Center for Instructional
Innovation and Assessment


June Dodd
Marc Geisler
Marc Richards
Theme Contents
Authentic Learning: What does it Really Mean?
Ann Carlson
Curriculum and Program Developer
Office of the Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education

By definition, the term "authentic learning" means learning that uses real-world problems and projects and that allow students to explore and discuss these problems in ways that are relevant to them.

This approach differs greatly from the traditional "lecture" class, where professors give students facts and other content that students then must memorize and repeat on tests. In Marc Richards' class, for example, students must not only connect post-Civil War history to current events and their own lives, they must also help teach the class and are encouraged to give their own views on historical events. In effect, they become historians.

Authentic learning is also an approach to learning that is solidly grounded in research on learning and cognition. One widely held learning theory, constructivism, postulates that students learn best by engaging in authentic learning tasks, by asking questions, and by drawing on past experiences. In short, for learning to occur for students, it must take place in a way and in a place that is relevant to their "real" lives, both in and outside of the classroom.

A Crash Course in the Pedagogy of Authentic Learning

It's obvious from looking at the four teaching showcases that the types and methods of authentic learning experiences used vary widely. Yet, it's also clear that no matter how different the approach, authentic learning experiences embrace the same principles:

  • The classroom is learner-centered. In the learner-centered classroom, faculty pay close attention to what the students bring with them into class, their respective knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs. Students are encouraged to ask questions, engage in social discourse, and find their own answers. In this setting, the role of the professor moves more to that of a "co-constructor" of knowledge than a giver of content. Marc Richards' statement that "In the end, we will all be professional historians, learners, and teachers together" describes how he structures his class to be learner-centered. June Dodd also insists that her learners take center stage in both constructing and teaching her course and their own "mini" courses.
  • Students are active learners. Just as the role of the professor changes, student roles must change so they do more than passively sit and listen to their professor talk. They must be active participants in the learning process, by writing, discussing, analyzing and evaluating information. In short, students must take more responsibility for their own learning, and demonstrate it to their professors in ways other than on a test. Marc Geisler's students, for example, demonstrate their understanding of Shakespeare by doing their own group interpretation and performance of The Bard's work. Stan Tag also believes that "students should be challenged to make art, to create, to perform, and to participate in the humanities through their own work, not only by studying what others have done."
  • It uses an authentic task. It may seem self-evident, but an authentic learning experience must incorporate authentic tasks. These are tasks, which, as much as possible, have a "real world" quality to them and are ones that students find relevant to their lives. June Dodd's students take on the instructor role in her Introduction to Distance Education class, take turns teaching course content to each other online, and create their own online courses based upon the instructional design process. Professor Dodd works with each student to customize these projects based upon their past work and educational experiences as well as the potential for actual delivery of the instruction in their professional lives.


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Bransford, D; Brown, A.; Cocking, R. (Eds.). (1999) How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School. Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning, Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education National Research Council. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Chickering, A W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1991)."Applying the Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education," New Directions for Teaching and Learning (Vol. 47). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers.

Fardouly, N. (1998). Instructivist versus constructivist models of teaching. Principles of Instructional Design and Adult Learning: Learner-Centred Teaching Strategies. Sydney, Australia: University of New South Wales. (Online).

MacGregor, J. (1990, Summer). Collaborative Learning: Shared Inquiry as a Process of Reform. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 42: The Changing Face of College Teaching (pp. 1930). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Merriam, S., & Caffarella, R. (1999). Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide (2nd edition). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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