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Archived Articles


Let’s Get Real about Learning

April 3, 2017 | By Xiaopeng Ni
Instructional Design

The primary reason instructors are interested in integrating real world tasks into the classroom stems from a belief that learning that emulates real life is more likely to promote student motivation, engagement, transfer of learning, and professional development. Students who learn decontextualized knowledge are likely to be able to answer items on a test, but often struggle to apply what they have learned when attempting to solve real problems. In this post, I would like to discuss the following three questions related to real-world/authentic tasks

  1. What is an authentic task?
  2. Why should we use authentic tasks?
  3. How can we create authentic tasks?

What is an Authentic Task?

Simply speaking, an authentic task is a task that requires students to use knowledge and skills learned to solve a problem in a real context. Let’s use the example of teaching instructional design. If an instructor asks a student, “What is instructional design?” or “What does the ADDIE model consist of?” then these questions could be called textbook tasks or exercises. If the instructor asks the student, “How can you use instructional design to help ABC Company solve its performance problem?” or “Students in the XYZ class have a low motivation on math, could you help the math teacher to enhance student motivation?” Then these questions are authentic tasks. Therefore, an authentic task is a real-world task in a learning context and has a potential to engage students in action and reflection.

Some scholars examined authentic tasks from the perspective of situated cognition.  Gulikers, Bastiaens, and Kirschner (2004, p. 71) argued that an authentic task is “a problem task that confronts students with activities that are also carried out in professional practice.” Brown, Collins, and Duguid (1989, p. 34) simply defined it as “the ordinary practices of a culture.”  Therefore, an authentic task, in contrast to an academic task, reflects the way knowledge will be used in real life and allows a student to demonstrate performance as a community of practice does in the real context.

Why Should We Use Authentic Tasks?

The first reason that an authentic task works for learning and transfer is that it builds a connection between practice and theory. Authentic tasks provide an opportunity to apply knowledge in the real world, so that knowledge is not inert on paper, but a tool to change the world. It reminds me of a Chinese idiom, “fighting only on paper” which refers to a knowledgeable strategist who failed in the real war against enemy. Moreover, the connection between theory and practice forces students to deal with complex issues in reality and therefore results in higher-order thinking, like synthesis, analysis, evaluation, and longer retention and transfer of knowledge.

Second, an authentic task acts as a “strange attractor” as it is called in complexity theory. An authentic task situates and integrates discrete experience, knowledge, and skills. Moreover, activities around the authentic task are goal-oriented. If learning is seen as a dynamic and complex process, authentic tasks lead to the generation of emergence and self-organization. Knowledge is more likely to transfer when it is organically related and when it is applied purposefully.

Third, authentic tasks trigger and sustain student motivation. An authentic task provides a starting point for learning, which considers each learner’s previous experience and personal life relevance. 

How Can We Create Authentic Tasks?

To construct an authentic task, the most important principle is to keep learner-centered and problem-solving oriented. However, allowing students to choose their own problems does not necessarily lead to an authentic task (Savery & Duffy, 1995). The initial task must be negotiated and discussed in terms of cognitive challenges. Herrington, Oliver, and Reeves (2003) offered ten features of authentic tasks, which could also serve as design principles and criteria. A qualified authentic task is:

  • ill-structured
  • has real-world relevance
  • requires a sustained period
  • yields a polished artifact
  • allows multiple approaching
  • covers interdisciplinary knowledge
  • is open-ended
  • integrates with authentic assessment
  • encourages team-working
  • facilitates reflective activities.

The authenticity of a task should be still maintained even after the task has been assigned.  As Barab, Squire, and Dueber (2000) argued, authenticity lies in “the learner-perceived relations between the practices they are carrying out and the use value of these practices” (p. 38).  When students are undertaking the task, the teacher should coach and scaffold in the way of a cognitive apprenticeship or community of practice so that authenticity could be continued. Finally, the authentic task should be also evaluated with criteria resembling  a real life situation.


An authentic task is important for both learning and transfer. For learning, an authentic task allows a learner to organize and situate learning experience, to encounter and apply knowledge, and to increase motivation. For transfer, an authentic task enables a learner to bridge the learning context and the real-world context, to search for similarities mindfully, and to build an interrelated knowledge structure.

However, it should be noted here that real contexts and authentic tasks are important, but not enough. A learner also needs to be able to decontextualize an abstract experience for transfer. Abstract knowledge is economic and has its power. Let’s think about E=m*c2 or R=U/I. It reminds me of dialectical epistemology in which knowing and learning is a recursive and developmental process from practice to theory, then theory to practice. Effective teaching should balance and “commute” between theory and practice and between concreteness and abstractness.



Barab, S. A., Squire, K. D., & Dueber, W. (2000). A co-evolutionary model for supporting the emergence of authenticity. Educational Technology Research and Development, 48(2), 37-62.

Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18, 32-42.

Gulikers, J. T. M., Bastiaens, T. J., & Kirschner, P. A. (2004). A five-dimensional framework for authentic assessment. Educational Technology Research & Development, 52, 67.

Herrington, J., Oliver, R., & Reeves, T. C. (2003). Patterns of engagement in authentic online learning environments. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 19(1), 59-71.

Savery, J., & Duffy, T. (1995). Problem based learning: An instructional model and its constructivist framework. In B. G. Wilson (Ed.), Constructivist learning environments: Case studies in instructional design (pp. 135-148). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications, Inc.

About the Author

Xiaopeng Ni

Dr. David Ni is currently an instructional design faculty member at Franklin University.