Remember when you were in Grade 3 or 4, just drawing and listening to stories?
Around that time, you might have learned about something called Bloom’s taxonomy, which sounds like a floral classification but is actually an educational principle about the different levels of mastery of knowledge (i.e. how well you know your stuff).
For example, if you studied biology at a low level of mastery, that means that you’re barely able to remember what the word ‘cell’ means, whereas if you’ve got a really high level of mastery then you’re out there pushing the frontiers of biological knowledge with novel discoveries.
Obviously, you want a higher level of mastery rather than a lower level—you don’t necessarily need to be at the frontiers of humankind for your chemistry exam, but you do want to be at a high enough level to be able to hit all those curveball questions and score a top mark.
Bloom’s taxonomy is actually REALLY relevant, and a lot of people learn about it, but VERY few people (including teachers) know the full extent of how we should interpret it.
The Real Meaning of ‘Efficiency’
Before we go into it, I want to emphasise that I’m not just telling you this for the theory, but as a practical guide to how you should be structuring your study and thinking about your study systems in order to get the maximum amount of efficiency.
By ‘efficiency’, I mean that you’re learning as much as possible to the highest possible level of retention, which means getting the highest possible grade in the shortest period of time (meaning more sleep, more socialising, more Netflix, more food, and more of whatever else you want to do).
The revised Bloom’s taxonomy is composed of 6 different levels. The bottom two are the lowest levels of knowledge mastery: ‘memorise’ (Level 1) and ‘understand’ (Level 2). Most people agree that if you’re learning to MEMORISE something, that’s not truly well-known information—but UNDERSTANDING is also very low-level learning because even if you understand something, this doesn’t mean that you’re able to do anything with that information.
After achieving understanding, the next level is to ‘apply’ that knowledge (Level 3), which simply means using it to solve problems. This is the first level at which the knowledge becomes useful.
So, how do you know whether you’re at a low level of learning?
Level 1 (memorisation) means that while you’re studying, you’re focused on having a definition and memorising it. People at this low level often have lots of repetition, focus on rote learning, and spend a lot of time doing things like flashcards. Most of their learning is purely just taking something and repeating it until they’ve just smashed into their head. (It’s a bit like that baby game with the wooden blocks and the holes.
Trying to learn by memorising everything is just like getting the circular block, finding the triangle hole, and repeatedly smashing the circular block into the triangle hole until there are bits of wood all over the floor, and eventually, it fits but it’s just a mess and everything is destroyed.)
At Level 2 (understanding), people focus on trying to understand the information. They have discussions about it and they’re able to explain the topic. This is obviously a big step up from just memorisation, but it’s still not very effective. If you’ve read our post on memory hacking and relationship-priority learning, you would know that the human brain retains information much better when there are a lot of meaningful relationships.
Information in isolation is forgotten; information with lots of relationships is held on to.
When you try to understand information, you are still only seeing it in isolation—you understand that piece of information at the time, but it’s not going to be retained a few months or years down the line. So, even though understanding is better than memorising, it still falls short because it doesn’t focus on relationships.
Level 3 (applying) is the beginning of what we can consider ‘higher-order’ or ‘higher-level’ learning. During higher-level learning, we are focusing on the relationships, since it’s very difficult to use information to solve a problem without relating it to other components (or relating it to the problem itself). Problems tend to be multifaceted and complex, so applying information to solve problems is a good step—and an even better step is the levels above, which are ‘analyse’ (Level 4) and then ‘evaluate’ (Level 5). Analysing means that we’re comparing different ideas and concepts with each other: we’re saying,
“We understand this and we understand that. What are the similarities and differences?” We’re comparing, and contrasting, and trying to find different ways to group things together by looking at pieces of information in terms of their relationships and influence on each other.
We can take it a step further by evaluating, which is where we’re not just comparing ideas but also critiquing, ranking, or prioritising them. We’re saying, “This concept is important, and that concept is important, and they’re related to each other. This one is slightly more important than that one in these situations, but in other situations, it’s the other way around.”
We’re not just relating different concepts to each other, we’re also creating a priority in terms of which concepts are the most important in different contexts. This bridges the way to the final level, learning to ‘create’ (Level 6). This involves creating conjecture, hypothesising, or creating new knowledge that doesn’t exist. It means using what you know to theorise about possibilities, which is what people at the top of their field are doing.
Level 6 – ‘Create’
You don’t need to get to Level 6 for your test or exam; however, there is a very distinct advantage of getting to Level 3, 4 and 5 (apply, analyse, and evaluate). When you operate at these levels, you’re automatically able to do Levels 1 and 2 faster and more easily. When your focus is on applying, analysing, and evaluating the information, your brain will naturally end up memorising and understanding it on the way there, without you even trying. So, even though you need to memorise everything for your test and exam, you don’t actually need to spend much time doing it because by aiming for higher-order learning, the lower levels happen automatically.
So, look at your study techniques.
What level of learning are you at? What are you spending most of your time on?
All of the techniques that we teach in the program are for changing the way that you study by increasing your higher-order learning and getting away from the lower levels, which are very time-consuming and not very effective.
Self-evaluating is the only way to improve and to ensure that you’re always taking steps forward and not becoming complacent.
You might need to change a lot about the way that you’re studying, but just start from the basics first. Look at the way you’re studying now and think,
“How can I make a few easy, beginner-level changes to slowly get my learning to the next step, so that I’m not spending so much time memorising and understanding and I’m focusing more on applying, analysing and evaluating?”
If you’re using active recall, you need to make sure you’re actually doing it correctly and efficiently. So many people aren’t effective with it so make sure you give this a read.