Jan Herrington’s model of Authentic learning

A few days ago I met with my supervisor  to discuss my research plan for the year. She suggested I look into Jan Herrington’s work on authentic learning so I thought I’d make some notes here as I familiarize myself with it.

To begin with, there are 9 elements of authentic learning (I believe that in designing our blended module we’ve managed to cover most of these elements. I’ll write that process up another time):

  1. Provide authentic contexts that reflect the way the knowledge will be used in real life
  2. Provide authentic tasks and activities
  3. Provide access to expert performances and the modelling of processes
  4. Provide multiple roles and perspectives
  5. Support collaborative construction of knowledge
  6. Promote reflection to enable abstractions to be formed
  7. Promote articulation to enable tacit knowledge to be made explicit
  8. Provide coaching and scaffolding by the teacher at critical times
  9. Provide for authentic assessment of learning within the tasks

The above elements are non-sequential.

“Authentic activities” don’t necessarily mean “real”, as in constructed in the real-world (e.g. internship), only that they are realistic tasks that enable students to behave as they would in the real-world.

Here are 10 characteristics of authentic activities (Reeves, Herrington & Oliver, 2002). Again, I believe that we’ve designed learning activities and tasks that conform – in general – to these principles. It’s affirming to see that our design choices are being validated as we move forward. In short, authentic tasks:

  1. Have real-world relevance i.e. they match real-world tasks
  2. Are ill-defined (students must define tasks and sub-tasks in order to complete the activity) i.e. there are multiple interpretations of both the problem and the solution
  3. Are complex and must be explored over a sustained period of time i.e. days, weeks and months, rather than minutes or hours
  4. Provide opportunities to examine the task from different perspectives, using a variety of resources i.e. there isn’t a single answer that is the “best” one. Multiple resources requires that students differentiate between relevant / irrelevant information
  5. Provide opportunities to collaborate should be inherent i.e. are integral to the task
  6. Provide opportunities to reflect i.e. students must be able to make choices and reflect on those choices
  7. Must be integrated and applied across different subject areas and lead beyond domain-specific outcomes i.e. they encourage interdisciplinary perspectives and enable diverse roles and expertise
  8. Seamlessly integrated with assessment i.e. the assessment tasks reflect real-world assessment, rather than separate assessment removed from the task
  9. Result in a finished product, rather than as preparation for something else
  10. Allow for competing solutions and diversity of outcome i.e. the outcomes can have multiple solutions that are original, rather than a single “correct” response

Design principles for authentic e-learning (Herrington, 2006)

“Authentic learning” places the task as the central focus for authentic activity, and is grounded in part in the situated cognition model (Brown et al, 1989) i.e. meaningful learning will only occur when it happens in the social and physical context in which it is to be used.

“How can situated theories be operationalized?” (Brown & Duguid, 1993, 10). Herrington (2006) suggests that the “9 elements” framework can be used to design online, technology-based learning environments based on theories of situated learning.

The most successful online learning environments:

  • Emphasised education as a process, rather than a product
  • Did not seek to provide real experiences but to provide a “cognitive realism”
  • Accept the need to assist students to develop in a completely new way

There is a tendency when using online learning environments to focus on the information processing features of computers and the internet. There is rarely an understanding of the complex nature of learning in unfamiliar contexts in which tasks are “ill-defined”.

The “physical fidelity” (how real it is) of the material is less important than the extent to which the activity promotes “realistic problem-solving processes” i.e. it’s cognitive realism. “The physical reality of the learning situation is of less importance that the characteristics of the task design, and the engagement of students in the learning environment” (Herrington, Oliver, & Reeves, 2003a).

Learners may need to be assisted in coming to terms with the fact that the simulated reality of their task is in fact, an authentic learning environment. It may call for their “willing suspension of disbelief” (Herrington, 2006).

There is a need for design-based research into the efficacy of authentic learning to better understand the affordances and challenges of the approach.

An instructional design framework for authentic learning environments (Herrington & Oliver, 2000)
One of the difficulties with higher education is teaching concepts, etc. in a decontextualised situation, and then expecting the students / graduates to apply what they’ve learned in another situation. This is probably one of the biggest challenges in clinical education, with people being “unable to access relevant knowledge for solving problems”

“Information is stored as facts, rather than as tools (Bransford, Sherwood, Hasselbring, Kinzer & Williams, 1990). When knowledge and context are separated, knowledge is seen by learners as a product of education, rather than a tool to be used within dynamic, real-world situations. Situated learning is a model that encourages the learning of knowledge in contexts that reflect the way in which the knowledge is to be used (Collins, 1988).

Useful tables and checklists on pg. 4-6 and pg. 8-10 of Herrington & Oliver, 2000. An instructional design framework for authentic learning environments
An “ill-defined” problem isn’t prescriptive, lacks boundaries, doesn’t provide guiding questions and doesn’t break the global task into sub-tasks. Students are expected to figure out those components on their own. We’re beginning by providing boundaries and structure. As we move through subsequent cases, the facilitators will withdraw structure and guidance, until by the end of the module, students are setting their own, personal objectives. Students should define the pathway and the steps they need to take.

Situated learning seems to be an effective teaching model with trying to guide the learning of an appropriately complex task i.e. advanced knowledge acquisition

Students benefit from the opportunity to articulate, scaffold and reflect on activities with a partner. When these opportunities are not explicitly described, students may seek it covertly.

Students often perceive a void between theory and practice, viewing theory as relatively unimportant (jumping through hoops, in the case of our students…busy-work with no real benefit other than passing theory exams) and the practical component as all-important. They appreciate the blurring of boundaries between the two domains.

The authentic activity should present a new situation for which the students have no answer, nor for which they have a set of procedures for obtaining an answer i.e. it should be complex and the solution uncertain.

Herrington & Reeves (2003). Patterns of engagement in authentic online learning environments

There seems to be an initial reluctance to immerse oneself in the online learning environment, possibly owing to the lack of realism from contexts that are not perfect simulations of the real-world. Students may need to be encouraged to suspend their disbelief  (pg. 2). They must agree to go along with an interpretation of the world that has been created.
Once the student has accepted the presented interpretation of the world, it is only internal inconsistency that causes dissonance. Other challenges occur when students perceive the environment as being non-academic, non-rigorous, a waste of time, and unnecessary for effective learning (which may well be the case if they perceive “effective learning” as sitting passively in a classroom trying to memorise content)
Be aware that the designer of the online space may present an interpretation of the world that is not shared with everyone i.e. it is one person’s view of what the real world is like.
A willing suspension of disbelief can be likened to engagement: “…when we are able to give ourselves over to a representational action, comfortably and unambiguously. It involves a kind of complexity” (Laurel, 1993, 115). It isn’t necessary to try and perfectly simulate the real-world, only that the representation is close enough to get students engaged e.g. the quality / realism  of images doesn’t have to be perfect, as long as it enables students to get the idea.
Many students find the shift to a new learning paradigm uncomfortable. If students are not self-motivated, if they are accustomed to teacher-centred modes of instruction and if they dislike the lack of direct supervision, they may resist. They may also be uncomfortable with the increased freedom they have i.e. there is less teacher-specified content, fewer teacher-constructed objectives, and almost no teacher-led activities. On some occasions, students may feel that they are not being taught, and may express this with anger and frustration.
The facilitator is vital in terms of presenting the representation in a way that encourages engagement, much like an actor in a play must convince the audience that what is happening on the stage is “real”. Without that acceptance, you would not enjoy the play, just as the student won’t perceive the value of the learning experience.
Students need to be given the time and space to make mistakes. They will begin by working inefficiently, but the expectation is that efficiency increases over time.
We need to “humanise” the online learning experience with compassion, empathy and open-mindedness.


  • Bransford, J.D., Sherwood, R.D., Hasselbring, T.S., Kinzer, C.K., & Williams, S.M. (1990). Anchored instruction: Why we need it and how technology can help. In D. Nix & R. Spiro (Eds.), Cognition, education and multimedia: Exploring ideas in high technology (pp. 115-141). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
  • Brown, J.S., & Duguid, P. (1993). Stolen knowledge. Educational Technology, 33(3), 10-15
  • Brown, J.S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32-42
  • Collins, A. (1988). Cognitive apprenticeship and instructional technology (Technical Report 6899): BBN Labs Inc., Cambridge, MA
  • Herrington, J. (2006). Authentic e-learning in higher education: Design principles for authentic learning environments and tasks, World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, and Higher Education, Chesapeake, Va
  • Herrington, J., & Oliver, R. (2000). An instructional design framework for authentic learning environments. Educational Technology Research and Development, 48(3), 23-48
  • Herrington, J., Oliver, R., & Reeves, T.C. (2003a). ‘Cognitive realism’ in online authentic learning environments. In D. Lassner & C. McNaught (Eds.), EdMedia World Conference on Educational
  • Herrington, J., & Reeves, T. C. (2003). Patterns of engagement in authentic online learning environments. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 19(1), 59-71
  • Laurel, B. (1993). Computers as theatre. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley
  • Reeves, T. C., Herrington, J., & Oliver, R. (2002). Authentic activities and online learning. HERDSA (pp. 562-567)

5 Replies to “Jan Herrington’s model of Authentic learning”

  1. I am glad your supervisor had you look at the authentic learning model – your notes here to organize your thoughts piqued my own curiosity about authentic learning & cognitive realism.
    It’s a good thing when someone’s writing inspires me to investigate or study further.

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