Authentic Learning

If nothing else, authentic learning is about complex and ill-structured domains of learning. Herrington and Herrington (2007) noted some of the same concerns about how teaching strategies for complex and ill-structured domains failed to account for the “messiness” of real life settings and left students at a disadvantage.

Authentic/Case/Project/Problem Based Learning Resources

They described the need for authentic learning environments which:

  • Provide an authentic context that reflects the way knowledge will be used in real life
  • Include authentic activities
  • Provide access to authentic performances and the modelling of processes
  • Include multiple roles and perspectives
  • Provide for collaborative construction of knowledge
  • Provide opportunities for student reflection on their learning
  • Provide opportunities for students to articulate and justify their work
  • Provides coaching and scaffolding

Rand Spiro argued that teaching methods that use “old linear, more mechanistic, single-perspective approaches” should be abandoned in favor of emphasizing “interconnected knowledge and knowledge in context” involving the application of “multiple perspectives, multiple knowledge sources, multiple points of view.” Spiro’s Cognitive Flexibility Theory prepares students to “select, adapt, and combine knowledge and experience in new ways to deal with situations that are different than the ones they have encountered before” (Michigan State University College of Education, 2002). 
Three approaches to authentic learning are described below.

Case Based Learning

Cases are stories that “recount—as objectively and meticulously as possible—real events or problems so that students experience the complexities, ambiguities, and uncertainties confronted by the original participants (Golich 2000, p. 12). Teaching with cases is learner-centered and promotes extensive faculty-student and student-student interaction. Case teaching “assumes that learning is more effective if students discover or construct knowledge with faculty guidance than if they sit passively and receive content from a distant ‘sage on the stage’” (Golich 2000, p. 13). 
Columbia University’s Center for Teaching and Learning (n.d.) outlines different types of cases and the type of learning that they promote: 

  • Directed cases for understanding fundamental concepts, principles, and facts: a scenario followed by close-ended questions that can be answered from course material)
  • Dilemma or decision cases for problem solving and decision-making skills: an individual, institution, or community faced with a problem to solve
  • Interrupted cases for problem solving skills: students are given the case in parts that they work on and make decisions about before moving on to the next part
  • Analysis or issue cases for analysis skills: answering questions and analyzing the situation presented, possibly using cases that tell a story and its outcomes and have students analyze what happened and why alternative solutions were not taken. 

The Center describes some strategies for engaging students in case-based learning (such as debates or trials, role plays or public hearings, jigsaws, and using student response systems, or “clickers”) (Columbia University’s Center for Teaching and Learning, n.d.).

Problem Based Learning

Noting that “all education involves either problem solving or preparation for problem solving,” Delisle and Staff (1997) warn that “[w}hen teachers and schools skip the problem-formulating stage—handing facts and procedures to students without giving them a chance to develop their own questions and investigate by themselves—students may memorize material but will not fully understand or be able to use it.” Problem based learning (PBL) provides a structure for discovery that helps students internalize learning and leads to greater comprehension. 

Project Based Learning

Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s (WPI) Institute on Project-Based Learning noted that with project-based learning, “students—guided, rather than directed, by faculty—take responsibility for their own learning by tackling real, tangible problems through open-ended projects.” Through this type of active learning, “students…develop key skills and abilities—collaboration, communication, problem solving, confidence, leadership, and more—that will prove invaluable professionally and personally” (WPI, 2020).


Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning. (n.d.) Case Method Teaching and Learning.
Retrieved from

Delisle, R., & Staff, A. (1997). How to Use Problem-Based Learning in the Classroom. ASCD.

Golich, V. (2000). The ABCs of Case Teaching. International Studies Perspectives, 1(1), 11–29.

Herrington, Anthony J. and Herrington, Janice A. (2007). What is an authentic learning environment? Retrieved from

Michigan State University College of Education. (2002). Pioneering a New Way of Learning in a Complex and Complicated World. New Educator (Spring). Retrieved from

Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). (2020). PBL in Higher Education. Retrieved from