Bloom's Taxonomy: Teachers' Framework


The Law Teacher, Volume 4, number 2 (Spring 1997), p. 4-5.

About the Author

Paul Ferber directs the General Practice Program at the Vermont Law School, P.O. Box 96, Chelsea St., South Royalton, VT 05068; (802) 763-8303; fax (802) 763-7159.

The last several years have seen a growing inquiry into ways to enhance legal education by drawing on learning theory and cognitive psychology. One potentially powerful tool is Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives.

Developed to classify the cognitive goals for education, Bloom's taxonomy establishes a set of standard classifications that can provide a framework for discussion and development of many aspects of legal education. This article focuses on using the taxonomy to structure evaluation tools, and provides an example of how I restructured my first-semester Contracts final examination to test specifically for a wide range of student learning.

Bloom's taxonomy

The taxonomy is a list of six educational objectives. In developing the list, Benjamin Bloom and a group of other educational psychologists sought to develop a classification of objectives consistent with relevant and accepted psychological principles and theories. The classification focuses on student behaviors which are the goals of the educational process. The six categories are:

Knowledge: The student can recall or recognize an idea. Knowledge is remembering what was covered in a way close to the way it was originally encountered in the educational process. This step includes a range of complexity, from remembering simple facts to remembering a complex theory. The progression is from the specific and relatively concrete to the more complex and abstract. An example of a question requiring a student to demonstrate knowledge is: What are the elements necessary to create a contract?

Comprehension: The student can grasp the meaning and intent of the material remembered. There are three types of comprehension behavior: translation (being able to put what one knows into other language); interpretation (being able to reconfigure what one knows in a way which makes it more accessible by focusing on the relative importance of the ideas, their interrelationships, and their relevance to generalizations in the original communication); and extrapolation (being able to make inferences with respect to implications, consequences, and effects that flow from the knowledge). An example of requiring a student to demonstrate comprehension would be: Describe the essence of the objective theory of contract formation.

Application: The student can select and correctly use the appropriate knowledge to solve a new problem. An example of a question requiring a student to demonstrate ability to apply knowledge would be: In view of the following facts, was a contract formed?

Analysis: The student can break down material into its constituent parts and detect relationships among the parts and the way they are organized. Skill in analysis includes five specific abilities: (1) to distinguish fact from hypothesis; (2) to identify conclusions and supporting statements; (3) to distinguish the relevant from the extraneous; (4) to determine how one idea relates to another; and (5) to detect unstated assumptions.

An example of an exercise requiring students to demonstrate analysis is the process of briefing a case.

Synthesis: The student can combine separate elements and parts from multiple sources to create a pattern or structure not clearly there before. Synthesis requires creative behavior. An example of a question requiring a student to demonstrate ability to synthesize would be: To what extent do the cases of X v. Y, M v. N, and A v. B establish a new rule of contract formation?

Evaluation: The student can use specified criteria and standards to make judgments about the value of ideas, solutions, methods, or other material presented. It is critical that the student be given clear standards to use in making the evaluation. An example of a question requiring a student to demonstrate the ability to evaluate would be: To what extent are the cases C v. D and R v. O consistent with the objective theory of contracts?

Using the taxonomy to draft examinations

Having planned a wide range of learning goals for my Contracts class, I felt obliged to use an evaluation tool that addressed that range of learning. Historically, I used traditional fact patterns to test students' abilities to identify issues raised, articulate legal rules and policies, and apply them to resolve the issues. This type of question evaluates the extent of a student's comprehension and application learning. I supplemented this type of question with multiple-choice questions covering a wide range of substantive law. This type of question tested comprehension and, to a lesser extent, application.

Because I had used Bloom's taxonomy in setting the goals of the course and the design of individual classes, I realized that my traditional questions were insufficient to fully evaluate my students' learning. Therefore, I added three additional types of questions.

To test for analysis and synthesis as well as comprehension and application, I drafted the following question dealing with the doctrines of consideration, reliance, and unjust enrichment as bases for enforcing contracts. (The theories of bargain, reliance, and unjust enrichment were prominent themes throughout the course.)

The doctrine of consideration, as set forth in Restatement (Second) of Contracts section 71(1) and (2), was once thought to be the central concept in determining whether a promise would be enforced by the courts. As the doctrines of reliance and unjust enrichment gained greater acceptance, promises which would not have been enforceable for lack of consideration became enforceable.

Analyze the statement in the preceding paragraph, taking into consideration the following Restatement sections:

A. 71(1) and (2),
B. 73 AND 74,
C. 86(1) AND (2),
D. 89(a), and
E. 90(1).

Your answer should include:

  1. a definition of the concepts of consideration, reliance, and unjust enrichment and an explanation of the policies underlying each concept;
  2. an explanation of the elements of each Restatement rule; and
  3. a discussion of the relationship between the concepts and the rule in each of the Restatement sections identified, including a brief discussion of a case we read this semester which supports your reasoning.

The question was particularly effective in determining the degree to which individual students could related policy to rule and connect apparently different rules that were supported by the same policy.

The second new type of question focused on the students' ability to analyze case law. Because so much of what we do with students early in law school is to work on analyzing cases, I believed it was appropriate to have the students demonstrate the extent to which they had developed the ability to break down a new case into its important component parts. I combined that goal with the presentation of a substantive area of contract law that we had not covered during the semester to test the students' ability to grasp new contract concepts (in this question, third-party beneficiaries). I had told the students before the exam that the exam would include a question that would involve a new area of contracts.

The decision in Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace Health and Hospital Services v. Russell is attached, along with two sections from the Restatement (Second) of Contracts [defining the kinds of third-party beneficiaries]. The case deals with new subject matter. Analyze the opinion and the Restatement sections. Your analysis should include:

  1. a statement of all issues raised by the case;
  2. a summary of the court's analysis of the law and facts underlying the resolution of those issues; and
  3. an evaluation of the extent to which the case is consistent with the Restatement sections.

I expected the students to perform very well on parts 1 and 2 because the analytic process required is exactly what they had been doing throughout the semester. I expected excellent results on part 3 even though it called for the most sophisticated aspect of cognitive learning -- evaluation -- because the standard for the students to use to evaluate the decision was simple: the definitions of the two types of third-party beneficiaries recognized under the Restatement.

The responses to the question were highly effective. The aspect of analysis in which the answers varied most was in their discussion of the court's use of facts to support its reasoning.

The last new type of question I used was a drafting problem -- pure application. My goal in using the question was to evaluate the students' ability to use their knowledge of the law of conditions to draft some simple contract provisions.

You have been retained by Kringle Widget Co. to help draft the language for a contract Kringle has negotiated with Hummer Bugg Mfg. Co. Hummer will pay $1 a widget and buy however many widgets it needs for its manufacturing business in 1997. Hummer wanted a quantity discount, and the parties agreed that Kringle would give Hummer a 50% discount on all widgets Hummer buys in 1997 in excess of 10,000. Kringle wanted to have the freedom to end the contract if Hummer does not purchase at least 2,000 widgets within the first six months of 1997. Kringle also wanted to impose a finance charge of 1% per month for late payments (not received within 30 days after the widgets are delivered).

Draft the provisions of the contract to implement the above agreement.

From an application standpoint, the question was only moderately successful. There was only a weak correlation between the students' knowledge of the law of conditions and their ability to draft a series of sentences implementing the agreement. The effectiveness of the draft answers turned as much or more on the students' ability to interpret the agreement and to write precisely, clearly, and succinctly. A question that provided the actual contract and asked the students to identify the conditions would evaluate more effectively the students' ability to apply their knowledge of conditions to new situations.

Bloom's taxonomy can help law teachers to develop clearer evaluation techniques. As more teachers begin using these concepts, we may find that the evaluation process becomes more useful. Using evaluation tools that clearly focus on a range of intellectual skills should allow us not only to evaluate students' performance more accurately but also to help them focus on the skills that need the greatest effort for further development.