Introduction to TEL

Day 3: Taxonomies of Learning and Knowledge

As you saw in our discussion yesterday, deep and surface learning can imply learning at different levels of cognition. For example, a teacher who relies a lot on quizzes using rote learning, recall and simple conceptual material, could encourage a lower level, surface approach to learning, which will not encourage higher, more abstract levels of understanding, unless they balance these activities with more reflective and complex tasks.

There are two main theoretical frameworks in education which categorise the different levels of knowledge and learning from the lower, less abstract form to higher levels of abstraction and synthesis.

Firstly, Bloom’s Taxonomy, created by Benjamin Bloom and others in 1956 has been widely used in education ever since, and the original has been further developed by educationists to be more dynamic, in 2001. Here is a visual representation of Bloom’s Taxonomy provided by Vanderbilt University:

Diagram showing Blooms Taxonomy
By Vandycft, sourced from Flickr, downloaded 12/11/18


If you would like further details about Bloom’s taxonomy, there is a useful page on the Vanderbilt University site

The second is the SOLO Taxonomy created by John Biggs – Biggs’ taxonomy is a further evolution of the ideas in the Blooms model, called Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes. It sets out 5 stages of learning, which go from “pre-structural” or incompetent, to a concrete, basic form of knowledge through to an “extended abstract” form of knowledge which allows synthesis and creativity.

Biggs’ model is now used widely in higher education teaching, particularly to help ensure what Biggs calls “constructive alignment” of materials and assessment to course outcomes. For an interesting article on how the SOLO taxonomy can be utilised to create assessment rubrics, see Rembach and Dison, “Transforming taxonomies into rubrics” iBloemfontain, Vol 34, Issue 1, 2016

The University of Queensland has a useful outline of how to apply the SOLO taxonomy to assessments, with examples.

These taxonomies are very influential and are reflected in our Australian Qualifications Framework, which comprises the standards to which all levels of formal study courses in Australia should be mapped.

Teaching strategies

The most helpful strategy based on this concept is to ensure that course  materials, activities and assessments are pitched at the correct level for the level of your course. This would involve looking at Learning Outcomes and ensure they are sufficiently aligned to the relevant AQF level of your course. Also, using the SOLO taxonomy, it might be useful to assess whether there is the correct balance between the “unistructural” level of competence (or the “remember” level of Bloom’s taxonomy,) and the higher, more abstract levels of knowledge.

It is not necessary that all learning activities and outcomes be perfectly mapped to the correct AQF level for your course, and there will normally be a mix of different levels of knowledge and understanding involved in various aspects of a course. For example, it is possible that some lower level activities could be used in the form of quizzes, for self-assessment, as a simple way for the student to test themselves and motivate themselves to work through required materials. However in a Higher Education context you would expect to see more activities and assessments around higher level learning. This would be even more so in post-graduate courses, where there should be significant work at the creative, synthesis, and analytical levels, with the production of new ideas and materials. This would mean a lot of collaborative, problem-solving work, independent learning, and reflection.

question mark


Take a look at the Unit Guide in a course in which you teach, and assess whether enough of the material, activities and assessment match the level of knowledge required by higher education study at that level. Can you see any improvements that could be made, in aligning your course and its assessments to the appropriate level of knowledge and understanding? Compare your reflections/insights with others here.

16 thoughts on “Day 3: Taxonomies of Learning and Knowledge

  1. For this discussion, I am examining a second-year undergrad elective. AQF 7 expects students to have ‘broad and coherent theoretical and technical knowledge’ and ‘well-developed cognitive, technical, and communication skills’ (AQF website). Moreover, students should be able to apply these skills and knowledge independently and responsibly.

    This course’s learning outcomes tick all of the boxes, having a mix of knowledge, skills, and application at an appropriate level. Although there is room for improvement in constructively aligning the formal assessments with the learning outcomes, the materials and activities, particularly in the tutorials, tended to fill these gaps.

    For next year, I think it would be beneficial to re-visit the assessments for this course. In particular, the assessments are theory-heavy at a surface level and do not encourage analysis and deep learning. Given the importance of technical knowledge and skills in this field, it would be beneficial for students to assess their ability to apply theory as well.

    1. Hi Bavani, thanks for sharing your insights about the mapping of the AQF, your learning guide and learning outcomes. Great insights. You seem to have been able to use the AQF framework as a useful reference point.

  2. I chose to review the learning objectives in a course I will be teaching in semester 1, 2019. Based on my assessment I believe materials, activities, assessment do indeed match the level of knowledge required by higher education study at the appropriate level.
    First, the course is a third-year undergraduate course, so I do not believe there is a requirement for students to extend their knowledge to the level of extended abstraction. I do not believe learners at third year level are required create theory or produce new ideas or develop hypotheses.
    Second, when I align the learning outcomes in the course outline against SOLO I can see the material to be taught aligns well with the activities in class, and with the assessment which are a group presentation, an annotated bibliography, and a final exam. The material is delivered in a seminar on a weekly basis and includes required reading of a text book chapter and a peer reviewed article, as well as in-class activities designed to encourage learners to discuss, question, and provide solutions. The materials and the activities form the basis of the knowledge required for learners to apply knowledge to case studies, questions and be successful in the three assessments. This seems to me to be the essential idea behind Bigg’s theory of constructive alignment.

    Consequently, when I mapped the learning outcomes against the SOLO framework I found this:
    There will be evidence of ‘unistructural competence’ or identify and name, if leaners achieve learning outcomes 1, 3, 4.
    There will be evidence of ‘multistructural competence’ or combine and describe if learners achieve learning outcomes 2.
    There will be evidence of ‘relational competence’ i.e. critically analyse, evaluate, if leaners achieve learning outcome 5.
    There is no evidence of extended abstraction in the learning outcomes.

    Additionally, when mapping material, activities, and assessment against the five learning outcomes for the course I found:
    Group presentations align with LO1, LO2, LO3, & LO4
    The Annotated Bibliography aligns with LO1, LO2, LO3, LO4, LO5

    While I believe the materials, activities, and assessment do indeed match the level of knowledge required by higher education study in this third-year course, I think verbs used in the learning outcomes to indicate level of understanding would be improved if the terminology from SOLO was adopted.

    1. HI Denise, great use of Bigg’s SOLO model to help you analyse your course. While I am not going to vehemently disagree with you about the expectations for a third year undergraduate course, looking at the AQF Level 7 criteria, I can see there is plenty of room for discussion. The words used for this level, for graduate skills are “analyse and evaluate information,” “analyse, generate and transmit solutions to unpredictable and sometimes complex problems” and “demonstrate autonomy” and “well-developed judgement” – so it could be argued that only having one learning outcome at the “relational competence” level (in Biggs’ language) might not be balanced enough towards Level 7. However this is all in the realm of discussion between professionals, rather than an absolutely rigid application of external standards.

  3. Hi there,
    I would have to contest the statement “It is not necessary that all learning activities and outcomes be perfectly mapped to the correct AQF level for your course, “. The AQF provides clear guidance on expectations at the different levels. UG courses should end at level 7 or 8 for honours but since students enter at 18 usually with level 3 or 4 qualifications it is vital that learning across the years is properly scaffolded and developed so that it is at the correct level for the stage. Another problem with the AQF is that whilst the levels are defined in general terms, learning outcomes need to use behavioral verbs that have a high degree of measurability not words such as “understand” or “appreciate” as are used in the AQF statements. The AQF does mostly map to Blooms although it is worth noting that the AQF rates synthesis (AQF9) as more complex than evaluation (AQF8).

    1. Hi Richard, thanks for pointing out those discrepancies. I have heard many discussions by academics and others as to whether all L/O’s should be exactly matched to the AQF level for the level of Higher Education and people seem to have differing opinions. In some more technically based courses, and in courses where the practical side of it is very much based in an understanding of the use of a particular program or set of formulas and applying this there may be a need for some flexibility (eg Population Health uses a program called Stata with certain formulas needed to solve particular problems and this is at a Masters level – the participants cannot do anything unless they master these basics). Regarding the position of “evaluate” and “synthesis” on the Blooms model, the one I have used for this blog has “create” at the apex – above evaluate. Creation requires a synthesis of ideas to produce something new. So in this version at least, it has this type of knowledge at the apex. However the Blooms model has been modified and changed over the years, so it depends which version you are looking at. But thanks again for your thoughts – it pays to cast a critical eye over established practices and theory.

  4. I just noticed that the Unit Guide for the latest version of my ICT Sustainability course doesn’t have a level indication in it. Previously it said the learning objectives were from “Level 5” of the “Skills Framework for the Information Age” (SFIA). This is a set of global skills definitions used in the IT industry, where Level 1 is the lowest and Level 7 the most advanced. I guess I had better have the level put back in.

    The course has multiple choice weekly quizzes which are at a low level, discussions a bit higher and then assignments at increasingly higher levels. However, the materials don’t explicitly point that out: should I?

    1. HI Tom, on Day 5 we will be looking at the value of assisting students with “metacognition” processes regarding their learning – this includes revealing things like industry and other external standards that can often be in the background as part of a “hidden curriculum.” The value is that the students can aim at standards wider than just pleasing the people who are going to be marking their assessments. So based on that, I think it is certainly valuable to let students know about these standards and how you are mapping your teaching to them, although it pays not to focus too obsessively on them (because in my own experience I find students can become quite obsessive about meeting these kinds of standards instead of concentrating on the tasks at hand, which while maybe not obvious to them, might be building them up to meet the standards!).

  5. I’m delayed by a few days for this one, but here goes anyway!
    The course I’m teaching doesn’t seem to have a unit guide listing AQF info (I don’t even know what AQF is and it doesn’t seem to be defined here unless I’m missing something).
    However, the LOs for the course include a mix of lower and higher order and the overall assessment that I am involved in includes a definite application of higher order thinking and application. The challenge for this class, which is very diverse, is mostly about making sure no one is left behind in some of the more technical aspects, so that they are free to apply themselves to the higher order thinking. We had mixed success with this in 2018, and I will be thinking more on this as I do some adjustments moving in to 2019.

    1. Hi Angela, thanks for your comments. There is a link above, to the AQF (Australian Qualification Framework) website where you can download the framework, which provides the levels of skills and knowledge officially expected at different course levels from Certificate I right through to Doctorate, in Australia. I can understand the challenge in any course with technical requirements, to find a good balance between higher order and more basic levels of skills and knowledge, which often form the base for the higher, more abstract levels of thinking. Also it is great that you mention diversity – that presents a challenge also, in ensuring learning is inclusive while still meeting the required L/Os and the AQF levels.

  6. Hi Jill,
    I wouldn’t disagree with your point of view. Perhaps there is ambiguity in terms of the level that can be achieved with undergraduates at third year. Discussion around what can be achieved and what is desirable would be excellent.

  7. Rather than considering the whole overarching course guide for the undergraduate and post-graduate courses that I help teach, I thought I’d consider the learning objectives that we are given for each laboratory/practical session. These require students to learn at varying levels of the Blooms Taxonomy. I found it helpful to consider the somewhat “layering” of learning that is described in Blooms Taxonomy. As in, recall of facts is required before deeper application or analysis can occur. This fits with my previous comments of how students may be required to learn the native “language” of a subject before they can progress further or deeper.
    This requires teaching and questioning at be somewhat layered to ensure that students aren’t lost and giving a “prestructural” answer to a more complex question that requires a relational answer.

    After reading the UQ paper on Biggs’ SOLO taxonomy, I thought I would attempt their exercise of forming questions of the same topic, but at different SOLO levels.
    Uni-structural/Remember: What is the anatomical name of the kneecap?
    Multi-structural/Understand: Classify the type of bone of the patella, and explain the purpose of that classification of bone structure.
    Relational/Analyse: Using examples, compare at least two classes of bone structures.

  8. I am quite comfortable that both my courses are meeting the AQF standards, as both of them go right to the top of Blooms taxonomy in their assessments. However what struck me on looking at this framework again was the emphasis on skills like problem solving, critical thinking, analysis, creative thinking and judgement and intellectual independence. I think the in one of the other coffee courses about authentic assessment there was a bit of a debate going on about the value of assessing specific professional skill sets, and the value of more “traditional” assessments such as essays which tend to enhance skills sets, the value of which aren’t immediately apparent. I think the AQF is weighing in on that debate somewhat with its wording of what skills it thinks a bachelor degree should facilitate students to develop.

  9. Prior to moving to Australia just over a year ago, I taught English as a Second Language (ESL) in an adult education centre in Europe. Naturally, we did not use the AQF framework. Having read up on it, I would place the courses I taught under AQF6 and AQF7*. But since these courses did not form part of a broader program of study, I am finding it quite challenging to apply the framework. I feel that the CEFR framework is much more adapt at this. While I can understand that Australian language institutes (adult education & universities) do not use a European framework, I found it quite surprising that there does not seem to be an equivalent here. I found this article quite enlightening: Normand-Marconnet, N., & Lo Bianco, J. (2015). The Common European Framework of Reference down under: A survey of its use and non-use in Australian universities. Language Learning in Higher Education, 5(2), 281 – 307.

    And I’m really interested to hear other language teachers’ thoughts!

    *I am confident of this because students were awarded ECTS credits upon successful completion of this course. This way, they could use it towards their Bachelor’s (in some cases even Master’s) degree.

  10. Thanks for sharing the SOHO taxonomy to supplement the Bloom’s one. I have used Bloom’s taxonomy just a couple of weeks ago to differentiate the 2000 and 6000 versions of the same double-batched unit. What was really challenging was to be on the top two levels, as expected in general in our university context but still have a clear difference for these two cohorts. Hence, I in general used the highest level the most often for the 6000 version with a couple of the top 2-3 level elements in the 5 main learning outcomes. Then, I went about one level down from here for the 2000 version.

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