time to talk to students and teaching them to be reflective about the learning objectives and about their work and responses. It also involves establishing trust between the teacher and student.

Feedback works effectively if it focuses on the learning intention of the task and is given regularly while still relevant. It is most effective when:

  • it confirms that students are on the right track and when it stimulates correction or improvement of a piece of work
  • suggestions for improvement act as 'scaffolding', ie students are given as much help as they need to use their knowledge; they should not be given the complete solutions as soon as they get stuck and should learn to think things through for themselves
  • students are helped to find an alternative solution if simply repeating an explanation continues to lead to failure
  • feedback on progress is supplied over a number of attempts rather than on one attempt treated in isolation
  • feedback dialogue is high quality; most research indicates that oral feedback is more effective than written feedback
  • students have the skills to ask for help and the ethos of the school encourages them to do so.

In schools where teachers give high-quality feedback, a culture of success is promoted in which every student can achieve by building on his or her previous performance rather than being compared with others. This is based on informing students about the strengths and weaknesses demonstrated in their work and giving feedback about what their next steps should be.

Sharing learning goals

Authentic assessment requires that teachers must start by clearly identifying the learning objectives for a lesson. Teachers should ensure that students recognise the difference between the task and its learning intention (separating what they have to do from what they will learn). That is, they start with the outcomes/conceptual frameworks they are encouraging students to build understanding about, and provide assessment structures that encourage and assist understanding.

To involve students fully in their learning, teachers should:

  • explain clearly the reasons for the lesson or activity in terms of the learning objectives
  • share the specific assessment criteria with students
  • help students to understand what they have done well and what they need to develop
  • provide a range of other students' responses to the task set to help students understand how to use the assessment criteria to assess their own learning.

- and self-assessment

Research has shown that students will achieve more if they are fully engaged in their own learning process. This means that if students know what they need to learn and why, and then actively assess their understanding, gaps in their own knowledge and areas they need to work on, they will achieve more than if they sit passively in a classroom working through exercises with no real comprehension of either the learning intention of the exercise or of why it might be important.

Peer- and self-assessment are two important strategies to increase student engagement. Peer assessment can be effective because students can clarify their own ideas and understanding of both the learning intention and the assessment criteria while marking other students' work. It must be managed carefully, however. It should not be used for the purpose of ranking because if students compare themselves with others rather than their own previous attainment, those performing better than their peers will not be challenged and those performing worse will be demotivated.

As students become more confident about what is required of them to complete a particular task, self-assessment becomes an important tool for teachers. Once students understand how to assess their current knowledge and the gaps in it, they will have a clearer idea of how they can help themselves progress.

Teachers and students can set targets relating to specific goals rather than to state and national curriculum levels. The students will then be able to guide their own learning, with the teacher providing help where necessary or appropriate. In addition, students will have the opportunity to:

  • reflect on their own work
  • be supported to admit problems without risk to self-esteem
  • be given time to work problems out.
Assessment for learning ISQ Table 1

Table 1 provides a checklist for excellence in assessment and offers guidelines about the issues that teachers
and administrators need to address in providing the best possible assessment for their students (Dietel, R.J., et al, 1991).

Asking students to look at examples of other students' work that does and does not meet the assessment criteria can help them to understand what was required from a task and to assess the next steps they might need to take. Looking at different responses can also help students understand the different approaches they could have taken to the task. It is often helpful if the work is from students they do not know.

Studies over the past 20 years are persuasive in identifying considerable learning gains as a result of formative assessment practices (Crooks, 1988; Newmann, Bryk and Nagaoka, 2002; William et al, 2004). Newmann et al, for example, reported standardised effect sizes of 0.43, 0.52 and 0.64 for comparisons in reading, writing and mathematics, respectively, and William et al reported a mean effect size of 0.32.

For teachers to ensure that they offer effective and efficient assessment, they should consider the following:

  1. Does the assessment focus on the most important outcomes in the curriculum? Although teachers informally assess every time they interact with students and every time students work on an activity, daily lessons and activities are often building blocks or means to more complex goals. Collecting too much information is as problematic as not collecting enough. Teachers need to determine the most important goals for each unit and select only a few measures as assessment evidence.
  2. Are the goals of instruction clear and made explicit to the students? For example, if students are to be asked to take a position on a particular issue, they will need to learn how to distinguish fact from opinion, synthesise information and draw conclusions. There is a better chance of achieving goals if the relationship between the skills they are learning and the task they are completing is made clear to students.
  3. Is self-assessment an integral part of the classroom? Obviously students need to be trained to develop their abilities to think reflectively about their work and this may take time. However, the effort will develop skills which students will need throughout their lives.
  4. Are students assisted to understand what good reading and good writing look like by providing them with examples, examining work, reviewing portfolios and discussing criteria?
  5. Do students have the opportunity to provide a wide variety of assessment items as evidence to support the teacher's grading decisions? Some of these items may be more formal assessments, such as tests, performance activities, and projects; others may include portfolios, oral discussions, response journals and rough drafts of writing.
  6. Are students active participants in the assessment process? Time spent in discussing the reasons for assessment, the criteria for each piece and the system for keeping track of students' progress is time well-spent. Through these activities students learn about qualities of good work (Valencia, 1997).

The best assessment has a seamless connection to curriculum and instruction so that it is ongoing. It represents all meaningful aspects of performance and has equitable standards that apply to all students. To ensure that assessment and instruction are linked, they should be planned at the same time. The following questions can guide planning (Reif, 1995; Rudner and Boston, 1994): What should learners know and be able to do? What cognitive, affective and metacognitive skills should they demonstrate? What types of problems or tasks involve those skills? What concepts or principles should be applied in performing those tasks? What are the reasons for the assessment? What use will be made of the results? By whom? What criteria should be used?

A 2005 OECD report highlights the effectiveness of authentic formative assessment in raising the level of student attainment, increasing equity of student outcomes and improving students' ability to learn. It states that the achievement gains associated with formative assessment are 'among the largest ever reported for educational interventions'. It also improves equity of student outcomes and builds students' 'learning to learn' skills.

The report does not see formative assessment as necessarily at odds with standards and testing, suggesting that teachers can still work toward standards, providing they identify the factors behind the variation in students' achievements and adapt their teaching to meet individual needs.

'Students who are actively building their understanding of new concepts (rather than merely absorbing information) and who are learning to judge the quality of their own and their peers' work against well-defined criteria are' the report says, 'developing invaluable skills for lifelong learning'. Surely this is what we wish for all of our students.


Archbald, D. (1991), Authentic Assessment: What it Means and how it can Help Schools. Madison, WI: National Centre for Effective Schools Research and Development, University of Wisconsin

Crooks, T. (1988), The Impact of Classroom Evaluation Practices on Students. Review of Education Research, 58 (4)

Darling-Hammond, L. (2003), Standards and Assessments: Where we are and What we Need. Stanford University, Teachers College Record, ID No. 11109

Dietel, R.J., Herman, J.L. & Knuth R.A. (1991), What Does Research Say about Assessment? NCREL, Oak Brook

Harlen, W. & Deaken-Crick, R. (2003), Testing and Motivation for Learning. Assessment in Education 10 (2)

Morrison, K. & Tang Fun Hei, J. (2002), Testing to Destruction: a Problem in a Small State. Assessment in Education, 9 (3)

Newmann, F., Bryk, A. & Nagaoka, J. (2001), Authentic Intellectual Work and Standardised Tests: Conflict or Coexistence? Chicago: IL, Consortium of Chicago School Research

OECD (2005), Formative Assessment – Improving Learning in Secondary Classrooms (Executive Summary)


Subject Headings

Assessment for learning (formative assessment)
Teaching and learning