Authentic Learning and Assessments: Readying Online Students for the Real World

Last week at UNE Online’s first ever Online Learning Symposium





, I had the opportunity to share our goal of creating learning experiences and assessments that are not only rigorous and research-based, but also authentic to real work and real life, so that when our students leave us, they have the tools to use their knowledge as scholar-practitioners in their own fields.

Now, my ID team colleagues and I always love to geek out on pedagogy topics like this one, but for me right now, this is a particularly timely (dare I say, authentic?) topic, as my younger son recently took on that painful rite of passage that is the PSAT. It definitely opened a dialogue in our household about what that particular standardized test really says about what students can do.

So, if you are a teacher, how, in your classroom, do you know when your students are ready to move on?

Alternatively, as a student, when were you certain that you really knew what you needed to know to take that next learning step?

If your answer to either question had something to do with a test or an exam, then you are not alone. For most of us, the end of learning has looked a lot like a Scantron with multiple-choice, matching, fill-in-the-blank, true-false, and maybe a few short-answer questions.

Ready or Not, here the test comes… Get out your #2 pencil.

There are benefits to traditional assessments. They can be normed, so students can be compared to a hypothetical average. They can be criterion-referenced, so student achievement can be compared to set standards. For the teacher, the choice of a traditional test is often linked to time. An earned percentage on an objective exam is a quick way for an instructor to determine whether students pass or fail.

But traditional assessments also teach students something else. At some point, most students decide that they either are or are not great test takers, as they realize that their success or failure depends on more than mastering the content.

Clearly, traditional assessments have benefits, but they also have drawbacks when it comes to real-life applications.

As a lifetime educator, nothing makes my heart sink faster than a student asking, “When will I ever use this in ‘real life’?” As though real life and education aren’t in some way related? If we aren’t preparing students for “real life,” what exactly are we preparing them for?

I tend to agree with the influential educator Grant Wiggins – maybe you studied him in school – who proposed a radically different approach to both learning and assessment. He wanted to make both classroom elements highly relevant and highly authentic to real life.

So, let’s start with authentic learning. Learning becomes authentic when students use knowledge to perform activities that can be applied to real situations. To that end, Wiggins said, “It’s not teaching that causes learning. Attempts by the learner to perform cause learning, dependent upon the quality of feedback, and opportunities to use it.”

This is really interesting stuff. Notice that he uses the plural “attempts” here. Learning isn’t based on one attempt or even two passive exposures. It is based on multiple “attempts… to perform.” And then there is the bit about “quality of feedback.” The instructor provides feedback that the student applies to practice. Classroom learning, then, becomes a process that more closely mimics learning in the arts or sports where there are continued chances to improve. Wiggins emphasized this metacognitive process saying, that, when authentic learning is applied, “student self-assessment and self-adjustment become a critical part of all instruction.”

Wiggins also spoke of Authentic Assessment. What does it mean for an assessment to be authentic, and how do authentic assessments differ from traditional tests? To this, Wiggins suggested that “[a]ssessment tasks must model and demand important real-world work.” Thus, the circuitous method of authentic learning supports the end goal of a competent, well-prepared student who isn’t left to wonder whether he or she knows the best answer out of four or five choices.

Thus, for educators, the question is always whether and when we should throw away the efficiency of traditional assessments and trust our students to swim through shark-filled waters armed with their knowledge and experience… and, of course, the information necessary to access the UNE Online Library so that they can arrive safely on the shore of real-life gainful employment or other life experience.

And because we at CGPS are primarily providing educational experiences for graduate students, we also have to ask ourselves how we can do this while also ensuring that our students are still receiving a rigorous, research-supported education. In the end, graduate students should be research-practitioners, right? They should be critical thinkers who can apply the best research and resources at their disposal to real-life scenarios.

For instance, students in our Applied Nutrition might be asked to use their knowledge to create an educational campaign to support a realistic scenario in which they take on the role of consultant for a government agency or a non-profit with a particular nutrition-related goal. Education students in our Literacy concentration might use research along with authentic classroom and school data to suggest a usable action plan for literacy improvement across the curriculum. Our Public Health students might take part in role play and decision-making scenario in response to a simulated natural or man-made health disaster. In many of our programs, students prepare professional portfolios that not only show what they know, but also show what they can do with what they know.

Our challenge is to make good on the promise of our course descriptions and course objectives in a way that provides students with multiple opportunities to authentically apply what they are learning. Then, appropriately armed with feedback from faculty who are research-practitioners in their own right, they are well prepared to show what they know in assessments that mimic what they will experience in their professions.


Wiggins, Grant. The case for authentic assessment. (Nov. 1990). Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation.

Wiggins, Grant. (1998). Ensuring authentic performance. Educative Assessment: Designing Assessments to Inform and Improve Student Performance. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Tags: | | |