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Applications of the Taxonomies of Learning Objectives (Part 1)

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

For my first EMS1 column, I will be discussing the foundation of objective-oriented learning and education. This is a widely practiced method of teaching that introduces basic concepts to the student first and gradually increases complexity over time. However, before we tackle educational practices, perhaps it would be prudent to reveal my qualifications.

I’ve taught nearly 900 cadets, served as a lead instructor, as a class coordinator, and now as the chief of EMS training. Each cadet who completes our program successfully passes the PA DH state EMT-B certification exam, nearly all on the first try. Our class average on the tests is 10 points higher than the state average. As AHA training center faculty, I’ve certified numerous BLS instructors.

I started teaching the EMT-B curriculum over a decade ago. I had been a paramedic for years and had served as a preceptor for several students. Apparently someone thought I was a “good medic” and therefore was qualified to teach. I got “invited” to teach at the fire academy to help make fire cadets into EMTs.

After teaching the prerequisite 20 hours as an assistant instructor and “team teaching,” I was sent to a Pennsylvania Department of Health EMT Instructor certification class. At that point in my career I knew the material and I knew the job, but I knew precious little about education theory, principles of teaching adults, or learning objectives. As far as I knew, learning objectives pointed out what a student was supposed to learn. It seemed obvious enough. I eventually figured out that there was much more involved and that I had a lot to learn.

If you look in an EMS textbook or at one of the national standard curricula (NSC), you’ll see that every chapter and every unit begins with objectives. You will also see that the objectives in the NSC are listed in three groups and each group is divided into levels. It wasn’t until after I had taught several classes, had many discussions with other instructors, did research on my own, and struggled with writing learning objectives that I really came to understand and appreciate the concepts and complexity of these critical education tools.

Over the next several months I will share with you what I’ve learned and hopefully make it easier for you to apply these principles to your own endeavors, both as a student and as an educator. I’ll begin with an overview of the taxonomies of learning objectives and the domains of learning. I’ll present more specific discussions of each of the three domains in subsequent offerings.

For over 50 years, “Bloom’s Taxonomy” theory has influenced curriculum development, teaching and evaluation. But in order for us to apply Bloom’s Taxonomy, we first must understand what it means.

Taxonomy — A method of organizing or structuring information into a hierarchy.

The term hierarchy refers to ordering information or activity from simplest to most complex. The taxonomies of learning objectives begin at the lowest level with the simplest activities and progress upward through stages with increasing complexity. For students to progress up the hierarchy, they must function at lower levels first, incorporating that level of activity, and then proceed up through each level to more complex functioning. You have to crawl before you walk, walk before you run.

These hierarchies exist within the three established domains of learning objectives: the cognitive, the affective and the psychomotor. The cognitive domain refers to knowledge; the “what” we need to learn. The affective domain refers to emotion and attitude; the “why” we need to learn and how we feel about it. The psychomotor domain refers to the hands-on skills; the “how” we do the things we do. The hierarchies in each domain, again, begin with simple functions and progress to more complex ones.

So what do these domains and hierarchies have to do with learning objectives? It works like this: At each level of function within a learning domain, there are specific verbs that indicate activities or functions at that level of complexity. When a student accomplishes an objective, we can infer that the student has reached a particular level of performance. The objectives provide waypoints along the developmental process to assess progress. As students develop skills in each of the domains, they will be able to meet more and more complex objectives. Each hierarchy of learning objectives provides you with a “learning yardstick.”

Let’s look at the EMT-B NSC. Module 4, Lesson 4-3, Cardiac Emergencies (pp 240-243). This lesson begins with objectives, as do the other lessons in each module. At the top of the page there is an “Objectives Legend” that looks like this:

C = Cognitive P = Psychomotor A = Affective
1 = Knowledge level
2 = Application level
3 = Problem-solving level

The list of objectives is just below the legend and is divided into the three domains I mentioned earlier: cognitive, affective and psychomotor.

Here are some sample cognitive objectives from the Cardiac Emergencies lesson:

Cognitive Objectives
At the completion of this lesson, the EMT-Basic student will be able to:

Describe the structure and function of the cardiovascular system. (C-1)
Establish the relationship between airway management and the patient with cardiovascular compromise. (C-3)
Predict the relationship between the patient experiencing cardiovascular compromise and basic life support. (C-2)

At the end of each objective you’ll see a letter and a number in parentheses — (C-1), (C-2) or (C-3). These letters and numbers indicate the domain, the “C” indicates cognitive domain, and the level as per the legend.

What does all of this mean? Well, as I figured out early in my teaching career, the objectives tell us what the students should accomplish in this lesson. But there is more to it. Successfully meeting an objective rated (C-1) means the student has demonstrated mental activity in the cognitive domain at the lowest or “knowledge level.” If the student meets an objective rated (A-3) it indicates function in the affective domain at the highest or “problem-solving level.” Meeting a (P-2) objective indicates function in the psychomotor domain at the middle or “application level.”

By tracking the domain and level of the objectives a student successfully meets, we can determine that student’s level of function in each of the domains. We can also use objectives to create exams that confirm the student’s level of function.

In part two, I’ll delve more deeply into the cognitive domain, discuss the construction of cognitive objectives, and provide a list of specific verbs used to create cognitive objectives at specific levels of function. columnist Mike Touchstone is the fire/paramedic services chief in charge of EMS training at the Philadelphia Fire Academy and director of the Philadelphia Fire Department EMS Training Institute. One of his primary responsibilities is overseeing EMS instructor development.
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