Aiming Beyond Competent: The Application of the Taxonomy of Significant Learning to Medical Education

Teach Learn Med. 2019 Aug-Sep;31(4):466-478. doi: 10.1080/10401334.2018.1561368. Epub 2019 Jan 27.


Issue: Competency-Based Medical Education (CBME) focuses on demonstrable outcomes, as well as upholding medical education's accountability to society. Despite calls for a robust, multifaceted approach to competency-based assessment (CBA), lingering critiques exist. These critiques include reductionism, reinforcement of an external locus of control within learners, an loss of focus on learner development. Both CBME and CBA may be strengthened if viewed through the lens of a complementary curriculum design framework that broadens the focus on the learner. Evidence: Researchers and physician organizations have articulated the need for medical practitioners trained to provide optimal care in the rapidly changing care environment. In the drive to ensure accountability to patients and society, CBME may overlook the duty of educators to foster the necessary intrinsic development of learners as holistic professionals. The focus of CBA on outcomes may reward memorization and rote performance but may fail to ensure the underlying comprehension or critical thinking necessary to adapt to the variability of real-life patient care. Learners focus on tasks chosen for assessment; thus, areas less easily assessed may be overlooked or deemed unimportant. Reinforcement for learner motivation becomes externalized in CBA, as opposed to being driven by the desire for self-improvement and self-actualization. A recently proposed framework that views learner development as a process-based improvement cycle, the "Master Adaptive Learner," may help remedy this issue. L. Dee Fink's Taxonomy of Significant Learning aims to create meaningful learning experiences in higher education. This taxonomy consists of six interwoven domains: (a) Learning How to Learn, (b) Foundational Knowledge, (c) Application, (d) Integration, (e) Human Dimension, and (f) Caring. Each domain encompasses a unique perspective on the learning process, and when collectively applied to curriculum design, significant learning occurs. This taxonomy has not been widely applied to medical education but may offer an important counterbalance to the outcomes-based focus of CBME. Implications: The outcomes-based focus of CBME is well suited for skill-based tasks, such as procedures, that are observable and measurable. However, other essential physician skills-such as critical thinking, reflection, empathy, and self-directed learning-are not easily assessed, and thus may receive little focus in an outcomes-based model. A holistic approach, such as the Taxonomy of Significant Learning, can counter the deficits of CBME and provide a balanced approach to education program design and assessment.

Keywords: assessment; competency-based medical education; graduate medical education; program design; significant learning.

MeSH terms

  • Clinical Competence*
  • Competency-Based Education*
  • Education, Medical / trends*
  • Humans
  • Learning*