What does significant learning look like in a STEM course?

While facilitating learning communities for An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching, I reinforce the principles of course design. This Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CIRTL) course introduces educators and future faculty to backwards design, a process by which instructors plan their courses around their desired student outcomes.

Backwards design asks us, as instructors, to begin at the end of the course–what should students who complete our courses know and be able to accomplish? When we start using backwards design, or any learning-centered approaches, we are focusing specifically on what we want our students to gain.

Engaging in course design with CIRTL has introduced me to the work of Dr. L. Dee Fink. Dr. Fink developed a Taxonomy of Significant Learning, which is a framework that helps us answer questions central to learning-centered (or student-centered) course design:

What would you like the impact of this course to be on students 2–3 years after the course is over?

What should distinguish students who have taken this course from those who have not?” – Dr. L. Dee Fink, IDEA Paper #42

Dr. Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning comprises six areas: learning how to learn, foundational knowledge, application, integration, human dimension, and caring. These areas are not exclusive and, ideally, should intersect within our courses to foster our students’ growth.

I am a proponent of Dr. Fink’s taxonomy because of how accessible it is, especially for instructors who are new to the educational literature. Using the significant learning framework, instructors can begin to outline their goals for their students and start the backwards design process. Since reading about significant learning in IDEA Paper #42, I have spent some time thinking about what significant learning might looks like for STEM undergraduate students. I have (loosely) sorted some of my learning objectives into different areas under Dr. Fink’s taxonomy.

Learning how to learn. Students should be able to…

  • search databases and references.
  • approach a problem through the scientific method.

Foundational Knowledge. Students should be able to…

  • identify key concepts of a given topic.
  • recall the tenants of the scientific process.

Application. Students should be able to…

  • apply the scientific process to solve a problem.
  • demonstrate mastery of technical skills important to their discipline.

Integration. Students should be able to…

  • define systems thinking.
  • defend (or refute) science’s impact on the world

Human Dimension. Students should be able to…

  • name current and former scientists as well as their contributions the their field.
  • express what strengths they could lend to science (if they so choose).

Caring. Students should be able to…

  • defend (or refute) the value of compassion and equity in science.
  • evaluate the need for ethics and integrity in the scientific enterprise.
  • predict the potential both positive and negative impacts of a given research area.

This list is not exhaustive, but I hope it serves to get us thinking about our desired outcomes for our students.

The main takeaway. IDEA Paper 42 is an excellent resource for implementing a learning-centered or backwards design approach to your courses. I recommend analyzing your desired student outcomes with Dr. L. Dee Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning, as explained in the paper.

IDEA is a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving student learning in higher education through analytics, resources, and advice. We are not affiliated and the thoughts expressed in this post are my own.

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James C. Schwabacher
Ph.D. Candidate

I’m a scientist and educator currently based in Chicago, IL.