Creating authentic assessments

Rachel Niemer
Last Updated: January 15, 2024
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How this will help:

Define the term authentic assessment.
Describe the value of authentic assessments.
Brainstorm ideas for authentic assessments that might work in your online course.

The basics

Multiple choice questions often can’t tell an instructor everything they want to know about students’ learning. Thinking about what you, as an instructor, want to measure about student learning can help you design creative and authentic assessments to align with your learning objectives.

Assessment is a term that tends to have a lot of baggage around it in education, and it can mean a couple of different things: measuring the efficacy of a degree program’s curriculum or measuring a student’s understanding of course material, for example. This module focuses on different approaches to assessing student learning.

Multiple choice tests are one of the more common techniques, in higher education, for measuring a student’s understanding of a concept. With many multiple choice tests, even really well designed ones, the data most instructors are getting is how good their students are at answering multiple choice questions, not necessarily a measure of how well students understand course material. 

Essays are another common assessment technique deployed in higher education. Essays can demonstrate different kinds and levels of learning than multiple choice type exams, but they are usually written with a faculty/instructor audience in mind and don’t necessarily reflect the skills a course is designed to teach.

Authentic assessment is a term, coined in part by Grant Wiggins, for assessments that are tightly aligned with the learning objectives of a course or learning experience and have learners working on “real world” problems. Authentic assessments usually have more than one “correct” answer but can be evaluated using a rubric that provides assurance that the data obtained from the assessment is valid.

What makes an assessment authentic?

In his essay, “The Case for Authentic Assessment”, Wiggins compares authentic assessments to traditional standardized tests. Although that direct comparison isn’t necessarily relevant in most higher education courses, we can pull some key traits of authentic assessments from that comparison. Authentic assessments

  • Require students to perform, in a real world (or simulated real-world) context, all of the tasks an adult or professional would engage in to apply what they’ve learned.
  • Involve open-ended and ill-structured problems.
  • Require learners to adopt a role to “rehearse for the complex ambiguities of the ‘game’ of adult and professional life.”
  • Require learners to justify their answer as well as the process they used to decide on that answer.
  • Are realistic, in that they aren’t timed, allow learners to use resources that would be available to 

What are the advantages of using authentic assessments?

Using authentic assessments can require more effort and planning on the part of the instructor. Despite that increase in effort, both learners and instructors can benefit when a course uses authentic assessments. One of the benefits that applies to both learners and instructors is the increase in interest and engagement in the task. For instructors, it is much more interesting to explore and evaluate an array of different answers and approaches (and can be educational for the instructor, too). Learners have more motivation to work on the assessment: it is novel, creates a direct connection between the assessment and the “real” world, and clearly demonstrates to the learner how much they’ve learned and where they still have room to grow (i.e. authentic assessments are much more transparent to the learner).

Other benefits for instructors include an increased awareness of what students’ strengths and areas for growth are (both with respect to individual students and the collective), and an opportunity to connect with each individual learner. Since authentic assessments are directly tied to learning objectives, an instructor knows, with less ambiguity, what objectives students are meeting and which ones they are not. With authentic assessments, instructors get to connect with learners as they see the unique approaches each individual learner uses to solve the ill-structured problem. Many instructors teaching online value every opportunity to connect with learners they may never interact with face-to-face.

In addition to being more engaging, authentic assessments are usually more equitable for the diverse learners in a course. The design and selection of multiple choice questions can include implicit biases that disadvantage some learners. Because authentic assessments are more transparent, don’t have a single right answer and require learners to justify their process and their answer, every learner has an opportunity to ask questions, identify and use resources, and “make their case” as to how their answer demonstrates their learning.

Examples of Authentic Assessments

Because authentic assessments are tied directly to the learning objectives of a course, program, or discipline, the examples provided here are of general categories/types of authentic assessments.

  • Case studies
  • Simulations (many role playing simulations can be used online)
  • Writing to a real audience – for example, a policy brief that might be shared with a legislator, or writing a pamphlet geared toward a lay audience
  • Community-partnered research or project development

Grading Authentic Assessments

The key to grading authentic assessments is to have a rubric that keeps the grader’s focus on the most important standards you want learners to meet. The Online Teaching at Michigan site has a guide on creating and using rubrics. 

Practical tips

  • The first step to creating an authentic assessment is to write learning objectives that describe how learners will demonstrate their learning
  • If you typically use essays for assessing student learning, frame the writing assignment for an audience other than the instructor/instructional team, and ideally, find individuals who are part of that audience to provide feedback to the learners
  • Have students reflect on their own academic performance on each assessment. Having them identify their own misconceptions and mistakes enhances their learning, helps to develop their metacognitive abilities, and is representative of what a professional must do when they err.
  • Have students create a lightweight portfolio where they reflect on what they learned from each assignment (either through making mistakes or by engaging in the learning that occurs when someone is assessed).
  • Explore libraries of case studies online (e.g. Case Consortium at Columbia University, National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, and the Michigan Sustainability Cases)


University of Michigan

SEAS- Michigan sustainability cases 

Other Resources

Indiana University – Authentic assessments

University of Buffalo – National center for case study teaching in science: Case types & methods

Columbia University – Case consortium


Wiggins, Grant (1990) “The Case for Authentic Assessment,” Practical Assessment, Research, and Evaluation: Vol. 2 , Article 2. Retrieved May 18, 2020, from 

Wiggins, G. (1989). A True Test: Toward More Authentic and Equitable Assessment. The Phi Delta Kappan, 70(9), 703-713. Retrieved May 19, 2020, from

Williams, J.B. (2004). Creating authentic assessments: A method for the authoring of open book open web examinations. In R. Atkinson, C. McBeath, D. Jonas-Dwyer & R. Phillips (Eds), Beyond the comfort zone: Proceedings of the 21st ASCILITE Conference (pp. 934-937). Perth, 5-8 December. 

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