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Authentic Assessment: How Do Students Show What They Know?

MARCH 15, 2024

What is the best way to assess students’ knowledge and skills? Traditional summative assessments—including both standardized tests and end-of-chapter/unit exams—give students one opportunity to show what they know, usually in the form of multiple-choice questions, short answer and brief written responses. Authentic assessment shifts the focus to application of knowledge and skills in the kinds of complex tasks students will face in the real world. Thinking Maps are valuable tools for assessment of student learning, either as stand-alone tasks or as a foundation for authentic learning activities.

What Is Authentic Assessment? 

Authentic assessment is an evaluation approach that aims to measure students’ abilities in real-world contexts. It diverges from traditional forms of assessment, such as standardized tests and multiple-choice questions, which often measure a student’s ability to memorize or recall information. Authentic assessment, on the other hand, seeks to evaluate a student’s practical application of knowledge and skills in situations that mimic or are directly applicable to real-life scenarios or problems.

There are several characteristics of authentic assessment that set it apart from traditional forms of assessment. 

  • Performance-based: Students are asked to perform tasks or produce work that demonstrates their knowledge, understanding and proficiency. This can include projects, presentations, experiments, portfolios or artistic performances.
  • Critical thinking and problem-solving: Students are often required to think critically and solve problems rather than just recall information. This involves analysis, synthesis and evaluation of information to complete tasks or solve problems.
  • Integration of skills: Unlike traditional tests that might assess skills in isolation, authentic assessments often require the integration of various skills and disciplines. For example, completing a project might involve research, planning, writing, presentation and reflection skills.
  • Real-world relevance: Authentic assessment tasks are often designed to mirror real-world situations and require students to apply their knowledge and skills in contexts that they are likely to encounter outside the classroom.
  • Collaboration: Many authentic assessments involve some degree of collaboration, reflecting the importance of teamwork and communication in real-world settings.
  • Feedback and reflection: Authentic assessment often incorporates opportunities for feedback and self-reflection, allowing students to evaluate their own work and learning processes.

Authentic assessment often goes hand-in-hand with constructivist approaches to teaching and learning and project-based learning. Usually, there is no one “right answer” in an authentic assessment; students must be able to justify their approach and conclusions but have ample latitude in creating their final product. Rather than simply giving students a score, a performance-based authentic assessment asks students to be active participants in building and demonstrating their knowledge and skills.

Is Authentic Assessment Right for You?

Authentic assessment has many benefits in the classroom for both teachers and students. It gives teachers a clearer picture of student understanding and skills. At the same time, it provides students with more control and choice in demonstrating their learning, which is linked with higher levels of student engagement and better learning outcomes. Instead of “teaching to the test,” teachers can engage students with higher-level activities that prepare students for the kinds of tasks they will be expected to complete in college and the workforce

However, it’s not always easy to get started with authentic assessment. Creating and grading authentic assessment tasks can be time-consuming and daunting for teachers, especially in the secondary grades when teachers may have 100 or more students across classes. Grading can also be more subjective, which can create problems if grading is perceived to be inconsistent or unfair. 

Finally, many teachers struggle to figure out how to integrate authentic assessments into a standards-based curriculum or mastery-based grading system. There can be a disconnect between the skills and knowledge assessed through authentic methods and those measured by standardized tests, for example. It is certainly much easier to give students a typical end-of-unit test with a mix of multiple choice and written response—all with “right” answers—than to conduct an authentic assessment.

Thinking Maps and Authentic Assessment

Thinking Maps provide valuable tools that can make authentic assessment easier to implement and manage. Thinking Maps can themselves act as a form of authentic assessment, allowing students to show what they know visually. They also can be used as a springboard for many types of final products, including writing, oral presentations, multimedia projects and real-world applications. 

Thinking Maps also help teachers connect the assessment with learning standards. Most learning standards have two components: the content (what students are supposed to know) and the type of thinking that students must demonstrate. For example, if a student is asked to explain the causes of the American Revolutionary War, the content consists of specific facts about the war, and the type of thinking is cause-and-effect. With Thinking Maps, both teachers and students learn how to select the right Map to demonstrate the type of thinking required by the standard. This provides a structure for both completing the assignment and evaluating student proficiency. 

Within an authentic assessment context, Thinking Maps can be used in a variety of ways. 

  • As stand-alone assessments: Thinking Maps provide a visual window into student thinking. Unlike graphic organizers, which function as a fill-in-the-blank activity, Thinking Maps require students to construct their thinking from scratch, either independently or collaboratively. Students must select the right Map for thinking required by the task and determine how to structure their Map based on the content they are expressing (e.g., how many branches for a Tree Map for classification or how to connect bubbles in a Double Bubble Map for compare-and-contrast). Then, they must organize facts or concepts on their Map using pictures, images or a combination of both. The Frame of Reference requires students to name their sources, identify the point of view or potential biases, and draw conclusions from the information they have presented. Completing a Thinking Map is a complex task that requires students to use critical thinking skills and demonstrate their understanding in meaningful ways. 
  • As part of a real-world activity or project: Thinking Maps are used in a variety of ways to plan, execute and reflect on real-world tasks and projects. They are also an excellent way to facilitate collaboration for group projects. Students can use multiple Thinking Maps in combination to organize ideas for a written product, presentation or student-led project. For example, students might use a Flow Map to outline the steps of a scientific experiment or a community project, ensuring they understand the sequence of actions and their underlying rationale. Then, outcomes might be expressed as a Multi-Flow Map. 
  • Self-assessment: Students can use Thinking Maps to reflect on their own learning and experiences as part of an authentic real-world exercise. Using Thinking Maps for reflection activates metacognition, cements learning and allows students to self-evaluate what they do and do not understand. This self-evaluation provides important insights for teachers for authentic assessment. 
  • Mastery-based grading: Thinking Maps can be seamlessly integrated into a mastery-based grading system to enhance both teaching and assessment processes. Each Thinking Map can be aligned with specific learning objectives or standards. Students can use the appropriate Thinking Map to provide visual evidence of their understanding of a concept or skill. This visual evidence can then be assessed against the mastery criteria set for the course or subject area.
  • Formative feedback: Thinking Maps can be used as a formative assessment tool to provide immediate feedback to students. Teachers can quickly identify areas of misunderstanding or confusion and offer targeted feedback based on student-created Thinking Maps.

Thinking Maps offer a practical and engaging way to implement authentic assessment, bridging the gap between theoretical knowledge and real-world application. Using Thinking Maps for assessment provides a clearer picture of student understanding and skill mastery. The Maps also serve as a basis for authentic learning products and projects that are tied to standards. As students learn to use Thinking Maps for complex tasks, they are building the skills they will need for the most important assessments of all: those that occur beyond the classroom walls. 

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