No 32: Authentic assessment: why real world skills matter in the social policy classroom

Authentic assessment is an important way in which students can develop both academic and real-world skills.
(Creative Commons)

by Lee Gregory

In his lecture “The university and Welfare Objectives”, Titmuss highlights two concerns for Social Policy within Higher Education: to provide training for the technical and social service needs of society and to facilitate the access of more working-class young people to higher education and new career opportunities. (See his 1968 book, Commitment to Welfare.) Whilst he does not explore the former, it is an element of the discipline made highly relevant at institutional and subject levels by the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Balancing both the academic and practical dynamics of the discipline remain important, but need not be separate aspects of our teaching practice. Rather, through designing assessment around the concept of authenticity, it is possible to create teaching and learning contexts which engage students in both: academic content made relevant to future employment prospects.

Authentic assessment defined

Authenticity is a theme guiding assessment practice in higher education but it is often considered to be at odds with academic endeavours. The term can suggest that academia somehow does not reflect the “real world” and so students are unable to translate their university experience into practical, employability skills (which is debatable). Subsequently, authenticity can be presented as part of the re-orientation of higher education towards human capital and employability rather than the pursuit of knowledge per se. Yet polarised debates are rarely accurate, or appropriate, and it is best to view authenticity as an attempt to create assessment outputs which retain “real world” reliability and academic validity, despite the different social context in which these outputs are produced within and without the university. Such an approach is not alien to Social Policy, which seeks to equip students with the knowledge and skills to analyse, judge and inform policy interventions and debates. Essays, exams and dissertations allow for this but may not have true fidelity with post-education activities. Thus, whilst important assessments of knowledge and ability, they don’t necessarily offer authentic learning experiences which can help deepen learning and enhance the relevance of students’ studies for their lives post-study.

It is not a case of either/or. Diversity of assessment is vitally important for an enriching learning environment. Thus, the aim should be to adopt authentic approaches to assessment design within parts of the wider programme. Authentic assessment seeks to incorporate the performance of certain skills, utilise role play to demonstrate the applicability of certain forms of knowledge, or utilise portfolios where students select their own evidence of achieving learning outcomes. At its core, it seeks to mirror the tasks and problem-solving activities which students engage outside of the university environment. This could range from giving presentations to, as discussed here, tasks such as writing a press release or participating in a radio interview (other examples could include policy briefings, blog posts or campaign newsletters).

How one’s own work outside academia can inform authentic assessment

Designing a policy analysis module which drew upon my own experiences working outside of academia within the Welsh Assembly provided insight into how new assessment tasks could be designed to promote student engagement in authentic tasks. Essentially this required “backwards” thinking to identify the ways of communicating knowledge and analysis that can be found within the corridors of policy-making: drawing attention to the flurry of events, newsletters, briefings, press releases and campaign materials which are constantly drawn into the daily lives of policymakers as well as the activities of their staff in drafting briefings, speeches, questions to Ministers, responding to campaigns, constituents, etc. Reflecting on such activity, it was possible to identify a range of activities which could be the basis of a new authentic assessment design: drafting of a press release and participation in a radio interview as ways of communicating research findings.

Creating new assessment practices requires consideration of how these will be assessed, using relevant marking criteria, but also how students will be supported in preparing for these outputs and, in doing so, reduce anxiety around the experience. Additionally, following constructive alignment, teaching practice needs to have a clear line of development towards assessment. Whilst some teaching sessions, therefore, draw attention to policy process theory and research practice to prepare students for conducting their own projects, there is also a need to design sessions around the new assessment tasks. Subsequently, explicit sessions regarding the role of the media in the policy process and exploring how this is used by various stakeholders demonstrates the relevance of the assessment tasks to the wider module. This also provides a foundation for providing more practical sessions exploring how to write a press release, prepare for a radio interview and offer formative assessment practice activities, so that the first time students complete the work is not the final end of module assessment.

Why authentic assessment matters in today’s university environment

The importance of such developments perhaps has a renewed relevance in the TEF environment. With a focus on employability as a key metric of analysis, it is prudent to consider how teaching and assessment can be (partially) re-designed to incorporate elements of authenticity. This is not to suggest a radical overhaul of teaching to an employability focus. Rather, it is to encourage a synthesis of authenticity in assessment with traditional teaching and learning practices. For example, rather than rely on specific careers and employability support sessions, it is possible to integrate aspects of this to align with academic learning outcomes across a wider range of teaching practices. Essentially, this entails expanding the technical training within the subject which Titmuss highlighted, in this instance, to include communications skills to promote the outcomes of research. As such, authentic assessment designs offer a means to engage students in activities of genuine interest, encourages the use of academic and practical skills, and can be a learning experience in its own right as they develop the requisite skills to perform the task.

The discipline of Social Policy lends itself to such an approach because of its inherent concern with social problems and creating social change. We can attract students to the discipline because of their interest in inequality and injustice but can build on this throughout their studies. Seeking to support their learning through activities which can be transferred into their post-university lives illustrates how their knowledge and insights have relevance beyond their degrees, and that is the level of authenticity we should be aiming for.

Lee Gregory is a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Birmingham and a Senior Fellow with the HEA. He is interested in poverty, inequality and welfare concepts and ideological debates as well as teaching and assessment practice. He tweets at @AcademicLee and has recently set up @ExploringWelf as a teaching tool.

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