The power of meaningful learning during course development

In the certificate programs that I manage, we are embroiled in the tumultuous vortex of a complete curriculum overhaul. Sometimes it seems like pieces of the puzzle are swirling in the air above our heads like debris caught in the funnel of a tornado. Instead of worrying that this is all out of our control, I choose to view the process of developing a meaningful curriculum for our learners as something a little more elegant.

Using the upstream design process is a crucial part of this business. The other is important learning. Meaningful learning (Fink, 2003) assumes that we first want what our learners acquire to be meaningful and not insignificant. As current experts in our fields, we are in a unique position to determine what is considered important learning in our disciplines. For our purposes, meaningful learning is not only determined by the faculty, it is also determined by our accreditors and other agencies within our discipline to which we are accountable. The professionalization of a field depends on a common agreement on what constitutes meaningful learning.

Meaningful learning is not just about deciding what types of learning are meaningful. We need to frame this learning in a taxonomy that offers the opportunity to reflect on a deeper meaning. Fink (2003) proposed a taxonomy of significant learning which honors Bloom’s taxonomy, but takes it to a higher level. As an educator in a public institution, I see a clear link to our mission and vision in this taxonomy (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

If we are to be intentional about the mission, especially one that “… offers online, in-class, and personalized study programs that meet the needs of our students and our city, focusing on subject areas as well as on forms of teaching, learning and scholarship that emphasize innovation, personal and social progress, and career and service opportunities ”, then this must be part of our curriculum and course development from the ground up The taxonomy of meaningful learning offers an entry point to this type of curriculum development.

Fink (2003) assigns special values ​​to each of the categories in the taxonomy. I also offer the added value of the fundamental values ​​of our institution.

Basic knowledge

  • Special value: Fundamental knowledge provides the basic understanding necessary for other types of learning
  • Added value: Quality


  • Special value: App-based learning makes other types of learning useful
  • Basic added value: Career and service opportunities

The integration

  • Special value: The act of making new connections gives learners a new form of power, especially intellectual power
  • Added value: Personal and social progress

Human dimension

  • Special value: This type of learning informs students about the human significance of what they are learning.
  • Added value: Inclusion, equity and diversity


  • Special value: When students care about something, then they have the energy they need to learn more about it and make it a part of their lives. Without the energy for learning, nothing meaningful happens
  • Added value: Customization

Learn to learn:

  • Special value: This type of learning allows students to continue learning in the future and to do so with greater efficiency.
  • Added value: Personal and social progress

At fink A self-directed guide to designing courses for meaningful learning (2004), the fact that many teachers in higher education institutions have little or no experience in curriculum development is recognized and taken into account. This self-explanatory guide, based on a popular professional development workshop, offers those engaged in curriculum development and course design a structured way to achieve their learner goals and create learning experiences both meaningful and meaningful.

If our goals for learners include more than information dissemination, but life-changing and career-changing transformation, we need to plan for this from the start and the very first learning encounter. Part of creating a transformative learning process includes incorporating meaningful and ongoing assessment and feedback. Significant learning focuses on the development of learner-centered courses, not on the development of content-centered courses. As such, feedback from learners is crucial. Two types of assessment and feedback improve the quality of learning:

  • Prospective assessment: Incorporates exercises, questions and / or problems that create real context for a problem, problem or decision to be addressed
  • Self evaluation: Creates opportunities for learners to assess their own performance

Coupled with active learning, learner-centered course development is the vehicle for promoting meaningful learning that is transformational. If you or your colleagues are engaged in any type of course development, consider the principles of important learning on which to build.

Vicki Caruana is an academic program manager and professor in the School of Professional Studies at City University of New York. Caruana’s PhD is in curriculum and teaching, and she has mentored faculty at several institutions to create meaningful learning experiences in traditional and online settings. She is the author of over 30 books for teachers and parents, including the bestselling Apples & Chalkdust: Inspirational Stories and Encouragement for Teachers.

The references

Fink, LD (2003). Creating Meaningful Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to College Course Design. San Francisco: Josey-Bass.

Fink, LD (2004). A self-directed guide to designing courses for meaningful learning. Retrieved from

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