Dr. Butler’s doctoral dissertation, “How Authentic Learning Environments Impact Student Career Readiness and Employment Factors at a Career Design College Campus” examined the relationships between authentic learning experiences and student job or career readiness.
Authentic learning experiences are those that occur outside of the higher education classroom and can include community- or client-based projects that have been incorporated into the curriculum, as well as other immersive related authentic learning opportunities, such as internships. In this type of learning environment, client or community real-world projects are generated outside of the classroom and are added to the grading and assessment criteria of the in-class projects These external projects may also entirely replace in-class projects.
The main research focus of the dissertation was designed to identify the personal and individual perspectives of the students who enrolled in an authentic learning course at some point in their academic career, measure the student perceptions of core job skills for both the authentic learning and non-authentic learning groups, and examine statistics to determine if any actual employment gains were made with the authentic learning group over the control group. The study looked at areas such as expediency in landing a student’s first job in their profession or the potential of securing a higher starting salary in their first field-related job after graduation.
The study examined the following research questions:
- How do advanced students at a design career college campus describe their experiences with authentic learning?
- Do advanced students at a design career college campus believe authentic learning experiences have an effect on their perceptions of overall career readiness as measured by their responses to the Employability Skills Inventory?
- Is there a statistical difference between participation in authentic learning experiences and employment statistics compared to non-participation in authentic learning experiences as demonstrated by graduate employment records? The study assumed a null hypothesis that there is not a statistical difference between student participation in authentic learning experiences and employment statistics compared to students who have not participated in authentic learning experience.
The qualitative analysis of student feedback into the authentic learning experience shows that students most frequently focused on learning, communication and meeting deadlines in both the key words they used and in the larger concepts or phrases they expressed to describe their authentic learning experiences. Interpersonal skills ranked among the most frequently cited skill groups in student descriptions of their experiences.
The study also shows an alignment in student descriptions of their authentic learning experience with an awareness of many of the core professional competencies determined in an Employability Skills Inventory. Students enrolled in authentic learning courses seem to display an understanding of how the course departs from traditional lecture and lab classroom models and aims to establish a more direct connection to actual future employment. The majority of focus that was most pervasive in student responses was the development of self-leadership, communication, professionalism and collaborative skills rather than the command of writing, reading, technology, systems management or acquisition of available resources. Students clearly identified their position as an emerging leader and communicator as an important aspect in the authentic learning experience.
The results of multiple paired t-tests showed statistically significant differences only in the area of interpersonal skills. What was surprising was that the control group, or non-authentic learning group, showed a higher mean than the authentic learning group. This would appear to contradict the expectation that the authentic group, which was exposed to a more intense level of interpersonal communication with outside professional clients, would exhibit slightly more skill in this area than the control group that was not afforded this opportunity. But this was not the case. Authentic learning students reflected often on the challenges of client communication, such as first-time exposure to clients, clear or unclear direction and goals, and use of professional language. Many students felt this type of immersion with the client was a learning experience and a skill-builder.
The dissertation conclusion poses a possible explanation of this result as the frame of reference the authentic learning group perceives compared to the control group. Since the control group did not have the same exposure to client communications as the authentic learning group, the control group’s frame of reference for professional and industry-specific communication is most likely primarily with their department faculty. As they near the end of their program, this group may have established a comfort level with their department faculty (and therefore a comfort level in their communication with these same faculty members) that leads them to believe that their interpersonal skills and communication are on par with where they should be. The authentic learning group, on the other hand, has essentially been forced out of this inherent comfort zone into more intense and demanding business communication and therefore may be more critical of their professional communication skills. In short, the control group may feel more confident in their interpersonal skills in relationship due to their familiar surroundings, having not yet been pushed into the unfamiliar territory that the authentic learning group did. The authentic learning group may have perceived the bar as having been raised. This concept bears further research.
Finally, statistical analysis showed that there is no difference in the amount of time it takes either group to obtain their first professional job in their field or in the starting salaries of this job.
Given that each group has successfully completed the same curriculum, with the exception of an authentic learning course, it stands to reason that each group would be afforded the same opportunities in regard to employment and have competing portfolios. The group who participated in the authentic learning environment may have produced a different type of portfolio piece (not necessarily an additional one) from their experience and are able to add the experience to their resume, but looking at the research one could surmise that one course is not enough to make a difference in the scale of either starting salaries or the expediting of filling an open position. Both groups in this study appear equal.
The research shows that students who partake in an authentic learning environment strongly feel that there is a perceived benefit in the experience, particularly toward future career goals. Whether there is in actuality or not, this perception could seems to make this group more critical of themselves, more self-aware of their career goals and expectation and creates a sense of leadership where one may have not existed before. This is important to note as this may lead to more advanced and heightened self-awareness as student complete the remainder of their program, resulting in increased effort in their studies and can help lead to increased student retention. This aspect of the authentic learning experience should also bear further research.