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Learning Taxonomies

Taxonomies of the unknown.  

What is It?

Most of us agree that our purpose as instructors is to foster or  facilitate new student understandings. But, what are  understandings? Are there different kinds? It seems they can be simple, such as remembering one’s times tables, or  extremely complicated, such as new knowledge about oneself. Several scholars have tried to  create taxonomies of understandings, or taxonomies of educational goals. Perhaps the most well known is Bloom’s Taxonomy of the Cognitive domain (1956) later revised by Anderson (2001). This taxonomy features the recognizable hierarchy of categories which attempts to capture the  spectrum of  learning processes: Remember, Understand, Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, Create. Anderson extended these categories with the addition of a knowledge dimension: Factual, Conceptual, Procedural, Metacognitive.


Similarly, Wiggins and McTighe developed their Six Facets of Understanding (1998) to help educators design deep or varied  learning experiences. Too often have educators designed learning experiences which require only superficial understandings, or imbalanced understandings without including solid foundational knowledge..


Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning (2003) challenged the hierarchical nature of previous models  and presented a more holistic taxonomy including the ‘Human Dimension’ and ‘Caring: Developing new  feelings’. Many instructors hope their students become better at learning how to learn and become self-directed learners but few identify these specific goals and fewer still design to achieve them. It is interesting that much of the traditional classroom experience fits within the single ‘Foundational Knowledge’ sector of the model.


How Can I Use Learning Taxonomies in My Course?

There are several ways learning taxonomies may be valuable. The first is just to recognize that understandings are complicated and diverse. There are superficial understandings and deeper, more profound understandings. Ask yourself what kind of understandings you’d like your students to achieve. If you’ve been teaching your course for a while, consider your existing activities. Some find the process of diagraming their course learning  activities or outcomes and their corresponding taxonomic categories helpful. Does your course feature mostly one type, or a diversity of types?

Further, and very importantly, there are often multiple ways to achieve similar understandings. For instance, if you want students to empathize  with characters or figures, there are multiple ways to achieve that objective. You could have your students write a diary in the voice of that persona, or play an immersive role-playing game, perform a skit or deliver a presentation as that person or debate as that person. Once you clearly identify your intended objective, you can consider a wider and often more engaging range of activities to achieve that same objective.

Learning taxonomies may resonate with you or they may not. Try not to  be put off by the jargon or the coarse  categorization of the complex and largely unknown nature of human understanding. They can be very useful tools during the course design and learning experience evaluation process. Use what strengths they afford, and look for better solutions where they fail to apply.

Questions and Considerations

What kinds of understandings would you like your students to achieve?
What would you like your students to understand? (Is this different from  the first question?)
Are you designing for rich outcomes and deep understandings? Do you need to?

There are several learning taxonomies to choose from, including a few that aren’t listed here. You should feel free to mix and match elements that resonate with your experiences as a student and as an educator. Use them as a tool to analyze your existing activities, and to inform your design for future activities.


  • Locating and storing domain knowledge by having students create a Google Drive folder that contains pdfs, images and videos and then sharing that folder with you for evaluation and feedback on the quality of the items that were collected.  
  • Thinking critically about the existing body of knowledge and any newly gathered data by generating a mind map of how various concepts are linked together, creating a taxonomic map. Additionally, students can engage in the critical thinking process in well-constructed discussion boards.  

Research Foundations

Anderson, L. W., Krathwohl, D. R., Airiasian, W., Cruikshank, K. A., Mayer, R. E., & Pintrich, P. R. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of educational outcomes: Complete edition. New York, NY: Pearson.

Bloom, B. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals – Handbook I: Cognitive Domain (2nd ed.). New York: David McKay Company, Inc.

Fink, D.L. (2003).  Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Krathwohl, D.R., Bloom, B.S., and Masia, B.B. (1964). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: Handbook II: Affective Domain. New York: David McKay Co.

Wiggins, G. &  McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by Design. Alexandra, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

UAF Instructional Designers

This page has been authored collectively by the experts on the UAF Instructional Design Team. Let us know if you have suggestions or corrections!

Instructional Design Team, UAF eCampus