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Higher education tends to bow down to Bloom as the oracle of educational objectives. Bloom’s cognitive taxonomy, which ranks types of learning on six levels from “lowest” (remembering) to “highest” (creating), is a standard guide that almost all academic committees use in reviewing course proposals. While over the years Fink (2003) and others have tweaked the actual taxonomy, the message has remained the same: higher education should target learning at the higher rather than lower levels, and course developers and faculty should pitch their courses at these levels.
While the division of learning levels embodied in Bloom makes sense, its implementation has degenerated into a verb-policing mentality. Committees reviewing course proposals often set a threshold level of learning objectives, usually the top two, and flag any learning outcomes they deem to fall below that level. They do so by looking at the verbs used in the outcome descriptions and matching those with Bloom’s levels. When the verb used maps to the wrong level, they kick the proposal back to faculty member to revise and resubmit with a proper verb.
Eventually these committees realized that they could save time by creating a list of approved verbs at each level and giving it to those proposing courses so that faculty would use only approved verbs in their initial submission. Now evaluating course proposals came down to having the verb list on hand (sometimes represented as a wheel for easy viewing) to ensure compliance.
There are a number of problems with the verb-policing mentality. For one, the mapping of verbs to Bloom’s levels is often arbitrary. Sometimes synonyms occupy different levels. For instance, in the verb wheel linked above, sketch is at one level but draw at another. Often a particular verb could reasonably appear in any number of levels. Not surprisingly, one analysis showed that there is no consistency among verb lists at different institutions (Newton et al., 2020).
Plus, the underlying view that certain types of learning are more important than others is wrongheaded. Importance is situationally dependent. As Ron Berger (2018) notes, invoking the bottom level of Bloom’s pyramid, “I would not want to go hunting for mushrooms with someone who has a poor memory of edible and poisonous species.” A foreign language instructor might want students to memorize 30 nouns so they can use them later, and there is nothing wrong with that. Asking a student to “explain” the reasoning that Einstein used in developing his general theory of relativity, which would be at the second lowest level of “comprehension” in Bloom’s taxonomy, cannot possibly be considered a low-level type of thinking. In fact, it’s probably above the level that one could expect of an undergraduate.
These efforts were then taken one step further by defining activities at each level that will produce the desired outcome. Now the instructor can first choose a Bloom level, then pick a verb from the approved list, and then pick an activity associated with that level to ensure that students attain learning objectives.
But once again the mapping of activities to Bloom’s level is basically arbitrary. In the example above, student products such as television shows and recordings are mapped to the very bottom level of Bloom’s taxonomy as involving simple memorization of facts. Yet, developing a television show involves a lot of thought at the top level of Bloom’s taxonomy.
In reality, most activities involve thought at multiple Bloom levels. One of the best ways to remember information, which is at the lowest Bloom level, is through the act of creating, the highest Bloom level (Berger, 2018). Trying to separate activities into distinct types of learning rapidly leads to planning paralysis. A flustered faculty member once told me that she couldn’t figure out how to design activities that focus on specific Bloom’s levels, as she had been told to do. I advised her to forget about trying to shoehorn activities into specific Bloom’s levels and just design those that meet her desired learning outcomes, which solved the problem.
It is easy to forget that Bloom wrote his taxonomy in the late 1950s, over 60 years ago, in response to a specific issue of his time: that much of learning was done through rote memorization. High school history courses often involved memorization of dates and names. That is what he was addressing, and that time has largely passed. Some people even argue that we now have the opposite problem: teachers are so fixated on having students do interpretative thinking that we are not teaching the basic facts that are needed to do higher-level thinking.
My purpose here is to attack not Bloom but rather how it has been implemented. The attempt to systematize Bloom into neat lists of approved verbs and predefined activities papers over the fundamental problems of learning in higher education. Problems with student learning are not a result of faculty using the wrong verbs in their objectives. Learning problems relate to course practices—to learning activities that do not produce the desired learning outcomes. That is where academia should be devoting its efforts: ensuring that learning activities meet learning outcomes.
It is the alignment between learning objectives and course activities that needs to be the focus of academia. The problem is often that faculty plan courses with a “covering content” mentality rather than a “producing learning” mentality. When I began teaching and was given the assignment to teach ancient philosophy, I immediately thought in terms of the content that I needed to cover. I figured that I needed to cover Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. I wasn’t thinking in terms of learning outcomes.
Instead, I should have started with learning outcomes, such as improving student’s critical thinking skills. Then I should have designed my curriculum to meet those outcomes though the use of ancient philosophy. That is a learner-centered design model, and something that we need to be teaching faculty instead of asking them to fit their course design around predefined lists.
While the underlying concepts of Bloom are worth learning as background information, the implementation of those concepts has gone sideways, which has distracted us from addressing the real issues. Learning outcomes are often viewed by faculty as just an afterthought developed to satisfy committees or syllabus requirements. The systemization of objectives into approved lists has led many faculty to consider learning outcomes as a mere box-checking activity, which certainly was not Bloom’s intention. Instead, we need to focus on helping faculty understand how to use learning outcomes to guide their course design and to produce learning.
Berger, R. (2018, March 14). Here’s what’s wrong with Bloom’s taxonomy: A deeper learning perspective. Education Week. https://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/learning_deeply/2018/03/heres_whats_wrong_with_blooms_taxonomy_a_deeper_learning_perspective.html
Fink, D. (2003) Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. Jossey-Bass.
Newton, P. M., Da Silva, A., & Peters, L. G. (2020, July 10). A pragmatic master list of action verbs for Bloom’s taxonomy. Frontiers in Education, 5. https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2020.00107
Really good reminder John, and TOTALLY agree. Loved your statement, “That is where academia should be devoting its efforts: ensuring that learning activities meet learning outcomes.” You are right, we can get hung up on the fancy way we write our objectives without ensuring that the outcome is getting met for authentic learning.
Thank you for the reminder.