Integrative learning at the lab bench: An approach with Fink’s taxonomy of significant learning


It was supposed to be that moment of Zen. It usually is never a problem for Ma. But today was different!

With his eyes closed and legs crossed, he started to wander in his thoughts.

“Why is this difficult? I am following what I am used to everyday! ”Why is my meditation not fruitful?”

Despondency at the bench:

“The student” is a pivotal cog in the wheel of basic science research. The inevitable pressure of publication and the “result oriented approach” of many principal investigators percolates to their students at the bench. This ever increasing pressure of performance is perhaps one of the many reasons that underpins the increasing despondency for students in basic research. It is here (at the bench) that the students have to balance the ropes of learning and produce publishable results within a limited time. This pressure creates an imbalance for many budding research aspiring students. At the bench, this breach distances the students from learning the skills for a given experiment; Instead, it elbows them to narrowly execute the protocol at hand. Following a protocol without understanding an experiment has far reaching repercussions than mere unproductivity. It tramples on the students learning quotient and converts them into result pursuing engines. So when an experiment fails, the disconnect is further intensified creating an overall negative effect towards basic research. As a result, many students even those with keen aptitude to scientific research get disoriented and lost. Often, it takes valuable time to get back on track.

Can this issue be addressed from the student’s plane? Can students bridge the distance between learning and “result oriented approach” at the bench?

Integrative learning at the lab bench: An approach with Fink’s taxonomy of significant learning is an attempt to answer these questions by taking a leaf from the pedagogical tree. It is an effort seeking to restore a balance at the bench from a student’s learning perspective.

Taxonomy of learning:

Pedagogically, taxonomy of learning serves as a pointer for designing courses. In higher education, depending on the year of study, level of understanding, strength of the students and course’s objectives, taxonomy of learning provides a framework for course designers. One of the well established taxonomy of learning is “Bloom’s taxonomy or Revised Bloom’s taxonomy”. It follows a hierarchical pyramid structure. Starting at the lower end is Knowledge, moving higher up through Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation.

Instead of a hierarchical system, L. Dee Fink proposed a taxonomy of significant learning that has an integrative approach for learning.

I assume from a student’s perspective; this integrative approach may fit well for learning at the bench.

Significant learning at the lab bench:

Taxonomy of Significant Learning (Adapted from Fink, 2003)

I reason that protocols are guidelines that depend on human skills and intervention for its effective execution at the bench. The student’s challenge is to develop the skills and intervention techniques. With that outlook, I attempt to impart Fink’s taxonomy in a lab setting, and the following topics are integrative in nature.

Foundational knowledge:

Prior to starting anything at the bench, learning the rationale and the principle of the experiment is not only important but it forms the foundational knowledge. It enhances the understanding of the protocol and further aids in remembering key steps in the experiment.


Remembering the key steps improves the skill that is required to perform the experiment. As we apply the skill in performing the experiment, thinking critically and adapting practically enhances intervention techniques that is key to the success of the given experiment.


Upon completion of the experiment, most of the time we tend to focus on the results. We try to analyze the data and miss some of the important connections that are critical for developing intervention skills. Making connections with the results and the experimental question, its rationale and experimental setup are key aspects of integrative learning at the bench. Importantly, one has to remember that results obtained from one experiment (either positive or negative) is a subset of information that must be connected with its collective sets of data that fits within the larger picture of the project. This integrative learning at the bench is an essential component that aids us in becoming self directed learners. Perhaps this is the most significant learning step at the bench! because as we learn to fit results in the larger picture, we get new direction. If need arises, it helps in designing new experiments to change course or move forward with the project.

Human dimension:

One of the interesting taxonomy of Fink’s significant learning model that differentiates from others, is the human dimension. At bench, the way we perform the experiment provides a window to learn about ourselves and others. For example, our interest in performing the experiment, our commitment to the procedure and most importantly the attitude and perseverance upon failures are few characters of the person that gets personified in this exercise. In bearing a reflective experience and a positive approach to the experiment, we learn about our self and others!


Fink adds caring in the taxonomy to include new values and interests that we could develop in the process of learning. At the bench, it could be interests developed in the process of performing an experiment or even after completion that stems from our integrative connections. In this process we develop new interests and take care to learn more, it could be a new technique or a new concept or altogether a new area of study. With interest and care we don’t get intimidated by the task at hand. Essentially, one experiment will lead to another. If we care enough about our experiments, it will never fail to lead us to new paths!

Learning how to learn (LHTL):

LHTL is the ultimate goal for this whole exercise. In this process, the objective is to become self directed learners. At the bench, self directed learning enriches the experience of performing experiments. If we enjoy the experience, it brings us back to the bench with new vigor and enthusiasm either for a failed or a new experiment.  In essence, LHTL trains our perseverance!  that will sustain us in basic science research for long. As we pursue our goals, LHTL will help us to direct and design future experiments within the scope of our project and beyond.

Conscious practice of integrative approach at the bench has the potential to effectively bridge the gap between a student’s learning quotient and productivity. Most importantly, principal investigators should take cognizance and try to create a sustaining environment that encourages and teaches integrative learning at the bench.

Perhaps in the process it will bring down the disconnect and the despondency at the bench. Perhaps students with an aptitude to scientific research will be encouraged to sustain longer in basic research.


The Zen Master came close to Ma and whispered

“Like life, it is a balance. Find your balance!”

Slowly Ma opened his eyes.

Disturbed yet not disrupted, he closed his eyes again. And after few deep breaths, there it was. The moment he was waiting for. The moment of Zen!

Later that day, Curiosity pushed Ma to the Zen Master

How did you find it? he asked

“Your eyes showed!” said the Zen Master

“But, it is not possible! It was closed, wasn’t it? inquired Ma

“Your eyes were closed, but your anxious eyeballs were not!” said the master.


  1. Creating significant learning experiences (Revised and updated) – L. Dee Fink

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