The demand for authentic assessments

The Demand for Authentic Assessments

One instructor’s creative approach to testing through storytelling


The COVID-19 pandemic hit like a meteor, sending our entire campus scrambling.

The lockdown further complicated matters by forcing most exams online, a challenge met with creativity by the Testing Services Department.

In the midst of this massive pivot, faculty were forced to get creative with their testing methods. The trick was to balance measuring student understanding while preserving academic integrity. Through some creative thinking, a number of our instructors were able to come up with alternative methods of teaching, learning and assessments that should outlast the pandemic.

One of these instructors, Francis Rankin, who teaches Professional Practice in Interior Design, hatched up an original solution that accomplished both goals while keeping his students engaged.

A creative approach to testing

When coming up with a new way to assess students, Francis created three guidelines for himself to ensure the exam would be effective without him in the room. 

The new-style of exam would need to be:

  1. Vague enough to spur on critical thinking 
  2. Expansive enough to allow students to choose answers that would best represent their understanding
  3. Not so ambiguous that students would get frustrated

To make sure the test stayed within these stipulations, Francis chose to base his exam on an age-old method: storytelling.

Storytelling via a case study


Francis decided to write a true-to-life case study based on his experience in the industry and the information he taught during the school year. Students would be asked to read the story, then derive answers from the text for a set of following questions.

The case study would be able to measure each student’s ability to:

  • Extrapolate the finer points within the text-heavy story
  • Problem-solve through creative thinking
  • Empathize with the story’s main character

Perhaps the most interesting part of Francis’ method was how inclusive he tried to be. Throughout the development of this alternative testing method, Francis included his students in the process whenever possible.


Open communication through a pre-exam survey


Before Francis administered the exam, he surveyed his students to determine their thoughts. In the survey, he described how the test would be structured as a case study to simulate a real workplace environment.

Pre-exam survey results were as follows:

  • I think this style is an excellent way to determine my knowledge of the course (23.0%)
  • I am not familiar with this style of exam but am willing to try it. (48.7%)
  • I am not familiar with this style of exam and would prefer a more traditional style of exam. (28.2%)

With the majority of students willing to try the alternative assessment, Francis went ahead with creating the case study.

The Exam

The case study was a data-heavy story about a business selling tiny homes. It covered all different aspects of what students might experience on a job site (including what could occur if things went wrong). The 12-page story explored business relationships, morals and ethics, marketing and sales, design and project management – and even included the odd plot twist.

Francis sent the case study to students one-week before exam day, giving them ample time to familiarize themselves with the story, and mentally prepare for the questions they might be asked.

Flexibility within the exam experience


Come exam day, students were sent six questions focussed on different aspects of the story, including:

  • Leadership
  • Contracts
  • Generations
  • Compensation Packages
  • Conduct of Social Media / Duty of Confidence
  • Marketing versus Sales

Students were required to answer four of the six questions which best represented their understanding of the material. Not only did this allow students flexibility within the exam, but since the questions were case-specific, students could not look up any answers online – which helped to preserve academic integrity.

The results

After the exam, Francis again wanted to keep the lines of communication as open as possible. He gave his students a second survey to see how they felt about the exam.

Overall, the reception was good. Students liked:

  • The longer timeline to review the story
  • The flexibility of answering their choice of four of six questions
  • That it wasn’t as difficult as they had imagined

While Francis likely wouldn’t have considered using a case study for an exam without the lockdown, he’s pleased with the results. This unintended experiment was met with a positive reception – and it’s something he’s taking note of for the future.

The power of choice and authenticity in student assessments

Donna McLaughlin is one of our Learning Experience Designers who’s helped instructors deal with the fallout from the pandemic. For her, one of the greatest strengths of Francis’ assessment was the autonomy it gave to students.

The extended time frame, along with the choice of questions, allowed them multiple ways to engage with the material, and this, Donna feels, is essential to authentic assessments. As a master’s student herself, she always appreciates when she has the chance to better engage with material and express herself in a scholastic setting.

The other major benefit, according to Donna, is how relevant this type of assessment is to real-world applications. Not only will it help students to be more engaged during their tests, but it also takes the class beyond theory by encouraging practical application.

Authentic assessments, beyond the pandemic

Francis Rankin’s case study beautifully illustrates how practical scenarios can be brought into academic settings. This gives students the chance to apply their knowledge to solve problems they are likely to experience in their careers – a need that far outreaches the crisis brought on by the pandemic.

Because learning looks so different for everyone, making space for choices within assessments will give every student, from every walk of life a greater chance to excel.

And that’s what the college strives to offer to every student who walks through our doors.

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