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Authentic Learning:
A Practical Introduction & Guide for Implementation

Clif Mims

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Phase II – The Learning Process:  It should be noted that in this example there is clearly some overlap between the first two phases.

With their increased love for and understanding of Giant Pandas the class began developing their advertising campaign.  The chief goal was to develop a local advertising campaign that would both make the community more knowledgeable about Giant Pandas and create interest in visiting the Georgia Panda Project at Zoo Atlanta.  During phase II the students developed their advertising plan.  They chose a four-pronged approach to delivering their message.  Once these four goals (advertising projects) were identified, the students organized themselves into small groups based on their interests in a specific project(s) and their abilities to help accomplish the project goal.  The students then set out acquiring and developing the materials and technical skills needed for each advertising project.  Initially, these work groups were well defined, but as the students diligently worked a synergy developed and individual students moved among groups offering assistance and expertise as necessary.

The following are brief descriptions of the four advertising projects.  Examples of these projects may be accessed online at

  1. Website - A website was designed to educate online visitors about and create enthusiasm for Giant Pandas and the Georgia Panda Project. The website URL was included in all of the advertising, and served as a common reference database to which everyone could be "pointed.”
  2. Flyers - Thousands of flyers inviting the citizens of Athens to meet Zoo Atlanta’s pandas, Lin-Lin and Yang Yang, were distributed around town and the university. This project was viewed as warm, friendly, "inviting" advertising.  The flyers included a picture and the names of the bears.  No “educational” information was included.
  3. TV Ad - A 30 second television promotion that aired on the local community access station was created. The ad included numerous images of Lin-Lin and Yang Yang and information about the plight of pandas as an endangered species.  The hope was that people would be touched and/or intrigued by the pictures and information and wish to visit the pandas.
  4. Pamphlets - Local businesses and organizations made our Panda Pamphlets available to the public. These pamphlets provided an introduction to Giant Pandas, information about their declining numbers, and the goals of the Georgia Panda Project.

The Take Away:  All of the features of authentic learning mentioned in the first phase continue to be present during this phase.  Students continue to be engaged with real-world problems and situations that motivate them to seek to understand about a wide variety of subjects.  Another characteristic illustrated in this phase is students’ engagement with higher-order thinking skills (analysis, synthesis, and evaluation).  The students simultaneously took all their information about pandas and their knowledge about technology, analyzed and interpreted it, and used this to help them design their advertising campaign.  Students were involved in these higher-level activities by their own actions.  Their drive to be successful caused them to push themselves in these ways.

In relation to the aims of this technology course, the students were involved in a wide variety of learning goals.  All four of the advertising projects involved word processing, graphics, images and basic design principles.  Each project also involved students in a set of experiences that were unique to that project’s aim.  For instance, the group developing the television ad needed a much greater level of expertise in issues related to visual design and mass media.  They gained this knowledge with the assistance of faculty and students in the university’s communications department as well as from volunteers from a local advertising firm.  These students then shared their new expertise as they helped the other groups improve their projects.  This acquisition and sharing of knowledge was present throughout this phase of the experience and greatly enhance students’ mastery of the course’s goals.

Phase III – Communication:  After all the advertising projects are completed, the students kick-off their ad campaign.  The flyers are handed out, placed on cars, and tacked on bulletin boards all over town.  The pamphlets are placed in business and organizations that have volunteered to distribute them and the television commercial begins playing on the local community access channels.  The flyers, pamphlets and commercials all direct community members to visit the newly launched website.  The students are proud of their finished products and enjoy the chance to “showcase” them during the campaign.  They find that, repeatedly, they are given the opportunity to share their learning experiences with others as a result of the public advertising.

The Take Away:  The primary element of authentic learning that can be demonstrated in this phase is that students need the opportunity to share their finished projects with an audience outside of the classroom.  The literature offers varying degrees to which this should be done, but the key point is that students should find the entire experience and their finished project relevant to the real-world.  This ability to transfer their new knowledge and skill beyond the walls of the classroom and make practical application of it is the most powerful characteristic of authentic learning.

An objective of this class is for students to learn to integrate technology into the learning process.  This has been demonstrated in numerous ways over the course of this learning experience.  One example includes an information database that the students created to help them keep record of each student’s expertise with technology.  As an advertising project group encountered a problem that none of them could solve, they would consult this database to find a class member that possessed the needed expertise.  This database sprang out of, what the students’ viewed, a necessity.  It was not an extrinsically imposed requirement, but rather something the students thought would help assist in their experience.

Overall Take Away:  There are some aspects of authentic learning that are best illustrated by looking at this entire experience.  Throughout this process learning was student driven with the teacher acting only as a guide or coach.  Inquiry and scaffolding were used as students constructed their understanding of the information and there were always ample resources available.  The final feature that has been illustrated is the opportunity for social discourse among the students throughout the learning process.  These students engaged in whole group meetings to develop the advertising plan, in small group discussions about individual projects, and countless one-on-one conversations about numerous aspects of this experience. 

Practicing Authentic Learning

To teachers that are considering using authentic learning in their own classrooms I offer some practical advice.

  1. You must think like a coach.  Authentic instruction calls you to a much different role than traditional teaching methods require.  The students are now in control of their learning and it is important that you not take that power away from them.
  2. Bring earplugs.  Realize that your classroom environment will drastically change.  Students will be actively working, participating in discussions, hunting for information, and enjoying the entire process.  Desks will have to be moved around and students will need to have freedom to move about the room.  It will become important for you to develop the ability to distinguish between “energetic learning” and other energetic activities.
  3. Ease your way into it.  Perhaps undertaking a two-week authentic experience in your initial effort is not a good idea…for you or for your students.  All of you will need to become acclimated to this new process.
  4. Get some help.  There are quality examples and resources to help you design authentic instruction, both at the bookstore and on the Internet.  Use their ideas and take advantage of any advice they offer.  It might also be a good idea to have adult volunteers come into your classroom and assist you initially.  The students will have many questions and needs, not just related to the lesson, but also as they begin to adjust to this new process.  An “extra set of hands” could be helpful in dealing with this.
  5. You are learning, too.  Think of your first attempt at implementing authentic instruction in your classroom as a learning experience for you.


There has long been a discrepancy between the traditional process of learning in schools and the process of learning in the real-world.  As a result, students have been unable to see any real-life connection with what they learn in school.  Authentic learning offers the opportunity for teachers to bring the outside world into the classroom.  In doing so, students can begin creating those connections.  This will empower them to transfer their knowledge and skill learned at school into their everyday lives outside of school, thus making the value of learning much more important to them. 

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Meridian: A Middle School Computer Technologies Journal
a service of NC State University, Raleigh, NC
Volume 6, Issue 1, Winter 2003
ISSN 1097 9778
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