What Makes Learning Significant?

“For learning to occur, there has to be some kind of change in the learner. No change, no learning. … significant learning makes a difference in how people live, and the kind of life they are capable of living.” – L.D. Fink (2013)

As educators, we want to make a difference in our students’ lives, and one of the primary ways we try to do that is through our classes. We hope to engage students by conveying our own enthusiam about the subject. We hope that our students will learn the material long-term. Perhaps most of all, we hope when our students finish the course, they will think differently about how they approach the world.

So how do we design our classes to create that kind of change in our students? L. Dee Fink, director emeritus of the Instructional Development Program at the University of Oklahoma and author of _Creating Significant Learning Experiences in College Classrooms (2013), felt the need to go beyond Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956) to address this question. He developed an expanded, evidence-based, taxonomy of significant learning that incorporates Bloom’s Taxonomy and adds human and social components. The taxonomy includes six dimensions:

  1. Foundational Knowledge includes factual and conceptual knowledge. Students can recall and interpret information and ideas. This information is essential for students to learn more complex information and skills.
  2. Application is applied learning. Students take use the foundational knowledge in new ways, thinking critically and creatively as they develop new skills and analyze new situations.
  3. Integration includes evaluation and creation, the two highest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. Students make connections between the course material and information they have learned in other classes and in other settings, such as work and their personal lives.
  4. Human Dimension might be viewed as “personalization” of learning. Courses incorporating a human dimension helps students learn more about themselves and others, human behavior and ideals, and helps students think differently about who they are. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are part of the human dimension.
  5. Caring about concepts, issues, and other people often results in a deeper motivation to learn. Students examine and may change their feelings, interests, or values in a course that helps them personalize what they are learning.
  6. Learning how to Learn, or metacognition, is the process of understanding how one learns best. When a course includes metacognitive elements, students realize how they can learn more effectively, both in and out of the classroom.

What might a course look like, if it incorporates all these elements? Here are sample outcomes from a chemistry course:

  1. Foundational Knowledge: Students will be able to compare UV-visible, infrared, and NRM spectroscopies.
  2. Application: Students will be able to use knowledge of spectroscopic and computational tools to solve novel problems.
  3. Integration: Students will recognize the role of chemistry in other disciplines.
  4. Human Dimension: Students will be able to collaborate effectively with other people.
  5. Caring: Students will discover ways that chemistry shapes our lives, positively and negatively.
  6. Learning how to Learn: Students will be able to accurately self-assess the quality of their own writing.

Expanding our view of course design beyond Bloom’s Taxonomy to incorporate significant learning experiences aligns with our mission to provide a career-oriented education. Fink has also published a 30-page self-directed guide that includes the essential elements for the design of these courses. You are also welcome to drop by the CTL, where we have copies of Fink’s book and are eager to work with you.


  • Bloom, Benjamin S. (ed.). (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals. Susan Fauer Company, Inc.: 201–207.
  • Fink, L. D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Fink, L. D. (2004). A self-directed guide to designing courses for significant learning. Retrieved from https://www.nyit.edu/files/ctl/CTL_Fink_Self-directed-guide_09.2022.pdf
  • Starr-Glass, David. (2020). Significant learning experiences and implied students. On the Horizon 28(1): 55–62.