Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

What Makes a Curriculum Significant? Tracing the Taxonomy of Significant Learning in Jesuit Honors Programs

Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

What Makes a Curriculum Significant? Tracing the Taxonomy of Significant Learning in Jesuit Honors Programs

Article excerpt


Over the last few years, I have sat in the opening sessions of the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC) conference and felt equal parts concern and conviction. In 2015 and 2016, opening speakers enumerated the challenges and opportunities that confront honors educators in a rapidly changing higher education landscape. I sympathized with their concerns in an institutional and cultural context marked by what Schwehn called the "Weberian ethos" of education--an instrumental, and less charitable, attitude toward academic inquiry. Yet, even as I acknowledged the veracity of their arguments, I was buoyed by belief in the Jesuit mission that animates my institution, particularly its emphases on social justice and care for the whole person. When NCHC leadership revealed the "just" honors theme for the 2017 conference, I felt affirmed in my optimism about the future of honors education.

This optimism occasioned my inquiry here on the curricular design and academic practices ofJesuit honors programs. As a way of tying this curricular review to recent trends in pedagogy and the wider literature on the science of teaching and learning, I used Dee Fink's significant learning taxonomy as a heuristic device to examine eight honors programs at Jesuit institutions. Fink, whose work has gained widespread appeal in teaching circles over the last fifteen years, promotes dynamic and student-centered pedagogy that leads to substantive and enduring learning outcomes. Many of the tenets Fink emphasizes in his model reflect honors pedagogy as defined by the NCHC and various educators and administrators within the honors community One might thus expect honors programs to reflect significant learning principles in their curricula.

Jesuit honors programs, however, are marked not only by their adherence to principles of honors education but also by what the Honors Consortium of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) calls "essential characteristics of a Jesuit Honors Program." These characteristics include integrative learning, reflection and discernment, and commitment to social justice in the spirit of the "intellectual apostolate" (Honors Consortium, n.d.). Recent work by Kraus, Wildes and Yavneh Klos, and Yavneh Klos et al. makes important connections between these Jesuit ideals and the larger honors community, where reflective learning and service to society often thrive in non-Jesuit contexts. I follow their lead here by suggesting a Jesuit-inspired curricular paradigm but one that is ultimately applicable to all programs interested in promoting a just curricular model for the twenty-first century.


Dee Fink's 2013 significant learning taxonomy provides a framework for designing high-impact, student-centered learning experiences Inspired by Benjamin Bloom' 1956 taxonomy of educational objectives, a hierarchical model that stresses lower- and higher-order cognitive operations, Fink advances a "relational and even interactive" model for learning (37). The significant learning taxonomy comprises six cognitive and affective dimensions that, Fink believes, colleges must promote: foundational knowledge, application, integration, the human dimension, caring, and learning how to learn (39-40). Fink believes that properly designed learning experiences shed strict adherence to content coverage in favor of student-centered approaches that emphasize all dimensions simultaneously (38). He argues that such experiences, when properly planned and executed, enhance students' lives by imbuing them with a "more thoughtful philosophy on life," improve their social interactions with others, cultivate a more thoughtful and informed sense of citizenship, and prepare them adequately for a complex and ever-changing world (8-9). Ultimately, he suggests that significant learning "requires that there be some kind of lasting change that is important in terms of the learner's life" (34). …

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