Bloom’s Taxonomy

I’m always a little surprised when I run into college teachers who haven’t heard of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  For some strange reason, I’ve known about it since fourth grade.  (Mrs. Orchard also introduced me to Greek mythology, Spanish, and a variety of other interesting topics.)  However, I’ve found that many instructors aren’t familiar with the taxonomy, which is a shame since it provides such a useful framework for thinking about the questions we ask of our students.

The original 1956 taxonomy by Benjamin Bloom and his collaborators consisted of six educational objectives: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.  There’s a lesser known 2001 revision of the taxonomy that I find a little more useful than the original (which is why I used it my book).  In the revision, the objectives are described using verbs: recall, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, and create.

I recently found a couple of Web sites that use the taxonomy to provide guidance for writing clicker questions.  The Technology Enhanced Learning and Research (TELR) center at the Ohio State University has a great site on teaching with clickers, one that includes advice for designing clicker questions using the 1956 taxonomy.  Here’s their example of a “synthesis” question, one that asks students to “put parts together to form a new whole”:

If Homer wrote The Iliad today, Stanley Fish and Harold Bloom would argue, respectively, whether the work should be classified as:

  1. Existential vs. romantic
  2. Postmodern vs. classical
  3. Modern vs. romantic
  4. Postcolonial vs. modern
  5. Preliterate vs. postliterate

This question requires students to know something about The Iliad as well as Stanley Fish and Harold Bloom’s approaches to critical theory.  I think this is a great example of a clicker question that calls for higher-level thinking, one that would work well in a literature course.

The e-Learning Center at Northern Arizona University has a similar set of advice for designing clicker questions.  They apparently used the TELR page as a model and thus also used the 1956 taxonomy.  Interestingly, their sample questions are all from the field of archaeology.  (Now that I think about it, Mrs. Orchard included archaeology in my fourth-grade curriculum, too.)  Here’s their example of a “synthesis” question:

We recently excavated a site in northeastern Arizona with a small 6 – 8 room roomblock, tusayan black-on-white pottery, and a small kiva. Nearby we found prehistoric rock alignments in association with large multi-use bifaces suggesting the area was used as an agricultural fields. What kind of site is this?

  1. Pueblo II Anasazi
  2. Pueblo II Mogollon
  3. Basketmaker II

Answer:  A. Pueblo II Anasazi. The Anasazi were the prehistoric archaeological culture that lived small roomblocks, made tusayan black-on-white pottery, and lived in northeastern Arizona.

This looks like a great question, but I might dispute its categorization as a “synthesis” question.  Whereas the TELR example above clearly requires students to put ideas together, this question seems to require students to know the characteristics of three kinds of archaeological sites, which is more of a “comprehension” question as I see it.

Agreeing on how to categorize a question using Bloom’s Taxonomy isn’t always easy.  At a conference back in 2007, Shelley Smith from the University of Minnesota-Duluth led a session on writing clicker questions using Bloom’s Taxonomy as a framework.  She shared several example questions with those of attending the session, then asked us to categorize each question according to the taxonomy (using clickers, naturally).  It was very interesting to see how much discussion this activity generated, as many of us enthusiastically debated how to categorize the questions.

Nailing down categories isn’t the ultimate point of using Bloom’s Taxonomy when writing clicker questions, however.  The point is to take advantage of some framework (the 1956 taxonomy, the 2001, some other taxonomy) to help us think about the questions we ask our students and thus be more intentional about aligning our questions with our learning objectives.

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