The Impact of Authentic Learning on Student Engagement and Achievement



Authentic learning is rooted in constructivist theory, which says that actively engaging with problems and materials is always the best way to learn. AL is also based in John Dewey’s belief that children need to engage with real-life goals and skills in schools. He asserts that “from the standpoint of the child, the great waste in school comes from his inability to utilize the experience he gets outside while on the other hand he is unable to apply in daily life what he is learning in school. That is the isolation of the school--its isolation from life”. Authentic learning is specifically designed to engage students with personally and culturally relevant projects.

This is the complete guide of Challenge-Based Learning, as created by Apple. This is a helpful tool for anyone considering how authentic learning can be added in the classroom, especially with technology. See more below!

A similar type of learning, Challenge-Based Learning, will also be discussed briefly. In 2008, Apple designed a specific style of authentic learning called Challenge-Based Learning. This was designed because the founders noticed a lack of real world contexts and opportunities for active participation in schools. They created a comprehensive guide on how to implement this in your classroom.


Authentic learning: what, why and how?

Authentic learning is designed to actively engage students in real-world problems with personal and cultural relevance. True authentic learning (AL) must fulfill all parts of the following ten point checklist borrowed from ACEL

  1. Real Relevance: AL lesson plans should focus on relevant activities and tasks that represent a students’ future professional life as closely as possible.
  2. Ill-defined Program: The project asks students to solve an ill-defined problem, which doesn’t have one obvious answer.
  3. Long-term Investigation: This problem should engage students in projects and tasks that require a significant investment of time. It should not be solvable in a few minutes or even a few hours. This should be a sustained, ongoing project.
  4. Multiple Perspectives: Students should use multiple sources and perspectives to inform their project. These resources can theoretical or concrete. Students should correctly distinguish relevant from irrelevant sources.
  5. Collaboration: This project should be completed with collaborative groups, preferably 4-5 students. Students should utilize their social connections to fulfill their project.
  6. Reflection: Student learners should frequently reflect on their project and utilize these reflections to continually improve their work.
  7. Interdisciplinary Perspectives: AL projects should involve an interdisciplinary perspective. They should make use of knowledge from a variety of subjects and skill areas.
  8. Organic Assessment: The assessment for these projects should be organically integrated into the unit. It should be used purposefully by learners and teachers.
  9. Polished Product: This project should lead to the creation of a polished product.
  10. Multiple Interpretations and Outcomes: The problem should be able to be addressed in a variety of ways. Students should utilize the variety of interpretations and outcomes to solve their essential question.

Challenge based learning is based on a student-lead project, where students take a big idea and turn this into an essential question with a specific solution (with a measurable outcome). Students should be able to reflect on their own work and continually seek improvement on their goals. This also asks students work collaboratively to solve real world issues through a multidisciplinary approach. Therefore, we mentioned CBL throughout our research, as an extremely similar (but not identical) alternative to authentic learning.



Compiled Research:


         The following is a detailed report on scholarly research on Authentic Learning, applied at Jacksonhole High School. This will help you understand what this looks like in practice: benefits and potential challenges alike.

Jacksonhole High School found that the challenge-based learning model could increase student engagement and achievement in the right circumstances. One major key to success is ensuring that classwork and expectations are within student’s zone of proximal development. According to their official report, “engagement was low when presented with a challenge they perceived to be far beyond their skill level; but once students had developed their skills sufficiently, flow experience was witnessed” (Shuptrine, 2013). Most excitingly, students who had achieved “flow” were often found excitedly working through the class without prompting and even conducting work outside of class time. The experiment’s formal post-interviews suggested that once students were engaged, challenge based learning does teach a variety of 21st  century skills, which students are not normally experiencing at school.


Positive and Negative Examples:

This is a example of authentic learning in a 4th grade social studies classroom. Here, students are asked to lead their own learning, completing independent research and seeking a method for raising awareness on an issue. The teacher speaks specifically about how much easier it is to provide live feedback with this sort of unit. The one major issue with this example is that students do not get to self-select their guiding question. In fact, the question selected is arguably not very relevant to their lives or 21st century reality. However, the unit makes up for this by encouraging students to utilize 21st century skills, like internet searching and creating interactive presentations.

This site provides many general examples of authentic learning assignments, organized into various content areas. Many of these assignments ask students to pose or think as various, real professionals in their field of study (for example: a journalist, a cryptographer or a museum curator). These lessons allow students to think through how their academic work can apply to various professional careers. However, this does not allow students to choose their own point of inquiry, which may decrease student engagement. Still, this article does a good job of reminding us that, while ideally authentic learning becomes a whole unit, we can still incorporate these principles into our lessons as frequently as we see fit!


For more examples and information about what Authentic Learning and/or “Project-Based Learning” (very similar to authentic learning) looks like in a real classroom, please see this hyperlinked website above!






  1. Introduces students to AMT model of three goals of learning  acquisition, making meaning and transfer (AMT)
  2. Equips students with real life skills
  3. Changes the dynamics of the learning environment and encourages students to take charge of their own learning
  4. Generate engagement with students with relevance to real-life
  5. More opportunities for creativity
  6. More opportunity for reflection/self-assessment


  1. Involves a lot of technology utilization, which may not be practical for all schools
  2. Planning for an authentic learning experience takes more time than traditional
  3. Mimicking real world problems in the classroom might seem forced or awkward
  4. Teachers might be removed from the real world because they spend all their time in the classroom and preparing
  5. Requires students used to the traditional teacher-led class period to majorly adjust
  6. Teachers don’t have the same level of control



Although Apple does not provide specific examples of challenge-based learning lessons in their how-to guide, they provide a few recommendations that will help your lesson plan run more smoothly. Please keep these ideas in mind, when designing your own lessons.

  1. Apple recommends that teachers regularly hold brainstorming and time management sessions. These time management sessions help remind students to stay on target throughout their independent work time. The brainstorming workshops are designed to continue to develop students creativity and problem solving skills. They serve as a helpful reminder that students should continually be brainstorming new and better ideas to include in their project.
  2. Apple also recommends that both teachers and students document their progress regularly. This documentation is essential to tracking progress and helping students understand their growth. Apple recommends documenting through video, but we believe that the most valuable component is documenting one’s own progress and growth (regardless of the medium).

Additional Resources:


For more information, please view this Ted Talk on why Authentic Learning works better for our kids! The speaker explains the benefits from the perspective of a teacher and parent.

This website provides specific and clear language on the writing of an authentic task. It uses simple language that could be easily adapted to explaining the goals of authentic learning to children.

This site specifically explains the pros and cons, specifically in the context of STEM. It provides specific examples that would work for the STEM classroom, which could also be adapted for other classes.

This is a specific research from Harvard University that focuses on the benefits of Authentic Learning. This research is specifically set up with the context of utilizing simulation technology in the classroom, an useful resource for implementing AL.

This is a list of seven basic components of Challenge BAsed Learning. It’s an easy to read introduction to the topic!

This is a list of seven basic components of Challenge BAsed Learning. It’s an easy to read introduction to the topic!

This is a list of seven basic components of Challenge Based Learning. It’s an easy to read introduction to the topic!


For more information, please view this Ted Talk on why Authentic Learning works better for our kids!

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