Courses That Teach More Than Content

When teaching foundational knowledge central to your discipline, a teacher can find ways to relate these topics to other disciplines, helping students see the value and transferability of the knowledge they are learning.
by LSA Learning & Teaching Technology Consultants

When designing a learner-centered course, instructors are prompted to consider their students’ experiences, prior knowledge, and needs before selecting course topics, curating content, and designing learning activities. In a student-centered classroom, instructors ask themselves the following questions during the course design process:

  • What will students know or be able to do after taking this course? 
  • What do I want my students to know or believe as a result of taking this course? 
  • How will I know that students know and can do what I have set out to teach them?
  • When and how will students work toward mastery?
  • Why is this content valuable?
  • Is the content I’ve chosen relevant to my students?
  • What methods or techniques can I employ to allow students to engage with the topic in a meaningful way? 

The process of designing student-centered learning goals and, from there, determining how students will demonstrate their learning is known as backward design. This course design process is widely accepted among educators as the best way to design student-centered learning experiences. If you use backward design, you know that every course component must align to a course learning goal, which makes the process of writing strong learning goals so important.

When creating learning goals, many course planning exercises ask instructors to imagine what students will take away from their courses in five years time. Most instructors answer this question without mentioning specifics of the course content. Instead, many of the goals that instructors voice refer to how students’ perceptions of themselves and others will change as a result of the course. When instructors identify lasting outcomes students will gain through participation in their course, they are describing what Fink (2013) would classify as a “significant learning experience.” According to Fink, for a learning experience to be significant, it must include the six categories of learning: Foundational knowledge; application; integration; human dimension; caring; learning how to learn. 

Creating a significant learning experience starts with the course goals. During the process of developing course goals, Fink’s Taxonomy pushes instructors to design learning goals that go beyond knowledge and skill building to address all categories of learning. For help doing this, Fink recommends instructors complete the following sentence: “By the end of this course, my hope is that students will…” In addition to using this sentence stem, Fink recommends writing a course goal that aligns with each of the six learning categories. Below are some examples of what this might look like.

  • Foundational Knowledge: …understand and remember the key concepts, terms, relationships, etc.;
  • Application …know how to use the content;Integration …be able to relate this subject to other subjects;
  • Human Dimension … identify the personal and social implications of knowing about this subject;
  • Caring … value this subject—as well as value further learning about the subject;
  • Learning how to Learn …know how to keep on learning about this subject—after the course is over. (Fink 2007)

Building knowledge and skills are essential elements of understanding, but according to Fink, learning foundational knowledge and skills is not enough to create a significant learning experience. The circular representation of Fink’s Taxonomy illustrates the ways multiple learning categories can be addressed at once. When teaching foundational knowledge central to your discipline, a teacher can find ways to relate these topics to other academic disciplines (Integration), helping the student see the value and transferability of the knowledge they are learning. The more the six learning categories overlap, the better, since significant learning happens when all six of the learning types are promoted.

Fink’s Taxonomy is a reminder that a course jam packed with content is unlikely to lead students to long term retention of course learning goals. True understanding requires more: the ability to thoughtfully and actively apply foundational knowledge with discernment, as well as the ability for learners to self assess, justify, and critique their actions.



Fink, L. D. (2003). What is significant learning. University of Oklahoma Significant Learning Website, Program for Instructional Innovation at the University of Oklahoma.

Fink, L. Dee. "The power of course design to increase student engagement and learning." Vol. 9, no. 1, Winter 2007.

Release Date: 03/23/2023
Category: Learning & Teaching Consulting; Teaching Tips
Tags: Technology Services
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