Taxonomies of Learning

Taxonomies organise educators’ expected learning outcomes into a hierarchy from less to more complex and they are thus helpful when you think about the expected learning outcomes for your module or programme. The work of Benjamin Bloom (1913 – 1999) provides a useful starting point when writing outcomes. Bloom identified three domains of learning, and within each of these domains he recognised that there was an ascending order of complexity:

Bloom’s taxonomy is thus a systematic way of describing how a learner’s performance develops from simple to complex levels in the cognitive, affective and psychomotor domains of learning. His work is most advanced in the cognitive domain where he drew up a classification (or taxonomy) of thinking behaviours from the simple recall of facts, up to the processes of analysis and evaluation. His publication Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: Handbook 1, the Cognitive Domain (1956) has become widely used throughout the world to assist in the preparation of curriculum and evaluation material. The taxonomy provides a framework in which one can build upon prior learning to develop more complex levels of understanding.

The Cognitive domain involves knowledge and the development of intellectual skills (Bloom 1956). At any level of education, some memorisation of information is essential, but the mere transmission of knowledge is never an appropriate goal for a module or programme. Even in the most basic and introductory of courses, expected learning outcomes should emphasize, at least, comprehension and application of knowledge. On a postgraduate level the outcomes should be on the higher cognitive levels.


To assist us with formulating outcomes that show and guide progression of knowledge and skills, Bloom proposed that the cognitive or knowledge domain is composed of six successive levels arranged in a hierarchy. Each of these levels subsumes the level(s) below as these lower levels provide the foundation for the higher levels.  See here for more.


Anderson and Krathwohl (2001) revisited the cognitive domain in the mid-nineties and changed the names of the six levels from nouns to verbs and also rearranged them. This ‘new’ version of Bloom’s original taxonomy swopped the synthesis and evaluation levels.


To assist us in formulating outcomes, Bloom has drawn up a list of action verbs that can be used when formulating outcomes:


The following video clip gives examples of how to use the action verbs as part of outcomes on the various levels of Bloom’s taxonomy.

The Affective Domain is concerned with issues relating to the emotional, attitudinal and value components of learning. According to Krathwohl, Bloom and Masia (1973) this includes the manner in which we deal with things through habits of mind, feelings, values, beliefs and attitudes.


Taxonomy for learning in the Affective (attitudes/values/being) domain (Rothwell and Kazanas 1992)

The psychomotor domain has to do with physical movement, coordination and use of motor skills (Simpson 1972). These skills range from manual tasks to complex tasks like dancing or operating a complex piece of machinery. Developing these skills requires practice.
Bloom did not compile a taxonomy for the psychomotor domain, but various others did.


One of these taxonomies is called the “see one do one teach one”. It unpacks learning from being unconsciously incompetent to unconsciously competent.


Taxonomy for learning in the Psychomotor (skills/doing) domain (“see one do one teach one”):

Another taxonomy in the psychomotor domain was developed by Dave (1970). He started with imitation and ended with naturalization.


  • Imitation – Observing and copying someone else.
  • Manipulation – Guided via instruction to perform a skill.
  • Precision – Accuracy, proportion and exactness exist in the skill performance without the presence of the original source.
  • Articulation – Two or more skills combined, sequenced, and performed consistently.
  • Naturalization – Two or more skills combined, sequenced, and performed consistently and with ease. The performance is automatic with little physical or mental exertion.


Harrow (1972) also developed a taxonomy for the psychomotor learning domain. It is organized according to the degree of coordination including involuntary responses and learned capabilities:

  • Reflex movements – Automatic reactions.
  • Basic fundamental movement – Simple movements that can build to more complex sets of movements.
  • Perceptual – Environmental cues that allow one to adjust movements.
  • Physical activities – Things requiring endurance, strength, vigor, and agility.
  • Skilled movements – Activities where a level of efficiency is achieved.
  • Non-discursive communication – Body language.

Anderson and Krathwohl (2001) suggested that the cognitive domain is the intersection of the cognitive process dimension and the knowledge dimension.


The cognitive process dimension represents a continuum of increasing cognitive complexity over six levels starting from remembering and moving upwards to creating, as explained in the section on The Cognitive Domain.


They identified nineteen specific cognitive processes in this dimension. These are given in the table below:


Table 1. The Cognitive Processes Dimension



The knowledge dimension classifies four types of knowledge that students may be required to construct. These knowledge types range from concrete to abstract, and from the factual to the metacognitive. Table 2 below gives a representation of the knowledge dimension.


Table 2. The Knowledge Dimension



The knowledge dimension is unpacked by Hugo (2015) in his book on the educational imagination. He does this according to the principle of “many become one and are increased by one”. What this means is that many facts make up one concept, and are increased by one. Many concepts become one procedure and are increased by this one procedure. Many procedures become one metacognitive strategy and are increased by this strategy. This principle aligns with the idea that the whole is more than the sum of the parts.


Hugo (2015) explains if we are moving from concrete to abstract levels of knowledge, then a simple set of four levels can catch it:

  • Lots of facts come together as a concept that catches what these particular facts have in common.
  • Many concepts can be combined in all sorts of maps and systems, but they also shift into something new.
  • Concepts come together with other concepts and other facts and build towards procedures you can follow, using a number of facts and concepts together.
  • When working with facts, concepts and procedures, you can look at your own processes of learning and understanding, and develop a metacognitive kind of knowledge that reflects on how you are learning, and improve on it.


We, however, cannot learn facts, concepts, procedures or metacognitive strategies in a simple way by just memorising and remembering them. We need to do more in order to build our knowledge – we need to apply, analyse, evaluate and create. These are levels in the cognitive processes we use when we work in the knowledge domain as explained with Bloom’s taxonomy.


If we then bring these two dimensions together, we get a three dimensional model of learning outcomes in the Cognitive Domain. This revised model allows us to imagine different learning outcomes.

Another, less known tool you might want to use when formulating outcomes and planning or doing assessment, is the SOLO taxonomy.

John Biggs (1995) designed the SOLO Taxonomy to offer a Structure of the Observed Learning Outcome (SOLO), describing systematically how students’ learning and performance develop from simple to complex levels. The SOLO taxonomy has five stages, namely Prestructural, Unistructural, Multistructural (which are all in a quantitative phase), and Relational and Extended Abstract (which are in a qualitative phase).


The SOLO taxonomy can be used to structure the knowledge building of students and it is also useful when assessing student learning. The SOLO taxonomy helps to map levels of understanding that can be built into the intended learning outcomes, and it helps to create the assessment criteria or rubrics.

For more information about the SOLO Taxonomy you can check our References section or visit John Biggs’s website: