Authentic learning is “real-life” situational learning relevant to students’ studies (Iucu & Marin, 2014). Case study, simulation, problem-based learning, and gamification are types of authentic learning. These inquiry-based learning experiences engage students in investigation, analysis, application, problem solving, and teamwork, providing connections to the world beyond the classroom. Students must construct knowledge through substantive exploration, conversation with others, generating alternative conclusions, and decision making.
We created an authentic learning experience in a business class by enlisting the help of community businesses to provide real-life problems for our students to solve. Part one explains how we designed the activity, while part two will offer guidelines for creating a similar activity in other courses.
Many authentic learning experiences used today come as off-of-the-shelf activities designed by publishers and vendors. But these might not fit a particular course topic well. To close this gap, we found real-time, real-life business problems that students could solve in our Business Feasibility and Consulting course. To do so we worked with partners from the community—businesses, nonprofits, and even internal stakeholders within the campus community—who were looking for help solving complex organizational problems. The range of past partners included a house cleaner wanting to grow her sole proprietorship, a nautical museum attempting to reignite its multimillion-dollar fundraising efforts, a dog trainer who experienced rapid growth and now owned a kennel but could not discern how to move forward with his business, and a campus museum attempting to broaden its reach in the community.
We began the course by dividing students into teams and pairing each with a business partner who became a client with a specific organizational or financial problem that each team needed to address and solve. Then on day one of the course, students were given information on their client and the client’s problem. From there the students ran their consulting exercise by meeting with the client in week one, during which the client talked about their problem, and the student teams conduct interviews to determine the needs they could address for the client.
Then each group divided into subgroups that worked areas related to the client problem. These could include product ideas, market competition, industry trends, and financials. The subgroups used the data and insights they had to build deliverables, such as research reports, recommendations, productivity tools, and prototypes for the client. The next seven weeks of the class were devoted to unstructured class meetings during which students would meet within their teams to address various aspects of the problem. The team decided on the most appropriate solutions they would research, develop, and deliver for the partner.
There were no grades except for the final project: an on-campus meeting with the partner. The student teams presented their deliverables and findings. This formal presentation was followed by a 90-minute, student-led discussion explaining their recommendations and educating the partner on their findings.
The class was structured in a hybrid format. Each week students met with their teams in the classroom. The instructor began each class meeting by facilitating group debriefs of the student subgroups’ activities the week prior. After the students had educated their team members on their newfound knowledge and work progress, the instructor helped each team develop the most efficient work plans for the coming week.
Face-to-face class days allowed for intergroup collaboration and visits or consultations with subject matter experts from across campus and the local community. For the remainder of the week, the teams and their subgroups worked in an online team area using discussion threads, collaborative documents, and real-time video meeting tools.
The faculty monitored the various subgroup projects throughout the week and provided guidance and connection to resources, new knowledge pathways, and suggestions to spark innovation. Some examples:
Students completed a formal survey to solicit perceptions of the experience compared to a traditional class during the final two class offerings. They reported positive experiences in every aspect of the learning experience. They recognized the knowledge and skills each acquired as meaningful for the future professional workplace and professional success. They reported being motivated by working together on a common goal instead of individually and not being limited to textbooks and traditional course materials in their learning. This was not surprising, as Iucu and Marin (2014) found that students became more self-aware, engaged, and enjoyed interacting in a collaborative context.
In comparison to a traditionally taught business management class, the students reported that
The most persuasive comment came from a soon-to-graduate senior who said, “I have been through four years of courses that felt like everything we did was just meant to be thrown away at the end of the term. This class is something I will take with me forever, and I know it will make me successful.”
Iucu, R. B., & Marin, E. (2014, August). Authentic learning in adult education. Procedia—Social and Behavioral Sciences, 142, 410–415. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.07.702
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.
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