Todd Zakrajsek, Director, ITLC Lilly Conferences
Key Statement: Learners do not simply ascend Bloom's pyramid and cease learning; deep understanding of material is an iterative process that transforms mastery into foundational learning, and mastery of one concept does not guarantee foundational soundness in related knowledge.
Keywords: Bloom's Cognitive Taxonomy, Scaffolding, Metacognition
Identifying how students learn by conceptualizing their thinking as levels of cognition is a valuable way to help students to learn. It helps faculty determine whether students have amassed a foundation of knowledge regarding a given topic, the ways in which they are able to apply the information learned, and the extent to which they are able to think deeply about that which they are learning. In addition to assisting faculty in gauging student learning, knowing these processes provides students a more informed look at why they might be struggling with new material. If foundational knowledge isn’t solidified, they have little chance of successfully analyzing or evaluating more complex problems.
One of the most pervasive models in higher education for describing the levels of learning is Bloom’s (1956) pyramid of cognitive outcomes. Bloom’s model was adapted by Anderson and Krathwohl (2001). They used more action-oriented gerunds, updated the definition of knowledge, dropped evaluation to the number five spot on the hierarchy, and instilled create/creating as the highest level. The Bloom’s model you most frequently see employed these days is likely the newer adapted version (see Figure 1). The quickest way to ensure that you are looking at a pyramid of the revised cognitive outcomes is to note the top level. If that top level is create/creating, you have the updated 2001 Anderson and Krathwohl version. If the top is listed as evaluate, then it is likely Bloom’s original 1956 version.
Figure 1. Bloom’s or Anderson & Krathwohl’s? Top Level Secrets
Shared courtesy of Vanderbilt University, under a Creative Commons Attribution license.
Problems With Pyramids
As helpful as this pyramid model has been to many faculty members, it does come with a few challenges. First, visually, using a pyramid makes it appear that success is achieved by getting to the top as quickly as possible. On this topic of cognitive development, I have had faculty members say to me, “I don’t worry about the first few levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, as students can learn those things on their own. My goal is to focus on critical thinking (i.e., upper levels of the pyramid).” My response is always the same: “If students don’t have foundational knowledge, what do they think critically about?” There is little value in attempting to dive into Chapter 5 on behavioral psychology, if few, or any, students in class have any knowledge of the foundational components of behavioral psychology found in Chapter 1.
The second challenge of the pyramid model is that Bloom indicated that all levels are important and that learning is an iterative process. Learning anything has multiple levels. When you do make it to the top (critical thinking), you must also return to the lower levels to convert mastered material to new basic knowledge to advance forward once again with a new level of mastery of the material. It seems the student’s job is actually to move up and down the pyramid, which is not well illustrated by the pyramid model.
Aside from the Anderson and Krathwohl (2001) adaptation to Bloom’s taxonomy, there have not been many other representations to this concept that address some of the primary concerns with the pyramid. Then I found one I like. A few years ago I ran across a model illustrated by Anton Tolman, author of a book on student resistance to learning (Tolman & Kremling, 2017). Tolman still includes all six levels of the revised Bloom’s cognitive taxonomy, but groups them into 3 major concepts: Foundational Knowledge (composed of Remember and Understand), Application (Apply), and Critical Thinking Skills (composed of Analysis, Evaluate, and Create). (See Figure 2.) This use of three levels resonated with me; it’s similar to what I have taught my students for many years. To help students understand how (well) they are actually learning, I suggest they try to apply the three levels to the content they are working on. Is a question in class asking about Foundational Knowledge, Application, or Critical Skills? If they are discussing a concept, which of the three levels is being explained? If a student scores a C on a test, but realizes as they review their answers that they tended to get the Foundational Knowledge questions right all of the time, Application questions correct some of the time, and missed almost all of the Critical Thinking Skills questions . . . the course is about to get very challenging.
Figure 2. Tolman’s Cognitive Taxonomy Model.
Reprinted with permission of A. Tolman, 2022.
As-is, Tolman’s model is helpful. In discussing this model during a faculty development workshop, however, it occurred to me that instead of thinking about moving up and down the model, maybe we could stack them. (The good news is that this model by Tolman looks much more stackable than pyramids.) When an individual learns something new, they must first be able to store and recall the information and understand what they are recalling (Basic Skills: Foundational Knowledge). Next, they learn how to apply this new material, which transitions the learner from simply possessing Foundational Knowledge to being able to Apply the new material in more situations than that in which they learned the concept. The next, and last overall, step is to Think Critically about the new information in terms of analyzing, evaluating, and even creating something new.
As the learners achieve the ability to think critically about the information, they will learn nuances, schemas, and more sophisticated ways to describe aspects of the material. As more complex terms are heard and understood, the learner begins to build a new base of knowledge that includes the knowledge, application, and critical thinking about the previously learned, more fundamental aspect of the information. This is how a novice begins to become competent in a given area. Through this process of learning foundational material, applying that information, thinking critically about the information, and then expanding on their vocabulary, adding more sophisticated applications, and deeper thinking, the learner progresses from beginner to intermediate and, through iterations of this process, on to advanced (see Figure 3). A double helix could also elegantly illustrate the progression. The point of this concept is that it helps teachers and learners to think a bit more deeply about using Bloom’s Taxonomy to describe the process of becoming an expert. It is not simply reaching a pyramid point and resting on laurels; it is converting ever more detailed and vast chunks of mastered knowledge into foundational knowledge for more advanced concepts.
Figure 3. Tolman’s Cognitive Taxonomy Models, stacked.
Moving to the Next Level (or Pyramid)
There are a few ways that stacking Tolman’s version of Bloom’s taxonomy has helped me to think about teaching and student learning. Most critically, I now think more about the level of foundational knowledge a given learner may have of the concept I am teaching. Knowing that a person is at an intermediate or advanced level, using the stacked model, takes into account that there are foundational and application concepts that still need to be developed. Using the original pyramid, hearing that someone is advanced, or even expert, risks incorrectly assuming the person is up at the critical thinking level in all facets of the subject and has completed all their learning. Looking at the stacked models prompts the educator and student to consider more holistically where they are in the process and to better understand that real expertise takes time and energy.
Given that Bloom’s cognitive taxonomy was first published nearly 70 years ago, why do you think it is still such a commonly used model—maybe the most used— to describe levels of cognitive thinking?
What was the value of the Anderson and Krathwohl adaptation to Bloom’s cognitive taxonomy? Do a quick web search and identify the relationship between Anderson and Krathwohl and Benjamin Bloom. To what extent was Bloom likely in agreement with the updates by Anderson and Krathwohl?
Consider a topic about which you have learned a great deal. Using the concept of stacking Anton Tolman’s models of Bloom’s taxonomy, describe, using a few examples, of how you became knowledgeable in the topic you identified. Perhaps you could also identify a few areas where you might still consider yourself developing foundational knowledge of the subject.
Anderson, L. W., & Krathwohl, D. R. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and
assessment: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives.
Bloom, B. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of
educational goals. Vol. 1: Cognitive domain. McKay.
Tolman, A.O., & Kremling, J. (2017). Why students resist learning: A practical model
for understanding and helping students. Stylus.