Levels of learning and why many people get them wrong

Why many people’s idea about how we learn is just plain wrong

Levels of learning

Why the Levels of Learning are not saying what many think they are: The levels of learning are not and were never intended to be about ‘how’ we learn… 

Many organisations, consultants, institutions and almost all Higher Education (University and Colleges) use Blooms Hierarchy or taxonomy of educational objectives (levels of learning) to describe the learning of their students.


This article looks at what it means and the trap many people, including a lot of L&D people fall into when using it.


Whilst Bloom and colleagues produced three taxonomies, cognitive, psychomotor and affective, many people and educational functions focus almost entirely on the cognitive domain. More about this later.


In effect most organisations only describe levels of learning in the area of cognitive or thinking development. The word cognitive comes from the Medieval Latin Cognoscere, cognit- , cognitivus and finally in the 16th century cognitive to mean known. Today it now means the processes connected with thinking, knowing and perception.


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The fact that that most educational processes, courses, exams and tests etc. focus on and make ‘knowing and thinking’ primary in their curriculum says a lot. There is usually less focus on the psychomotor (physical skills) development unless you are engaged in training, and hardly any in many formal educational courses focussing on or even giving any significant airtime to affective (emotional and values) development. We will come back to this later.


Research takes time


The taxonomy – levels of learning 


First let’s look at the taxonomy or hierarchy in the cognitive domain.


The basis of the levels of learning is:




In terms of learning, Bloom and his colleagues had pretty precise meanings for each of these areas of the hierarchy:


Knowledge – means just the ability to regurgitate or repeat something. There is no ability at this level of being able to do anything more complex that being able to repeat the content from memory. Connected to my last post in this area, neither is there any consideration of the length of time they can do this for. You are with the the knowledge if you can and without the knowledge is you can’t repeat it.


Understanding or comprehension – this is where this hierarchy first gets into trouble. Comprehension is an internal process. You can’t see it or test it directly. Rather we tend to make an inference of comprehension based on what the person does with the knowledge. If they can use it appropriately for the context we make the assumption they understand it. This is why many universities for example combine knowledge and understanding. Actually comprehension should be combined with application which leads us on to the next level which is


Application. The ability to do something with the knowledge that is appropriate to the context. Again we tend to make an inference of comprehension based on the appropriate application of the knowledge.


Analysis. This refers to two things. The analysis of the application, or being able to see if it is working and work out why or why not.
Secondly analysis refers to the context. Being able to work out if the application of the knowledge is suitable for this context or if it needs to be changed or altered to fit the context. This leads on to the penultimate level of learning which is


Synthesis, or the ability to change or transform the knowledge and application to suit the context or bring in or add new knowledge to create something new.


Finally evaluation. This refers to the ability to be able to make good judgements using the knowledge and to be able to evaluate the worth of the knowledge in different contexts.


All good so far and most people would agree that each level down is a different order of ability and complexity from the one above. A different level of learning. So using this taxonomy to describe levels of ability, learning or complexity of functioning is both useful and makes sense….


However, and it is a big however,


How we learn


This is not HOW we learn 


This does NOT describe, nor what it ever intended to describe, HOW we learn.


Bloom never suggested that the hierarchy was an attempt to state that people learn in a linear way starting with knowing and understanding things first.


Evaluation first


If anything people start their learning journey on any new topic with evaluation first. The moment we come across any new situation or artefact like this post we start evaluating. The fact that you have read this far means that you have formed some opinion of worth. The reason you aren’t reading an article right now on military hardware or java script coding is down to an evaluation or judgement. If you walk into a classroom you start evaluating. You evaluate the teacher, the content the social context and come up with a series of judgements.


All our learners are making evaluations first and continually. They may be informed or ill-informed evaluations, but non-the less they are evaluations. Making judgements and evaluation is how we decide what to engage with and what to learn, and importantly what not to engage with and what not to learn.


This hierarchy is not how we learn it is only about levels of learning, two very very different things. Our ancestors in the caves didn’t start teaching with powerpoint presentations. You went along and learned for observation and evaluation. You decided what was important, hunting and later planting crops over growing flowers. Evaluation and judgement first.


Evaluation and judgement


If our learning does not pass the usability / useful test or evaluation first than we have a problem.


Two issues


There are two issues about knowledge.


  1. The first is that we construct or develop knowledge as we gain experience and learn to think and make better judgement about and using the subject at hand.
  2. Secondly knowledge without context and the ability to think about it is not only hard to retain but is largely meaningless.


Make it relevant, engaging and useful and then they will develop the knowledge. We


In my next post I will look at the psychomotor or skills domain

Also see the post At what point can you say you have learned something?

And the Ultimate Guide to Developing Skills


At what point can you say you have learned something?







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David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Review. He is also acknowledged to be one of the world's leading experts in dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty and developing emotional resilience. David teaches and conducts research at a number of universities including the University of Oxford, Medical Sciences Division, Cardiff University, Oxford Brookes University School of Business and many more. He has worked with many organisations as a consultant and executive coach including Schroders, where he coaches and runs their leadership and management programmes, Royal Mail, Aimia, Hyundai, The RAF, The Pentagon, the governments of the UK, US, Saudi, Oman and the Yemen for example. In 2010 he developed the world's first and only model and programme for developing emotional resilience across entire populations and organisations which has since become known as the Fear to Flow model which is the subject of his next book. In 2012 he drove a 1973 VW across six countries in Southern Africa whilst collecting money for charity and conducting on the ground charity work including developing emotional literature in children and orphans in Africa and a number of other activities. He is the author of The Ambiguity Advanatage: What great leaders are great at, published by Palgrave Macmillian. See more: About: About David Wikipedia: David's Wikipedia Page