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

Looking at a research article through the lens of the last author!


It was the time of the day to light the candles for prayer. Ma’s trained hands arranged the votive with usual nonchalance. As he was immersed in his mission, he came near the bright red one that he had a soft spot for.

Looking at it, he mused on

“How painstakingly I had scrapped you from bits and pieces in and around this temple. Melted you to shape and here you are! I have crafted and created you.”

As he turned

“Wonderful work” said Zen Master looking over the shoulders of Ma.

He looked at the arrangement of the candles. With a warm smile the Zen Master lit all of them, including the bright red one.

As the light threw away the surrounding darkness, the bright red candle glowed with radiance.

Invited by its beauty, Ma pondered

“Even though I had created, the flame does bring it to life!”

The first and the last:

lens of the last author“Publication is the flame that brings a research work to life!” It is an indispensable ingredient in research. From graduate students to senior research scientists, publication is conventional. When a body of research work is set to publish, the authors take place within the gamut of their contributions. The first author(s) takes away the credit for the work, publication and citations in literature. Rightly so! for the author labors and toils with the research question on bench or at the bedside. Controlled experiments in the lab and or surveys, data collection, analysis and interpretations become the author’s vision and mission for many a year. Often overcoming fear, anxiety and failures; the first author yearns to find joy and enthusiasm until a logical conclusion is established. And in many cases, that logical conclusion is a publication.

Seasoned minds with trained eyes do not fail to recognize an all important author who comes along the list at the end, “The last author”. The content of research, expertise, funding are key contributions the author provides and in many cases even the research question is designed by the last author. For these obvious reasons, the author’s imprint in the publication of the research work is indelible. Indeed! The last author does light the flame that brings the research work to life.

Finding the perspective

We pick up a research article for various reasons (that are relevant to our work or otherwise). General interests, breakthrough research articles, titles or for journal club presentations, the list could be endless. In any given situation, it is important to look through the lens of the last author to get a perspective of the article in hand.

This will serve us two main purpose:

  1. Understanding the complete story behind the research article.
  2. Learning and applying the ideas and concepts to our own work.
Conception and theory (body of research):

Theoretical concepts, experimental approach and contribution towards existing body of literature build on to contrast a seminal work from others. Foundation of ideas and the approach taken by authors to answer a research question becomes vital. To understand the conception of ideas, it becomes critical to study the last author’s previous publications. Many would argue that it is unnecessary, as the article we read provides the necessary background and discuss the implication of the research work. I would have to disagree, because seldom it furnishes the complete picture. When publishing their work the authors are limited by space and style. Therefore, summarizing the complete body of research leading to the conception of ideas are often ignored and more focus is given to explaining the results. Thus, research on the previous publications by the last author in essence will shed light into the rationale and objectives a priori of the work done.

Cohorts and experimental design:

In objective, the peer review process weighs the strength of the data. Furthermore, the last author’s previous publication and collaborations will provide insights to assess the strengths of the experimental design and the cohorts involved (in case of human studies) in the study. This information will aid in the characterization of the study and may provide foresight in understanding the authors subsequent experimental designs.

Funding sources and future directions:

One of the advantages of knowing the funding source is that it can trace us back to the outline of the grant. It can provide information on the projects and concepts the last author is working on and what to expect in the future.

Learning about the content of the research is why we read an scientific article. However, for an unabridged understanding of the article one should find the content’s theory, conception of the idea, experimental design and literature argument. These are key perspectives that could be acquired through the lens of the last author. These perspectives will help us in our own field of research.


It was the next day and the time for prayer was upon them.

After arranging the candles Ma came near the bright red one, with little thought he lit the candle saying

“Let me bring you to life today!”

Yet again the radiance filled the room and Ma was pleased.

As Zen Master entered the prayer hall he saw the candles lit. He smiled at Ma and signaled him to wait.

He disappeared into a small room across the hall and after a few minutes returned with verve.

He came close to the bright red one and covered the candle with a glass chimney and raised the candle to the pedestal above. Ma and Zen Master saw the bright red one’s radiance grow even more and witnessed the new glow filling the entire room.

Both were immersed in the aura of the bright red one. And after a few seconds, collecting his thoughts Zen Master broke the silence and remarked

“It is full of life”

Science blogs: "The joy is in the ride!"

Science blogs: “The joy is in the ride!”

“Why don’t you write science blogs?” quipped Andrey.

I turned the knob of the fountain, reaching for a glass of water. With limited inkling, I started thinking about science blogs. Why should one write science blogs? Could I not spend my time writing a review or focus on that manuscript that is long overdue? Aren’t there other science blogs, what difference does it make? Will it not be one of the millions that are already out there? Is it all worth spending the time and energy in decoding and demystifying scientific jargon? Wouldn’t I complicate more in the process, especially labouring a specialized subject such as Immunology? And so I questioned my case to write blogs. As I closed the knob, a tiny drop of water covered the shiny rim of the tap, holding on to its edges. I witnessed a mundane culmination of “physics in action”. In a split second it had its natural course of fall, in a reaching yet short trip before unifying itself with its own kind to fill my glass of water, in essence the last drop to quench my thirst!

“The joy is in the ride!”

Isn’t thirst for knowledge and ecstasy of discovery the quintessence of doing science? We work our fingers to the bone with experiments, replicate results, and communicate via posters, presentations and publications. Writing is an essential, fundamental and an integral part of scientific research. Yet, it is very little that we do to express our ideas both within and outside the realm of our field of research without perspicacity. When we write manuscripts, reports or grants we are limited by style and format. Occasionally writing exercise in science should be more fun and joyful. Science blogs provide a platform to do exactly that! If our every endeavour aims at achievements and accolades, and perceive time as constraints then there is no joy in doing science and its expression becomes burdensome.

Purists would argue against over simplification and may suggest that misinformation may edge into scientific blogs. Au contraire, in the process of demystifying and decoding jargons we may form solid foundations and contour novel ideas. In due process, specializations become more accessible. Isn’t writing blog the best way to do it? I imagine, it is in this undertaking that most of the learning and exchange of ideas would transpire both within and among peers. Overtime, many blogs may sound redundant but it is certain that they act as a supplement in development of skills, both in content and communication. I would tie up that interest in science would prevail at the end of the day.

Finally, a drop of water may not be able to separate from others once it is unified, but the joy for the drop must be in its journey. The journey starting from the tip of the fountain until it joins the many others at the rim of the glass it contains! I reckon, so would be the exercise of scientific blogging “the joy is in the ride!”

Thanks Andrey, “I have started my journey!”