There’s Something About Benjamin, Part II

Last time, I laid out reasons to reject Bloom’s Taxonomy.  This time I want to look at whether the taxonomy is a useful tool for the design of instruction and assessment.

To be useful, the taxonomy has to adequately do three things:

  1. Assist in choosing forms of assessment
  2. Identify where the student needs to improve
  3. Guide how presentation of material is ordered

Does Bloom’s taxonomy help do these three things or does it obscure them?

Let’s do a little analysis first.  Looking closely reveals that while there is a declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge split–Remember/Understand and Apply/Analyze/Evaluate/Create–the more revealing split is between the higher and lower level abilities.

Formative Constructive
Presentation Remember Analyze
Assimilation Understand Evaluate
Production Apply Create

For each category of abilities–Formative (lower) and Constructive (higher)–there are three general types of activities: Presentation, Assimilation, and Production, which correspond to one level within each category.

  • Presentation is the introduction of material
  • Assimilation is the thinking through and internalizing of information
  • Production is the creation of new information

What differs between the two paths (Formative and Constructive) is the activity of the student.  We could have just as easily named the Formative path Passive or Instructor-centered and the Constructive path Active or Student-centered.  While these don’t completely capture the differences, they do convey the essence.  So what is the difference between the different forms of the three general types of activities?

Presentation

  • Remember: Retain new information given to you.
  • Analyze: Derive new information from a situation, text, or other material.

Assimilation

  • Understand: Rephrase and summarize new information
  • Evaluate: Judge what information is most important and valuable

Production

  • Apply: Use new information systematically to draw new conclusions.
  • Create: Design, develop, and present new information developed from analysis and evaluation of material.

Under the Formative path, the student is presented with information and asked to remember it, rephrase it, and apply it in an automatic way.  The student is not determining their engagement with the material.  Under the Constructive path, the student is presented with material and must analyze it to derive information, weigh and judge that information to determine what matters most, and then use that information to develop unique perspectives and new material.  The student is given control of their learning to a greater degree than the Formative path.

I think it is accurate to say that this represents the most common connection between these two paths:

An instructor might:

  • Analyze the information to be taught and relationships between that information,
  • Evaluate the importance of information in achieving learning objectives, and
  • Create activities, assessment, and presentation of materials. (Depending on the outcome any one of these acts may or may not belong to the Creation level).

After that, the student might:

  • Remember the information presented
  • Understand the information
  • Apply the information to particular scenarios

At a 100-level course, this is as far as a student will typically go.

As Constructivists have pointed out, this often results in the instructor getting the most out of the course because they are actively engaged with the material instead of passively absorbing the information and working through that info at a basic level.  On the other hand, analysis, evaluation, and creation are all high level procedural skills that require some form of training.  So while it is true that student participation in analysis, evaluation, and creation result in the greatest learning outcomes, it will still be necessary to have the students go through the three lower levels to some degree first.

By recognizing these two paths in Bloom’s taxonomy, an instructor is better able to assess where the student is starting from, where they need to be, and the best path to getting there.  It may be that some courses need to focus simply on the lower levels to the exclusion of the higher.  Every course does not need to work at every level of the hierarchy.  This is due to both the nature of the subject and the level of the course.  For instance, a 100-level philosophy course might be purely focused on topic areas and so go through only the three formative levels.  A 300-level course, however, will definitely involve the constructive levels.  Likewise, while a 100-level math course might be completely formative, a 300-level will certainly contain at least analysis (although unlikely to include creation).  The degree to which this is true is going to depend on department and institution curriculum and skills that can justifiably be treated as previously learned by the student.  Since the US education system currently focuses primarily on the formative path, instructors of 100-level courses would do well to start with the formative and build to the constructive.

Does this mean that 100-level students should not be introduced to the constructive path?  Of course not.  But since the constructive path is entirely procedural, the students need to first learn the procedure for each level in the constructive path in the formative path.  So a student learning to analyze readings–being taught to derive information for himself or herself–will first need to remember the steps, understand the steps, and apply the steps (in a systematic way).  Only once they have gone through the formative path will they be able to begin learning in the constructive path.

And that is one way Bloom’s can generally

  1. Assist in choosing forms of assessment
  2. Identify where the student needs to improve
  3. Guide how presentation of material is ordered

[Side Note:  On the other hand, I am loath to completely commit to this idea, as research does show that we are naturally talented in the constructive path.  For now, I tentatively hypothesize that because of the present form of education in the US, we, as instructors, at least have to consider our role in breaking students of working only in the formative path.]

This increasingly long look at Bloom’s taxonomy continues in Part III.

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  1. From (Parenethical) - There’s Something About Benjamin, Part I on 11 Oct 2012 at 11:31 am

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