Authentic Learning (Simulations, Lab, Field)

Authentic Learning describes learning activities that are either carried out in real-world contexts, or have high transfer to a real-world setting.  Authentic learning activities should have both personal and cultural relevance (Stein, Isaacs, & Andrews, 2004).   Personal relevance means that learners should be able to connect the new information they are learning to their lives outside of the classroom and their theories about how the world works. Cultural relevance refers to the culture of the academic discipline—authentic learning tasks should reflect “the ordinary practices of th[at] culture” (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1988, p. 34).  In other words, authentic learning tasks teach students how to think like a member of their discipline (Meyers & Nulty, 2009). 

Authentic learning activities tend to be student-centered (Watters & Ginns, 2000). In an authentic learning approach, instructors are seen as facilitators of students’ learning. As Tochon (2000) points out, there is something of a paradox in planning to be authentic.  Although instructors are advised to come to class equipped with a plan, they also should be open to where their students take the learning task. Mayo (2010) describes how instructors may have to shift their perception of their own role in the class from that of sage on the stage to guide on the side.  Their primary role, then, is in helping students to explore the learning task themselves. Thus, instructors must be careful not to insert themselves into the center of activity or to micromanage how the task is explored (Tochon, 2000).

Authentic Learning is rooted in constructivist theory, which says that actively engaging with problems and materials constitutes the best way to learn (Mayo, 2010). As stated by John Dewey, “[E]ducation is not an affair of ‘telling’ and being told, but an active and constructive process” (Dewey, as cited in Mayo, 2010, p. 36).  There are two elements of constructivism. Cognitive constructivism, which deals with how individuals make sense of the world around them, is rooted in the developmental theories of Jean Piaget.  Social constructivism, which pertains to how groups collectively make sense of the world, comes from the thinking of Lev Vygotsky.  Cognitive constructivism pertains to the importance of sense-making at the personal level. From this perspective, learning is an “inside job.”  Learners will be more motivated to learn, will engage more deeply with the material, and will remember it longer if it feels personally relevant to them (Heath & McLaughlin, 1994; Stein et al., 2004).  Social constructivism speaks to the power of learning in groups—many collaborative and cooperative learning tasks are considered authentic, as they mimic the way problems are solved in real-world settings (McCune, 2009).  Moreover, students who are part of learning communities (in classrooms or residences) may be more motivated to learn if taking on the values of the group is seen as important to maintaining membership in the group (Glynn, Aultman, & Owens, 2005). 

In sum, a course can be authentic in two ways—by being personally relevant to the student and by containing cultural relevance, that is, by teaching the student something that is recognized as important or true by the discipline (Stein et al., 2004).  Scholars differ as to the extent that they focus on personal versus cultural relevance with some focusing on personal relevance (Heath & McLaughlin, 1994), some focusing on cultural/disciplinary relevance (Brown et al., 1989; Lave & Wenger, 1991) and some focusing on both (Stein et al., 2004; Tochon, 2000).  Within an authentic learning context, the activities undertaken by students in the classroom should be similar to those undertaken by real-world professionals in that field of study and instructors may also strive to craft lesson plans that resonate with the students’ “situated (lived) experiences” (Stein et al., 2004, p. 240). However, while exposing students to real-world practices or real-life dilemmas, the instructor may also shield them from nonessential aspects of these scenarios in order to focus the learning experience (Stein et al., 2004).  

Stein et al. (2004) write that authentic learning activities can be useful in bridging the gap between what students typically do in the classroom and what they will be expected to be able to do in their field, once they leave the university setting.  Fieldwork and work-study placements for course credit are considered the most extreme examples of authentic learning experiences, as students are literally learning on-the-job rather than attending a class (Brown, 2011; McCune, 2009).  Service learning experiences, where students complete a practicum at a community organization as one component of the course, can provide wonderful opportunities to make connections between concepts covered in class and real-world phenomena (Power, 2010). 

Authentic learning can also take place within the walls of the classroom itself.  Teaching methods include case-based instruction, where instructors use real or fictional cases as vehicles to present content or to require students to apply skills (Mayo, 2010).  Inquiry projects, where students work on a “real-life” problem of practice, and often have some choice of topic, give students the opportunity to see how problems are investigated or solved in the real world (Stein et al., 2004).  Mayo (2010) discusses how instructors’ use of the Socratic Teaching Method affords students the opportunity to internalize a style of critical knowledge consumption. Project-based assessment (as opposed to exams) is also a hallmark of authentic learning (Stein et al., 2004).  The common element to these methods is that they activate students’ motivation and curiosity by presenting them with real-world problems that feel interesting and important.

Importantly, incorporating activities that provide opportunity for reflection and synthesis may be key to getting maximum results from authentic learning methods. According to Power (2010), students benefit from being given structured opportunities to reflect.  Such periods of deliberate pause give them the chance to take stock of what they have learned and to form a more critical perspective on it.

A challenge to implementing authentic learning methods may be that instructors themselves, working mainly in academia, may be removed from the community of practice they are teaching about (Stein et al., 2004).  Another challenge is that although the activities are meant to mimic real-world scenarios, recreating them in a classroom may feel forced or awkward (Stein et al., 2004).  However, the hope is that, through authentic learning practices, students’ learning is deeper and more meaningful because it is connected to personal experiences and values (Power, 2010).  There is also evidence that students who take part in classes with an authentic learning component (in these instances, case-based instruction or service learning, respectively), make higher academic gains compared to students enrolled in similar classes that do not contain these components (Mayo, 2010; Power, 2010). 

Learning that feels personal is said to go deeper, to be more meaningful, and, thus, to last longer.  Students are more motivated to learn when they see how a concept relates to their own lives (Watters & Ginn, 2000).  Thus, authentic learning tasks capture students’ attention and raise their motivation to learn because they touch on issues that are directly relevant to students’ present lives or future careers.  The instructor’s role, in this mode of teaching, is to help students to make connections between their own ways of making sense of the material and the established cultural frameworks of the discipline (Stein et al., 2004). 

Written by Julia Hayden Galindo, Ed.D., Harvard Graduate School of Education 


 Brown, R. (September 11, 2011).  Feed a lemur, castrate a calf: The real value of some unusual student jobs.  Chronicle of Higher Education, 58(4).  Retrieved July 30, 2014 from:

Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P.  (1989).  Situated cognition and the culture of learning.  Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32-42. 

Glynn, S. M., Aultman, L. P., & Owens, A. M.  (2005).  Motivation to learn in general education programs.  The Journal of General Education, 54(2), 150-170.

Heath, S. B. & McLaughlin, M. W. (1994).  Learning for anything everyday. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 26(5), 471-489.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991).  Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press).

Mayo, J. A. (2010).  Constructing undergraduate psychology curricula:  Promoting authentic learning and assessment in the teaching of psychology.  Washington, DC:  American Psychological Association.

McCune, V.  (2009).  Final year bioscience students’ willingness to engage; teaching-learning environments, authentic learning experiences, and identities.  Studies in Higher Education, 34(3), 347-361.

Meyers, N. M. & Nulty, D. D. (2009).  How to use (five) curriculum design principles to align authentic learning environments, assessment, students’ approaches to thinking and learning outcomes.  Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 34(5), 565-577.

Power, A.  (2010).  Community engagement as authentic learning with reflection.  Issues in Educational Research, 20(1), 57-63.

Stein, S. J., Isaacs, G. & Andrews, T.  (2004).  Incorporating authentic learning experiences within a university course.  Studies in Higher Education, 29(2), 239-258.

Tochon, F. V. (2000).  When authentic experiences are “enminded” into disciplinary genres:  Crossing biographic and situated knowledge.  Learning and Instruction, 10, 331-359.

Watters, J. J. & Ginns, I. S. (2000).  Developing motivation to teach elementary science:  Effect of collaborative and authentic learning practices in preservice education.  Journal of Science Teacher Education, 11(4), 301-321.



Further Resources:

  • Biggs, J. & Tang, C.  (2007).  Teaching for quality learning at university:  What the student does (3rd ed.).  Maidenhead: Society for Research into Higher Education.
  • Herrington, J. Authentic learning: Resources and ideas about authentic learning and authentic e-learning [website].  Retrieved July 30, 2014 from:
  • Lombardi, M. M. (2007).  Authentic learning for the 21st century:  An overview [white paper].  Retrieved on July 30, 2014 from:
  • Meyers, N. M. & Nulty, D. D. (2009).  How to use (five) curriculum design principles to align authentic learning environments, assessment, students’ approaches to thinking and learning outcomes.  Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 34(5), 565-577.