Writing That Demonstrates Thinking Ability

Some student writers have no trouble summarizing a plot or repeating dates from history, but freeze up when asked to formulate a theory or critique an argument. Others are happy to explain what they feel about a particular subject, but have difficulty backing up their claims with data.   Learn to recognize the kinds of thinking you are expected to demonstrate in a particular writing task, and you can focus your efforts more efficiently.

A taxonomy is a system of classification.  A 1956 publication often referred to as "Bloom's Taxonomy" 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

1. Knowledge: recalling previously learned information

Knowledge keywords: define, list, repeat, name, identify

2. Comprehension: absorbing and then re-transmitting significance

Comprehension keywords: describe, summarize, explain, provide examples, classify, estimate, paraphrase

3. Application: applying abstract information to concrete situations

Application keywords: prove, demonstrate, calculate, predict, solve, develop, apply

4. Analysis: breaking down a problem to examine patterns

Analysis keywords: analyze, categorize, rank, correlate, distinguish, infer, delimit, examine

5. Synthesis: combining parts to form a new whole

Synthesis keywords: characterize, formulate, integrate, reconstruct, modify, conceptualize, theorize

6. Evaluation: making an informed decision about the value of material

Evaluation keywords:  justify, support, choose, critique, defend, challenge, conclude

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?").

See also:

Timed Essays -- Planning and Organizing in a Crunch

Other resources:

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.

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