How To Design Assessments That Promote The Learning Process

How to design assessments that promote the learning process
Summary: Assessments are critical elements of instruction; they determine accomplishment of lesson objectives. However, you can design assessments to be more than an evaluation of what has been learned. You can design them to be a part of the learning process itself.

Authentic assessments require learners to apply their new knowledge and skills to real-world challenges, which promote retention and enhance problem-solving skills.

An introduction to the practice of authentic assessment.

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How can you design assessments that promote the learning process?

Let’s look at 5 characteristics of authentic assessments to see how.

Authentic Task: An assignment given to students designed to assess their ability to apply standard-driven knowledge and skills to real-world challenges - Authentic Assessment Toolbox

Creating an original deliverable

Many assessments ask learners to choose a “correct answer” from a limited number of choices. This type of test contains multiple choice, true/false, matching, or fill-in-the blank items. Each question has one correct answer. An authentic assessment presents learners with a complex task that requires application of new skills to solve a problem or create a new product. For example, if the objective is for learners to produce a communications plan for a project charter, they could be asked to document specific challenges related to communication (such as language barriers or time zone issues), build visual models of how team members communicate, or create a questionnaire to gather input on issues affecting the team. These types of assessment activities produce unique deliverables as opposed to asking students to select an answer from finite choices. Instead, each deliverable is designed to address the personal interests or needs of the learner.

Learner formatting of the assessment

One principle of adult learning theory is to allow learners to determine their own learning goals. In most instructional settings, specific learning objectives must be met. However, students can play a role in structuring how they show evidence of skill proficiency. In a business writing course, the assessment might include the construction of an eportfolio. Students write a business letter, an email, a resume, and a business proposal, but the student selects his own topics to benefit him in his unique job search. In a marketing class, learners perform a SWOT analysis on an organization they are already affiliated with or one in a field in which they hope to pursue a career. Allowing learners to format their own assessment, promotes retention and transfer of knowledge.


Traditional assessments are manufactured to allow quick evaluations that easily quantify learner proficiency. Authentic assessments more often call for application of skills that can transfer directly to real-world situations. For example, new hires in a manufacturing facility might be required to take a course on safety. An authentic assessment might include a case study where learners rearrange equipment or restructure policies to address safety issues. In a leadership course, a learner might be asked to analyze her personal leadership style and then respond to certain scenarios using that style.

Construction of new knowledge

Traditional instruction encourages recognition and confirmation of established knowledge. Nothing is wrong with presenting and testing this knowledge. Being knowledgeable in a field requires a person to understand the established concepts in that area. Learners often feel comfortable when they are only asked to recognize, recall, and or confirm knowledge presented. Yet, to advance critical thinking skills, learners need to confront new challenges by constructing new knowledge. Such a constructivist approach to assessment often includes a social element. Learners work together in teams to address new problems. Given a simulated scenario, they synthesize confirmed knowledge to create possible solutions to new problems. They use analysis to identify the essence of the problem, as well as constraints that could hinder solutions. They use synthesis to consolidate the constraints and possible solution approaches identified by the team. They use evaluation to determine which solutions could be effective. Finally, they use negotiation to agree upon a group solution, which likely will involve some level of compromise. Such assessment activities take longer to accomplish, certainly longer than answering multiple choice or short answer questions. Yet, this type of assessment supports learners’ abilities to transfer confirmed knowledge into creative applications.

Direct evidence of skill acquisition

With traditional assessments, you can calculate a percentage of correct answers to indicate a student’s acquisition of knowledge. A skilled test writer can even craft multiple choice questions to require analysis or synthesis. However, these types of assessments still provide only indirect evidence. Did the distracter choices influence the student’s selection? Did the student guess to get the correct answer? Direct evidence of skill acquisition involves application of the skills. Can the student in a highly technical course apply the information to create new code, or write a Help file that explains a software application in language a user would understand? Can a physics student develop a protocol for conducting an experiment in a simulated setting? Can an HR trainee create interview questions to identify an applicant’s fit in a particular corporate culture? Such authentic assessments can provide for direct evidence of skill acquisition as well as being a learning activity itself.


Authentic assessments often include an element of reflection. While some instructors may not consider reflection activities as assessments, they can promote self-assessment and transfer of learning. Assessments that include reflection promote the expression of how students’ personal goals and values intersect with the course content. Asking learners to identify what they learned, how they learned it, and how this new knowledge can be applied nurtures metacognition, which promotes critical thinking, life-long learning, and skill in problem solving.

As you identify your objectives and design your course, consider adding authentic assessments to your course design. You’ll gather a more complete representation of your learners’ skill acquisition, a benefit as you make continuous improvement revisions to your course. Students will engage in the learning process even while engaged in assessment activities. Finally, because these assessments apply skills and knowledge, and empower students to set the direction of their learning, this approach can also increase motivation, and retention.

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