What level(s) are you assessing at?


Appropriate leveling is an important consideration when developing learning outcomes and assessment strategies for our courses. I think that we probably all agree that a senior-level capstone biology course ought to require a different level of cognitive effort than a freshman introductory biology course. The tricky part is moving from that nice safe generic statement to a more specific and actionable one. What cognitive abilities are appropriate at different course levels? How can our students demonstrate these abilities and how can we best measure them? What do we mean by cognitive levels anyways?

For over five decades, Bloom’s taxonomy of the cognitive learning domain has been used to define different levels of critical thinking. I personally prefer the recent (relatively speaking) modification of this system described in A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives by Anderson and Krathwohl. The revised taxonomy is actually laid out in a two-dimensional matrix that is defined by a knowledge dimension (what is known?) and a cognitive dimension (at what level of abstraction is it known?). They also provide a variety of specific examples to aid in proper categorization of items within our courses. One useful interactive website that illustrates this new taxonomy can be found at the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at Iowa State University.

Well let’s suppose that can agree that different courses ought to assess and different levels and we can (for the moment at least) agree to use Anderson and Krathwohl’s taxonomy to define educational objectives. How much emphasis should different levels of courses emphasize the various levels of cognitive ability? I will throw my thoughts out and see if anyone is listeningā€¦ Let’s keep things a little simpler and reduce the six cognitive levels to three (low, medium, and high as shown in the graphic for this post). Here is one suggestion for balance at different course levels:

  • 100-level courses – 60% low, 30% medium, 10% high
  • 200-level courses – 40% low, 40% medium, 20% high
  • 300-level courses – 30% low, 45% medium, 30% high
  • 400-level courses – 10% low, 50% medium, 40% high
  • Graduate course – 0% low, 50% medium, 50% high

Admittedly, this is a somewhat arbitrary system, but here is my rationale. Lower division courses are primarily concerned with introducing a body of knowledge and this will be most directly assessed at the lower end of the cognitive spectrum. The mid-level courses (200 and 300) tend to build upon this knowledge base and require more problem solving and critical analysis. These are best assessed in the middle of the cognitive spectrum. The upper division courses include capstone experiences and ought to focus primarily at the upper end of the cognitive pyramid. What do you think of this schemata?

This is all well and good. However, the devil is in the details. I plan to spend the next several weeks talking about some of the specifics: types of assignments, types of assessments, strengths and weaknesses, etc. After all – this blog is supposed to be about assessment in action. See you then.


About WeeBeasties

I am a professor of Microbiology at Ferris State University and also serve as the General Education Assessment Coordinator for the University. In my limited free time, I enjoy logic puzzles, chess, computer programming, and reading. When outside, I like to take my dog for walks, fishing, and shooting sporting clays.
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2 Responses to Leveling

  1. This leveling idea is also being considered in both the Bologna process of Europe and in the American spinoff, the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP). External stakeholders, particularly, want to know what is different about the learning among associate, baccalaureate, and graduate degrees. Importantly, they also want to know what they can expect college graduates to know and to be able to do. Increasingly, problem-solving, critical thinking, and creative endeavors are valued outcomes. How are we deveoping these? “Not so much” would be the answer if you were to look at the outcomes specified in many areas.

    I would shift your graduate percentages to 80% high and 20% medium. Similarly, I would increase the freshmen levels, as this is NOT their first experience and we should reflect “higher learning.” Thus, consider whether in disciplines where it is not the student’s first introduction – such as English, history, math, social sciences – that the levels should be more like 40, 40, 20. In new areas, there would necessarily be more foundational work required.

    An interesting exercise would be to review the syllabi in various departments to determine the “level” represented with the verb employed.

    • Wee Beasties says:

      Thanks! I agree concerning graduate-level courses. I’ve taken a little time to look over some of my (now very old) graduate work and the levels seem to bear out your sediments. And those courses were taken back in the ’80s. The syllabi could be interesting. Even more interesting would be looking at the types of assessments being used and the nature of the data collected and analyzed. Ultimately, the course outcomes are only as good as the assessment strategies used to measure them…

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