Skip to Content

Designing Instruction for Significant Learning

A systematic, learning-centered approach to course design offers the only chance we have to ensure that the majority of students have a significant learning experience.

Teaching is a complex human activity. But we can think of the many tasks involved as comprising four general components of teaching:

  • our knowledge of the subject matter we teach
  • the decisions we make about the purpose and nature of the learning experience
  • our interactions with students—presenting lectures, leading discussions, holding office hours
  • our management of the whole instructional event, be it a course, seminar, or whatever.

How well we carry out these tasks directly affects the quality of our students’ learning experience. However, my 25 years of working with professors suggests that the ability to make good decisions about instruction is the area in which college teachers are least prepared and also the area that is perhaps most critical in determining whether students have a significant learning experience. So what should teachers learn about designing more effective instruction?

Two ways of creating a course

Teachers should learn to change the way they design courses. The most common way of creating a course—or any form of instruction—is the content-centered approach, sometimes called the “List of Topics” approach. The teacher works up a list of important topics, often using the table of contents from one or more textbooks, decides how much time to allot each topic and how many tests to give—and the “design” is done.

The advantage of this approach is that it is relatively simple. The disadvantage: it pays virtually no attention to what students learn beyond content knowledge, which—if that is all there is—is easily forgotten.

The alternative is to take a systematic, learning-centered approach to designing our courses. The heart of this approach is to first decide what students can and should learn in relation to this subject, and then figure how they can learn it. This approach requires more time but offers our only chance of ensuring that the majority of our students have a significant learning experience.

A model of integrated course design

The diagram in Figure 1 illustrates the basic components of the integrated course design model. In essence, to design any form of instruction, the instructor needs to:

  1. Identify important situational factors and then use this information to make three sets of decisions;
    • What do I want students to learn? (Learning Goals)
    • How will students and the teacher know if we are accomplishing these goals? (Feedback and Assessment)
    • What will the teacher and students do to achieve the learning goals? (Teaching/Learning Activities)
  2. Make sure that the key components are integrated

Learning goals: Significant learning

For half a century, teachers at all levels of instruction have used Bloom’s taxonomy to generate learning goals beyond “understand and remember” kinds of learning.

This taxonomy has been extremely helpful, but it does not encompass all the kinds of learning that society and educators today believe is important. So I propose a new taxonomy, one that identifies six different ways in which learning can be significant for students:

  1. Foundational Knowledge: students should understand and remember the basic content of the course (e.g., terms, concepts, principles).
  2. Application: students should use the content and engage in effective and appropriate kinds of thinking.
  3. Integration: students should integrate different disciplines, major ideas, and realms of life.
  4. Human Dimension: students should identify the personal and social implications of this knowledge.
  5. Caring: students should develop new feelings, interests, and values in relation to the subject.
  6. Learning How to Learn: students should keep on learning about the subject after the course is over.

As instructors consider what they want students to learn, they need a framework to help formulate learning goals beyond simply “knowing” a body of content knowledge. The more of these six goals we include the better: Each type of learning reinforces and supports the other kinds of learning.

Feedback and assessment: Educative assessment

Once we decide what students will learn, we must figure out how we will know they are learning it. For each kind of intended learning, we must search for appropriate assessment procedures. For some kinds of learning, the usual multiple-choice or essay question will suffice. Other kinds of learning will require different assessment procedures—papers, group projects, journals, performances.

As we undertake this part of instructional design, the concept of educative assessment is extremely valuable. Wiggins (1998) argues that we should assess in a way that goes beyond “auditing” student learning to actually enhancing that learning as well.

To do this, our assessment procedures must involve authentic problems, have clear criteria and standards, and include opportunities for students to engage in self-assessment.

Teaching and learning activities: Active learning

Once we have identified the learning goals and the feedback and assessment procedures, we must decide how students will achieve that kind of learning. The classic definition of active learning (Bonwell and Eison, 1991) refers to learning in which students “do something and then reflect on the meaning of what they do.”

Instructors need to identify a set of learning activities that together include opportunities for students to acquire information and ideas, engage in a doing or observing experience, and reflect on the learning process as well as the subject matter. These activities include group work, discussions, simulations, problem-based learning, case studies, service learning, and many more.

Ultimate goal

The ultimate goal of all teaching is for students to finish the course of learning having had a significant learning experience. Significant learning experiences won’t happen unless teachers learn how to design significance into the learning experience itself. When instructors develop the ability to do this, students will learn things that will have a positive, substantial, and lasting influence on their personal and work lives and their ability to contribute to the multiple communities of which they are a part.

What an exciting prospect that is!

References & Resources

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

Fink, L.D. 2003. Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Loeb, P. 1999. Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Michaelsen, L.K., Knight, A.B., and Fink, L.D. 2002. Team-Based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Groups. Westport, CT: Praeger

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

Zubizarreta, J. [Expected: Summer 2003]. The Learning Portfolio: Reflective Practice for Improving Student Learning. Boston, MA: Anker.

Additional Resources:

Team-Based Learning Web site:

Harper-Marinick, M. & Levine, A. (December 2002). “Problem-based Learning.” NEA Higher Education Advocate, 20 (2), pp. 5-8.Zull, J. 2002. The Art of Changing the Brain. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

More Best Practices

  • anc_dyn_linksGetting Students to Do the Readings
  • anc_dyn_linksClickers and Classroom Dynamics
  • anc_dyn_linksThe Assumptions We Make About Diversity
  • anc_dyn_linksHelping Students Embrace Deep Learning
  • anc_dyn_linksUnderstanding Universal Design in the Classroom
  • anc_dyn_linksThe Changing World of International Students
  • anc_dyn_linksChallenging and Supporting First-Year Students
  • anc_dyn_linksTeaching Context--A Map for Course Design
  • anc_dyn_linksThe Multiple Roles of the College Professor
  • anc_dyn_linksBringing the Inside Out and the Outside In
  • anc_dyn_linksAbolishing "Effortless Perfection"
  • anc_dyn_linksRethinking Expectations About Assignments
  • anc_dyn_linksTeaching Rigorous and Reflective Thinking
  • anc_dyn_linksRedesigning Teaching to Meet All Students' Needs: Responsive and Productive Courses
  • anc_dyn_linksThe Necessity of Really Knowing Your Audience
  • anc_dyn_linksThe Ideal Course and the Dream Team
  • anc_dyn_linksMentoring: Functions, Roles, and Interactions
  • anc_dyn_linksWriting as Instructional Practice
  • anc_dyn_linksDesigning Instruction for Significant Learning