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Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses

By L. Dee Fink
320 pages
ISBN: 0-7879-6055-1
$35.00 (hardcover)

Reviewed by

Kiren Dosanjh Zucker

Department of Management and Department of Business Law
California State University Northridge


In his book, Creating Significant Learning Experiences, Dr. L. Dee Fink identifies the need for college students to experience learning in a way that ultimately enhances their own lives and enables them to contribute meaningfully to their communities. Through a creative integration and synthesis of existing concepts from pedagogical literature and popular non-fiction, Fink proposes a teaching strategy for creating such significant learning experiences for students. This book not only offers an exciting addition to the literature from which it draws, but also inspires faculty members to undertake a new direction in college teaching.

Fink begins with the query: "Should college faculty make the effort to change the way they teach, or not? " (p. 1). Drawing from his experience in workshops and interactions with faculty, he concludes that although faculty members want to develop their students' ability to engage in complex thinking and reasoning, they heavily rely on methods such as lecturing that have limited effectiveness in achieving this goal (pp. 3-4). In a well-annotated discussion, Fink reviews new forms of teaching from which significant learning experiences may be gained (p. 20).

Before leaving Chapter One, readers should complete the statement he poses: "My dream is that students, one to two years after the course is over, will be able to . . . "(p. 9). Responses generated by participants in Fink's workshops on designing courses include "develop a deep curiosity" and "apply and use what they learn in real-life situations" (p. 9). This exercise introduces an intriguing theme of the book: linking course design to students' futures leads to the creation of significant learning experiences.

In the next several chapters, readers gain useful insight into effective course design that draws on Fink's new taxonomy, which is based on his principle that significant learning requires some kind of important, lasting change in the learner. Fink's taxonomy consists of six major categories: foundational knowledge, application, integration, human dimension, caring, and learning how to learn (pp. 31-32).

Before introducing his own taxonomy, Fink first summarizes the well-known cognitive taxonomy of educational objectives formulated by Benjamin Bloom (Bloom, 1956) and notes that while the value of "Bloom's taxonomy" is unquestionable, its ability to meet the current need for "new kinds of learning" to address ethics, character, tolerance, and adaptability to change is limited (p. 29). Fink endeavors to meet this need by including the "human dimension" category in which students learn the "human significance of what they are learning" (p. 32), which in turn helps them develop their ability to "function and interact more effectively" (p. 30).

In turn, grasping the human significance of a subject might generate "caring," the kind of learning that Fink asserts may serve as a catalyst for significant learning experiences. "Learning how to learn" is gained from the process of learning itself. Learning how to engage in a particular kind of inquiry or simply discovering how to be a self-directed learner enables students to continue learning effectively. The interplay of these types of learning demonstrates the relational nature of Fink's categories, as opposed to the hierarchical structure of "Bloom's taxonomy" (p. 32).

Interestingly, the taxonomy of significant learning is reflected in the organization of the book. The progression from Chapter Two: "A Taxonomy of Significant Learning," to Chapter Seven: "The Human Significance of Good Teaching and Learning" follows a clockwise turn on Fink's illustration of this new taxonomy (p. 30), from the presentation of foundational knowledge to an exploration of the human dimension and importance of the subject. The relational nature of the categories of significant learning identified by Fink (p. 32) also remains largely intact, as nearly all the chapters build toward the reader's full understanding of and ability to implement Fink's ideas.

Having given readers "foundational knowledge" regarding significant learning experiences, Fink turns to the application of his taxonomy in designing significant learning experiences. Chapters Three and Four offer practical guidance to faculty regarding the twelve-step, learning-centered, integrated course design that supports and promotes powerful and meaningful learning (p. 67). Fink urges faculty to identify "situational factors," from the number of students in class to the nature of the subject, as well as the faculty member's level of competence and confidence in the course material. These factors must be considered in developing the course's learning goals, feedback and assessment, and teaching and learning activities (p. 68). He offers specific questions to explore these situational factors (p. 69) that are repeated in Appendix A: "Planning Your Course: A Decision Guide" (pp. 257-258).

Fink reviews the concept of educative assessment, (Wiggins, 1998), and adds his own clarifying addition to this concept: "FIDeLity" feedback. This acronym represents feedback that is Frequent, Immediate, and Discriminating, and Delivered Lovingly (p. 83). The last concept is explored from a psychological perspective: when feedback is delivered with empathy, understanding, and love, students are more likely to be open to and internalize the feedback (pp. 96-97).

Those readers already familiar with the relevant literature on college teaching (e.g., Bonwell & Eison, 1991; Bean, 1996) will find Fink's "holistic" conceptual reorganization of active learning activities (p. 106) to be a helpful summary and analysis of well-known concepts such as "learning portfolios" and "team-based learning." However, this discussion may prove overwhelming to faculty who are new to pedagogical literature. These readers should focus on Fink's useful illustrations and worksheets on course design that are once again included in not only the chapter but Appendix A as well (pp. 257-265).

Chapters Five and Six address the lingering questions that might remain for faculty considering adoption of Fink's proposed changes in teaching strategy. Reassuring answers come in the form of examples of faculty members who undertook to promote significant learning experiences through integrated course design, including a "case study" of a physics professor with whom Fink engaged in a joint effort to test the ideas presented in this book (pp. 175-193). Fink poses an additional query: How may institutions provide a proper level of encouragement and support to the creation of significant learning experiences? Fink recognizes the need for institutional support for the development of new teaching methods, including policies regarding teaching evaluations and faculty work that honor rather than discourage such efforts (pp. 205-209).

However, Fink's ambitious attempt to recommend ways to create better organizational support for pedagogical evolution is hindered by his underlying assumption that, once they are presented with the case for significant learning experiences, those who are able to affect needed change in policies and procedures universally will recognize and embrace the need for the required changes. For example, after identifying the lack of a "shared vision and language for describing what constitutes 'good teaching' and 'good learning'" as "the basic problem" inherent in seeking improved procedures for evaluating teaching, Fink declares that the "first step toward creating better procedures . . . is to take a learning-centered approach" (p. 217): This first step might be the primary obstacle to Fink's proposed changes. For the untenured faculty member this obstacle could prove insurmountable: The junior faculty member's teaching innovation might attract negative attention rather than positive encouragement in personnel reviews. While Fink should not have to provide answers to such organizational challenges in a book on the creation of significant learning experiences, his exploration of the topic should include recognition of its complexity.

The final chapter of Fink's book implicitly focuses on and combines the three categories of his taxonomy that make it truly different from "Bloom's Taxonomy" (Bloom, 1956 cited at p. 29): human dimension, caring, and "learning how to learn." Here, Fink draws upon Parker Palmer's The Courage to Teach (1998) to call upon college teachers to help students develop a "strong and proactive sense of themselves as learners" (p. 242) to avoid creating college graduates who "continue on in life as second-rate learners" (p. 243). He adds to this urgent message a new metaphor for teaching: "the teacher as helmsman for the learning experience" (p. 243) who leads and coordinates learning activities in which students embrace their individual and collaborative role in the learning process.

Once again drawing from Parker Palmer (1998) as well as others who have written on the topic such as Rose O'Reilley (1993, 1998), Fink explores the spiritual dimension of teaching: Some readers teaching at public institutions might hesitate before following Fink into this dimension, thinking it might lead to an unconstitutional fusion of church and state. However, the concept as presented by Fink is rooted in the secular view that education is the result of interaction between teacher, student, and subject (p. 250). To make this interaction deeper and more meaningful, the teacher must be willing to "listen deeply to the students and to the subject." (p. 251). I found this concept so intriguing that next I will read Palmer's The Courage to Teach. Such inspiration might serve as an example of the significant learning experience awaiting those who read Dr. Fink's book.

Selected References

Bean, J. C. (1996). Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bloom, B. S., ed. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals. Handbook I: Cognitive Domain. New York: McKay.

Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report 1. Washington, DC: George Washington University.

O'Reilley, M. R. (1993). The Peaceable Classroom. Portsmouth, N.H.: Boynton/Cook.

O'Reilley, M. R. (1998). Radical Presence: Teaching as Contemplative Practice. Portsmouth, N.H.: Boynton/Cook.

Palmer, P. J. (1998). The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wiggins, G. (1998). Educative Assessment: Designing Assessments to Inform and Improve Student Performance. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Posted June 28, 2004

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2004 by Kiren Dosanjh Zucker.

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