“We do not create artificial assignments for babies. There are no lectures on how to eat. They grab an actual spoon, fling some food around, and experiment until they get it in their mouths.”

Eyler, Joshua. (2018). How Humans Learn.

The word authenticity may turn off the more jaded academic reader. Admittedly, it carries an air of pretension and buzzwordiness. The term could easily succumb to overuse or inspire eye-roll-inducing conference talks. Yet, there is good reason for educators to understand authenticity and how it relates to teaching and learning.

Leading scholar on authentic learning Jan Herrington.

Authentic learning is grounded in the constructivism of Piaget and other theorists, emphasizing the active acquisition of knowledge through practice and experience. Evidence suggests authentic learning gets better results than passive approaches like traditional lecture.

Benefits of Authenticity

Julia Hayden Galindo, from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, writes “students who take part in classes with an authentic learning component, make higher academic gains” than students in similar classes that lack an authentic learning component. She cites studies by Mayo (2010) and Power (2010) to support this conclusion.

In a large meta-analysis, Freeman, et al (2014) found significant benefits to active learning, a genus of authentic approaches that also emphasize real-world experiential constructivism.

The meta-analysis looked at 255 studies of courses in STEM fields, finding that overall “average examination scores improved by about 6%” in the active learning sections over those based on traditional lecture. The meta-analysis also found “students in classes with traditional lecturing were 1.5 times more likely to fail” than their active learning counterparts.

What is authentic?

So authenticity delivers results, but what does it mean to be authentic?

“Realism lies at the heart of any discussion of authenticity.”

Eyler, p 152

Authentic learning must resemble, as much as possible, the real-world application of the knowledge to be gained. In some disciplines, it is the real-world application of knowledge. In chemistry, for instance, authentic learning may involve working with chemical reactions or the phase changes of matter. In aviation, on the other hand, a simulator provides an authentic flight experience.

Whether fully real or merely simulated, an “authentic learning experience must have ‘as much fidelity as possible to what students will encounter outside of school in terms of tools, complexity, cognitive functioning, and interactions with people'” (Eyler, p 153).

Inauthentic Experience

To appreciate authenticity, consider its absence. Inauthentic experiences suffer two distinct drawbacks: ineffectiveness and inattention.

Teaching methods that lack realism are less effective because they fall victim to “the problem of inert knowledge”, an idea that traces back to Alfred North Whitehead. Inert knowledge may be regurgitated, but cannot be applied outside the artificial confines in which it was absorbed. A student who can recite electrical formulas on an exam, eg., but can’t complete a circuit suffers from inert knowledge. A student who can recount the events in 1930s Germany but can’t contrast fascism with other political movements may also suffer from inert knowledge.

Inauthentic teaching is also prone to student inattention. As Eyler points out, “if the brain registers a situation as being artificial or unimportant, it will allocate cognitive resources elsewhere” (p 170). That’s a tactful way to describe boredom. Students who become thus disengaged may be worse off than those with inert knowledge; they may even fail to be able to apply knowledge in the artificial setting of a classroom.

Why is authentic learning important?

What makes authenticity work in education? The answer may have to do with how humans are predisposed to learn from an early age.

In an earlier post, I discussed Eyler’s chapter on curiosity and the ideas of psychologist Alison Gopnik. She suggests children possess an innate science-like method of testing and theorizing about the world around them. This view presupposes authenticity; our evolutionary development took place between the earth and sky, not a desk and whiteboard. Authentic learning harnesses our natural learning patterns.

Experiential Learning Theory: a framework for authenticity

In 1984, educational theorist David Kolb proffered a theory of experiential learning. His Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) gives us a framework for understanding the role of authenticity in learning. Kolb’s theory contains a cyclical model consisting of four parts:

Image credit: Queens Univ, Kingston, Ontario
  1. Concrete experience: active participation in a task, such as lab or field work, rather than passive observation
  2. Reflective observation: thoughtful consideration of the experience, including positive and negative outcomes
  3. Abstract conceptualization: sense-making and informal theorizing drawing on reflection as well as external information
  4. Active experimentation: planning to apply new understandings to future experience
Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle described for health workers

The four stages take place sequentially, then the cycle begins anew. Kolb’s experiential learning model may serve as a guide for educators wishing to enhance the authenticity in their classes. If a class activity incorporates each of the four stages, it is likely an authentic experience.

To further explore authentic learning and the experiential learning model, I plan to peruse this ebook: The Experiential Learning Toolkit by Colin Beard (2010). It contains about 50 activity ideas that may make a class more authentic.


Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415.

Herrington, J., Reeves, T. C., & Oliver, R. (2014). Authentic learning environments. In Handbook of research on educational communications and technology (pp. 401-412). Springer, New York, NY.

Mayo, J. A. (2010). Constructing undergraduate psychology curricula: Promoting authentic learning and assessment in the teaching of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Power, A. (2010). Community engagement as authentic learning with reflection. Issues in Educational Research, 20(1), 57-63.

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