Authentic Assignments: What Are They?

Written by: Maryellen Weimer, Ph.D.
Published On: December 14, 2012

“I’ve heard several faculty mention the need for authentic assignments ... what are they?” I received that question recently in an email, and it is true that the combination of the two words has come to mean something more than what might be assumed by their association.

One of the best answers to the what-are-they question appears in a classic text—Understanding by Design. This is the text that lays out the principles of backward design—meaning you start with where you want to end and design assignments, activities, courses, and curricula working back from this final destination. 

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Authors Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe propose that a learning task (be it an assignment or activity) is authentic when it has the following six characteristics:

1. It is realistically contextualized. This means whatever it is you are asking students to do is set in a scenario that replicates or simulates the ways in which students will be asked for their knowledge or skill in real-world situations.

2. It requires judgment and innovation. The assignment has students using their knowledge and skills to solve problems that are unstructured. Rather than testing a discrete piece of knowledge, an authentic activity challenges learners to figure out the nature of the problem as well as a possible solution to it.

3. It asks the student to “do” the subject. In an authentic assignment students are not reciting, restating, or replicating what has been learned but are using their knowledge as a professional in the field would use it. They are doing science, literary criticism, teamwork, or whatever else—probably not as well as an experienced professional, but as a novice would.

4. It replicates key challenging situations in which adults are truly “tested” in the workplace, in civic life, and in personal life. Most professionals face situations that are “messy.” The problems are not like those often seen in classrooms, where the lack of “noise” makes the way to the “right” answer easier to figure out. “Students need to experience what it is like to perform tasks like those in the workplace and other real-life contexts, which tend to be complex and messy.” (p. 154)

5. It assesses the student’s ability to efficiently and effectively use a repertoire of knowledge and skills to negotiate a complex and multistage task. Most test questions ask for isolated pieces of information. But when professionals use knowledge and skills, they don’t use bits of information or one skill; they summon a collection of both, which they must integrate and use as a coherent whole. An authentic assignment is not like a drill used in practice but is more like playing the game.

6. It allows appropriate opportunities to rehearse, practice, consult resources, and get feedback on and refine performances and products. The idea here is that of the apprenticeship model in which learning is based on a perform-feedback-revise-perform cycle. An authentic assignment is one students complete in stages. They get feedback along the way and are expected to make changes as their work continues.

As this description makes clear, authentic assignments and activities aren’t those quick and easy things we might dream up on the way to class or that appear in the instructor’s manual that comes with the text. They must be carefully designed, they take time for students to complete, and they require effort to assess. What makes them worthwhile is the kinds of learning experiences they promote. Students quickly figure out that these assignments are difficult, can’t be completed without lots of hard work, and require them to use what they are learning in situations like those they will encounter after college. Usually that motivates their wholehearted participation in these tasks.

Wiggins and McTighe say that the success of authentic assignments and activities rests on the understanding of two important facts. First, you can’t design authentic assignments unless you know how adults use (or don’t use) the knowledge and skills that are being taught in school. And second, you must help students understand how various assignments and activities contribute to the learning process. Not every assignment can be an authentic one, but even those that aren’t promote learning. It’s the same for the athlete or musician who must do some practice routines that aren’t fun and may seem pointless. They, too, are part of the preparation for performance.

Reference: Wiggins, G. and McTighe, G. Understanding by Design. Expanded 2nd Ed. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2006.


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This article originally appeared in the newsletter The Teaching Professor 25.7 (2011): 1. The Teaching Professor is a lively, informative newsletter with a singular purpose: to provide ideas and insight to educators who are passionate about teaching.