Three Elements of Authentic Learning Projects

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Project on Electricity, Series & Parallel Circuits

Our traditional view of a classroom would show a professor speaking at a podium or a teacher at her desk.  Students would be diligently taking notes as the instructor explained some process, model, or historical event.  In a week, students would take a test over the topic, where they would demonstrate that they knew the appropriate dates, people and significance of the topic.   Traditional models have their place in education, but with increased technology and access to the internet at our fingertips using smart phones, adjustments need to be made to reflect our changing world.

One movement in education is to increase the number of AUTHENTIC learning modules, where students look at real-world problems, and work out solutions.  This is often done in a collaborative environment where students work in small groups to produce an artifact or presentation that demonstrates their mastery of the topic.     There are many names for this:  project-based learning, authentic learning, inquiry based learning..etc.   The idea can be daunting for some teachers because it requires us to be a little more flexible and allow students to take paths that we might not have thought of.  Instead of a “sage on the stage”  of the traditional model, the teacher must become the “guide on the side.”  While most teachers  might deny it, if we are honest with ourselves, we recognize that is is hard to give up control.

This year, I am going to make an effort to add these authentic learning projects to my classes.   I don’t expect that every day will be group projects and labs, there will still need to be the lectures and powerpoints to provide students with the basics, but I’m looking at ways to engage students more and move away (at least part of the time) from a lecture based model.    I have three very different classes to work with:  introductory physics,  anatomy and physiology, and AP Biology.   There’s not a lot of crossover within those classes and the type of student in each is very different.  Creating collaborative inquiry based learning projects is not a ONE SIZE FITS ALL scenario.  I have however, developed a list of common elements to these projects that can apply to any class.

1.  Real World Applications

The goal of the project is to solve a problem that could or does exist in the real world, thus bridging the gap between what students do in class and what they experience and see outside of class.   The scope of the problem can be large, such as cleaning up an oil spill, or small, such as developing a recycling program in their community.   As long as the end goal has a real application, then it probably qualifies as an authentic learning experience.

2. Collaboration

The project involves collaboration with peers.  Very few us in the world work in a solitary fashion, we have coworkers, bosses, and family members that contribute to our daily decision making processes.  Collaboration allows for students to express and share their ideas and in doing so, gain a broader understanding of the topic.  How often do we notice that we learn something better when we are required to teach it to others?  Students often don’t get this opportunity to talk about what they have learned and to discuss and build upon the ideas of their peers.  An authentic learning project should include this element.

There are also online tools available for collaboration, such as  or

3.  Artifact or Publication

The project needs to include an artifact of some kind to demonstrate knowledge.  These artifacts vary depending on the nature of the project.   It could be a portfolio, power point presentation, web site, wiki, 3D model, scientific research paper, poster.    This part of the project is given a group grade, and often it may be good to include an individual assignment, such as a reflection paper or journal for individual assessments.

Digital Artifact Ideas:  Museumbox ,  WikiSpaces,  Flickr,  WebPoster, Youtube,

Here are samples of a projects  I’ve used in biology class.

Biome Webquest : Students investigate a biome, the goal is to present the area as a vacation package as if your were a travel agent:

Cicada Summer:  Students create a museum exhibit showcasing cicadas found in their area, cicada species emerge at different time intervals and this project is best completed in the summer.

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