Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Climbing Bloom’s Ladder of Learning


A Google search on “Bloom’s taxonomy” recently returned an impressive 1.63 million results! Apparently the literature available on the internet is replete with resources about the famous Bloom’s taxonomy of learning. I don’t intend to repeat what Bloom taxonomy is about and how it evolves because I believe you can find wealth of information on various aspects on the topic among the 1.63 million results in the internet. I have selected a few articles (link at the end of this article) for those interested to know more about the various domains (cognitive, affective, and psychomotor) in the original and the revised Bloom’s taxonomy. What I’m interested to talk about in this article is the issue of implementing and infusing the various domains in the curriculum. I’m aware that certain facets of Bloom’s taxonomy have been challenged (for example the hierarchical cognitive domain) but to me this is more of intellectual academic arguments that do not reduce the overall value of the concept. For educators, to teach and not be aware of the value of Bloom’s taxonomy (original or modified from) will do injustice to our students because the taxonomy provides important perspectives that could improve the quality of teaching and learning at all levels.

So what’s the fuss about Bloom’s taxonomy? In a nutshell, Bloom’s taxonomy of learning focused teachers on the educational (learning) outcomes – what students should know and be able to do. How does the taxonomy relates learning outcomes to teaching? For any given curriculum, knowing the intended learning outcomes determine the what, how, and when of teaching. The focus of this article is on the cognitive domain of Bloom’s taxonomy although affective and psychomotor domains are equally important. The six components in the original cognitive domain are arranged in hierarchical manner that form ‘a ladder of learning’ that moves stepwise upwards in terms of levels of complexity, i.e., from simple to complex and from concrete to abstract. In this hierarchy form, it is assumed that abilities or competencies needed at the lower levels are also needed as prerequisite to the mastery of skills at higher levels. 


Each step in cognitive domain involves a specific kind of competence that supposedly can be tested with appropriate questions, each of which requires some “action” to demonstrate mastery of the material. The six-tiered steps are:
  1. Knowledge – recall of information, remembering facts and information; tested by questions asking that a student list, define, tabulate, name or identify who, what, when, where, and so on;
  2. Comprehension – understanding of information (considered as the lowest level of understanding), tested by questions with verbs such as summarize, contrast, interpret, estimate, discuss, predict and the like;
  3. Application – use of information to solve problems, ability to apply information or concepts in a new situation; tested by requiring students to demonstrate, calculate, illustrate, examine, show, modify and classify;
  4. Analysis – recognition of patterns, components, organization, both manifest and latent meanings and functions, with verbal cues such as explain, connect, compare, separate and classify; 
  5. Synthesis – generalization and integration of knowledge including generation of new ideas from old ones, relating knowledge across disciplines, drawing conclusions and predicting, according to instructions such as combine, integrate, modify, plan, create, design, generalize and rewrite;
  6. Evaluation – assessment and decision making in response to demands to discriminate among ideas, test hypotheses, appraise theories, construct arguments in support of, or in opposition to, various propositions, verify evidence and recognize bias and subjectivity.
The first three components constitute ‘lower order thinking’ and the last three constitute ‘higher order thinking’ abilities. The original Bloom’s taxonomy has undergone various modifications to reflect new development in cognitive research. The new (modified) Bloom’s Taxonomy was based on the work of Anderson and Krathwohl who incorporates knowledge from contemporary research on learning and human cognition into its model. The components in revised taxonomy are: Remember, understand, apply, analyse, evaluate, and create. The major differences are the revised taxonomy modifies the original vocabulary to make each word more consistent with how it should be used; the new levels are now listed as verbs. For example, the term ‘synthesis’ was changed to ‘create’ because in order to demonstrate synthesis then there need to be a new creation. 


Thoughtful application of Bloom’s taxonomy could serves as a useful structure for writing measurable learning objectives and learning outcomes (LOs). The taxonomy helped to establish a shared, common language for academic assessment and the construction of clear and consistent learning objectives. In fact, detailed schemes and impressive schematic diagrams are available to help educators to write the LOs using specific verbs for each domain. (Fellow blogger, Zaid, has written an impressive and comprehensive article on his blog here). The LOs of the course with all the glory details (matrices, etc.) look nice and impressive on paper but the BIG QUESTION is whether teachers/lecturers are well guided and trained to implement teaching strategies that will help students to achieve the highest cognitive skills. From my discussion with colleagues and educators the general feeling is that the process of writing LOs now has become very mechanistic and to some extent trivialized because now almost anyone can do it without understanding the underlying philosophy that Bloom and others originally intended to achieve in terms of students’ learning. My main concern is that when any process becomes too mechanistic and standardized, there’s a tendency for ‘automation’ and the attitude of ‘just follow the template’, a practice that add little value to either instructional design or the assessment of learning.

I believe that most educators would like their students to function at the highest cognitive levels (analysis, synthesis, and evaluation) because these would make them successful lifelong learners (successful beyond the examination hall, hopefully). However, in practice and in reality we have to honestly examine whether our students have enough opportunity to develop these cognitive skills or we (educators) have provided the environment that help to promote the skills. We have to examine and reflect on the way our curriculum is designed and how it is structured and delivered – can we really achieve the higher order learning/thinking or is it barely rising above the comprehension level? I don’t have a definite answer and I’m just throwing this question here for the sake of discussion – if the answer to this question is YES then obviously there is a disconnection between teachers’ sincere hopes and the actual expectations and we need to address this issue.

Let me paraphrase the question to ponder upon: How do we help students to climb the ladder of Bloom’s taxonomy to reach the high order cognitive skills? How do we design/approach the teaching and learning process to create an environment that would go beyond the comprehension (understand) and ‘apply’ levels? How do we operationalize the different learning stages into at curriculum and course level? 

I think a good point to start is to change the mind-set of educators that learning involves a simple acquisition of knowledge. Mayer (2002) argued that when taking a knowledge acquisition view of learning, teachers sometimes emphasize one kind of cognitive processing in instruction and assessment—what we call ‘Remembering’. This is basically the lowest level in the cognitive domain of Bloom’s taxonomy. He asserted that any education system should be based on a broader vision of learning that includes not only acquiring knowledge but also being able to use knowledge in a variety of new situations. 

If I could offer my humble opinion on the issue of ‘climbing the Bloom’s taxonomy ladder’, I would suggest that we take a close look at suggestion by Paulsen (2001) and Shulman (1986) that teachers should master three types of knowledge and competencies: (1) content knowledge—knowledge of the facts, principles and methods in the discipline that is being taught, (2) pedagogical knowledge—understanding of the learning process and the conditions that facilitate and hinder it, independent of the discipline in which the learning takes place, and (3) pedagogical content knowledge—a term coined by Shulman (1986) to denote knowledge and understanding of the learning process in the context of a particular discipline. I believe that any teacher equipped with these three elements would be able to help students climbing to the top of cognitive domain of Bloom’s taxonomy. 

Specific examples on strategies to incorporate and infuse high order cognitive skills can be found from the work of educators from various disciplines. I didn’t do exhaustive search but a few that I found are listed in the reading list at the end of this article. One interesting article that I read with interest was “Teaching Introductory Organic Chemistry: ‘Blooming’ beyond a Simple Taxonomy” by Pungente & Badger (2003). This article provides detailed approach that other educators can take as an example of best practices that can be adopted and adapted in their own classroom. Let me quote two paragraphs (verbatim) from this article:
Our primary goal when teaching introductory organic chemistry is to take students beyond the simple cognitive levels of knowledge and comprehension. We take a mechanistic approach to teaching organic chemistry. This is reinforced by connections to fundamental chemical principles emphasizing a unification of knowledge. Once students begin to appreciate the explanation of organic reaction mechanisms, they start to see these fundamental principles reappear regularly throughout the study of organic chemistry. True connections emerge and students begin to view organic reactions and interactions from a basis of understanding—using skills of synthesis and analysis—rather than rote memory. This ability to understand the connections between general principles and how they unlock the seemingly complex and confusing reactions in organic chemistry is an empowering experience for students. As empowerment replaces the fear, student confidence grows”. 
Like learning a new language, introductory organic chemistry typically begins with the grammar or taxonomy of organic chemistry. This introduction allows the instructor to speak the language of organic chemistry, re-examine principles, and lay the groundwork for advancement into reactions and mechanisms (applications and analysis). However, too often when the instructor kicks into “higher-level cognitive gear”, and begins delving into applications, the students are still functioning at the lower knowledge and comprehension cognitive levels, memorizing seemingly unrelated facts. This discrepancy between the instructor’s expectations and student performance becomes painfully obvious at exam time. Often, unintentionally or unknowingly, the instructor teaches at the lower knowledge and comprehension cognitive levels but examines at the higher analysis and synthesis levels while the students’ exam expectations remain at the lower knowledge and comprehension cognitive levels. The results: students complain that the exams are too hard; the instructor concludes while marking the papers that the students don’t “understand” basic concepts”.
I believe there are more things we can do to help students to achieve meaningful learning in align with Bloom’s taxonomy educational objectives. As I have written in my previous article in this blog, we need to facilitate a paradigm shift from teacher-centered teaching to student-centered learning throughout the curriculum, such that students obtain a deeper learning experience, improve their understanding and ability to apply learning to new situations, enhance their critical thinking and experimental skills, and increase their enthusiasm for lifelong learning.

Comments, views, and suggestions from fellow educators on the questions/issues raised in this article are most welcome.

References and further readings:
  • Use of Bloom’s taxonomy wheel for writing learning outcomes 
  • Bloom Taxonomy (A nice introduction to Bloom Taxonomy; Slideshare presentation) 
  • Kinetic connections: Bloom's taxonomy in action 
  • A picture is worth a thousand thoughts: inquiry with Bloom's taxonomy – nice demonstration of Bloom’s taxonomy in action. It takes you step-by-step through the analysis of a photograph at progressively higher levels of thinking.
  • Green, K.H. (2010). Matching Functions and Graphs at Multiple Levels of Bloom's Revised Taxonomy. Problems, Resources, and Issues in Mathematics Undergraduate Studies – PRIMUS, 20(3), 204–216  (Note: you need a subscription).
  • Mayer, R.E. (2002). Rote Versus Meaningful Learning. Theory into Practice, 41(4), 226-232  (Note: you need a subscription).
  • Nentl, N. and Zietlow, R. (2008). Using Bloom's Taxonomy to Teach Critical Thinking Skills to Business Students. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 15(1),159-172  (Note: you need a subscription).
  • Paulsen, M.B., “The Relation Between Research and the Scholarship of Teaching,” New Directions for Teaching and Learning, Vol. 86, 2001, pp. 19–29  (Note: you need a subscription).
  • Pungente, M.D. and Badger, R.A. (2003). Teaching Introductory Organic Chemistry: ‘Blooming’ beyond a Simple Taxonomy. Journal of Chemical Education, 8(7), 779-784 (Note: you need a subscription).
  • Spencer, J.N. (1999). New Directions in Teaching Chemistry: A Philosophical and Pedagogical Basis. Journal of Chemical Education, 76(4), 566-569  (Note: you need a subscription).

6 comments:

  1. Dear Prof. Karim,

    First, "Zaid, has written an impressive and comprehensive article" (The link is not correct).

    Secondly, thanks for writing a comprehensive and insightful article about Bloom's taxonomy and the revised one, too.

    However, perhaps using rubrics and the Solo taxonomy to evaluate answers will be more enriching than just using bloom's as a reference, which is good for writing learning outcomes and satisfying MQA, but seem to have less insights of whether students are achieving the levels or not.

    Thanks again for great article :)

    Salams

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  2. Hi Zaid, many thanks for alerting the dead link -- my apologies - I have corrected it. Your article on writing LOs is, as usual, very juicy and informative too. I'm aware about Solo taxonomy but have not explored the potential. Perhaps you can blog about it. I guess measuring learning outcomes (apart from exam grade) is still a subject of much contention and debate. Any thought on this?

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  3. I will skip the solo taxonomy post :) I like the idea, but not the terms and how it is explained... Perhaps we can come up with our own assessment schema for deep learning :)

    Open or closed book exams with objective or subjective questuon types have merit as the encourage students to study hard, BUT often enough they don't measure lasting or relevant learning... So, what is the point?

    We need to explore more authentic forms of assessment to encourage students to study smart more authentic forms of learning beyond memorizing slides....

    What authentic learning and assessment means, depends on the context and what needs to be learned :)

    Back to sleep :)

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  4. Good article Karim. I downloaded the Blooms taxonomy circle diagrams to refer to in my curriculum design course. I am just finishing up my certificate in Instructional Design and working on my final project and I hope the circles will help me to write better learning outcomes for my workshop.

    For five years teaching ESL I wrote one lesson at a time with objectives, but never thought about writing out LO's. It has been helpful for me as a teacher so I know where I am heading with the course content and activities in my design. As for students reading LO's, in adult education and training they may take the time to read them, if it's a required course they need.

    For those of us who are taking professional development courses to help teach better, for my self, I want to know the expected outcomes of taking a course before I sign up. As well, I like to know the content being covered and seeing a syllabus if possible before I dish out money to take the course.

    So, for me LO's help define the design, guide the planning of the activities and assessments needed in order to reach the desired outcomes for both teachers and learners.

    Perhaps, in some cases using a more constructivist approach, age appropriate learners can take part in brainstorming sessions in how to reach the LO's set out by educational boards that must be met by teachers in the system.

    LO's can be used as a guide for teachers to strive for, but they can still be creative in their daily lesson planning, doing project based lessons and using Web 2.0 tools, other technology to engage learners in the learning process and help to create a 21st Century learning environment, all within the parameters given to reach the required LO's.

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  5. Professor Mo EntezampourSeptember 14, 2012 at 12:31 AM

    Dear Professor Karim,
    Thank you for writing such a comprehensive and insightful article about Bloom's taxonomy. I read your article twice. Its very well written. Great Job.

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  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

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