What Does Authentic Learning Look Like, in Psychology?

By Erica Kleinknecht, PhD (2020)   

Ah, summer. It’s here, pandemic notwithstanding. I am sitting in my backyard as I type this today, on a cool July afternoon in the PNW. Weather here is fickle, some “Julys” temperatures peak just over 100-degrees Fahrenheit, but today it’s a mere 64. With variation like that, we never quite know what to expect!

One thing we can expect though, is that summertime is when we actually have time for professional development. While faculty like me are “off-contract,” in reality we are never fully off-duty. Indeed, with all that’s going on in the world (e.g., a pandemic that’s irrevocably changing our lives and livelihoods, civil unrest over systemic racism in the US), there is no time like the present to do what we can to prepare for the unknown next academic year, and so here I am, working diligently at upping my skill-set in ed-tech, on-line teaching, and the like.

No time like the present for Professional Development

In one recent virtual workshop I participated in, the presenter was sharing with us a variety of ways to use ed-tech to create or enhance authentic learning experiences for our students. Authentic learning, as a practice, is something I’ve embraced for a number of years already, so I was already sold on the premise, and interested in learning how to do it better. He started the segment off with a statement that went something like this: “Authentic assignments are easy to conceptualize; just think forward to the kind of job your students will have, and design something of use for that job” and that’s the point I am thinking about today, as I type this post. “Of course, yes, in some respects that’s easy, indeed,” I thought as I listened to the presentation. “Easy when you are teaching to a homogenous student body, that is,” I continued, to myself. This colleague of mine works in the College of Ed and only teaches pre-service teachers. So yes, authentic assignments are very straightforward, in that context.

But I teach in a completely different “world” despite the fact that we both work for the same university. Over in the Psychology department, we teach students across the Arts and Sciences curriculum, where even our upper-division courses targeted for majors are sought after by students in a variety of other majors. As an example, in a single semester, while all three of my classes were about Cognitive Psychology, I was teaching to students whose major interests spanned Psychology, Philosophy, Education, Kinesiology, Business, Music Therapy, Biology, Media Arts, and International Studies. It is not uncommon to have students interested in English, Economics, Sociology, Chemistry, Physics, Music Performance, and Dance in my classes, as well.

When the aim of authentic learning is to nudge students along in thinking about how to bridge their nascent knowledge and skills to anticipated career contexts (e.g., Lowell & Campion, 2020), how does one accomplish this with such disparate aspirational interests? I am always open to hearing more about others’ ideas on the matter, but also want to share a little of how I’ve been approaching this challenging, but worthwhile, endeavor, already.

What is Authentic Learning?

As noted above, teaching for authentic learning intends to implicitly address the ever-present question in learners’ mind: “Why am I being asked to do this?”. Broadly construed, the purpose of higher education is to prepare students for a future of work and citizenship and fulfillment. While faculty implicitly believe that everything they teach matters, students do not always share such broad-based trust in the preparatory system! When the value is made more clear, as authentic learning aims to do, then students get a healthy boost to their achievement motivation. So, I see it as a win-win. And honestly, as I edge up on 20-years in my career, I find the novelty of authentic assignments refreshing; I am tired of reading the same-old, same-old literature reviews, aren’t you?

Back to authentic learning, then. What is it, in comparison to a standard literature review type assignment? Roman, Callison, Myers, and Berry (2020) note 10 characteristics that mark high quality authentic learning. It is learning where students are challenged to … .

  1. … engage in problems or projects with real-world relevance
  2. … address [clarify] ill-defined problems
  3. … work on complex tasks through sustained investigation
  4. … examine tasks through different perspectives with the support of diverse resources
  5. … collaborate with other learners
  6. … reflect on their learning experiences
  7. … see how the work is applicable to a variety of subject areas
  8. … note the connection between the work and the assessment of it
  9. … create a meaningful product
  10. … note a variety of solutions and possible competing outcomes

To my mind, the most important of these factors for boosting motivation and more fully engaging students are #s 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9. That is, when course content and assignments bring students together to think through how course material links to real-world problems or situations that take time and energy to fully tackle, and that requires them to propose a workable solution, then their learning is rich and authentic.

All that is well and good, but what does this look like, in courses where the content is focused (e.g., Cognitive Psychology) but the student-body is diverse (as in, 7 – 9 different majors)? Does such diversity of student interest make authentic learning untenable? Or does it actually make authentic learning easier?

You don’t actually have to answer that question – I set it up in a bit of a straw-man fashion to make my point. In my courses, I am finding ways to make authentic learning work, despite the challenge of differing student-aspirations. Across a variety of different courses, my students are using course content as a jumping off point for writing letters to offer sound (i.e., empirical) advice, making memes, writing blog posts, starting websites, and contributing to e-books that resemble trade-books in the field.

In short, my students are using Psychology in authentic ways that are appropriate for their level of growing expertise. Very few of them will become therapists and professors, but they can all use Psychology in their future lives. In long, I share below a little bit more about some of my favorite assignments, of late, to help ensure that the lessons they learn are both lasting and useful.

Authentic learning across the Psychology Curriculum

Introduction to Psychology. As a popular gen-ed course, students across the entire Arts and Sciences enroll. Some students are decided and singularly focused and others are brand-new to college and completely undecided. All Intro-level students have some things in common though. They have friends who ask advice. They scroll, read, and comment in a variety of social media platforms. They talk to others about what they are learning. With those common experiences in mind, I engage my Intro students in two different authentic assignments over the span of the term.

“To whom it may concern.” I challenge students to write 4 letters over the span of the semester. The requirements are simple: they are to think about someone in their lives who would benefit from knowing a little bit of Psychology. Students are prompted to start their letters off like this:

“Dear _____. In my Psych class the other day, I thought of you! We are learning about this ______, and it reminded me of _____.”

From there, students explain the concept, connect it to their letter-recipient’s life or experience, and offer a suggestion for how they (the recipient) can use the psych-info to improve their lives in some small, yet meaningful way.

This assignment is fantastic. It gets students thinking more deeply about course topics. It helps them think about the value of what they are learning. It helps the find their own “scholarly yet conversational” voice, and it gives them another way to show what they are learning, outside the typical realm of testing. Importantly as well, despite idiosyncratic differences, the letters can all be assessed with the same kind of rubric (appropriate topical inclusion? Correct explanation? Reasonable advice?). It’s a clear win-win, as an authentic assignment. Students are encouraged but not required to actually send their letters. Many do, and are delighted with the responses they receive.

“Virtual Soundbites.” Who doesn’t love a good meme to laugh or cringe about, right? There’s a meme for just about anything, and many on Psychology. While some Psych-memes are spot-on, many are really awful, too. In this assignment, students first have to find a Psych- meme that is incorrect, and then they have to change it, to make it better or more accurate. In the write up, they explain the concept captured by the meme and discuss the errors and their correction. With student permission, the best memes are sent back out into the virtual world for circulation on an Instagram Page designed for this purpose: https://www.instagram.com/psychsoundbites/

Cognitive Psychology. This lower-division course enrolls students across the curriculum too, despite the more specialized topic. In this class, I took a slightly more “intellectual” approach to the assignments, but they were no less engaging than the Intro-level assignments noted above. In groups of three, students work on a semester long project following the “Wise Intervention” framework (e.g., Walton, 2014). A wise intervention is one in which a behavior is targeted for improvement following guidelines suggested by research. Wise interventions are not therapy, nor are they meant to replace therapy. Rather, they are “everyday” interventions, that anyone “in the know” can utilize by following carefully prescribed steps or suggestions. As such, each group selects a professional context of interest, progressively connects course material to that context, and create a wise intervention to improve upon a day-to-day aspect of the context. Each group’s final paper includes course content as it applies to the context, consideration of where one can improve their experience or practice, and suggestions for how to do so. At the end of the term, each group presents their project to the class.

In the Spring semester of 2020, I decided to go one step further from the presentations. I collated their final papers into an e-book tilted “What is Cognitive Psychology Good For?”. The e-book resembles a trade-book, and the advice students’ proffer in it is sound.  While actually making the e-book might seem superfluous, I don’t think that it was, at all. Knowing that their work mattered enough to make it public gave students an additional boost that was both needed and appreciated in the Spring of 2020, when the semester was disrupted by the Corona Virus pandemic.

Memory & Mind. The way I approach authenticity in this course has changed quite a bit over the years. Students naturally connect with the material – after all, as college students’ memory is always on the forefront of their minds and they are eager to learn how to maximize their memory processes! Unlike the Cognitive Psych class noted above, given the natural connection to content I don’t need an assignment to operate as a hook to maintain interest or to prove relevance, however that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for a boost with an authentic assignment. Over the years I’ve had students engage in the following kinds of ways …

  • compare autobiographical memory reports between them and a parent or sibling (turns out that students do often balk at just how malleable their own memories are, and this assignment is pretty mind-blowing for them)
  • design “first-year-seminar” / college prep courses
  • write blog posts
  • write letters to their past-selves
  • take on a “neuromyth” and bust it

The hypotheticals (seminar prep, blog posts) are not as popular with students as the others are; the “myth busting” assignments are probably the most popular. Students tell me that they find themselves talking with friends and family about their mythbusting endeavors and that’s fantastic news! Given how well received the recent e-book process has been, in future classes, I am going to continue thinking about what a good e-book project for this class might be.

Cognitive Development. Cognitive development is an upper-division course, and as with all others, also enrolls students across a variety of disciplines. Though enrolled students will eventually find themselves in many different careers, they will all share in some form or another the common experience of conversation and debate about child care and education. Even if they don’t become parents, themselves, they will talk with parents and they will vote about matters that influence education. That is, there will be many contexts in their lives where developmental information will come up, and where their expertise can be used to make a difference. With that perspective as backdrop, over the span of the semester, students use course material to “take a side” in debates about best practices in parenting and education. I usually leave it at that – students write the papers, and we “host” debates in class and discuss the merits of different sides.

While the in-class debates are usually satisfying enough for students, at the end of the Spring 2020 term though, I took it a step further and had students select their two favorite essays for inclusion in another e-book as well, titled “You don’t say? Developmental Science offers Answers to Questions about How Nurture Matters”. Instead of a final exam, students engaged in a peer review session, where they were paired up and they edited each other’s papers. Students then revised their papers, to submit to the e-book.

The value-added of letting students revisit and revise their work to prepare for inclusion in a public-facing project made such a difference for students’ moral and motivation in light of the disappointing end to the semester re: quarantine. They left this course very much aware of how much they’d learned and it’s value. A non-psych major remarked on how proud she was of the fact that she could read her classmates’ work and  deeply understand what it was about as the content came to mind while she read. That’s just the kind of outcome we hope for in our classes! The authenticity of the learning will ensure that much of what was learned sticks with the students in the long term.

Cognitive Science. There are many different ways that one can approach this course. Given the complexity and vast scope of material covered in a course like this (e.g., Psychology, Neuroscience, Philosophy, Computer Science, Linguistics, Anthropology), it actually is a good candidate for a traditional literature review assignment. Students do often struggle to see connections across the different disciplines that comprise the cognitive sciences, however in my experience they really drag their feet at the prospect of a literature review. As alternatives I’ve created a lot of flops that I am not going to list here. Over the span of about 18 years, it turns out that my earlier assignments and my most recent assignments have been the “authenticity” winners. Back in the early 2000s, when I first started teaching the course, I had students progressively write a proposal for an artificially intelligent toy, that would grow with a child companion (Sci Fi fans will find this notion familiar). In the paper, they discussed which theories / perspectives should inform the toy’s programs, they explained how the toy-AI compared and contrasted to human intelligence, and they wrote an assurance to parents that the toy would be a safe and beneficial companion. I stopped doing this project several years ago, given how rapid advances have been made in AI such toys don’t seem all that far-fetched. Now that I am typing this though I am remembering about how much I enjoyed reading students’ papers, and may revitalize this in future courses.

My latest idea (Spring 2020) was a big hit though. Over the span of the semester, students were tasked with responding to media hype about the Singularity or about AI in general. In a series of papers, they used course content to counter the hype and assure readers that AI is far from world-domination. As with the Cognitive Development class noted above, students selected their top 2 essays, and I collated them into an e-book titled “The Singularity Isn’t Nigh, and Here’s Why.” As with my other courses described here, students loved the public-facing nature of the e-book class project. Importantly, too, however, was their experience of doing the work. They entered the course with real fears about the imminence of the Singularity and doing the work of understanding the reality of AI to-date was both fascinating and relieving for them. They were talking with others about the course already, and taking what they were learning and formalizing it into an e-book felt like a natural extension of the conversations they were already having.

Concluding Thoughts

Next week I will start teaching my first-ever fully on-line course (due to the pandemic; I had originally planned it as a F2F seminar). The topic is Educational Psychology and Motivation, and I bet you won’t be surprised to learn what the authentic project will be! Yep, you guessed it. We are going write another e-book. I haven’t yet settled on a title, but the book will take the form of a handbook, wherein students will select a specific teaching or mentoring situation and develop a Wise Intervention framework for optimizing their future students’ motivation. Fingers crossed that once again, the real-life practicality of the project will help ensure that students deeply engage. I am eager to see what they come up with.

I hope you are inspired by my list of projects and ideas here. I would love to know what you are doing in your Psych classes in the spirit of authenticity, as well. One of the great things about taking the time to creatively approach student engagement with authentic learning is that it keeps things fresh and interesting for faculty, too. Not only that, but it also speaks to the longstanding charge in Psychology that this blog is based on – the call to “Give Psychology Away to Promote Human Welfare” (Miller, 1969). Giving knowledge away doesn’t have to be formal, but it can be. If students leave our classes with a conversation starter, an opinion an attitude or an idea about how-to, then we’ve done our jobs. The products (letters, books, blog posts, etc.) make the process a little more tangible. All together, these projects and conversations do make someone’s life better, and that’s awesome, isn’t it?


Kleinknecht, E. (2020). Pressbooks Project Catalogue: https://pressbooks.com/catalog/ericakleinknecht.

Lowell, V. L. & Campion, L. L. (2020). Introduction to TechTrends Special Issue: Authentic learning experiences via distance learning. TechTrends, 64, 548 – 549. Doi:  https://doi.org/10.1007/s11528-020-00523-2

Miller, G. A. (1969). Psychology as a means of promoting human welfare. American psychologist24, 1063.

Roman, T.A., Calluson, M., Myers, R. D., & Berry, A. H. (2020). Facilutating authentic learning experiences in distance education: Embedding research-based practices into an online peer feedback tool. TechTrends, 64, 591 – 605. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11528-020-00496-2

Walton, G. M. (2014). The new science of wise psychological interventions. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23, 73 – 82. Doi: 10.1177/0963721413512856





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