Blooming with Students

Bloom's Taxonomy Butterfly

One of the sharathon session at this year’s Biology Leadership Conference focused on a novel use of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Mary Pat Wenderoth (University of Washington) gave a great talk on the way she uses Bloom’s with students in her freshman majors’ biology course.  For those unfamiliar with Bloom’s Taxonomy, it’s a useful – and widely recognized – system for classifying learning objectives according to cognitive domains.  It was first presented in 1956 through the publication of a handbook by Benjamin Bloom (an educational psychologist) and since then, has undergone many revisions and alterations. Today, educators most often apply the taxonomy to asseessment items, in order to make certain that their students are functioning in higher order cognitive domains (that is, they possess a deeper synthesis versus a rote mastery of facts). Here’s a grid, summarizing the original Bloom levels with definitions, sample verbs and behaviors.

Wenderoth uses these Bloom’s cognitive domains:  evaluation, synthesis, analysis, application, comprehension, and knowledge – with analysis, synthesis, and evaluation being the recognized, higher order domains.

In her talk, Mary Pat described the start of her investigation into the use of Bloom’s at UW when they set out to create a “Blooming Biology Tool”.  They assembled a team of three biology faculty and designed a rubric, based on Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Then they rated 700 (gasp!) exam questions taken from 1st year medical school tests, the MCAT, the biology GRE, undergraduate biology courses, and the AP Biology exam, according to their rubric. This gave them a solid, working knowledge of the way assessment items work (and don’t work) and some really good ideas for incorporating the use of Bloom’s in their courses.

First day of biology class at University of Washington

Wenderoth began introducing Bloom’s Taxonomy on the first day of her introductory biology class. Her idea was to make clear to the students that not all questions are created equal and encourage the students to monitor their own learning. On that first day, they come up with a mnemonic to remember the taxonomy – they use that all year.  They “Bloom” questions in class (before they answer them) and they “Bloom” last year’s exam.  As the semester progresses, the students get increasingly comfortable with the scheme and begin to recognize the type of questions that give them the most trouble.

When Wenderoth creates her exams, she indicates the taxonomic level of each question, right on the exam (a good double check for her, to make sure that her exam is in alignment with her plan).  Then, when she hands back the students’ scores, they are also given their “Bloom scores” (Wenderoth uses an online grading tool to calculate this).  So students know exactly how they scored on, say, “Knowledge” questions vs. “Analysis” questions.

As a result, Wenderoth reports students come to her office saying things like, “I need help with “Analysis-level” questions.”  And that, explains, Wenderoth, is a much better place to start with a student.

From there, Wenderoth and her colleagues have started to develop learning activities for students, based on specific Bloom’s areas. So, for instance, if you are having trouble with comprehension questions, she recommends activities where you describe a biological process in your own words, provide examples of a process, write a sentence using a key term, or discuss the process with peers.

I loved this whole idea.  What a great way to make learning more transparent!  It takes the mystery out of learning for students and encourages them to think about their learning in a productive way.  It also helps to give students insight into the way their instructor thinks – how the course is organized – how the exams are created and graded.  Mary Pat wrapped up her talk with a few quotes from her students…this was one of my favorites:

“I remember initially thinking, “Why are we wasting valuable class time on Bloom’s taxonomy?” I felt that Bloom’s taxonomy was a burden, but I now use Bloom’s taxonomy unconsciously to attack many problems. It is a method used to help organize my thoughts before I act.”

p.s. Here’s a link to a pdf of the bloomsposterv4 butterfly poster shown at the top of this post.



Filed under Reflections on Teaching

2 responses to “Blooming with Students

  1. That’s a great way to get students to be metacognitive without overwhelming them with complex concepts and theories. (And the faculty member too.) Love it!

    • rheyden

      In fact, I thought of you during the presentation – knowing it was just the kind of thing you would do in your teaching.

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