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ATD Blog

Making It Real: 5 Characteristics of Authentic Learning at Work

Monday, August 10, 2020

As online learning became the norm in the pandemic era, it was hard to deliver on what modern learners really need: experiences that are applicable to and have a tangible impact on the challenges they face at work. Authentic learning, a methodology that connects instruction to real-world issues, problems, and application, can inform the design of learning experiences that are meaningful to the learner and create impact on the organization.

Here are five key features of authentic learning that can guide the design and implementation of impactful workplace learning:

1. Relevance

People want to know that their learning will make a difference. Rather than generic training, authentic learning experiences are relevant and directly applicable to the job. Having a deep understanding of the gap between learners’ existing knowledge and what they are meant to gain through training, as well as organizational culture, allows for experiences and results that meet learners’ and their workplaces’ needs. Learning experiences should be designed with clearly established goals. Learners can then engage in a meaningful way when they are able to dive into the learning, with a clear sense of purpose, and of what success looks like.

2. Application

While memory-recall is ubiquitous in traditional education, such passive learning methods often leave much to be desired in workplace learning. Instead, the knowledge conveyed in workplace training should be immediately applicable. Rather than thinking of traditional learning goals, doing goals framed along the lines of “at the end of this training, learners will be able to do ABC . . .”

Assessments should engage learners in higher-level thinking. Rather than techniques like quizzes and tests, authentic learning emerges through assignments where learners are immediately able to apply the material. These activities should resemble the everyday work challenges that learners are developing skills to overcome.


3. Collaboration

Authentic learning experiences enable collaboration between learners. This is especially valuable in the context of companies and roles that require a high level of collaboration at work. Collaboration requires neither a classroom nor a Zoom call. Instead, learners can collaborate asynchronously at their own pace through discussions, practice with feedback from peers, team projects, and support from coaches and mentors.

Collaborative learning experiences can engage the modern learner and overcome the pitfalls present in much of today’s workplace training. They can also foster responsibility and accountability in learning. Responsibility emerges when individuals commit to assignments that are required for the team to succeed. Accountability is also fostered because teammates are aware that the group will soon know if they’re only along for the ride. Introducing collaboration into your learning experience can shift learning from passive consumption to empowering experiences where learners can learn from and teach each other.


4. Inclusion

There is no surer sign of an inauthentic learning experience than one which misunderstands, alienates, or discriminates against its intended audience. Content that isn’t tailored with inclusion in mind can undermine even the best of intentions. It has the potential of making a learning experience irrelevant to learners, and in turn, causing employees to become disengaged. This subverts the trust needed for authentic collaboration between learners.

To facilitate inclusion at the learning-design level, content (especially visual) should feature a diverse range of people. Additionally, thoughtfulness and care should be at play when considering how diverse characters featured in learning experiences are portrayed.

5. Contribution

Authentic workplace learning should facilitate and support an environment in which learners feel that they are contributing to the learning experience and the organization. In a safe psychological space, learners can share their perspectives and feel supported by each other and the company culture. The modern learner craves this and finds it to be most lacking in standard online learning. Authentic learning involves facilitating collaboration, mentorship, and empowerment. Some of the most powerful learning that can happen in the workplace comes from the relationships people form and what they are able to teach each other.

Download NovoEd’s 5 Steps to Learning Experience Design e-book to learn more about how to create authentic learning experiences that empower learners and drive business outcomes.

About the Author

Declan Fox is a product marketer at NovoEd with over a decade’s experience bringing learning technology products to market for learners of all ages. He is passionate about using technology to engage learners and provide opportunities for learning and growth.

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