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Authentic Assessment in the Digital Learning Environment

Authentic Assessment in the Digital Learning Environment

Meaningful evaluation of student competence in online learning.


During 2020, focus has shifted to learning and teaching in the digital environment, which up until a few months ago, was regarded as inferior education.  Then necessity became the mother of invention as those who had clung to the familiar contact modes of delivery, were forced into the online environment.  Academics were forced to apply newly acquired didactic skills to accommodate learning and teaching in the digital space.

Inevitably, with online education, came the need for online assessment. Institutions of higher learning, took traditional summative assessments online with little consideration of the suitability thereof. Taking traditional summative assessments online brought with it quite a number of challenges.

Cheating raised its ugly head and collusion among students has become rife (Ahmadi H., 2020, Larkin, C., & Mintu-Wimsatt, A. 2015, & Šprajc et.al. 2017 ). The travesty is that cheating students become ineffective graduates with questions about ethics among future business leaders being raised (Chandler et.al 2017).   For the sake of academic integrity and ensuring that assessments truly reflect how well students have mastered outcomes, the nature of assessing student competence as we have known it, needs to be reconsidered in the digital environment.

The purpose of the discussion below is to prompt thought around the relevance of current assessment practices in the online assessment environment, bearing in mind the challenges which online assessment and traditional assessment bring with it.

Traditional Summative Assessment

While the focus over the last while has been on keeping learning and teaching going during the lockdowns imposed by governments, appropriate ways of assessing student competence in the digital space, remained a lesser priority with most still focused on traditional summative assessment methods.

So, the question is whether 3-hour summative assessments are the only relevant methods in the digital environment and in the 21st century and whether they are the only way to measure competence?  Are we testing critical and creative thinking and problem solving or just making sure that students can apply theory to practical situations, which are often not real or authentic?

Authentic Assessment

How could we be assessing student competence as an alternative to traditional examinations especially in the digital learning environment and for the 21st century?

The notion of authentic assessment, which has been around for some time, as an alternative, may assist in reducing the incidences of cheating among students, encourage critical and creative thinking and problem solving and keep academic integrity as intact as possible.

Authentic assessment is not only focused on knowledge and application of theories and principles, but assesses the so-called hidden curriculum which encourages acceptable norms and values, respect for the opinions of others as well as interaction with and tolerance of all.  The following quote from Koh, Tan & Ng (2012) “In contrast to conventional paper-and-pencil tests that focus on knowledge reproduction and low-level cognitive processing skills in artificial and contrived contexts, authentic assessment tasks emphasize knowledge construction, complex thinking, elaborated communication, collaboration and problem solving in authentic contexts.”, encapsulates the focus of authentic assessment, well.  Authentic assessment addresses not only the cognitive aspects of learning but provides for a holistic assessment of student competence.

While traditional assessments assume that students have been exposed to knowledge to be tested, student-centered, authentic assessments on the other hand drive and determine the learning content.

The benefits of authentic assessments are that it allows for students to construct knowledge and creates opportunities for learning in a real world relevant context. The key to successful authentic assessments is clearly defined outcomes and rubrics as “powerful support tool to make judgments about students’ learning in several disciplines” (Gallardo (2020).

So, what could an authentic assessment look like?  Instead of a structured 3 hour paper, students could be required to complete tasks over a period of time, constructing and applying knowledge as they progress through the tasks, which may be in a real world or simulated context. Virtual reality scenarios provide simulations of real world contexts for students to apply their learning to.  Another variation is that students may be required to solve a real world problem, drawing on knowledge of several related subjects, for example, drawing on the theories of marketing and business thus integrating their knowledge of several subjects into one project.  Students may also be required to work on a common problem in groups across a digital platform, managing the roles and responsibilities within the group.  The variations in authentic assessments are endless.

The Pros and Cons of Authentic Assessment

The toss-up between the grading of authentic assessments and traditional assessments is that authentic assessments, while they encourage critical thinking, problem solving and learning about team dynamics, values and norms, are more open to subjective evaluation and more time consuming to grade because of the need to provide detailed feedback.  On the other hand, the trade-off with traditional assessments is that the latter is faster to mark, but often neglects the all important more complex higher order thinking required of graduates.

Higher education institutions have a responsibility to industry and society, to produce competent graduates with sound higher order thinking.  Are our assessment methods achieving their objectives?

Reference List

Ahmadi H., (2020). “Cheating in Education: A Focus on Plagiarism.” Turkey and Afghanistan: Eskisehir Technical University and Kabul Polytechnic University (not peer reviewed)

Alsubaie, M. A., (2015). “Hidden Curriculum as One of Current Issue of Curriculum”. Journal of Education and Practice, Vol.6, No.33, pp 125 – 128

Chandler, N., Miskolczi, P., Kiraly, G., Scuka, B., and Gering, Z., (2017) “The ethics of our future business leaders: an analysis of the perceptions of cheating in higher education,”  Hungary: Babeş-Bolyai University: Hungarian Economists’ Society from Romania and Department of Economics and business Adinisyration in Hungarian Language, vol. 20, no. 131, pp 3-27

Gallardo, K., (2020) “Competency-Based Assessment And The Use Of Performance-Based Evaluation Rubrics In Higher Education: Challenges Towards The Next Decade”,  Šiauliai: .Problems of Education in the 21st Century;  Vol. 78, Iss. 1,  (2020): 61-79.

Koh, K.H., Tan, C., & Ng, P.T., (2012). “Creating thinking schools through authentic assessment: the case in Singapore”, Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability; Dordrecht Vol. 24, Iss. 2,  (May 2012)

Larkin, C., and Mintu-Wimsatt, A., (2015). “Cheating Among Undergraduate Business Students:  Say it Ain’t So”. Las Vegas: ASBBS Annual Conference vol 22, no. 1. Pp 269 – 277

Mueller, J., (2005). “The Authentic Assessment Toolbox: Enhancing Student Learning through Online Faculty Development”. Naperville, IL,  Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. Vol 1, no. 1

Šprajc, P., Urh, M., Jerebic, J., Trivan, D., Jereb, E., (2017), “Reasons for Plagiarism in Higher Education”, Slovenia : Organizacija, vol. 50, no. 1, pp 33 – 45