Bloom-in Marvellous!

This week I used my Teaching Model Canvas (TMC)  for the first time. I found it useful, not because it contained some magic ingredient, but because it prompted me to think carefully about my teaching plans, and pointed me in inspirng directions. One of those directions was Bloom’s taxonomy of learning. As I read around Bloom’s classifications, something really seemed to ‘click’: a ‘kairos moment’ maybe?

The taxonomic system of understanding learning seems to be the equivalent of the ‘periodic table’ in chemistry! As chemists we know the elements are all lying around somewhere, but Mendeleev’s arrangement of them allowed us to see their connections, understand their properties and predict new ones!

OK. OK. I’ve found a new idea, it’s all ‘shiney, shiney’ and perhaps I’m a bit hyped! But still: I feel like I’ve been blundering about the lecture theatre like some sort of liminal alchemist, mixing up various ideas I’ve come across and hoping it will all transmute to pedagogical gold! ‘Light on’

Bloom’s taxonomy

Benjamin Bloom was the American educational psychologist and chairman of the committee of educators who devised the scheme that bears his name. (As a side note, check out the challenge that is Bloom’s 2 sigma problem!) The idea behind the classification system was to assign teaching activities into six different levels of objectives, that way material of the ‘same level’ could be exchanged between different institutes. However, the analysis also mean’t that educators could understand how to design a sequential package of learning (that is building a foundation of basic knowledge before moving onto more complex ideas).

The original 1956 list was (starting at the bottom): Knowledge, Comprehending, Applying, Analysing, Synthesising and Evaluating. Each objective was considered a ‘higher order’ of learning than the previous one. The explanation of the original list can be found here, but I find the revised version (suggested by Anderson et al, 2001) more helpful: Remember, Understand, Apply, Analyse, Evaluate, Create.

What about the students?

As a student I find I can’t always tell how complicated a topic is, and so I struggle to gauge how much mental capacity it should be using. If a complex question is put after an easy one, I find I can’t answer it because (in ‘Bloom-speak’) I’m operating at ‘Remembering’ when I should be experimenting around with ideas at the ‘Creating’ level! (Looking critically at some of the lab paperwork I written as a teacher, I can see I’m guilty of setting out questions in this way.)

I’m wondering if assigning a Bloom category to teaching activities would help students ‘frame’ their mental processes, and place the ‘activity’ in it proper context? To use the metaphorical image of a map and compass: the map (just like a question) needs to be read, interpreted and a (navigational) answer extracted from the information; the compass (just like Bloom’s classification) orients the map so it can be positioned in the right place with respect to the real world, or the overall learning program.

Athanassiou et al [1] came up with similar conclusions after they collected data from students who had use Bloom’s taxonomy as a method for ‘scaffolding’ their own learning. The students were able to self-analysis their learning and understand where they were compared to the expectations of the class.

My favourite Bloom website!

As I’ve looked around the web while preparing this blog post I’ve found some really useful stuff.

My first ‘go-to’ page was by Don Clark. He uses the newer taxonomy and provides each of the levels with a decent definition, set of keywords (as action verbs – that is what students are expected to do under that objective) and a list of learning technologies that students may use. That really helped me see Bloom’s taxonomy in a practical sense.

For example, for the third level (or objective) of  ‘applying’ the list contains this:

Defintion:Applies what was learned in the classroom into a new problem (one which is set out in a different way to those previously used.
Examples:Use a set of written instruction to perform a new task. Calculate the ratios of mixtures using physio-chemical data
Key Words: applies, changes, computes, constructs, demonstrates, discovers, manipulates, modifies, operates, predicts, prepares, produces, relates, shows, solves, uses
Technologies: collaborate, write, design.

(Table above adapted from Clark)

But Bloom’s has been taken to another dimensions (literally!)

1D Bloom to 2D Bloom

Bloom’s taxonomy has moved from a list (a one dimension row) of classes to a table (a two dimensional arrangement) where Bloom’s categories are the columns and ‘knowledge-types’ are the rows. The different levels of knowledge are:

  • Facts: discrete elements of understanding
  • Concepts: an idea about something, or a collection (or class) of related but different things
  • Processes: a sequence of events that produces something.
  • Procedures: a list of actions, or instructions, that should be followed.
  • Principles: a set of stated rules, laws, guidelines or borders/boundaries, that are accepted. Within the principles effects and actions are understood.
  • Metacognition: an understanding of how we think and learn.

Clark gives an example matrix at the bottom of his webpage, with verbs. The same idea is stated here, but with four knowledge ‘levels’ not six. For me that helps in further dividing complex tasks into simpler discrete ‘packets’, which can individually be classified under the Bloom’s and taught accordingly.

Bloom’s in higher education

It a bit disappointing that the idea of ‘classifying’ course material at a particular level has come to fruition (or at least it hasn’t as far as I can see). What would be useful is to have a guide as the what Bloom’s levels could be expected to apply to what University course. I can’t find anything online. The only document I have is one that I was sent by a colleague sometime ago: its useful but has no title, authors and the web-link references are all broken!

The document maps University course material onto to the original Blooms taxonomy, so my adaptation of it would be:

Blooms level HE year
Remember Year 1
Understand Years 1-2
Apply Years 2-3
Analyse Years 2-3
Evaluate Years 3 – masters/postgrad
Create Masters/postgrad

More Blooms! And no Blooms

There are two other forms of Bloom’s taxonomy: affective and psychomotor. The affective classification deals with the emotions and attitudes behind learning, while the psychomotor (which was developed later by other researchers using the same classification ideas) deals with the way people learn to handle tools or instruments. There are two different descriptors for the psychomotor hierarchy which are discussed on pages 36-38 of this document.

There are also other taxonomies (like SOLO, and Finks) which at some point I’ll have to look at!

The Evidence – as always!

For me, a constant question of pedagogical theory is: where is the evidence to show that it’s effective? Unfortunately, for Bloom taxonomy there’s not much out there. Redfield and Rousseau [2] showed student achievement was higher when teachers focused on asking questions designed at the higher Bloom levels. Athanassiou et al [1] showed outcome improvements when students reviewed their learning activities through Blooms taxonony, and lecturers evaluated work and gave feedback using the same scheme.

Reflections and Application to my practice.

As I was writing this blog and trying to get may head round the definitions I found myself agreeing with the argument that the top three levels (analyzing, evaluating and creating) are probably all the same. I think this would be true in science: where ‘analysing’ is just as important as ‘creating’ (may be even more so).

I’m disappointed there’s not more data to back up the taxonomy, either in terms of it’s ability to design learning activities and produce materials, or on how its use in course design and have a beneficial student outcome. I’d like to see a ‘big data’ approach applied here with some serious, ongoing, analytics.

I’m thinking about trying to classify my learning outcomes and activity questions using the Bloom system. That way, I’m hoping I’ll be clear in my mind how difficult I expect an activity to be, and at what level the student needs to process information to learn.  If I design an activity (big or small) and report the Bloom’s level them (ideally) everyone can sing of the same song sheet, or they can tell me if my ideas are ‘off key!’. That not only applies to students (I hope), but also the staff I collaborate with in developing materials. That, after all, was one of the driving forces behind the taxonomy in the first place.

To help me I’ve produced an Excel table (with these definitions added to the ‘in-cell’ comments boxes) which I’m hoping will help me use the Blooms-Knowledge table in my own teaching design. I probably have to update it as I go.


[1]  Athanassiou et al, Critical thinking in the management classroom: Bloom’s taxonomy as a learning tool, Journal of Education Management, Vol. 27 No. 5, October 2003 533-555

[2] Doris L. Redfield, Elaine Waldman Rousseau A Meta-analysis of Experimental Research on Teacher Questioning Behavior, Review of Educational Research, Summer, 1981, Vol. 51, No. 2, Pp. 237-245



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