Review of Creating Significant Learning Experiences

L. Dee Fink’s Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses * is a book that is just as useful for college instructors as Classroom Assessment Techniques by Angelo and Cross. While the latter focuses on measuring teaching effectiveness at a granular day-to-day scale, the former provides a framework for designing an entire course.

Fink’s taxonomy emphasizes what I would call human-centered rather than content-centered learning. Yes, the acquisition and application of foundational knowledge are present, but psycho-social outcomes rank higher on his list of characteristics that mark good teaching. He argues that students should gain an awareness of themselves and their relationships with others. Ultimately they should develop the cognitive and emotional machinery necessary for learning how to learn.

The may sound like vague, feel-good mumbo jumbo, but the book is in reality a very practical step-by-step guide. According to Fink, the course design process should begin with the instructor identifying situational factors that can affect how and what one teaches:

  • What is the size, location, and frequency of the class?
  • What external demands am I expected to meet? What does society, government agencies, my university, and my department think is important?
  • Is the subject one in which there is a single set of correct answers or multiple, often conflicting but equally valid, interpretations?
  • What lives do my students live, especially in terms of barriers to and opportunities for learning? What prior knowledge, skills, or experiences do they possess? Why are they taking the course?
  • What do I bring to the course, in terms of knowledge, experience, and teaching skills?

Using these questions as a preliminary environmental inventory can greatly improve a course and the satisfaction that comes from teaching it.

In regards to the mechanics of the course itself, Fink supplies numerous examples of engaging students at a meta-cognitive level, where they ask themselves the questions of “What can I learn?” and “How can I learn it?” This is a useful method for incorporating problem-based learning into a course.

Although the book’s focus in on course design, it concludes with institutional-level advice for the improvement of teaching, namely:

  • Change policies related to faculty work and to the evaluation of teaching.
  • Improve procedures for evaluating teaching.
  • Establish teaching and learning centers.
  • Coordinate student development with instructional development.

In future posts, I’ll apply Fink’s method to a course that I’m designing for the fall semester.

*Kudos to Amanda for citing Fink in one of her slides during the workshops in Surrey, which reminded me of this book.

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