Bloom’s Taxonomy and Test Item Design

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The creation of valid and effective tests requires numerous test-design skills. Instructional design is one of these key skills. When understood and properly applied in the test-design process, instructional design ensures that test items are aligned to the cognitive level being tested. Mapping test items to cognitive levels contributes to the face validity of the test and enables test designers to differentiate between knowledge and performance-based test items.


Bloom’s taxonomy is a commonly used instructional design to create test content. The taxonomy has six cognitive levels: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation.


For example, when creating a test item that tests for knowledge, as is often the case with multiple-choice items, the test item will generally be a recall of previously learned material, such as:


What is the highest peak on the Asian continent?



  1. Nuptse
  2. Lohtse
  3. Everest
  4. Cho Oyu


The correct answer is 3. Notice that I did not perform any task as a result of answering the item. Consequently, the item is purely knowledge-based, a recall of prior learning. Test items at the comprehension level are similar, requiring the ability to paraphrase a meaning, explain something, or define or restate ideas.


Let’s move farther along Bloom’s taxonomy and take a look at the application level. Test items at this level typically require the use of prior learning in new situations. The test-taker will demonstrate the ability to take abstract information and use it in a concrete situation. Test items at the application level are more performance-related than at the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, as they typically require a hands-on or simulated task.


Assume I’m going to travel to the Asian continent to climb Mt. Everest. To ensure I’m adequately prepared, one key skill I’ll need is putting on a climbing harness. Creating a test item for putting on a climbing harness is an example of a hands-on test item that correlates to the application level of Bloom’s taxonomy:


You have 10 minutes to complete this task.
Put on the climbing harness, ensure the webbing on each leg loop is not twisted, all webbing threaded through buckles is doubled-back, and the locking carabineer is properly fixed to the front loop and locked.


There are some interesting characteristics to this item. The first is the time component. In order to be truly proficient, the candidate must be quick because in the mountains, time is often critical to ensure safety. Another characteristic is the scoring. In this situation, the candidate must perform all tasks correctly in order to receiving a passing score. The candidate would scored by an observer on three distinct tasks: the webbing on each leg loop is not twisted, all webbing is double-backed through buckles, and the locking carabineer is properly fixed to the front loop and locked. Once again, safety is the big issue, making this an all-or-nothing scenario.


Higher cognitive levels in Bloom’s taxonomy include analysis, synthesis and evaluation. These levels become increasingly more difficult to test. However, there are effective methods for creating appropriate test items. For purposes of this discussion, I’ll focus on the evaluation level.


Evaluation deals with a candidate’s ability to judge the worth of material against stated criteria. It is a culmination of the first five levels in the taxonomy.


Another key mountaineering skill, especially where there is high snowfall, is evaluating conditions for potential avalanche danger. Those serene expanses of sparkling white snow can unleash deadly avalanches in the right conditions. Safe mountain travel dictates competence at selecting a climbing route that minimizes the team’s exposure to avalanches. A corresponding test item might look something like this:


Evaluate the terrain and conditions and select the safest route of travel from point A and point B (both would be defined on the map).


In this scenario, my evaluation may consist of analyzing photos, studying topographical maps, performing a snow analysis and making a judgment call as to the safest route. My final decision will be based on all of the factors and criteria I have at my disposal, as well as experience. This item is comprehensive because it requires that I recall knowledge, use skills and perform analysis. Scoring for this item may consist of having one or more observers rate me against a specified set of criteria.


Bloom’s taxonomy is one tool that test designers can use when designing and developing tests. Other taxonomies include Gagne’s Learning Outcomes and Guilford’s Mental Processes. Regardless of the taxonomy used, it is important to ensure tests are created with sound instructional design principals to ensure alignment between the cognitive level of testing and corresponding item types.


James A. DiIanni is the director of assessment and certification exam development at Microsoft Learning and supports the Microsoft Certified Professional program. His experience with performance testing started in 1986 developing simulators for the U.S. Navy, and he has been involved in the IT certification industry since 1997. He can be reached at

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