Each year, the Samford Office of Online and Professional Studies department hosts a special workshop called Innovate. This year, our Innovate 2019 keynote speaker presented Dee Fink’s Creating Significant Learning Experiences (Fink, 2013)

Dr. Dee Fink was the founding director of the instructional development program at the University of Oklahoma and is currently principal in Dee Fink & Associates. His work with significant learning led to the development of the five principles of course design and Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning.

Five Principles of Course Design

1. Challenges learners to higher-level learning

All courses require some “lower-level” learning, i.e., comprehending and remembering basic information and concepts. But many courses never get beyond this.

2. Uses active forms of learning

Some learning will be “passive,” i.e., reading and listening. But higher-level learning requires active learning. A student learns to solve problems by solving problems; they learn to think critically by thinking critically.

3. Gives frequent and immediate feedback to students on the quality of their learning

Higher-level learning and active learning require frequent and immediate feedback to know whether they are “doing it” correctly.

4. Uses a structured sequence of different learning activities

Any course needs a variety of experiences to support different kinds of learning goals. But these various learning activities also need to be structured in a sequence such that earlier experiences lay the foundation for complex and higher-level learning tasks in later experiences.

5. Has a fair system for assessing learning

Even when students feel they are learning something significant, they are unhappy if their assessments do not reflect this. Take care that quizzes and similar items are fair, are soundly constructed, don’t include “gotcha” questions, etc.

 Source: Michael Gisondi


Backward design

Fink also offers ideas around approaching design. He shares that a common criticism of the ADDIE project planning approach to instructional design is that it is too linear, with evaluation “by autopsy” at the end. While it seems logical enough, literal use of the approach can cause a disconnect between desired performance and actual results.

Fink advocates using Backward Design (Bowen, 2017) to create a significant learning experience. This requires a designer to take an “expansive” view, going beyond basic understanding and remembering: What do we want learners to do? We must move past thinking, “How I will teach that?”—but rather, “How can they learn it?”

Backward design begins with what learners must be able to do, and then you work backward, asking what do you want them to be able to do?

  • How will you know they can do that?
  • What evidence will show you they can perform on the job?

Maybe for a topic like internet safety, you can offer a few examples and ask learners to use a multiple-choice or matching quiz to identify safe and suspect behaviors. But a communication skills lesson requires more than a simple read-and-recall assessment. You must create activities and assessments that stimulate critical thinking, evaluation, and reflection. Design these assessments first—and then work backward from there. Ask yourself:

  • What activities, in what sequence, will help the learner learn?
  • What, in the learning experience, can encourage critical thinking?
  • What will enable that performance required by the learner?

If you want the learner to engage in critical thinking, you can’t just use a single exam to evaluate learning at the end of the course.

I learned a lot of valuable information from Fink’s book and the Innovate 2019 presentation. His ideas are useful to seasoned instructional designers, instructors, and those new to eLearning—in both corporate and academic settings. I’ve included a few free resources for you as well as the sources used in this post.

Check out these free downloads!

“Integrated Course Design” by Dee Fink

“A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning” by Dee Fink – pdf study guide

“Understanding by Design” Seminar Notes (Vanderbilt University) – Click Print to Download


Bowen, Ryan S., (2017). Understanding by Design. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved March 25, 2019, from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/understanding-by-design/.

Fink, L. Dee. A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning.

Fink, L. Dee. Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses2nd edition. San Francisco, CA: Wiley, 2013.

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