Getting the Most out of Grading: How to Make Student Assessment More “Authentic”

By Caroline Reisiger

July 11, 2022


Pensive student wearing wireless headphones completing an assignment on a laptop at home.


Tests, assignments and other assessments are typically what drives a student’s performance in university. But not all assessments are created equal when it comes to successful student learning.

An “authentic assessment” is one that most reflects the skills required to solve problems relevant outside of the classroom, such as by a professional in their field or in everyday life. More authentic assessments lead to more powerful learning, and help close the gap between the classroom and the “real world” (see box).

A team led by Dr. Kerry Ritchie, an associate professor and Justine Hobbins, PhD student, both in the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences (HHNS), recently published findings on the authenticity of assessments over an entire undergraduate program curriculum for students in HHNS majors. This study provides a benchmark for future student learning experiences and is the first evaluation of its kind to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

The researchers categorized and scored the authenticity of every assessment in each course for each year of the HHNS program stream. To do this, they used information from the course syllabi and consulted with the instructors of each course.

They found tests made up 63% of overall marks, but assignments were significantly more authentic. Additionally, although 25% of the total assessments scored high in the realism dimension, less than 1% of all assessments scored high in all authenticity requirements. Classes with the most authentic assessments were often small, upper-year courses. Large class sizes often made it harder, but not impossible, to provide authentic assessment.

The team evaluated the whole curriculum as an undergraduate student would experience it, to understand their unique perspective.

First-year students with a full course load may have as many as 84 graded assessments to hand in in a single semester. Additionally, first- and second-year courses often contain more fundamental content, have large class sizes, and implement assessments in the form of tests, written assignments or papers, leaving more creative learning and assessment to the third and fourth years. Ritchie’s team found that depending on chosen electives, a student may get to third year before needing to complete an oral presentation - but by this time, most instructors assume students have this experience, and might not provide them with basic guidance to succeed with this type of assessment.

The study found the least authenticity and variation of assignments in second year. First-year classes are large, but students are given many opportunities to participate and adapt to their new life in university. However, second-year classes are still equally as large, but 88% of assessments are strictly conventional tests. To provide more authentic assessment in these classes, Ritchie says that an assignment asking for a brief description of how a course concept or skill relates to a career or every day problem can be worth 1% of a student’s final grade. This type of assessment can help better connect students to the material and provide authenticity without adding much additional grading, especially in large classes

Additionally, creating a well-defined criterion can be difficult, but it can be invaluable when communicating key assessment goals to students as well as teaching assistants and allows for quicker grading.

Time can often be the limiting factor in the degree of authenticity in assessments. “There's a ton of resource investment required for individualized feedback, which we don't have for large classes,” Ritchie says. In fact, feedback had the weakest overall authenticity score in the program evaluation.

To make feedback more authentic while saving time, Ritchie offers some practical recommendations.

“Before marking, find and then focus feedback on the specific key skills or criteria that the assessment is designed to evaluate. While marking, refer back to these criteria often. This can help define the frame of reflection and keep marking consistent.” She also notes that reading whole sections of assignments and then summarizing how the student met the assessment goals and how they can improve, can help to speed up the marking process. Showing a class a few different examples of other student’s work can help clarify expectations before the assignment and can also be used streamline the feedback process. 

For instructors looking to incorporate more authenticity into their courses but are concerned it may not be possible or take too much time, Ritchie has some reassuring advice.

 “Authentic assessment exists on a spectrum within the institutional context. It is not necessary to blow up courses – find the objective of your course and then make sure there is alignment between it and the assessments given.”

But as valuable as authentic assessments are, they aren’t always necessary. A multiple-choice test may be sufficient if the purpose of the course is simply to teach students foundational facts. If, however, the course objective is broader and more critical thinking-based, an authentic style assessment might be the best way to evaluate those skills.

Ritchie hopes the study will ultimately help improve the student experience and encourage dialogue between instructors. “We are trying to build a community feel throughout the undergraduate experience. We want instructors to use this paper and this data to compare what they are doing with what other instructors are doing throughout our institution.”

Next, the team will be working with 20 undergraduate students and several instructors to co-create authentic assessments which will be integrated into four different CBS undergraduate courses.

This work was supported by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada graduate scholarship to Justine Hobbins.


Read the full study in the journal Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education.

Read about other CBS Research Highlights.


The Four Core Dimensions of Authentic Assessment

Realism – Students are tasked with real-world problems or questions.

Cognitive Challenge - Students must use and apply their knowledge in new ways.

Evaluative judgment criteria – Students have opportunity to judge their own performance, based on specific assessment instructions.

Feedback – Students receive timely and meaningful feedback from instructor.