HIGHER LEVEL LEARNING: A TAXONOMY FOR IDENTIFYING DIFFERENT
KINDS OF SIGNIFICANT LEARNING
L. Dee Fink, University of
Two major changes are occurring in higher education that will have a
significant impact on teaching and learning if they converge. One is a paradigm
shift for institutions from "providing instruction" (the teaching paradigm) to
"producing learning" (the learning paradigm) (Barr and Tagg, 1995). Second, in
recent years a number of organizations and individuals have been calling for
more significant kinds of learning by college students (Association of American
Colleges, 1985; Gardiner, 1994). In general, the call is for students to acquire
more significant kinds of cognitive learning (e.g., critical thinking as well as
"understanding and remembering"), but also for something more than just
In the past, some teachers have turned to Bloom's classic taxonomy for
guidance in providing more significant kinds of learning (1956). However, this
taxonomy needs to be updated and broadened considerably. Still others have
turned to the powerful concept of active learning (Bonwell & Eison, 1991; Meyers
& Thomas, 1993). As valuable as this concept is, it is ultimately a concept that
is focused on how people learn, not on what they learn. I propose that
the higher education community needs a parallel concept that is focused on
what students learn and that an appropriate name for this concept is "Higher
A Model of Learning
In order to respond to the need for new kinds of learning goals, it seems
helpful to start by re-conceiving what we mean by "learning." My own rethinking
of the concept of learning has been based on my observations of what people are
learning when they learn something that they (or others) deem significant. This
rethinking has led to the construction of a model of learning that consists of
ten components. (See Figure 1.) These components are, in essence, responses to
two general questions:
- What are students learning about?
- What are the kinds of change that occur in learners?
In any learning experience, students may learn about a number of
things. They learn about...
- Phenomena - the "things" in life, e.g., rocks, human behavior,
historical events, literature, etc.
- Ideas - interpretive perspectives that give meaning to particular
kinds of information, e.g., evolution, Marxism, style periods.
- Self - one's own personal charaCAEristics, self-image, self-ideal
(i.e., what I want to be).
- Others - people with whom one has an actual or potential relationship:
how they respond to events, how they communicate, what affects them, etc.
- Learning - what learning is, how it takes place, what affects it,
one's own learning patterns, what helps one learn more effectively.
Regardless of what students are learning about, the learning experience can
also result in different kinds of change in the learner, e.g., a change in...
- Knowing - an increase in students' "understanding and remembering" of
information, relationships, concepts, etc.
- Thinking - the ability to think critically, creatively, and/or
- Connecting - the ability to connect and integrate, for example,
different kinds of information and ideas with each other, classroom learning
with other parts of one's life, etc.
- Acting - a readiness to "engage in an action": physical actions (e.g.,
playing the piano), skills (e.g., communication, computer literacy), and/or
the ability to organize large complex projects.
- Caring - one's feelings, interests, and/or values.
According to this model, there are two ways that teachers can add
significance to teaching and learning. One is by helping students learn about
additional things, e.g., about themselves, about others, about learning. A
second way is by helping students change in different ways, e.g., by
attempting to change their ability to think about the subject, their ability to
"do" something, their ability to connect different kinds of knowing, or the
degree to which they "care" about something.
The components in this model of learning can be used to construct a "Taxonomy
of Higher Level Learning," as shown in Figure 2. Each category represents a
distinct kind of learning with a particular kind of value. These six categories,
and the key component(s) of higher level learning involved in each category, are
briefly described, starting at the bottom of Figure 2 with the most familiar
kind of learning.
A Taxonomy of Higher Level Learning
Type of Significance
Key Component of Learning Involved
Learning how to learn
|Provides capability for long-term
continuation of learning.
|Provides the energy (short term or
long term) for learning; without this, nothing significant happens.
|Connects one's self to onself and
to others; gives human significance to the learning.
|Adds power by connecting different
ideas, disciplinary perspectives, and/or realms of life.
|Allows other learning to become
|Provides necessary information for
other kinds of learning.
- FOUNDATION (knowing): This is what (we hope) happens in most courses
now. Students acquire some basic knowledge, something they understand and
remember, usually about some "phenomena" and set of "ideas." This information
and understanding is a necessary foundation for other kinds of learning,
especially "application" and "integration" learning. However, "knowing" can be
about self, others, and learning as well.
- APPLICATION (thinking, acting): When students take foundational
knowledge and learn how to think about issues and/or how to become ready to
act in regard to that knowledge, they are learning how to "apply" that earlier
- INTEGRATION (connecting): Two kinds of integration are currently
recognizable in higher education. First, interdisciplinary courses integrate
two or more realms of ideas, e.g., an understanding of the biological
environment and public policy on the environment. Second, students sometimes
learn how to integrate two or more realms of their life, e.g., classroom
learning with work life, community life, or personal life.
- HUMAN DIMENSION (self, others): Sometimes a course allows students to
better understand themselves and/or how to interact with other people. This
may happen because of the course content (e.g., studying psychology or
sociology) or because of the kinds of learning activities used (e.g.,
well-designed small group activities). When this kind of learning happens,
students are learning about the "Human Dimension" of life.
- MOTIVATION (caring): Some courses change the way we feel or care about
something, e.g., about the subject of the course, ourselves, or learning. When
we care about something, then and only then do we have the motivation and
energy necessary to learn about it in a lasting way. Caring creates a desire
to learn; without it, little of educational significance happens.
- LEARNING HOW TO LEARN (learning): The idea of helping students "learn
how to learn" has been around a long time. When students do learn about
learning and/or how to learn, they have a greater capability for better
learning, both in their present courses and in future learning situations.
Therefore, this kind of learning has the potential for generating even more
learning in the future.
Using the Concept of "Higher Level Learning"
The primary application of the concept of "Higher Level Learning" will be in
instructional design. When teachers design learning experiences for their
students, this concept and the associated taxonomy can identify several ways for
them to formulate learning goals that are truly significant for their students.
Also, teachers can use this concept to weigh the advantages of alternative and
innovative ways of teaching. For example, problem-based learning is particularly
effective at promoting "application," interdisciplinary learning addresses the
need for "integration," and role playing can greatly facilitate learning about
the "human dimension" of life.
The concept of "Higher Level Learning" has several other uses as well. Two
examples include the following: (a) students can use the concept to guide their
own learning when constructing learning portfolios; and (b) institutions, when
evaluating the teaching of faculty members, can ask for evidence of the degree
to which their courses promote higher level learning.
Ultimately the hope is that the concept of "Higher Level Learning" will
provide a "road map" for teaching and learning that is simple and focused, yet
rich and complex, for any individual or organization wanting to promote more
significant learning in higher education.
Association of American Colleges (1985). Integrity in the college
curriculum: A report to the academic community. Washington, DC: Association
of American Colleges.
Barr, R.B., & Tagg, J. (1995). From teaching to learning - A new paradigm for
undergraduate education." Change, 27 (6), 13-25.
Bloom, B.S. (Ed.) (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives. The
classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York:
Bonwell, C.C., & Eison, J.A. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement
in the classroom. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report 1. Washington, DC:
George Washington University.
Gardiner, L. (1994). Redesigning higher education: Producing dramatic
gains in student learning. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report 7. Washington,
DC: George Washington University.
Meyers, C., & Thomas, T. (1993). Promoting active learning: Strategies for
the college classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
is part of an 8-part series of essays originally published by The Professional &
Organizational Development Network in Higher Education. For more information
about the POD Network, browse to