Providing Authentic Learning Experiences – Katherine Lithgow

ideas start hereThis past May, I had the great pleasure of presenting at Laurier’s Integrated and Engaged Learning Conference with Jill Tomasson Goodwin (Associate Professor -Faculty of Arts teaching in the Digital Arts Communication (DAC) specialization program; Scott O’Neill (Associate Director, Marketing and Communications within the Marketing and Undergraduate Recruitment (MUR)department and  Madhulika Saxena (a student in the W2014 DAC 300 course and a recent graduate from uWaterloo’s Arts & Business program).

We wanted to explore how we might bring high quality high impact practices (HQ HIPs) into the classroom.  Our presentation focused on DAC 300’s collaborative project that provided students with an authentic experiential learning opportunity where the students worked in teams to address an on-campus community partner’s real world need.  Our goal was to highlight how a course might embody the characteristics of HQ HIPs and what can be done in terms of course design and course delivery to make a course a high quality high impact practice. Using DAC 300 as an example, throughout the presentation, we provided ‘tips’ which we hope will help others incorporate high quality high impact learning opportunities into their classrooms.  

Experiential education has always been important in education, and it is of particular importance at uWaterloo.   We say it is in our DNA. We’re known for our co-op program; experiential learning is one of our Undergraduate Degree Level Expectations and our strategic plan promises ‘Experiential Education for All’.  We know that when done well, that is, where learning is “as much social as cognitive, as much concrete as abstract,” and emphasizes both judgment and exploration, experiential education helps students better absorb, retain and transfer knowledge (Lombardi, 2007)

So… what are the characteristics of a high quality high impact practice?

  1. Performance expectations set at appropriately high levels
  2. Significant investment of time and effort by students over an extended period of time
  3. Interactions with faculty and peers about substantive matters
  4. Experiences with diversity
  5. Frequent,timely and constructive feedback
  6. Periodic, structured opportunities to reflect and integrate learning
  7. Opportunities to discover relevance of learning through real-world applications
  8. Public demonstration of competence

(Kuh, G. D., O’Donnell, K., & Reed, S., 2013)

You can view our presentation here to see how these characteristics came to life in DAC 300.

A lot of things came together to make the DAC 300 course a great learning experience.  A couple that I want to highlight centre around 1) collaboration and 2) the impact on the instructor and students.

Experiential learning opportunities often bring students into meaningful contact with future employers, customers, clients, and colleagues. What struck me about the DAC 300 project was the extent to which Jill collaborated with an on-campus ‘community partner’ (Scott O’Neill and the MUR department) to provide her students with this real-world, relevant learning opportunity. In turn, Jill’s students collaborated together to provide MUR with a solution to address their real-world need. If we want to make more of these high impact practices available to our students, we will likely have to collaborate with campus partners -campus partners from writing centres, student affairs, living learning communities, residence life and librarians are just a few examples of who these campus partners might be. More important, the collaboration has to benefit all parties.

The role of the instructor often changes when you provide authentic learning experiences to your students. Prepare to learn along with your students.  Incorporating authentic learning experiences into your course can be disorienting and uncomfortable for you AND your students.  Your role shifts from ‘instructor’ to ‘coach’.  Students will come up with solutions or approaches that you have never thought of.  That can be a good thing, but it also means relinquishing a certain amount of control, being flexible, and adapting to circumstances- just as we do in the real world.

Jill Tomasson Goodwin has kindly created and shared these 6-Tips-and-10-Tricks-to-Facilitate-Classroom-based-Experiential-Learning. Jill encourages you to adapt them to your needs and invites you to email her (   to chat with her further about how these choices worked in practice.

DAC 300 is a 12-week reflexive theoretically-informed, practice-based course in User Experience Design (the art of understanding, designing, and creating an ‘end-to-end’ experience of technology for users).  The course design choices are based on a very real-world application of knowledge — facilitated inside, and tested outside, the classroom, for an actual client, with a pressing need.

During the W2014 offering, Professor Jill Tomasson Goodwin and her third-year Digital Arts Communication class consulted with UWaterloo’s MUR department to design an augmented reality version of a tour brochure. To complete the project, teams of undergraduate students drew upon their knowledge of user experience design, interviewed high school students, and then iteratively prototyped a range of augmented reality experiences, all designed to engage and inform students as they visit and explore the campus. The project and technology have been so successful that UW will use augmented reality to enhance other recruitment publications.


Kuh, G. D. (2008). High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are. Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter.  Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Kuh, G. D. (2008). Excerpt from “High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter”. Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Kuh, G. D., O’Donnell, K., & Reed, S. (2013). Ensuring quality and taking high-impact practices to scale . Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Lombardi, M. M. (2007). Authentic learning for the 21st century: An overview. Educause learning initiative,1(2007), 1-12.

Integrative and Applied Learning Value Rubric (AAC&U)

The Challenge: Experiential Education for All – Katherine Lithgow

csl“Experiential education for all” is one of the goals set out in our strategic plan and stems from our recognition “that learning is stronger when knowledge is tried and tested”. It is the ‘for all’ part that sounds a bit overwhelming, doesn’t it? I mean, how can we provide this opportunity in a meaningful way for all of our students? Continue reading The Challenge: Experiential Education for All – Katherine Lithgow

This is Real Life – Katherine Lithgow

 “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them” –Aristotle

We know that students learn best when learning is personally meaningful and when they are able to use knowledge and concepts to solve real-world, complex problems. They retain that knowledge longer when they learn-by-doing. Authentic learning experiences have the following ten design elements (Lombardi, 2007)

  •  Real-world relevance
  • Ill-defined problem
  • Sustained investigation
  • Multiple sources and perspectives
  • Collaboration
  • Reflection (metacognition)
  • Interdisciplinary perspective
  • Integrated assessment
  • Polished products
  • Multiple interpretations and outcomes

Authentic learning experiences are effective because they help learners make connections between new concepts and existing knowledge structures. When learners can see how new knowledge is personally meaningful, they are better able to retain and assimilate that knowledge into their existing knowledge structures. Working with the concepts regularly and repeatedly in different contexts with others helps with retention and understanding. Including a cycle of reflection on action gives students the time and space they need to consider why they acted as they did, consider the group dynamics and begin to develop the habit of questioning their actions and ideas to help inform future action. Finally, authentic learning experiences help students connect the concepts to the ‘big picture’ which includes the richness of the social setting- the people, the environment, and the activity. This helps the learner explore the concepts in different contexts.

Qualtars (2010) contends that “experiential education needs to be viewed as a unique form of pedagogy involving deep reflection, collaboration and assessment” (p.95). There are a number of courses on campus that offer authentic learning experiences; some of these have been presented at the Integrative and Experiential Learning Series. Examples include the following. Students in Knowledge Integration complete an undergraduate senior research project and present their findings at a poster session- (See the abstracts for the 2013 class projects). Mary Louise McAllister (Environment) offers an integrative, blended course which combines lectures with field trips, peer teaching and tutorial–based project work. The students present their qualitative research findings in a multi-media journal format. Troy Glover (Rec & Leisure Studies) offers a course on program management where students work with a community partner to offer a program. During the course, the students work in small groups with the community partner to conduct a needs assessment and design, implement and evaluate a program. The course is designed so that the students have a number of opportunities to reflect on the experience. In addition, the students participate in a weekend retreat which serves as a team building exercise as well as providing them with a program to critique and use to inform their own program planning. Students in Kelly Anthony’s (SPHHS) course can opt to work on a project with a community partner rather than complete traditional forms of assessment. These students enrich the class readings and discussions by sharing their experiences with their classmates throughout the term.

Initially, students may experience frustration as they deal with the ill-defined problems but they are motivated to carry on because the activity connects the course to the ‘big picture’. Participating in an authentic learning experience helps students relate to the concepts and processes on a personal level and better appreciate nuances that cannot be adequately captured by reading or listening to a lecture. They begin to immerse themselves in the practices of the discipline- both the social structures and the culture of the discipline; they begin to envision themselves as members of the discipline’s community.

There are challenges associated with implementing authentic learning experiences. Risk-taking for both the learner and the instructor is involved; as with any real-life ill-defined problem, neither the student nor the instructor can accurately predict how the experience will unfold. Authentic learning is a collaborative effort. Taking the time to develop teams…well it takes time, effort and requires support. But, the advantage of placing such an experience in an early course is that students can use these skills in later courses as well as outside the academic environment. And it helps students get to know people in their class and program.

Qualtars ( 2010) raises a point worth considering- “unless experiences outside the classroom are brought into the classroom and integrated with the goals and objectives of the discipline theory, students will continue to have amazing outside experiences but will not readily connect them to their in-class learning….Without a careful curriculum involving structured, reflective skill building, students may never learn what we hope they will outside the four walls of the classroom” (p. 95-96). This raises a number of questions and challenges – How can we ensure that students have the opportunity to experience authentic learning at least once during their time at university? What kind of support structures have to be in place to support authentic learning experiences?
How can these courses be identified so students can take advantage of the opportunity? [Some university websites provide a list of courses that offer experiential learning components. These can be further categorized according to faculty or department. See for example:
o Elon University , Kent State, DePaul University Catalogue
Simon Fraser University – a place where students can find the curricular and co-curricular EE opportunities

If we agree that authentic learning is beneficial to students, is it worth leaving to chance?


Qualtars, D.M. (2010). Making the most of learning outside the classroom. In D.M. Qualtars, (Ed), Experiential Education: Making the Most of Learning Outside the Classroom. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, Number 124, (pp. 95-99). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. ISBN: 978-0-470-94505-6.