Assessing Authentic Learning is done through Authentic Tasks

Authentic Learning? Not if you can google the answer. Anderson & Ewings Teach Authentic Learning & Assessment at CBExchange 2017.

Authentic learning (AL for short) provides tasks and experiences that closely resemble the expected work environment, and engages students through its practical application. Benjamin S. Bloom created six levels of educational goals. AL takes place in the upper three levels of apply, evaluate, and create, depending on the task. AL often personalizes learning, and is difficult to assess with multiple choice exams. Ryan Anderson (1) and Nathan Ewings (2) build and teach the art of authentic assessment for competency-based education. They shared their art at CBExchange 2017.

Why Authentic Learning?

The principle goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done; men and women who are creative, inventive and discoverers, who can be critical and verify, and not accept, everything they are offered. – Jean Piaget

Today’s problems are not the problems of the past. Tomorrow’s problems will differ from today’s.  As educators, it is our job to prepare men and women to face these future challenges. How do we do that? My high-school football coach, among his many pearls of wisdom, had this to say:

You will perform like you practice.

If we are to educate, to create, invent, discover, critique, and evaluate (vs. verify), then we must offer learning experiences that give learners ample experience and feedback solving real-world problems and doing real-world tasks that challenge and stretch them. The problems and tasks must be worth doing and beyond automation.

You may recognize the verbs above as the higher levels of cognitive complexity from Bloom’s taxonomy(3). AL involves tasks, problems, and projects that pass what Anderson and Ewings called the google test for cognitive complexity: if can you google the answer then the learning task is simplistic and not AL.

Building Authentic Learner Experiences

Anderson & Ewings offer a three-step process for building AL experiences that start with competencies.

Design Step Deliverable
1 – Identify desired results Competencies
2 – Determine acceptable evidence Assessments
3 – Plan the learning experience Resources

Anderson & Ewings gave examples, tested the audience, and presented a strong introduction to building authentic assessments for competency-based education. They suggest multiple assessments per competency that vary across difficulty and context. Varying context in particular promotes generalization of performance and encourages competencies and assessments above Bloom’s application level.

As simple as the three steps look, there’s much more to the design process. From their talk and my experience in CBE, I synthesized the following guidance:

  • Start by designing authentic competencies; talk to subject matter experts to get a good understanding and reference published standards; adjust expectations appropriately to both learner and employment demands
  • Design authentic assessments that challenge and prove competencies, ensuring sufficient cognitive complexity
  • Scaffold the assessments by context and complexity to support learning and offer learning feedback at each stage
  • Work backwards to find or design supporting resources

Next Steps

This review is not a complete guide. It’s my hope that you’ve learned enough to appreciate authentic learning and assessment within CBE that you’re willing to start delving into more resources.

To learn more, I recommend starting with the two references (4) and (5) and visiting Wisconsin Extension CEOEL instructional design resources: Assessment Design, Learning Objectives,

Finally, subscribe to this blog using the form below. CBE is a major theme and future articles will unpack the designer and learner processes. Please comment to let me know what you’d like to see.


  1. Ryan Anderson, Director of Instructional Design and Development, UW-Extension (CEOEL)
  2. Nathan Ewings, Senior Instructional Designer, UW-Extension (CEOEL)
  3. Bloom, B. S. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives ; the classification of educational goals (1st ed.). New York: Longmans, Green.
  4. McClarty, K. L., & Gaertner, M. N. (2015). Measuring mastery: Best practices for assessment in competency-based education. Retrieved from
  5. Bushway, D., Corcoran, K., Dodge, L., Essien, F., Garn, M., Klein, J., … Kadlec, A. (2017). Quality Principles and Standards for Competency-Based Education Programs. Competency-based Education Network. Retrieved from


David Leasure

An innovator in online higher education, David Leasure has led online university programs, problem-based approaches to online learning, and competency-based education. He has served as provost at Western Governors University, Colorado Technical University and Jones International University. Leasure earned bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in computer science and was associate professor of computer science at Texas A&M University Corpus Christi, where he turned his interests from artificial intelligence to teaching and learning with technology. Leasure led the creation of CTU Online, served as CTU’s doctoral chancellor, and president of Jones International University. His core belief is that all students can learn and his passion is helping them and their institutions succeed.