Authentic Learning Activities

Engaging and motivating the Net Generation is a constant consideration for today’s teacher. Teacher evaluations, classroom management, and simply doing what we love to do – teach, guides this process. The question is how do we engage diverse learners in an age where teachers are expected to incorporate guidelines and standards for state assessments, adhere to curriculum, and do this within a limited budget?

The answer may be in authentic learning activities and assessments. As a vocational teacher, what I teach has real world applications, but tell that to the student in the Med Terms class who thinks that learning the difference between –ology and –ologist really doesn’t matter. Or to the student in the Level 3 class who says, “I know how to behave, I’m just bored and I won’t act like this when we go to clinical.” The pen and paper test that I give students at the end of each unit is one way of assessing and it serves its purpose to prep students for a standardized assessment that incorporates three years of study. But to really engage and get students motivated about learning and give them the opportunity to develop critical thinking skills, authentic learning activities and assessments put the learning in the students’ hands and makes them the creator of their own knowledge levels.

So what is the best way to go about developing authentic learning activities? Andrew Miller’s Edutopia blog, “Bringing Authenticity to the Classroom” is one resource for teachers looking for ideas. Another is OER Commons. OER Commons has a wealth of free resources for various subject areas.


19 thoughts on “Authentic Learning Activities

  1. Authentic learning experiences are also advantageous for higher education allied health students. I have developed numerous authentic learning experiences, but my favorite assignment was a field observation/interview within the students’ perspective discipline. Higher levels of student motivation can be expected due to the networking factor. ~Robin

  2. My resiliency class is building a boat.

    Before you jump to the assumption that I know how to build a boat, let me stop you. I don’t. But the folks at the Compass Project do, and we partnered with them this year. So we are building a Deblois Street Dory, which is a beautiful sailing and rowing dory.We are doing real work. It is an authentic learning activity. And it is really working for some of my students.

    But not for all. Why not? Because they see it as building a boat, and not really related to what we are working on in the rest of the class.

    I get that. It isn’t really obvious to some of the students that the skills they learn building a boat are transferrable skills. Patience, teamwork, dealing with frustration- these all are part of being a resilient person. They fit into the course.

    But is boatbuilding itself an authentic learning activity for this course? Perhaps not. It is more closely tied in to the math curriculum of the other class building the boat with us. More authentic.

    Some subjects probably lend themselves to authentic learning projects better than others. Regardless, it seems to me that we need to match our projects with our subjects carefully, so that the connection to the learning is obvious.

  3. Mindy Smith says:

    To develop authentic learning activities, I think we have to put ourselves in our students’ shoes. What is real life like for them? What is important to them now and over the next few years? What will their futures look like? How can we incorporate what we’re teaching into their daily lives? We need to choose learning experiences that are applicable and interesting so that what we are teaching sticks with our students. Too often my daughter comes home and can’t tell me anything she did that day. Or answers with “nothing much.” I yearn for the day when she describes an authentic learning experience. Although I do believe that all students should have the opportunity to have authentic learning experiences, I would especially expect to see some in the gifted classroom. Needless to say, my daughter has not shared any from that classroom either.

    • Mindy, I couldn’t agree with you more! It is so important that these “authentic” learning activities are actually authentic to our students in their lives. It is sad when a kid comes home unable to report anything interesting from that day. So how do we as teachers make sure that happens everyday?

  4. Authentic learning sounds like project-based learning. Am I correct? Are the terms synonymous? I am learning about project-based learning right now, and the goal is to get students creating and learning by working with a driving question/problem and then share their learning with an authentic audience (outside of the classroom and teacher). My video production class had to create “commercials for the community” and work with a local business to create an ad that could potentially be shown at our local movie theater. The project was a success, and really forced students to step outside of their comfort zones and work in the real world. For this unit, the community commercials showed me what students learned far better than a paper/pencil test could. I think these experiences are valuable and certainly need a place in education!

  5. I found the important piece to be the “audience” part of

    Every Friday, my students put their functional math, reading, kitchen and social skills to the test through our cookie business. We spend the morning (into the afternoon) baking cookies for the students and staff at the high school. We’ve become a pretty big deal. My students are recognized for the delicious cookies that they bake. They see the importance of this due to the teachers and their peers (their audience). Kids tweet and Facebook about cookie friday…. one day we had a snow day on a Friday, and I was receiving texts from students asking me what we were going to do… we had a cookie Monday!

    My point is, my students see the importance of their job and the skills I am teaching due to the audience. They don’t want to let anyone down!

    ** I couldn’t link the source… this comment box wouldn’t let me 😦

    -Courtney C.

  6. I see many different ways that you are all developing authentic learning activities or project based learning on a budget! Robin’s students observe/interview. Jim’s class has partnered with an outside organization. Mindy has ideas about what the future holds for her students. Beth’s students have recorded commercials. Courtney’s class has developed a client base who hold a strong penchant for cookies!

    I’m wondering if any of these projects meet the state standards or curriculum for your classes? Although Jim teaches in Maine (if my memory is correct), his observations that students are building teamwork skills are consistent with Pennsylvania’s Career, Education, and Work Standard: 13.2.11.E: Demonstrate, in the career acquisition process, the application of essential workplace skills/knowledge, such as, but not limited to:
    Team building
    Technical literacy
    Technology (and others)

    Are any of you looking at specific standards that authentic learning activities meet? Pennsylvania’s Department of Education Standards Aligned System may give you some ideas.

  7. I also struggle with authentic learning activities for my learning support classes. When I view the standards for the students in the grades I have students from (3rd, 4th and 6th grade) I struggle with making it all work!! I want so much for my students to desire to be successful and to find the fun in learning. When we do hands on activities I see the light bulb go off for many, but when it comes to paper and pencil the desire is not there. I can’t always do hands on or project based activities – any suggestions?

  8. I did a quick search for “hands on activities fourth through sixth grades”and came up with the following:,, and It takes precious time to sort through everything, through! The PDE SAS has activity suggestions as well.

  9. Teaching well takes a person who thinks beyond the common core standards and beyond the boxed curriculum and intricately links the learning objectives to authentic experiences. The students are working on the task rather independently and the teacher is in a facilitator role. It may appear that the teacher has it easy when viewing an authentic learning activity but behind the scenes it takes much more planning than reading from a teacher’s manual. I believe that authentic learning activities are key in providing a well-rounded education to the students. In authentic learning environments students answer that every looming question: why do I have to know this or when will I ever use this?
    An educator who wants to implement authentic learning activities into a classroom needs to be familiar with the common core standards and the learning objectives and also what authentic activities fit their audience and community. I found a very good resource that helped me define what types of activities are actually authentic and what activities may appear to be authentic but are not. The more resources an educator has available to them the more likely the educator will create authentic practices. The tools that we are learning how to use in this class will help locate and organize those resources.

  10. Very reflective questions you have asked for all of us. As a teacher we must decide when, and when not to use technology. Personally I think it will take a small army to use all of this technology in a classroom. For this reason, they don’t have the computer skills such as; the home row, which to click on right, or left, computer safety, taking care of the equipment, and so on. I feel that technology should be implemented within a classroom, not used for everything. It just won’t engage students anymore if we use it for every lesson we do in class.

  11. Tyler Winters says:

    I am a huge advocate of authentic learning. Like many have mentioned in previous posts, we need to connect a student’s learning and apply it to the real world. A question I have been asked, and I am sure others have been asked is, “Why do we have to learn this anyway?” and “When am I ever going to need to know this?” When children understand the importance of what they are learning in school, the easier it will be for them to personalize their education. It’s true, isn’t it? I know when I have taken college courses, my first complaint tends to deal with how will this be used in my classroom. If I can’t see any correlation, I become grumpy, and muddle through it just to get it done. Do I get much from it? No!

    I, too, wondered if Authentic Learning isn’t synonymous to Project Based Learning. Many of the Project Based Learning activities mimic Authentic Learning. The hardship I have faced with teaching standards through Project Based Learning was the amount of time it takes to carry out the project. As a teacher of the 21st century, and being pressured by the state to ensure children are being prepped for the Common Core, I struggle to employ this type of teaching on a daily basis. I know it’s sad that I don’t apply it to all of my lessons, but there just isn’t enough TIME!

  12. I remember a time when authentic learning or project based learning was really emphasized in school. Several years ago when I had taught Civics we would have a “Selling Expo” to teach supply and demand. From this experience students from all learning styles were engaged, it directly related to the real world, and students met the objectives for the unit. I would see such excitement in my students and it made a direct impact on them.

    Just like many of our colleagues I am a also a big advocate for authentic learning. I really try to incorporate and to meet as many different learning styles as I can with lessons and also hope to meet students at the level that they are on. This topic reminded me of a comment that one of my students had made this year. After school had started and I had identified students who needed enrichment opportunities I had approached one of my students to find out what he was interested in learning more about. Well, he had said marine biology so I thought we would work on a project through research and would incorporate technology. His response was that he wanted to learn about marine biology through his eyes…by being placed in that environment. That would be great if this were possible, but as another colleague had said we have so much curriculum that we are expected to teach and the curriculum is aligned to the Common Core Standards which is very rigorous. So my question is: How do we incorporate authentic learning within the time frames that we have and still make sure that we teach all needed curriculum to our students? I know that when we do project based learning, my students eyes light up…what a feeling!

  13. Mark Caskey says:

    Authentic learning is a definitely a great tool, and the benefits for the students are numerous. However the biggest problem I always run into while trying to implement more authentic learning activities is finding enough time. Our district curriculum maps are very structured with demanding timelines. For example, in math we are given a map which shows what content needs to be taught on any given day. The schedule must be followed, as we are required to give district anchor tests on certain days throughout the year. Because of these factors, it is difficult finding time for authentic learning activities. I try to modify my instruction to give students more control of the content. I try to get them up and out of their seats as often as possible. One authentic learning experience my students always seem to enjoy is during our measurement unit. Instead of just showing they can measure through sample problems, they are required to build certain objects. We also have station activities where students measure real world items, and a “Measurement Olympics” where the students compete in several events in the gym and have to measure their results. Again, I wish I could incorporate more of this kind of instruction, but find it hard with time constraints.

  14. Although my experience is not in the classroom, in corporate communications, we struggle with how to relate new business challenges and needs in a way that will be actionable for employees. I struggled with this in the lesson plan and determined to adopt an approach that is similar to the experience we are having as part of this course – teaching each other. When your perceived professionalism with colleagues is on the line, I think that creates a greater desire to do well. (This as opposed to a canned module with a Q&A multiple choice at the end). I think what many of you are already doing does result in authentic learning and projects like building a boat or creating a cookie business gets them more engaged and put their reputation with others on the line as well. All the same, kids and teenagers have a pronounced tendency to downplay everything – authentic learning experiences included :P.

  15. Robin, Jim, Beth, Courtney, Melissa, Linda, and Mark C. have all described authentic learning activities that they have been a part of. Mindy points us in the right direction when she says that we need to consider what our students’ lives look like to develop authentic activities. Erin brings a similar perspective from the business world.

    Julie points out how much time it takes “behind the scenes” to develop activities and shares this link so that we can determine which activities are truly authentic.

    Mark R. takes the stance that we must decide when and how to use technology in our lessons so that it is engaging. Tyler can relate to wanting the lessons to be meaningful, but recognizes the rigor that limits the amount of time teachers can spend on authentic learning activities as do Mark C. and Melissa.

    As teachers we have want to engage and motivate our students and authentic learning activities are one way of doing this. Authentic learning activities need not be a part of every lesson or even every unit but they can be incorporated some of the time. Mixing it up helps to keep our lessons fresh, while adhering to curriculum, teaching to standards, keeping within a budget, and staying within a time frame. Many of the teachers I know incorporate authentic learning after standardized tests are over for the year, usually at the end of the last quarter. Something to consider…..

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