PBL Pro Tips from John Larmer: How Can You Make a Project Authentic?

Authenticity has long been associated with project-based learning. We often hear about projects that are “real-world” and “applied learning.” Authenticity is one of the six criteria in the Framework for High-Quality PBL. It’s one of the main things that separate a “dessert project” from “main course PBL.”


If you check Wikipedia for “authentic learning” (as I just did, and yes I make occasional donations) you’ll find a comprehensive article. Its list of characteristics of authentic learning includes:

  • Authentic learning is centered on relevant, real-world tasks that are of interest to the learner.
  • Students are actively engaged in exploration and inquiry.
  • Students are engaged in complex tasks and higher-order thinking skills
  • Students produce a product that can be shared with an audience outside the classroom. These products have value in their own right, rather than simply for earning a grade.
  • Students have opportunities for social discourse, collaboration, and reflection.
  • Assessment of authentic learning is integrated seamlessly within the learning task in order to reflect similar, real world assessments. This is known as authentic assessment and is in contrast to traditional learning assessments in which an exam is given after the knowledge or skills have hopefully been acquired.


Why is authenticity so important? The number one reason, to me, is that it improves students’ motivation, and hence the quality of their work. Students in a traditional classroom know their work is not authentic–it’s “just for school.” When students are engaged by a meaningful, authentic project they don’t ask that age-old question, “Why do I need to learn this?”. They can see they need to learn academic knowledge and skills in order to complete a project they care more about because it connects to the world outside of school. 


Having an authentic audience is also key. When students simply turn in their work to the teacher it’s often not nearly as important to them as it would be if they were sharing their work with someone beyond the classroom walls. Same goes for making a presentation; when students simply present to their classmates, they don’t take it as seriously as they do when presenting to an authentic audience.


Authentic learning prepares students to succeed in college and careers, as they learn future-ready skills and build Portrait of a Graduate competencies. They’re exposed to different settings and perspectives, and learn what people in the world outside school do, too–which gives them a glimpse of possible careers.


Authentic learning improves students’ ability to transfer, apply, and retain learning. It also shows students how different subject areas are interconnected, not isolated in the way it often seems in school. Real-world problems and issues are complex; addressing them may require a combination of knowledge and skills from science, math, social studies, and ELA.


So there are several reasons why it’s good to inject more authenticity into your classroom, whether it’s full-blown PBL, performance tasks, or enhanced assignments. Let’s look at how you can do so.


5 Tips for Making Your Projects More Authentic:

1. Place students in a simulation.

This is not as authentic as a real situation, but it’s much better than a traditional school assignment. Simulations closely mimic what happens in the world outside school, and can be highly engaging. Most of Defined Learning’s performance tasks are based on a simulation, in which students are given a goal, career role, audience, situation, and choice of products (the GRASP framework developed by Jay McTighe). For example, in a STEM project, students are placed in the role of aquarium designers for a fictitious client.


2. Connect projects to students’ personal interests and concerns.

Projects that connect to the “real world” don’t always have to be about issues and problems faced by our society or adults–they can connect to students’ lives, and these are often the most engaging type of project. The key is to get to know your students well enough to tap into the things they care about when designing projects, whether it’s social media, pop culture, relationships, or their identity and community. And remember: to students, their school is the real world too, so an authentic project could be about, say, the food in the cafeteria, bullying on campus, or improving the playground.


3. Involve people from outside the classroom.

This is one of the easiest ways to inject more authenticity into your projects. Think of people you know and what jobs they have–could one of them serve as a subject-matter expert for your students to interview? Could you call a local college, business, nonprofit organization, or government agency and find someone willing to communicate with students or be an audience for students’ presentations? For example, in the aquarium designer project, students could connect with local businesses to act as clients. Even if it’s just your school principal playing a role, bringing in someone from beyond the classroom ups the stakes for students.


4. Find local contexts and connections (to community members, organizations, businesses, government, etc.).

Students often find what they learn in school to be somewhat abstract or distant from their lives. But if you give learning a local context, it feels more real. In a history project, find a local connection to larger events or developments–for example, how your city was part of the civil rights movement. In a science project, instead of studying “ecosystems” in the abstract, engage students in a project to address an issue or problem in a local or regional ecosystem.


5. Make sure a project’s process and products reflect what people do and create in the world outside school.

When designing a project, think about how people in the real world would tackle a problem or explore an issue. What process would they use? Would it be the design thinking process, a creative innovation protocol like brainstorming, or a set of problem-solving steps they use every time? When they collaborate as a team, would they use certain tech tools, like Trello or shared Google docs? What criteria would they use to evaluate the quality of their work? Who would they get feedback from along the way?


What kind of product would people in the real world create in this situation? Make sure the products are aligned to the particular purpose and audience. When they’re new to PBL, teachers sometimes default to “school-type” assignments –an essay, a poster, a brochure, an oral presentation to classmates. But are those authentic to the situation, role, or problem in which students are placed? Is that what the audience or end-user needs? Perhaps a scientific report, a panel discussion, or a podcast–created for and shared with an authentic audience–would be more like what happens in the real world.


About the Author:  

John Larmer is a project-based learning expert. In his 20 years at the Buck Institute for Education/PBLWorks, he co-developed the model for Gold Standard PBL, authored several books and many blog posts, and contributed to curriculum and professional development. John is now the Senior PBL Advisor at Defined Learning.


Subscribe to the #1 PBL Blog!

Receive new articles in the world of Project Based Learning, STEM/STEAM, and College & Career Readiness. 

Subscribe to our blog