Taxonomies of Learning

As you design learning objectives for your courses, you’ll be thinking deeply about what type of work you want your students to do to demonstrate that they have achieved your desired outcomes. What should our students know? What skills should they have? What types of activities should they be able to do? A taxonomy of learning provides an incredibly useful tool for defining the types of work that we want our students to do.

Taxonomies of Learning

Bloom's Taxonomy In the 1950s, Benjamin Bloom and a group of collaborating psychologists created what is known as Bloom’s Taxonomy, which is a framework for levels of understanding. Every discipline has some quibble with the specifics of these taxonomies. Our point is not to suggest that they are sacrosanct. Rather, we think that they are valuable as a heuristic—or even just as a lexicon of verbs for assignments—that can help you both when you are designing, and then when you are reflecting back on,  your lessons and assignments and the responses of your students to them.

Bloom’s taxonomy outlines six levels of cognitive gain. The lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy focus on the knowledge that we want our students to acquire – what we want our students to remember and understand. The middle levels focus on application and analysis of information. At the top of Bloom’s taxonomy are tasks that involve creating and evaluating. [Click to open the visualization above in a new tab]

Over the years, Bloom’s Taxonomy has been revised, and alternative taxonomies have been created. In 2001, Lorin Anderson and David Krathwohl rethought Bloom’s Taxonomy, shifting the peak from evaluation to creation. Additionally, one of their important contributions was the addition of a framework of actionable verbs for each level. These verbs help you evaluate the types of assignments, activities, and questions that you develop for your students.

More recently, the shape of Bloom’s taxonomy has been represented not as a pyramid – where there is a large based composed of facts and a tiny peak of creativity (which someone might interpret to mean that we should spend the majority of our time focus purely on knowledge) – but instead as a broad wedge or straightforward table that better highlights the equal importance of creating, evaluating, and analyzing.

Regardless of the exact shape or the exact terms, these taxonomies function as powerful heuristics to help us analyze our learning objectives and to design our assignments. In spite of the pyramidal shape of Bloom’s taxonomy, the point is not to suggest that what's at the top is more important than what's at the bottom; or that what's at the bottom needs to be larger than what's at the top. Rather, there are two points:

  • The skills and actions in the higher bands require engagement, or perhaps even mastery, of the skills in the lower bands.
  • The assignments and assessments which we set for students—which are discussed in the next section of our online resources, on syllabus and assignment design—should be in alignment. If you want your students to perform at higher cognitive levels on an exam, then the homework and in-class activities need to prepare students for this type of work.