Forms of learning

There are, according to Bloom, three different domains of learning. There is cognitive, psychomotor and affective.

Cognitive learning is knowledge. Psychomotor learning is the skill of doing things. Affective learning is appreciative and feeling based. Each of these domains has levels of learning from the least proficient to the most, called taxonomies (constructs not unlike ideal types). It is worth asking which of these corresponds to a particular learning undertaken as they increase self-awareness of progress. A way of realising which domain learning is taking place is through the method of assessment. Is the assessor looking for knowledge, proficiency or moral orderly choice/ empathy? To describe is cognitive, to manipulate is psychomotor and to choose is affective.

Cognitive learning breaks down to these levels of increasing complexity:

Psychomotor learning (see Simpson, 1969, for comparison) breaks down to these levels of increasing fluency:

Affective learning (Krathwohl, 1964) breaks down to these levels of choice and increasing empathy:

These are not the only possible approaches to the idea of domains or indeed taxonomies. My own comment on these is that Affective learning can be sinister. Whose values are being transmitted and whose absorbed? Think of capitalism in Business Studies, mass pre-capitalist Communism in China, values in counselling, objectives in teacher training. Psychomotor is usually linked with driving a car or mending a plug, actually physical skills (brain-muscle) co-ordination, but it should be expanded to any aspect of doing. The categories can fit study skills: after all the ability to write essays, take notes etc. is different from the knowledge of the subject arguments that get expression through the skills. It is not much use having plenty of knowledge if there is no skill of writing an examination answer at the end of a course. The cognitive domain has a smell of Hegelianism about it, and assumes holism, and values, whereas a postmodern reading would challenge this. Nevertheless teachers use these levels as guideposts for pitching work at students, starting at the simplest and working up to the highest. Teachers, trapped into lesson plans, will measure the least complex learning outcomes and therefore the most trivial. It's to do with lack of time and a need for funding, of course.

Self-awareness of the form of learning, and the difference between knowing and remembering and expression of the learning, can improve learning and self-expression. After all, the point of study skills is indeed self-expression and communication in the wider world than just study.

Much of learning is passive. We attend, write down the notes, see the set books and produce what is required. It gets the mark, we hope. We've all done it, and it involves a lack of enthusiasm or confidence to take on the work and make it our own.

Passive learning is:

Much more is achieved if we engage with the learning, and make it active. This means a sense of autonomy and ability to some extent to make decisions about how and where it is going. Good teaching should facilitate active learning. Active learning certainly takes place within Research Methods and Study Skills environments, in the requirements of writing dissertations and theses, and in the more evaluative than assessed forms of learning.

Active learning is about:

To some extent active learning is about attitude - to deliberately seek out links with other learning experiences and involvements. So it can take place in the lecture room, the most passive of settings. Notes can be written creatively (colour, diagrams) or make a note about something else that was learnt that engages with what was just said.

Work produced along the lines of active learning simply has more about it. It looks fresher and more original, and the mistakes that may be made are obviously the result of engaging with the issues, rather than finding a bad source or misunderstanding due to not bothering.

A passive learner will just take on surface learning. This means being unmotivated, receiving and regurgitating and not being aware of the learning process. To be an active learner is to engage in deep learning. This means having motivation, gaining the knowledge, making the connections between facts and ideas and engaging with one's own means of learning.

Being aware of the means of learning - autobiography of learning and methods

We do learn in different ways at different stages of the learning process. Kolb (1984) has a learning cycle where one kind of learning leads on to another. First of all we have a concrete experience where something happens. This leads on to observation and reflection, which is more thoughtful. These reflections produce abstractions or theoretical constructs trying to get out of the particularity of the event and a hypothesis may be begging. The hypothesis becomes testable, which closes the circle by creating a new or confirmatory experience.

Some of us as individuals perform better at one or two of these stages than others. Kolb calls them a learning style inventory. Some work better participating in a receptive way in concrete situations doing tasks and receiving actions upon the senses. Some of us observe and reflect on what has gone on. Some analyse, abstract and theorise with lots of logical thought and building hypotheses. Others like to test things out in a proactive experimental way, taking responsibility for what is inputted.

So with acknowledgement to Kolb (34-35), it stands to reason that some people prefer concrete situations, some reflect, some theorise and some experiment

Concrete experience people are focussed upon:

Reflective people are focussed on:

Abstract conceptualisers focus upon:

Active experimenters focus upon:

An interesting exercise is how these ideal types (sociological term from max Weber) of learner relate to those of the domains of learning. These groupings, like the domains, are somewhat artificial and inadequate. Real people inhabit a number of these styles, just as real learning tasks can involve more than one domain and certainly levels.

So many a reflector is also a theoriser, and many a concrete receiver of situations is also an experimenter. Also, surely a builder of a hypotheses tests the hypotheses? Each person can chart a history of being experience based, reflective, theoretical, and experimental. Each person can work out what might be done to improve areas of weakness in their learning style, or indeed to maximise what they are good at.

It may be a good idea to team up with people of different tendencies to get the best out of negotiated group work.

Some references

Bloom, B. S. (ed.) (1956), Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: Handbook I - the Cognitive Domain, Longman.

Harrow, A. J. (1972), A Taxonomy of the Psychomotor Domain, McKay.

Kolb, D. A. ( (1984), Organizational Psychology, Prentice Hall.

Krathwohl, N. (ed.) (1964), Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: Handbook II - the Affective Domain, Longman.

Saunders, C., Rice, J., O'Sullivan, T. (1995), Managing your Learning, De Montford University, De Montford University Library.

Simpson, E. (1969), Psychomotor Domain: a Tentative Classification, Illinois University Press.