The word authentic is thrown around a lot. What does it really mean? The main point of an authentic task might be to get the students to a point where they are finding ways to solve problems themselves within a real-world context. The difference between traditional and authentic assessment approaches, for example, might look like this:

Traditional ——————————————- Authentic

Selecting a Response ———————————– Performing a Task

Contrived ————————————————————– Real-life

Recall/Recognition —————————— Construction/Application

Teacher-structured ———————————— Student-structured

Indirect Evidence ——————————————- Direct Evidence

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But there is a lot of confusion around the term even as everyone agrees it is a “good” thing. After all, who can be against authenticity?

Grant Wiggins is often considered the father of authentic learning / assessment. He identified two key elements: public performance or public defense; and mastery learning. Thus, his Understanding by Design framework started with planning backward from authentic performance. This kind of performance demonstrated the ability of the student to ‘transfer’ learning from one setting to another. The idea of transfer was key to the idea of understanding itself. Unless the knowledge and skills gained could be used by the student in multiple contexts, they might be the mere recitation and regurgitation of the so-called traditional model.

The classroom routines and practices that lead to ‘performance’ are not therefore just the application of typical content and standards to lessons. They require something much deeper – a classroom task that involves the student deeply, both in terms of cognitive complexity and intrinsic interest, and are meant to develop or evaluate skills and abilities that have value beyond the classroom itself. Thus, one definition of authentic assessment is assessment that poses an intellectually interesting and personally meaningful problem or task.

Thinking about teaching a unit or a year, Grant Wiggins suggested, is thinking about the ‘performance’ that will define it. In theater, music, and athletics, that performance is obvious – the first night of the play, the game on Saturday or the playoffs months from now, the concert before the winter holiday / Christmas. For the classroom, given our history of creating random tests that examine a discrete set of knowledge imbibed through going through consecutive chapters in a book accompanied by plenty of homework practice. What might it look like to think about the final performance in far more holistic ways, reducing the amount of fragmentation that exists in most courses.

Jay McTighe offers these examples of what that might look like:

State Tour (Social Studies) The state department of tourism has asked for your help in planning a four-day tour of [your state] for a group of visitors from other countries who speak English. Plan the tour to help the visitors understand [your state’s] history, geography, and key economic assets.  You should prepare a map showing the itinerary. Include an explanation of why each site was included on the tour. 

 Your Best Grade (Mathematics) Your math teacher will allow you to select the measure of central tendency (i.e., mean, median or mode) by which your quarterly math grade will be calculated.  Review your grades for quizzes, tests, and homework to decide which measure of central tendency will be best for your situation. Write a note to your teacher explaining why you selected that method. 

 Book Review (English/Language Arts) You have been asked to submit a book review for [title of book] to post on the Book Hooks website. This website is visited by thousands of kids to find out about books that they might like to read. Your review should summarize the basic plot, discuss what you think are the strengths and weaknesses of the book with evidence from the text, and give your recommendation as to whether you think others should read the book. Before you begin, check out book reviews by others students to determine what makes an effective review. (

School Improvement (responsible citizenship; creative problem solving) You have an idea that you believe will make your school a better place, and you want to convince school leaders that they should act on your idea. Identify your audience (e.g., principal, members of the PTSA Board or Board of Education) and: 1. Describe your idea. 2. Explain why and how it will improve the school  3. Develop a plan for acting on your idea.  Your idea and plan can be communicated to your target audience in a letter, blog post or video. 

Should drones be regulated? (research; argumentation) After researching possible commercial and personal uses of drones and examining various opinions on the issue, develop your own position and develop a policy brief, editorial, or blog that argues for your position. Support your position with evidence from your research, while acknowledging competing views.   

Of course, the objective of authentic tasks and authentic assessment is for the student to learn, and for the student to demonstrate intrinsic motivation in that learning.