Applications of the Taxonomies of Learning Objectives (Part 3)

Taxonomies of Learning Objectives: The Complete Series: Read Part One and Part Two of Mike Touchstone's three-part series.

The Psychomotor Domain

As you pull up on location, you see an extension ladder in front of the house that appears to have fallen sideways over a bush. Near the ladder you can see a man lying on his side holding his arm. The scene is safe and you take body substance isolation precautions.

As you approach, you can see the man grimacing in pain and hear him shouting, “My arm, I broke my arm.” His arm is oddly angulated. As you begin your initial assessment, you learn that the man fell off the ladder from about 25 feet up. You tell your partner to take and hold manual c-spine stabilization and then continue the assessment. What do you do next?

Think back to the class where you first learned spinal immobilization. How did you learn that skill? Did you have a clue what you were doing at first? The actions you learned to complete full spinal immobilization are practical, “hands-on” skills that fall into the psychomotor domain of learning.

Educators use the hierarchy of psychomotor domain learning objectives to measure a student’s progress in learning skills. Like those in the cognitive domain, psychomotor learning objectives are organized from simple to more complex behaviors. The higher up the hierarchy, the more coordination is needed to perform the skill and meet the objective. Even students, instructors and supervisors utilize psychomotor domain learning objectives to help identify performance goals and the skills needed to accomplish them.

Psychomotor skills usually have related cognitive or knowledge components. For example, you must know that a fall from 25 feet is a significant mechanism of injury and you must also know that full spinal immobilization is indicated when a patient suffers injuries caused by significant mechanism. Understanding why to perform a spinal immobilization and being willing to perform the skill fall into the affective domain of learning.

In my previous column, we talked about Bloom et al and the cognitive domain. The original investigators only published cognitive and affective domains hierarchies; because there was no focus on psychomotor skill development in mainstream post-secondary education at the time. Several authors later addressed this gap and they have described different hierarchies in the psychomotor domain. We will examine the different hierarchies shortly.

First, let’s look at a psychomotor domain learning objective.

Example: Given a cervical collar, cervical immobilization device, long spine board, straps and an assistant, the EMT-B student will be able to demonstrate complete spinal immobilization with minimal movement of the patient’s head and neck and keeping the patient’s spine inline throughout the procedure. The EMT-B student will complete full spinal immobilization within ten minutes.

As you can see, psychomotor domain learning objectives are in many ways the same as cognitive objectives. In this case, the verb “demonstrate” refers to a physical action. The conditions are “given a cervical collar, cervical immobilization device, long spine board, straps and an assistant,” and the degree includes both “with minimal movement of the patient’s head and neck and keeping the patient’s spine inline throughout the procedure” and the time requirement.

Often, when teaching such a complex skill, instructors will break the skill into several smaller components. The American Heart Association uses this method to teach CPR. What sub-skills would you include when preparing to teach spinal immobilization? Perhaps placing a cervical collar, or the sequence of placing the straps used to secure a patient to a long spine board? Maybe the proper technique to perform a "log roll?" What others?

As you begin considering the skill and how you will write the learning objectives to guide the lessons, take into consideration the hierarchies of the psychomotor domain. Below are the three main hierarchies of the psychomotor domain.

Psychomotor Domain Hierarchies

Simpson, E. (1972)
PerceptionThe ability to use sensory cues to guide physical activityDistinguish, identify, select
SetReadiness to act; requires the learner to demonstrate an awareness or knowledge of the behaviors needed to carry out the skillAssume a position, demonstrate, show
Guided ResponseThe early stage of learning a complex skill; includes imitation; can complete the steps involved in the skill as directedAttempt, imitate, try
MechanismThe ability to perform a complex motor skill; the intermediate stage of learning a complex skill 
Complex Overt ResponseThe ability to perform a complete psychomotor skill correctlyCarry out, operate, perform
AdaptationCan modify motor skills to fit a new situationAdapt, change, modify, revise
OriginationThe ability to develop an original skill that replaces the skill as initially learnedCreate, design, originate

Harrow, A. (1972)
Reflex movementSegmental, intersegmental and suprasegmental reflexesRespond
Basic-fundamental movementsLocomotor movements, nonlocomotor movements, manipulative movements 
Perceptual abilitiesKinesthetic, visual, auditory, and tactile discrimination and coordinated abilities 
Physical abilitiesEndurance, strength, flexibility, and agility 
Skilled movementsSimple, compound and complex adaptive skillsAssemble, calibrate, construct, dissect
Nondiscursive communicationExpressive and interpretive movementArrange, compose, create, originate, design

Dave, R. (1972)
ImitateObserve a skill and attempt to repeat it, or see a finished product and attempt to replicate it while attending to an exemplarAttempt, copy, duplicate, imitate, mimic
ManipulatePerform the skill or produce the product in a recognizable fashion by following general instructions rather than observationComplete, follow, play, perform, produce
PrecisionIndependently perform the skill or produce the product, with accuracy, proportion, and exactness; at an expert levelAchieve automatically, excel expertly, perform masterfully
ArticulationModify the skill or produce the product to fit new situations; combine more than one skill in sequence with harmony and consistencyAdapt, alter, customize, originate
NaturalizationCompletion of one or more skills with ease and making the skill automatic with limitedNaturally, perfectly

As you can see, these hierarchies are somewhat complex. I find that Dave’s hierarchy is the easiest to understand. You will notice that the last column on the left lists verbs you can use to develop your own learning objectives. You can read the objectives for spinal immobilization in the EMT-B National Standard Curriculum. These objectives will provide you with examples of objectives written at differing levels of the psychomotor hierarchy. You can find an extensive list of useful verbs at many websites if you Google the term “psychomotor domain hierarchy.”

I found another interesting learning hierarchy online at the Penn State Learning Design Community Hub ( that has an application for writing psychomotor learning objectives and is useful for evaluating a student’s level of skill performance.

Penn State Learning Design Community Hub, 2007
ObservingActive mental attending of a physical eventThe learner observes a more experienced person in his performance of the skill. Asked to observe sequences and relationships and to pay particular attention to the finished product. Direct observation may be supplemented by reading or watching a video. Thus, the learner may read about a topic and then watch a performance.
ImitatingAttempted copying of a physical behavior The learner begins to acquire the rudiments of the skill. The learner follows directions and sequences under close supervision. The total act is not important, nor is timing or coordination emphasized. The learner is conscious of deliberate effort to imitate the model.
PracticingTrying a specific physical activity over and overThe entire sequence is performed repeatedly. All aspects of the act are performed in sequence. Conscious effort fades as the performance becomes more or less habitual. Timing and coordination are emphasized. Here the person has acquired the skill but is not an expert.
AdaptingFine tuning. Making adjustments in the physical activity in order to perfect itPerfection of the skill. Minor adjustments are made that influence the total performance. Coaching is often very valuable here. That is how a good player becomes a better player.


One of the major dimensions of practicing prehospital emergency care is hands-on skills and we use these skills every day. These practical skills fall into the psychomotor domain of learning. Students can use psychomotor domain learning objectives as a means to understand what actions they are expected to perform, and what skills they need to demonstrate. Instructors use them to measure and evaluate a student’s progress. A supervisor can use psychomotor skill objectives as performance improvement and evaluation tools.

If you are an instructor, the ability to write psychomotor learning objectives will help you create lesson plans and improvement plans, and to evaluate not only your student’s success, but your own teaching success. The more you work at writing objectives, the easier the task becomes, and the quality of your objectives will improve. As you develop your skills at writing learning and performance objectives, you will find that you are more in control of your learning, teaching, and professional development experiences.


The Three Psychomotor Hierarchies were retrieved March 25, 2008 from

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