Understanding taxonomies of learning and cognition

A taxonomy is just a fancy word for a classification, a naming convention, a set of buckets by which to sort something.  The planning toolkit of Compass is based extensively on two taxonomies of learning – Bloom’s taxonomy of cognition, and an adapted version of Biggs and Collis’ Structure of Observed Learning Outcome (SOLO) taxonomy – so it’s probably helpful if you’re familiar with each of them.

Bloom’s taxonomy classifies student activity according to the kind of thought processes which are needed.  Broadly, it separates factual, conceptual, procedural and metacognitive processes, but is more usually presented in the six categories below.  For a great overview of the original work of Bloom et al in the 1950s and its subsequent refinements please see the article by Wilson [1. Wilson LO, Anderson and Krathwohl – Bloom’s Taxonomy Revised,  https://thesecondprinciple.com/teaching-essentials/beyond-bloom-cognitive-taxonomy-revised/ ].

Bloom’s taxonomy* [2. A substantial revision from 2001 is presented in Anderson, L. W. & Krathwohl, D.R., et al (2001) A taxonomy for learning, teaching and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: Longman.] describes six different kinds of cognitive ability ranked according to their sophistication.  These levels are:

  1. Knowledge: students can remember or recite information
  2. Comprehension: students can understand and explain what they know
  3. Application: students can apply what they have learnt to new situations
  4. Analysis: students can make meaningful conclusions or connections from what they have learnt
  5. Synthesis: students can design and create new works
  6. Evaluation: students can critique, justify and redesign new and existing works

* Bloom’s Taxonomy really has three domains: cognitive, affective, and psycho-motor.  We’ll concentrate here on the cognitive domain only, but still call it Bloom’s for short. 

The SOLO Taxonomy (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes) [3. Evaluating the Quality of Learning: The SOLO Taxonomy (New York: Academic Press, 1982] was designed by John Biggs and Kevin Collis and was first used to analyse student writing output.  For use here, I have taken the basic principle, but adapted it to describe the kinds of tasks students will encounter (as opposed to the outcomes they will display). It is not so much the Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes as the STructure and Relationships in Problem Solving, or STRIP.

The SOLO Taxonomy is reinterpreted into the STRIP taxonomy thus:

  1. Pre-structural: There is no understanding needed, only disconnected information
  2. Uni-structural: There is one relevant aspect to be considered at a time
  3. Multi-structural: More than one relevant aspect must be taken into account.
  4. Relational: The way in which the many variables or aspects of the problem need to be connected and related to each other becomes more important than the aspects themselves in isolation
  5. Extended abstract: The student must take a step into the unknown by predicting or hypothesising based on their previous analyses and understanding.

Understanding both these taxonomies means that you’re able to appreciate that there is a developmental process for the higher level skills.  Just as babies go from nothing, to rocking on their hands, to crawling, to toddling, to walking, to running, so learning development works best when the skills are in a sensible order.  In order to understand something, you need knowledge about it.  In order to apply something, it’s best if you understand it first.

Learning taxonomies define the start and end points of trajectories, the skills needed in milestone papers, and also show teachers practical suggestions for how to achieve alignment in their assessments and activities.