September 9, 2011

Hey, I wrote a book review!

The following is a book review written this summer for the Center for Teaching Excellence at Suffolk University. The shortness of the review is not a function of the content of the book, but rather the medium (a newsletter).

Creating Significant Learning Experiences:
An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses
L. Dee Fink
Copyright © 2003 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Reviewed by Adam Glesser

Fink argues that a new paradigm is emerging in college teaching, one that encourages a focus on activities that produce significant learning experiences, valuing the quality of learning over the quantity of content coverage. In order to frame the discussion, he defines a Taxonomy of Significant Learning consisting of three categories that essentially mimic Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives:

  • Foundational Knowledge
  • Application
  • Integration

and three categories that go beyond Bloom:

  • Human Dimension (“students learn something important about themselves or about others” (p. 31))
  • Caring (about the subject, phenomena, ideas, their own self, others, the process of learning, etc. (p. 49))
  • Learning How to Learn

Fairly little attention is given by faculty to the latter three in the course design process, although I suspect that when pressed, most professors would espouse these as goals of their courses. In the sciences, I see some of these categories as long-term goals, built up through the entire curriculum and difficult to foster in a single course. This suggests that we need a concerted effort to consider these values collectively, not merely in isolation.

The heart of this book is the two chapters on course design. My teaching mimics that of my own teachers and so, like them, I am a member of content-aholics anonymous: the group of professors ashamed that their courses are creatively designed to include as much content as possible. Conveniently, Fink offers up a 12-step plan for designing a course. Although few of his suggestions are innovative, many of them will make you say, “That makes so much sense! Why haven’t I been doing that?”

My only complaint is the relative lack of attention given to the the grading system and its role in fostering significant learning. While the author accepts the need for “the development of a feedback and assessment system that goes beyond just grading and contributes to the learning process” (p. 142), he gives an example of a grading system that is “fair and educationally valid”, but which reduces the course, for many students, to the calculus of point grubbing.

The title sets the bar: the book is a failure if reading it is not itself a significant learning experience. Fortunately, the author succeeds in the ultimate accomplishment in pedagogical writing: he made me put the book down at times, frantic to work on designing one of my courses.


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