Last week we discussed our use of local businesses to create an authentic learning experience for our students by having them solve real-life business problems. Here, we discuss how to create a similar experience in other courses.
In authentic learning, the curriculum is not imposed on students in a structured week-to-week or topic-based format. Instead, it unfolds as students work their way through the problem before them.
Students must be encouraged to think and explore. They often determine the sequence and time in which information is provided or reinforced to them according to their needs. As a result, the role of faculty changes from the traditional teaching model. Faculty members must become facilitators, coaches, monitors, and resource providers to be effective in the authentic learning environment. Faculty teaching in the authentic environment must feel comfortable with what can be perceived as a lack of structure to which they are accustomed. A high level of interaction with students is required. Faculty must recollect what has happened in the group, where each student is, and what each student needs (information, prompts, etc.) for their success. They also must be cognizant of the partner’s expectations. The course is a beneficial experience for both students and partners. Facilitation must be strong for an authentic learning experience to be successful.
How to get started with an authentic learning experience
Preparing an authentic learning experience requires considerable up-front work and preplanning. But please know the investment is one time. Faculty need to be prepared on day one—having a clear understanding of the partner and an idea of the potential scope of work and anticipating (even reaching out to) outside experts whom they may need to ask for assistance during the course. Best practices for preplanning your authentic learning class include the following:
- Locating partners: Consider looking to the people with needs in your backyard. Reach out to the alumni association. Talk to university departments, student orgs, and other campus services. Connect with the local small business association or your state’s related agencies.
- Preparing partners: Although your students will tackle the problem, faculty need to vet the partner and identify the scope and appropriateness of their needs to the student audience. If the partner’s problem is too complex for your students, you set everyone up for failure. Also, set partner expectations for deliverables. Remind them that this is student work. Although their team will work diligently to provide quality work, the deliverables cannot compare to a professional consultant’s.
- Preparing yourself: Take time to recognize the competencies you bring to the table and the areas where you may need to call on colleagues and outside resources. From your experience, try to anticipate how students may “see” the partner’s issue and considered how they might be inclined to solve the problem. If there are more effective processes and deliverables, think about ways you can introduce those items to the students throughout the learning journey.
Tips for making sure the experience is successful
Here are guidelines for implementing authentic learning experiences in your courses:
- Focus on real-world problems. Problems must be relevant to the real world, especially to issues and challenges currently being confronted in the discipline. They can also be common problems that occur during certain types of projects. The real-world problem you select must align with the course objectives and the kinds of situations students will encounter when they enter the workplace.
- Ensure problems are ill-defined and open-ended. Ill-defined and open-ended problems encourage students to take risks and move beyond a right and wrong answer or facts and content. These problems empower students to take responsibility for their learning and use creative problem-solving and evidence-based reasoning. Make sure students know that the problem is purposefully ill-defined and your expectations for them as they solve it.
- Identify problems that require multiple perspectives. Problems with multiple perspectives encourage students to look at various ideas beyond their own. Students should be encouraged to articulate their idea and justify it using persuasive arguments. Multiple perspectives can also aid the student in appreciating both the commonalities and alternative ways of thinking within a group. Creating empathy and community is also a critical component of multiple perspectives. As a facilitator, you must establish the rules and boundaries at the beginning of the course to ensure multiple perspectives are heard in a nonjudgmental environment.
- Design opportunities for collaboration. Authentic learning requires substantive engagement. Students working together have an opportunity to learn from one another and grow from those differing thoughts and ideas. Deeper learning occurs in partnership than if they were on their own. Students’ different strengths empower them to make distinctive contributions. Collaboration leads to self-management and simulates the workplace environment. Teamwork is essential, and you need to ensure collaboration is occurring.
- Allow learners to drive the class. Resist the urge to take control. This does not mean you cannot suggest resources, activities, or certain milestones. Remember, your role is to facilitate and coach. Let the students guide and organize their success path. In the learner-centered environment of authentic learning, the curriculum is delivered as students progress through their synthesizing, hypothesizing, and decision making.
- Provide coaching consistently. Coaching is different from teaching. A good coach meets each student where they are in the learning process and helps them to the next step. Encourage students to revise or evolve their ideas from what they already know. Resist giving them a solution but instead guide them to solutions. As a coach, you should also be communicating with students frequently and consistently.
- Encourage reflection. Reflection is transformative, allowing students to revisit their thinking and that of others. It helps them compare, contrast, connect ideas and construct new meaning through the integration of ideas. As they do, their mindsets shift, and they recognize their potential to grow and develop as learners. They become more aware as learners and more self-directed. Group reflection is an important way to build this capability. This can be accomplished using a closing discussion, an anonymous feedback activity like an exit ticket, or it can be part of the discussion board online.
Providing authentic learning experiences will challenge students and provide them with knowledge and skills they can take into the workplace. More importantly, the approach is exciting and engaging and will result in motivated students and faculty who can bring a new learning experience and value to themselves and their classrooms.
Marcia A. Wratcher, PhD, is a distinguished core professor at Northcentral University, and Jonathan M. Dapra, PhD, is the Rosenblum Endowed Professor of Business at Plymouth State University.