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.


Published by

Katherine Lithgow

As Senior Instructional Developer, Integrative Learning, Katherine Lithgow facilitates ePortfolio and Integrative Learning initiatives, supporting instructors across campus with the design and implementation of activities that help students integrate learning in academic, workplace, community and social environments. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Katherine taught Cytology at The Michener Institute for Applied Health Sciences. She received her BA from the University of Toronto, and a Master’s in Educational Technology from UBC. In what seems like another life, Katherine worked as a cytotechnologist graduating from TMI’s Cytology program.

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