The four characteristics of ‘authentic learning’

iStock_000018020135XSmallAuthentic learning is a relatively new term that describes learning through applying knowledge in real-life contexts and situations. In a recent article in the Journal of Authentic Learning, Audrey Rule of the State University of New York (SUNY) at Oswego tries to answer the question she is most often asked: What do you mean by authentic learning?

Four components are repeatedly found in authentic learning, reports Rule, who did a content analysis of 45 journal articles that faculty members in the School of Education at SUNY-Oswego submitted as examples of authentic learning in their disciplines.

“Although the term authentic learning is broad and has not been applied to a specific instructional model, these four components are found repeatedly, suggesting that they are an integral part of authentic learning experiences,” Rule writes.

The four themes supporting authentic learning are:

1. An activity that involves real-world problems and that mimics the work of professionals; the activity involves presentation of findings to audiences beyond the classroom.
2. Use of open-ended inquiry, thinking skills and metacognition.
3. Students engage in discourse and social learning in a community of learners.
4. Students direct their own learning in project work.

Real-world problems

One component of authentic learning is that it targets a real problem and that students’ engagement holds the possibility of having an impact outside the classroom, Rule says. “This audience beyond the classroom changes the problem from an ‘exercise’ to something more important, allowing students to become emotional stakeholders in the problem,” she writes.

In science, for example, this may be accomplished when students collect water quality data from local streams. Model lessons that address authentic learning in social studies could include students’ analysis of primary documents related to the Pledge of Allegiance. In developing literacy, reading resources could be connected to real life with bus schedules, maps, diaries and interviews with people.

Inquiry and thinking skills

For authentic learning, students must exercise higher levels of thinking, according to this analysis. For example, science teaching should reflect the scientific process of knowledge construction. Learning in mathematics should occur through discovery, inquiry and induction. Instead of math problems that require that students merely apply a known procedure, authentic mathematical tasks require solvers to use different representations in their solutions and to work with realistic and complex mathematical data. In art education, students can use thinking skills to deconstruct visual and textual information in media ads.

Discourse in a community of learners

A community of learners can be a group of learners working together to unravel a problem or refer to the community setting in which the project is based. Science investigations should link students to scientists through data sharing, critiquing, and direct communication. Multiculturalism can be brought to the classroom by exploring numbers in other languages, symbols of ancient societies and games of skill and chance from around the world.

Student-directed learning

For authentic learning, problems must have a personal frame of reference and be open-ended, according to this article.  “This cannot happen without student choice in defining the problem and selecting the path of its solution,” Rule writes. In the field of health promotion and wellness, for example, educators provide information so that individuals may make informed choices.

Choice also occurs when students make their own interpretations of literature and art. “Research related to effective instructional practice emphasizes the need for greater personalization and individualization of instruction because learning is an individual experience,” the article states. Instruction can be personalized by allowing the learner to choose from the rich variety of pathways.

Apprenticeships also provide important opportunities for students to interact with the wider community and reflect upon their experiences, the article states. The author invites readers to examine their reading and learning situations to identify more ways that authentic learning is implemented.

Editorial: The Components of Authentic Learning” by Audrey Rule, Journal of Authentic Learning Volume 3, Number 1, August 2006, Pp. 1-10.

Published in ERN January 2007 Volume 20 Number 1

6 Responses to “The four characteristics of ‘authentic learning’”

  1. LeDonne Volz Wagstaff

    In the past several years I have worked at the middle high and high school levels in urban schools. I have had the opportunities to work with Restorative Practices and the Danielson Model. I believe that the 4 Characteristics of ‘Authentic Learning’ are so important in order to prepare our youth for the workplace after high school, and for life both academically and socially.

  2. Kathe

    I agree and it can start in elementary school. If the students see how what they are learning is relevant to their own world in the here and now, they will be eager to learn. Once they are engaged in learning, they will not even realize they ARE learning.

  3. L. Badyk

    I agree, presenting the content with sense and meaning for our students leads to engaged learners who will be interacting at a deeper level with that content. Consequently, it is this authenticity that leads to long term learning…. which is what we want for our students!

  4. Lisa

    Agreed. Having students learn how to solve problems and find answers at an early age makes for better problem solvers as adults.

  5. Sally

    It is so important for high school students to be engaged in real world problems. They will lose interest if they do not connect what they aer learning to themselves or the world around them.

  6. Karen Weinhold

    Motivation is always a key factor in student learning. Authentic learning chosen to involve students in a real life problem important to them makes them engage in trying to solve it.


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