An Appeal for Authentic/Alternative Assessments of Student Writing
As upper-division writing instructors teaching writing-intensive major courses, you have an exciting opportunity to help students make meaningful connections between the rhetorical work they do as writers and the knowledge they’re gaining and producing as members of your scholarly communities. Integrating “alternative” or “authentic” assessment measures into your writing assignment sequences can help students bridge those knowledge and skills domains and can deepen and enliven the kinds of conversations you have with your students in your course.
Audience serves as an important site for adding “authenticity” into the writing your students do. As Irene L. Clark notes in her book Concepts in Composition: Theory and Practice in the Teaching of Writing, students sometimes struggle “to understand that although an audience may exist outside of a text in the form of actual readers or listeners, an author also creates an audience and provides cues within a text about who that audience might be.” Our students often imagine that we, as individual instructors, are the sole members of the audience for their writing. In that setup, Clark argues, ”[a]cademic writing tasks are tests.” If students imagine academic writing tasks as tests, we can see how and why students sometimes fumble them: test-taking anxiety is a real thing; students lose track of the rhetorical situations which ought to shape their writing and thus lose the ability to be successful in them; and students write what they think we want to hear instead of the interesting things they know.
“Authentic assessment,” “alternative assessment,” or “performance-based assessment” are all terms used to describe a trend of moving away from standardized tests to get a more accurate sense of what our students are learning (Herman, Aschbacher, and Winters 2). This trend integrates “societal expectations, [programmatic] curriculum frameworks, legal requirements, and available texts and other instructional materials, along with professional standards and professional judgments” into learning goals, instructional activities, and assessment (Herman, Aschbacher, and Winters 3). As applied to writing, authentic assessment might manifest in the production of short “zines” by small groups in the class; the hosting of a “gallery night” wherein students can share their work with the UCI community; or the organization of a multi-day conference or symposium, complete with themed panels, from which students can describe their research to their peers. In an upper-division, writing-in-the-disciplines course, you have many possibilities for incorporating authentic assessment. You might invite industry professionals to your course to hear students present about their work; you might ask students to compose work for a newsletter, blog, or journal in your discipline; or you might ask students to prepare texts that professionals in their field create for community groups or other members of the public. Beyond preparing students for their future careers and potentially creating networking opportunities for them, these forms of authentic assessment can also enrich your students’ experiences in your class, improve their writing, and activate their critical thinking.
For more information about authentic assessment, check out A Practical Guide to Alternative Assessement, published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development in 1992 and edited by Joan L. Herman, Pamela R. Aschbacher, and Lynn Winters.
Clark, Irene L. Concepts in Composition: Theory and Practice in the Teaching of Writing. New York: Routledge, 2012. Ebook.