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Evidencing the impact of authentic assessment in graduate employability

21 Feb 2024 | Dr Maria Romero-Gonzalez Contributor to ‘Lighting the Labyrinth: enhancing student success through the 3Es’, Dr Maria Romero-Gonzalez, Director of Education at Queen Mary University of London, shares her experiences in using authentic assessment as a pathway to develop graduate employability skills.

Graduate employability has taken a predominant role in measuring the impact of the value of higher education awards as well as being used to evaluate the quality of teaching in HE institutions. The Graduate Outcomes Survey, for example, used as an indicator in the UK Teaching Excellence Framework, seeks to understand if graduates are in employment or further study 15 months after graduation. The intention of the survey is to gain insights into whether the student experience and knowledge acquired at university was valuable in securing future opportunities for graduates. 

Under this external pressure, the development of employability skills in HE has become a core part of the educational curriculum alongside knowledge. So how can we then ensure students acquire knowledge and skills that lead to potential employment and demonstrate the value of a degree? 

Creating space for employability 

Authentic assessment offers an opportunity to embed employability skills in the curriculum by connecting knowledge with applications of the course material and providing opportunities for students to demonstrate skills in a meaningful and integrated way. It also contributes to improve student satisfaction with the course opening up potential to increase engagement in planning their future. 

I have found that the best way to use authentic assessment for developing employability skills at course level is using a programme level approach. This links the assessment with knowledge in a horizontal manner during the academic year, and vertically across the entire programme. Using a constructivist approach, authentic assessment aims to push learners to integrate different areas of knowledge in an attempt to solve complex problems as they move through their curriculum of studies. 

For assessment to be authentic, it needs to challenge the learner to transfer knowledge and use metacognition to produce an outcome. It also needs to reproduce a real-world working environment, immersing the learner in a situation that pushes them to use skills and abilities necessary to complete the task. 

Science and Engineering 

In addressing authenticity in the Science and Engineering curriculum, authentic assessment requires an element of discussion and collaboration. Employment in those areas often requires people to work as teams to produce an outcome. More and more it also demands professionals in these areas to master the ability of communicating with a wide range of non-specialists, which adds complexity when proposing solutions. However, adding this extra dimension offers opportunities to ensure authentic experiences. 

I have found that in Environmental Sciences, for example, designing authentic assessment that involve students working with professionals or local communities gives them a sense of urgency and importance when solving problems, increasing the quality and value of the outcome. It makes students feel that what they do matters and benefits others, giving them a flavour of the satisfaction they may experience in future jobs. 

Evidencing the impact on graduates 

One of the questions I often get asked is how to evidence the long-lasting impact of our work as academics. This is not only important for our own job satisfaction and progression, but also to demonstrate the value of a degree and the quality of teaching in educational institutions. With the changes in the UK Teaching Excellence Framework, this is even more important as the impact is measured through graduates in employment 15 months after graduation. I found that embedding employability skills using authentic assessment at programme level is a clear way of evidencing the impact of learning and graduate outcomes. The key is to link these assessments at programme level. I have ensured that graduate outcomes and skills are built as the student progresses through the curriculum by using one key authentic assessment each year that can be mapped to graduate outcomes. This builds learners’ knowledge and abilities from essential in Year 1 to professional when they exit the programme. 

However, our job does not end when students become graduates. Using professional networks and online platforms, we can now stay connected with former students for longer, and more importantly, witness their progression in jobs and careers. I have followed a number of former students by keeping in touch through professional networks, ensuring they feel supported and that I am proud of their achievements, adding a personal touch beyond the classroom boundaries. 

Some graduates were willing to reflect on their university training through guided questions and their testimonies demonstrate the value of authentic assessment. A few graduates used examples of their experience and performance in authentic assessment in interviews that helped them to secure employment. Another reflection is how much they learned through the assessment to face situations that are typical of their professional day-to-day. A couple of graduates reflected on how authentic assessment helped them understand the value of their contributions to the wellbeing of society or protecting important environmental resources. This demonstrates that graduates can relate past authentic assessment experiences to professional challenges, highlighting the importance of using this approach in higher education. 

The future of authentic assessment 

Authentic assessment is an incredibly powerful way to incorporate employability in the curriculum and I have demonstrated the impact of its design at programme level. In the HE sector, we have an opportunity here to use it as a tool to evidence the long-lasting impact and value of a HE award. However, constructivist ideas in HE raises challenges for how curriculum and curriculum work are positioned and understood. Therefore, careful consideration of the differences between disciplines, the complexity of the relationship between knowledge and pedagogy and providing attention to construct at programme level is necessary if we want to use authentic assessment to help navigate the challenges ahead.

Advance HE members can download Lighting the Labyrinth: enhancing student success through the 3Es here 

Employability Symposium 2024: Distilling The 3Es: ‘What works – and what doesn’t’ 

This event on 25 April will provide a space to discuss and share latest practices in embedding employability among a network of peers. Find out more.

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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