“If you build it, they will come.”: Authentic Assessment and Student Learning

“Ms. Cotton, writing my paper was actually interesting,” my student said, with an air of incredulity, as she entered my classroom for our final meeting of the term. “Well, that was the whole point,” was my reply.

Students have become accustomed to viewing school as a “grind,” days of sitting in class, taking notes, cramming in their homework and studying, and rinsing and repeating. In many cases, that’s what they understand school to be and, additionally, how they believe they are to learn.

Throughout the year–but in my end-of-term assessments, in particular–I seek to challenge this. In a subject that gets a bad reputation for being one of memorizing dates and names, history classes provide an ideal opportunity to engage students in the world around them. While–best case scenario–this should be a goal of day-to-day learning, final assessments provide a natural occasion for students to process their learning over the course of the term and consider its relevance in the world around them.

In crafting these authentic assessments, I aim to keep three things in mind:

  1. Prioritize student choice: Our students will learn more and produce better papers, presentations, etc. if they have an opportunity to pursue something they are interested in. Too much agency can sometimes be debilitating, so providing some structure in the form of “something we studied this semester” or “an event before 1800” can help students hone in on a particular time period.
  2. Provide multiple platforms for the sharing of student work: In crafting my assessments, I always insist that students present their learning in multiple forms. This term, for instance, my students wrote a paper, gave an “elevator pitch” presentation, and created a background poster for their pitch on Canva. This approach seeks to ensure that each student has at least one form in which they feel like they excel and one in which they will need to challenge themselves.
  3. Be clear about your objectives: In my American Studies classes, I use the American Historical Association’s 2016 Tuning Project to select key objectives for my students. We spend time in class discussions unpacking each competency and how that skill could be reflected in their work. In doing so, I emphasize that students are doing the work of “real historians.”

Here, you’ll find my fall assessment and last year’s spring assessment, which hopefully reflect these goals.

If we build it, they will come; if we provide opportunities for authentic assessment and genuine student engagement in their learning, students will buy in. And they might actually enjoy it.


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