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Cultivate Your Assessment ... Make it Bloom

The Taxonomy of Educational Objectives* is an invaluable resource for writing educational objectives and exam items. Although it is frequently attributed to Benjamin Bloom, the taxonomy is actually the result of approximately twenty years of work by a group called A Committee of College and University Examiners. The idea to create this taxonomy occurred at a meeting of the American Psychological Association in order to facilitate the communication of educational goals.

The Taxonomy of Educational Objectives classifies and characterizes levels of mastery. It was developed and published based on three learning domains: cognitive, psychomotor and affective. There are multiple levels of competence within each of the three learning domains. The cognitive domain, which was the first to be defined and published, seems to be the most utilized.

The taxonomy of the cognitive domain contains six major classes and is organized as follows:

  1. Knowledge
  2. Comprehension
  3. Application
  4. Analysis
  5. Synthesis
  6. Evaluation

As the term taxonomy implies, these classifications are ordered from simple to complex.

Because this taxonomy has existed for close to fifty years, many educators have created lists of verbs that describe behaviors associated with these six classes. Use these lists as a resource when formulating objectives and examination items. You can find these in the links below. This approach will improve your test design by focusing your attention on strategies that truly test higher order cognition.

Let’s consider a few exam items that I created using this approach.

Knowledge 1. List the components of elastic resistance.
Comprehension 2. Surface tension is categorized as _________ resistance.
Application 3. An obstruction that occludes an endotracheal tube to half its original diameter increases resistance by a factor of _____.
Analysis 4. Create a diagram that categorizes the various forces that comprise the total resistance to ventilation.
Synthesis 5. A patient’s mechanical ventilator is alarming due to high pressure. Suggest four scenarios that may have caused this to happen.
Evaluation 6. From your answers to the above question, select the most likely reason and justify your selection.

One of the traps in item writing is to create too many questions that test lower order cognitive skills. Thorndike suggests that exam questions emphasize knowledge because of the instructor's desire for unprompted recall.** But, as I review the questions I prepared, a different reason comes to mind. I have less confidence in questions 4, 5 and 6. They are not as direct, clear and defensible. I can argue that they fall into the distinct level of the taxonomy, but I am sure that others could argue against me. So now what do I do? How do I hone my test writing skills?

Begin by putting every effort into writing clear objective questions designed to assess the higher cognitive skills, then give the test to the students. They’ll have no problem pointing out flaws in the questions. If in the final analysis you question the validity of an item, eliminate it from the score and rewrite it for the next class. Embrace that educator’s cliché, "An exam is a learning experience."

*Bloom, Benjamin S., ed. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, The Classification of Educational Goals, Handbook I: Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1956.

**Thorndike, Robert L., ed. Educational Measurement. 2nd ed. Washington, D. C.: American Council on Education, 1971.

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