Time for a Change: Authentic Assessment in STEM

Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash

Leaving Exams in 2019

During the summer of 2020, as the pandemic made it obvious we weren’t going back to “normal life” any time soon, my curriculum needed to reflect the massive changes that were happening in our society. Using the traditional STEM assessment style of short answer or multiple choice exams would not function well within this online learning environment. I could continue to give traditional exams, but would they actually be a valid measure of student knowledge? And, more broadly, would these exams serve my students in helping them to develop skills necessary to be successful beyond my class? 

Additionally, if I were to continue to use traditional assessments I would need to employ an online proctoring tool. This tool would help me maintain academic integrity, to an extent. However, these proctoring tools have significant implications for student equity. Knowing this, I could not, in good conscience, use one. 

In 2019, I made the decision to leave my exams and not use an online proctoring tool. But this left me in a tough spot. How would I measure a student’s knowledge without using exams? 

Switching Assessment Styles

As an undergraduate STEM student and a STEM instructor, exams are the only type of assessment I have ever known. As I made this change, I began to realize that it would be  important to switch to assessments that enabled my students to demonstrate their knowledge and develop new skills that could be used in other classes, as well as in life beyond higher education. With access to an abundance of human knowledge at our fingertips via the internet, the ability to research, synthesize, and communicate ideas is of more value to my students’ future than memorizing all the steps of photosynthesis for an exam. With this shift, I was able to move from assessing rote memorization to critical thinking skills – isn’t that what we all should be striving to do? I was also able to connect abstract concepts to current events or students’ daily lives, making them more meaningful and memorable. 

Through this process, I developed a set of projects that draw on the principles of authentic assessments to assess student learning. I provide the basic structure of what needs to be included in the project so I can assess my students’ comprehension of the concepts, but the format of the project is generally open-ended, and multimedia projects are encouraged. 

One example is a role-play scenario where students step into the role of interns for a state government committee on health and human safety. Their goal is to brief the state representative for whom they work about the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria. This project was inspired by the Performance Assessment Resource Bank. In the brief, students must include the following:

  • A discussion of what makes bacteria different from other forms of life
  • An explanation of how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics, in evolutionary terms
  • A description of environmental conditions that select for antibiotic resistant mutations
  • A discussion of potential state-wide solutions that can be implemented to slow the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria

Within this one project, I was able to assess students’ comprehension of several learning goals: their ability to distinguish between prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells, as well as natural selection and evolution. This project also required students to demonstrate their ability to apply their knowledge of the evolutionary process to evaluate large-scale solutions to combat this issue. The form of the final product was entirely up to the students. One student, who was studying digital marketing, built a website. Another held a mock webinar. Some typed their project into a traditional research essay. Even though their final projects took many forms, grading and assessing their work was not as challenging as I expected because I provided a clearly defined rubric

Here is a 3-minute video explanation I provide for my students about this project:

Reactions to a New Assessment Style in a STEM Course

During the week leading up to the start of the semester as students were exploring our syllabus and Canvas course, I had several inquiries about exams. Students asked,  “When are the exams?” and  “Will we need to use [proctoring service] to take exams in this class?” After fielding several variations of these questions, I explicitly explained to my students my philosophy for adopting this new assessment strategy and why we would not have any exams. The idea of being able to show their knowledge outside of an exam in a science class was, at first, mysterious to students. However, they quickly acclimated to this new style of assessment as I promptly answered their questions.

Student feedback about this new assessment strategy was very positive. In an anonymous course evaluation, 97% of students rated the class as “always or almost always having assessments that are related to course material.” In another metric, 100% of students rated the class as “always or almost always having activities and projects which are useful for learning and understanding.” Students reported the projects as “fun and interesting” and said they “helped [to]… understand this subject better.” One student stated these projects helped them “gain a better understanding of the topic when applying it to real life,” which was my intent when making this shift.

In making this change to my assessments, I was met with some skepticism and backlash from colleagues, which resulted in me being reluctant to speak out about equity and assessments in online learning. When I did speak out, I received push back from colleagues saying “Students will have to get used to exams,” as well as, “There’s just no other way to assess learning in my class” except through exams. I even had a colleague claim I was calling anyone who used proctoring tools and exams “racist.” I see now that this reaction is tied to a larger, systemic issue about power and privilege in White dominant culture but I also know it made me hesitate to discuss the topic of assessments and proctoring tools again. 

In Fall of 2020 I was due to be evaluated, and as a part-time faculty member I was incredibly nervous that this different assessment style would be seen as inferior, and thus my employment status and income would be impacted as a result. Luckily, despite the backlash I had received, I had many other colleagues, including my evaluators, who were curious and encouraged by these efforts to adopt different assessment styles. Out of this discussion about assessment and proctoring tools that was met with backlash, I was able to open a conversation about rethinking how we assess learning in STEM. Yes, this is currently an uncommon way to approach assessment for many STEM classes, and can be a challenging pivot to make. But, if we’re truly dedicated to closing opportunity gaps then we must make STEM courses more equitable for diverse learners. 


Van Meter, F. (2020, Sept 11). “Online Proctoring – Impact on Student Equity.Online Network of Educators.

Authentic Assessment PocketPD Guide. (2020, June 17). Online Network of Educators 

Brookhart, S. M. (2018). Appropriate criteria: Key to effective rubrics. Frontiers in Education, (3)10. doi:https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/feduc.2018.00022 . 

Posted in assessment, Course Design Showcase, Online Teaching, Rubric Section C.

I am a faculty member at Cerritos College, Golden West College, and Long Beach City College. I teach biology to both majors and non-majors. To make my classes more relevant to students who have a wide range of strengths and learning styles, I recently abandoned traditional exams and have adopted authentic assessments and problem-based learning to measure student knowledge. After seeing the impact of this shift on my students, I can’t imagine going back to using exams.


  1. Holly, your article brought back so many memories! When I was a biology major at UC Santa Cruz, these types of authentic assessments were common in our courses. The larger higher education community criticized our university’s pass/no pass model, and “un”grading strategies, and undergrads were offered opportunities to prove they could handle research. I was able to do research at UCSF while I was a senior at UCSC.
    Your bravery to name the source of resistance to authentic assessment will open doors and opportunities for your students in ways they could never imagined! Your approach is inclusive, stimulates critical thinking, and has been proven to be effective. Keep up the stellar work.

    • Francine, that program at UCSC makes me want to go back to school and be a student again! As scientists, it’s my hope we can see the effectiveness of these strategies and implement the changes necessary to develop a new approach to how STEM courses are taught. Thank you for your encouragement!

  2. Lovely article, Holly. As an educator, it’s always struck me as odd that many in the STEM field seem reluctant to embrace more authentic learning and assessment strategies. Back when I taught 3rd grade, science was one of my favorite subjects to teach because it was so easy to get students actively engaged in “real life” experiments and activities. STEM practically screams “authentic assessment” in this woman’s opinion. =-)

    Thanks for being a pioneer!

    • Hi Helen! I so totally agree – there are so many ways science – especially biology! – intersects with our lives on a regular basis! I bet your 3rd grade students loved all the active engagement! Higher ed students seem to get a lot out of it, too 🙂

  3. Really great, Holly. Nice work, particularly given that it seems you made this switch prior to the renewed focus on authentic assessment driven by the pandemic. I think your post highlights authentic assessment as a valuable approach regardless of modality.
    Props to your evaluators who recognized the value.
    Thanks for all of your work on the front-lines!

    • Hi Jamie! I realize the way it’s worded is a bit unclear. This switch to authentic assessments was precipitated by the switch to online learning. It was always something I’d wanted to do, but hadn’t invested the time to make the switch until I was forced to pick between the options of using proctoring tools or trying something different. I can’t fathom going back though – even if we do return to in-person! This type of learning is so much more meaningful. And students get to take their projects with them, which isn’t possible with an exam. Thank you for your encouragement 🙂

  4. Thanks for writing this, Holly. I added it to our @ONE Assessment in Digital Learning course during our module on summative assessments. It really illustrates how important it is to strive for authenticity since it offers our students a much more meaningful way to express what they’ve learned during the course.

    • Hi Vernon! I’m humbled that you’ve added it to the @ONE Assessments in Digital Learning course! It was that course that first introduced me to this idea, for which I am very grateful.

      I’d be happy to provide additional examples for other unit summative assessments or discuss the differences in approaching this type of assessment for courses that are designed for students majoring in the discipline. Let’s connect!

  5. Holly! BRAVO! I am currently a student in Vernon Martin’s CVC-OEI @ONE “Assessment in Digital Learning” and so very grateful our our instructor’s inclusion of your article/video into THIS class! I LOVE the design of your project and can easily see how it covers so very much: SL0 alignment, critical thinking, practical application, and more!

    Even as an someone on the cusp of “re-TIRE[D]-ment” from full-time teaching, I feel “RE-ENERGY-[I]-ZED!!” just reading your inspiring words regarding the efficacy of that “authentic assessment”: its design, its process, and its results…. Bravo to keep going forward, too, despite pushback /resistance…. So many of us have encountered such….and, all-too-often, have just “shut down.”

    Best to you!
    Sheri Coelho
    Cosumnes River College English Professor

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