Some student writers have no trouble summarizing a plot or repeating dates from history, yet they might freeze up when asked to “formulate a theory” or “critique an argument.” Others students may happily share their feelings and opinions on a given topic, but have difficulty presenting data to convince someone else.
Learning to recognize the kinds of thinking you are expected to demonstrate in a particular writing task will help you to focus your efforts more efficiently.
For instance, if your instructor asks you to write a 500-word analysis, but instead you provide a 500-word summary, it won’t matter that your grammar is flawless and your facts are correct. If you haven’t broken down the problem into different components and explored the connections between those components, then despite all your hard work you haven’t actually analyzed anything. (Remember, the instructor asked for an analysis.)
Likewise, if your boss asks you write a report to evaluate three possible solutions to a problem, and you respond by demonstrating that you understand the problem, it won’t matter how deeply you drew on prior knowledge and applied that knowledge to the current problem. If you haven’t ranked the pros and cons of each potential solution and presented the data that points to one specific solution as the best choice, then despite all your hard work, you haven’t actually evaluated anything. (Remember, your boss asked for an evaluation.)
A taxonomy is a system of classification. A 1956 publication often referred to as “Bloom’sTaxonomy” describes three general areas (domains) in which learning takes place, and classifies the specific kinds of learning that each domain offers.
College writing focuses mostly on the cognitive domain — that is, the realm of thoughts. In the cognitive domain, six different kinds of thinking are ranked from lowest (1) to highest (6).
Taxonomy: Cognitive Domain
Knowledge keywords: define, list, repeat, name, identify
Comprehension keywords: describe, summarize, explain, provide examples, classify, estimate, paraphrase
Application keywords: prove, demonstrate, calculate, predict, solve, develop, apply
Analysis keywords: analyze, categorize, rank, correlate, distinguish, infer, delimit, examine
Evaluation keywords: justify, support, choose, critique, defend, challenge, conclude
Create keywords: construct, design, compose, create, build, invent
About the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives
The fact that there are six levels of cognitive ability does not mean that you have to write a paragraph aimed towards each and every level. Neither does it mean that the lower levels are unimportant. Learning takes place on all six levels, so all six levels are important.
Nevertheless, before students can accomplish a higher cognitive task, they must account for all the lower steps along the way. For instance, before you can offer a useful synthesis (level 5), you must first break down the problem into its components (analysis, level 4). Before you can break down the components, you must observe how they function (application, level 3) and so on.
- Many science students, who have to do a lot of memorizing in their early classes, tend to focus on on the lower levels (knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis). These students often need to be spurred onto the upper levels (synthesis, evaluation), because they believe that it is “wrong” for them to refer to their own opinions. (It is a myth that science is objective — any human endeavor is innately subjective.)
- Many humanities students tend to jump straight to evaluation (“What does this work of literature mean to me?”) and skip over the lower levels of knowledge and comprehension (a student who has only read Hamlet and Macbeth tries to make sweeping statements about Shakespeare in society) or analysis (“What techniques does the author use? What ideological structure does the work reflect?”).
Bloom Benjamin S. and David R. Krathwohl. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals, by a committee of college and university examiners.Handbook I: Cognitive Domain. New York, Longmans, Green, 1956.
by Dennis G. Jerz
04 May 2000 — first posted
10 May 2000 — minor edits
04 Feb 2002 — layout changed
21 May 2014 — updates
02 Feb 2020 — added link to video
13 Dec 2020 — reworded intro