Authentic assessment is about providing learning opportunities and insight into student performance by designing tasks that reflect the nature of the complex problems typically encountered in professional practice.


Authentic assessment (Wiggins 1989) goes beyond measuring educational attainment by evidencing a student’s application of knowledge, reasoning, problem solving and practical skills when addressing problems that are representative of those encountered in the discipline and professional practice. Authentic problems are typically less structured, less defined and even “wicked“.

Villarroel’s (2018) literature review distilled three dimensions of authentic assessment:

  • Realism (problems contextualised to everyday life, relevance beyond the classroom, authentic performance, competencies for work, tasks applicable to the real/working world, and of practical value).
  • Cognitive challenge (higher order thinking, ability to solve problems and make decisions).
  • Evaluative judgement (formative, explicit assessment criteria and including feedback loops).

Authentic tasks are not only about work integrated learning. Wiggins (2014) highlighted that “authentic” is not limited to “hands-on” or “real world” and therefore tasks can include cognitive classwork activities. See Wiggins (2014) for a detailed set of authentic assessment characteristics, including how authentic applies in “pure” disciplines such as mathematics.


Authentic assessment takes more effort to design and assess than contrived tasks.

Planning authentic tasks needs to consider multiple factors such as students’ stage of development, threshold concepts, intended learning outcomes, integrity, and scalability.

Authentic and contrived tasks both have a place in a well-rounded program that enables triangulation of assessment data points – enhanced when using a programmatic assessment approach.


Moving towards authenticity is not a binary state – there is no black and white line between an assessment that is authentic and one that is purely contrived. There is a continuum or grey area. Contrived tasks designed to measure educational attainment have their place. For example, to recall the the components of a theory, factual elements from the field of knowledge or a simple, non-contextualised practical test of a skill, such as to hammer a nail straight in a piece 4×2. At the highly authentic end of the spectrum are assessments such is a workplace immersion project with real clients, then stepping back there may be simulations or role plays of a workplace tasks and back further still we may situate a rich written case study done in groups within a classroom setting. All tasks along the spectrum have differing characteristics and value in a program of assessment.

Figure 1 below shows how tasks can be placed on a continuum from contrived through to authentic.

A continuum of tasks from contrived to authentic: Factual MCQs and math drills > contextualised problem sets > case study discussion > rich simulation or role play > field work project > work placement > employment. Diagram credit: Mathew Hillier 2024.

A range of assessment designs can be used to create assessments that are more authentic. Examples include:

  • Case studies
  • Constructing an artifact
  • Extended project work
  • Field work
  • Interactive oral assessment
  • Investigative problems
  • Objective structured clinical examinations (OSCE)
  • Portfolios
  • Problem-based learning (PBL)
  • Role Plays
  • Scenarios
  • Simulations
  • Product design
  • Work placements
  • Writing for an audience

For further exploration of authentic and active assessment along with descriptive examples, see Hillier (2023) [Requires library login].

At Macquarie University there are PACE units and WIL activities that provide support and opportunities to engage in work focused learning and assessment.


Write intended learning outcomes to reflect what students need to be able to do in professional practice in light of their stage of development. Ultimately a graduate should be able to perform the duties of a day one professional in practice.

Design authentic assessment to constructively align with learning outcomes. The task needs to reflect the nature of problems encountered in the discipline, workplace and professional contexts, using discipline-specific methods and vocabulary. The processes and activities students will do as part of the assessment task need to be such that the outcomes provide evidence to the educator that the students have met the learning outcomes.

Undertake peer review for quality. Conduct moderation around standards and expectations before assessment begins. Given authentic tasks are less defined, using an well planned Rubric will enable a framework to support consistent marking and feedback on what will be a diverse set of responses and approaches by students.

Following marking, conduct moderation to check that standards have been consistently applied. Provide students with feedback and an opportunity to debrief and reflect to close the learning loop. Use this feedback to evaluate the assessment design and make improvements for the next offering.


A one page summary of this post is available as an L&T quick guide:

Credits: Banner image: Kevin Trotman, Flickr, “Where the Rubber Meets the Road“, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Posted by Mathew Hillier

Mathew has been engaged by Macquarie University as an e-Assessment Academic in residence and is available to answer questions by MQ staff. Mathew specialises in Digital Assessment (e-Assessment) in Higher Education. Has held positions as an advisor and academic developer at University of New South Wales, University of Queensland, Monash University and University of Adelaide. He has also held academic teaching roles in areas such as business information systems, multimedia arts and engineering project management. Mathew recently led a half million dollar Federal government funded grant on e-Exams across ten university partners and is co-chair of the international 'Transforming Assessment' webinar series as the e-Assessment special interest group under the Australasian society for computers in learning in tertiary education. He is also an honorary academic University of Canberra.

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