How Humans Learn: Authenticity

The ADEIL book group has been reading How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories Behind Effective College Teaching by Joshua R. Eyler. After reviewing fields of psychology, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience, Eyler saw that humans learn when there is curiosity, sociality, emotion, authenticity, and failure; below are a few takeaways from his chapter on authenticity.

Authenticity connects what students learn to the real world. Eyler shares an example of a forensic anthropology professor who leads students to use human bones to determine the sex, age, size, and injuries sustained from a deceased person. It wasn’t a situation where students needed to memorize the names of bones for the sake of memorizing the names of bones; the students did work resembling what would be done “in the field,” and the professor used guiding questions to lead them to help form a hypothesis.

Brains are pretty good at determining whether an activity or assignment has real-world implications. If it does, more learning occurs. If it doesn’t, the brain filters it out. But it’s worth noting that the brain can make real-world connections even to activities or simulations that aren’t 100% accurate. For example, before flying in a real fighter jet, pilots train in simulations. The brain connects the experience in the simulator with what they’ll do in real life, and learning occurs.

As we design assignments, we shouldn’t necessarily expect students to pursue careers in our fields, but they still need to have an outlet for how our field can be practical. Students can learn plenty of content to prepare for an exam but have no idea on how to apply it. That’s just going through the motions, and content retention is less likely. Language studies offer a wonderful opportunity for authenticity. Many classrooms use immersion-based instruction; most of the instruction is done in the language being studied. Rather than simply memorizing vocabulary, students are learning the language by using it.

Undergraduate research opportunities can help offer authenticity. “Give students work that is deeply rooted in disciplinary contexts and that replicates the activities of scholars in the field, and they will learn the material more than if we simply ask them to build knowledge in environments that are void of contextual frameworks or artificial in design” (161). While this could be done within a large portion of the semester, it doesn’t have to. Perhaps the research project lasts only a day. Perhaps it is as simple as you spending some class time sharing your research and inviting them to ask questions and share thoughts.

Eyler suggests that lectures in class are especially inauthentic; rooted a thousand years ago – and before the printing press – lectures were once an opportunity for students to scribe their own copies of a text orally delivered by their teacher. While worthwhile information can certainly be transmitted with a lecture (and Eyler notes this is very much still a normative practice in education), the human attention span is only 10-20 minutes. After you’ve shared content via lecture for 10-20 minutes, use another activity, or the student’s brain can’t retain as much info.

What are some of your favorite ways to include authenticity? As a music instructor, I (Rich) like using my music courses to develop how students take in music and to give them means to discover new music. It’s certainly wonderful if they retain information about music from the Renaissance or precursors to jazz, but I’m especially hoping they can give music they already like a more thorough listening of different musical elements and be introduced to new musical ideas.

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