Using Bloom’s taxonomy in course posts

The first time I took an online graduate course, I was required to respond in a blog to journal readings and responses of other students.  Some student comments were truly insightful, and I learned from them. But others were trite.  Lately these student responses have me considering how to write appropriate entries.

One good approach to this kind of writing is to use Bloom’s taxonomy.  Briefly, the taxonomy ranks thinking from easiest to most difficult:

  • Remembering (repeating word-for-word or by using synonyms),
  • Understanding (defining or explaining the meaning),
  • Applying (showing how a concept has been used elsewhere or can be used in different circumstances),
  • Analyzing (breaking a concept into its components)
  • Evaluating (determining values of competing concepts or components), and
  • Synthesizing (creating new concepts by fusing existing concepts or using an existing concept as a starting point).

Let’s take a well-known piece of writing, Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and apply Bloom’s taxonomy to responses we might write about it.

  • Unacceptable (personal comments, off-topic comments, liking or not liking with no explanation)
  • Remembering (repeating a line or two, naming an idea previously stated by the teacher, but adding no new information)
  • Understanding (summarizing the poem, paraphrasing it, but adding no new information)
  • Applying (discussing rhythm, rhyme, figures of speech and other poetic elements that Frost used in the poem)
  • Analyzing (discussing patterns of rhyme or diction, discussing published critiques of the poem)
  • Evaluating (discussing where this poem ranks among Frost’s poems, how it rates compared to the work of other poets, discussing criterion used to rank the poem), and
  • Synthesizing (writing a poem or other artistic expression using the style or content of the poem, such as the illustration for this blog; writing a sequel to the poem; writing a poem in a completely different style to express the ideas of the poem).

Encouraging students to add details

This past week, I worked with a sixth grader who wrote an essay on the Superbowl.  This student has a vivid imagination, but his essay lacked the sparkle of his personality.  So I asked question after question, eliciting wonderful details, details he had neglected to put in his essay. 

boy writing on a window bench

For example, in his original essay he implied he watched the game on TV with his family.  But when I prodded, he told me he had prepared a party-like atmosphere.  How, I asked him.  He wrote, “Before the game started, I  prepared snacks and drinks, including Cheetos, Doritos, Sprite, Mentos, very cheesy popcorn, Lays chips, Diet Coke, Dr. Pepper, Chinese popcorn (for my picky parents), and Black Forest gummy bears (for me).”

Originally, he talked about the Chiefs losing because they accumulated many penalties.  Name some, I suggested.  He wrote, “For example, the Chiefs got an interception, but they committed a foul which means that the interception didn’t count, and the Buccaneers moved up ten yards. Another example is that it was fourth down and five yards to go, and the Buccaneers were going to make a field goal, but a foul by the Chiefs caused the Buccaneers to get a whole new set of downs. Because of the foul, the Buccaneers got a touchdown.”

He and his brother bet on the game, with the loser (his brother) needing to buy the winner (my student) a soft drink.  How did it feel to drink that soft drink, I asked him.  He wrote, “I guzzled it in front of him, sloshing down and slurping that tasty Fanta that he thought he should have won.”

You didn’t mention the final score, I told him.  Oops!  He wrote, “The final score was 31-9 Buccaneers with the Chiefs not scoring a single touchdown.”

I find that this experience is typical of my work as a tutor.  I wheedle out details and encourage students to write them down.  If I don’t ask, the details don’t appear, and the essay stays mediocre.  If I prod, wonderful details spew forth and the essay, like my student, sparkles. 

[Other concepts we worked on during revision:  adding humor, using consistent verb tenses, adding suspense by not telling who won the bet in the introduction, connecting the introduction and conclusion, adding direct quotes, using more specific, descriptive verbs].

Here is the completed essay:

On February 7th, 2021, my brother and I bet on who would win the Super Bowl. The Kansas City Chiefs were playing against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  My brother picked the Chiefs.  He always wins and boasts about winning. But I was not deterred by his boasting.  I still picked the Buccaneers. Our bet was on.

Before the game started, I  prepared snacks and drinks, including Cheetos, Doritos, Sprite, Mentos, very cheesy popcorn, Lays chips, Diet Coke, Dr. Pepper, Chinese popcorn (for my picky parents), and Blackforest gummy bears (for me). I also grabbed 54 sports stuffed animals and laid them out on a Buccaneers’ blanket to watch the game with my family. My brother said, “Whoever wins has to buy the other person a Fanta.”  We shook on it, and he added, “No turning back.”   I researched to see who would win but after an hour of searching, I gave up because all the Internet said was that the Chiefs would win. The Chiefs had a higher percentage rate of winning compared to the Buccaneers. The Buccaneers chances were very slim with a 20.6% chance of winning the Super Bowl.  I knew that one dollar for a Fanta was going to come out of my pocket.

The Chiefs scored first with a three point field goal. My brother laughed his guts out. During the first quarter the Chiefs scored six points which is ok considering the fact that this is a Super Bowl. On the other hand, the Buccaneers scored two touchdowns during the first quarter so I was laughing my guts out. Since the Chiefs were down by two touchdowns, they got aggressive and started to make penalties. Meanwhile the Buccaneers were getting touchdowns play after play which made the Chiefs even more angry and more penalties.For example, the Chiefs got an interception, but they committed a foul which means that the interception didn’t count, and the Buccaneers moved up ten yards. Another example is that it was fourth down and five yards to go, and the Buccaneers were going to make a field goal, but a foul by the Chiefs caused the Buccaneers to get a whole new set of downs. Because of the foul, the Buccaneers got a touchdown.  The final score was 31-9 Buccaneers with the Chiefs not scoring a single touchdown. 

As the game ended, I  grinned my face off.   My brother grumbled.  “I should have won.”  He bought me a Fanta from the vending machine  grudgingly. I guzzled it in front of him, sloshing down and slurping that tasty Fanta that he thought he should have won.  Afterwards, I realized that predictions from many sources do not guarantee a win. I also realized that I had never felt better after beating my brother. 

 

 

Can writing predict Alzheimer’s Disease?

Can writing samples predict who will develop Alzheimer’s Disease years later?

Yes, according to researchers from IBM.

IBM studied 80 men and women in their 70s, none of whom showed signs of Alzheimer’s.  They were asked to write about a drawing of a kitchen scene.  A boy stood on a wobbly stool, grabbing for cookies in an upper cabinet while a girl his age watched.  Nearby a woman, with her back to the children, washed dishes, not seeming to realize that the boy was in danger or that water from the kitchen sink was overflowing.

To describe the scene, some of the subjects wrote simple phrases such as “washing dishes” and “stool tipping ove.”  Others wrote longer phrases such as “Mother washing dishes” and “water overflowing in sink.”  Still others wrote complete sentences, such as “He is standing on a stool and is almost falling over” and “The water from the faucet is running over on to the floor.”

Seven and a half years later, half of the original subjects showed signs of Alzheimer’s while half did not.  Researchers studied the writings of years earlier, using an artificial intelligence (AI) program.  The earlier writing of those with Alzheimers showed several characteristics such as

  • Repetition in word usage
  • Incorrect spelling
  • Incorrect capitalization
  • Simple grammatical structures and missing words like “the,” “is,” and “are.”

The AI program with 75 percent accuracy identified who would develop Alzheimer’s based on the subjects’ earlier writings.  Results were recently published in The Lancet journal EClinicalMedicine.

With such knowledge, researchers hope those who will develop Alzheimer’s can be identified before the onset of the disease.  When drugs to combat Alzheimer’s become available, those people can be targeted to prevent the disease or to slow its progress.

Another study of writing and Alzheimer’s Disease considered Agatha Christie’s writing.  Researchers from the University of Toronto conducted a study of her writing and concluded she developed Alzheimer’s while she was still writing.  They based this conclusion on changes in Christie’s writing style as she aged.  They analyzed the variety of words she used and the number of indefinite nouns and phrases she used in each of her books from the time she was 28 to 82.

Researchers found that the vocabulary variety in her novels decreased by 15 to 30 percent while the repetition of phrases and indefinite words (something, anything) increased dramatically.  The largest changes showed in a book written in her 80s.

Another study of writing and Alzheimer’s is a study of nuns in Wisconsin.  When they were young (average age 22), they wrote their autobiographies.  After death, their brains were examined for Alzheimer’s disease.  Those women who had low idea density in their autobiographies all developed Alzheimer’s while none of those with high idea density did.  Idea density was a better predictor of Alzheimer’s in the nuns than was low grammar complexity.

Use color to highlight essential parts of essays

When I teach students how to revise essays, I use color coding to show how the main idea must be repeated in the body paragraphs and in the conclusion.  On computer-shared documents, I swipe the main idea in one color, say pink, and supporting ideas in different colors throughout the writing. 

I ask students to look for the main idea in the introduction and in each body paragraph.  If it is there, we swipe it pink.  If it no pink appears in a given paragraph, that tells the student she needs to insert the main idea somewhere in that paragraph.  If a supporting idea is stated in a body paragraph, and it is swiped in blue, for example, we look for a blue swipe in the introduction.  If it is not there, we insert it.  We look for a pink swipe in the conclusion, and a rainbow of other colors corresponding to the supporting ideas used in the body.

Let me show you an example a sixth grade student wrote this week.

Hi. My name is ___.

“Hi.  My name is Jane.  Do you want to hear about my vacation?”

This kind of opening—“Hi.  My name is ___” followed by a question—is the way almost all elementary school students whom I tutor begin their writing.  By the time they reach middle grades, they drop the “Hi.  My name is ___” and instead start with the question.  “Do you want to hear about my vacation?”

Just like primary grade students print their letters from the bottom up—the part closest to their bodies first—so do they write content from themselves out.  Since I see it so often in new students I work with, I suspect starting that way comforts students and instills confidence.

But of course, the primary effect of this kind of writing is to show the immaturity of the writer.  I suspect teachers cure students of “Hi.  My name is ___” by suggesting they start with the question first.

But with the kind of question the child asks—“Do you want to hear about my vacation?” the child still talks to the reader, and asks acceptance from the reader, as if the reader smiles and nods her head.  “Yes, of course, honey, I want to hear all about your vacation.”

The real problem with these kinds of openings is that they show a lack of imagination and an inability to engage the reader.  What if the reader thinks, “No, I don’t want to hear about your vacation.”  Oh. Okay.  Sorry.

The student should ask himself why a reader might want to hear about his vacation.  What was exciting or strange about the vacation?  Did your baby sister toddle into the woods and inspire a search party to find her?  Did you visit the Atlanta Aquarium and see a shark as long as a school bus?  Did you fly in a plane with masks on?

Teachers need to wheedle interesting responses from children by asking question after question until an engaging topic emerges.  How?

One way is to write a first sentence as a class.  Pick an event everyone has participated in—a test, recess, lunch in the cafeteria, a fire drill.  Ask for student volunteers to suggest something that happened.  When you hear a good idea, ask for details.  What did kids see or smell or taste?  What did kids think?  What did you hear someone say?  Write down clues on the board in the form of a mind web.  Pick something that students think will interest readers.

Then write the first sentences as a whole class.  Ask students to throw out suggestions.  Write them on the board.  Ask for student input.  Which sentence makes you want to keep reading?  Discuss why various sentences are good, better and best.

Don’t ask students to write the essay.  Instead, start over with a different event everyone has participated in.  Repeat the process.  Then repeat it again until most students are comfortable with this approach.  Ask students who are comfortable to work in pairs or small groups on how to write the opening sentences for another topic.  Meanwhile, you work in a small group with students who are not ready.

What if a student persists with “Hi.  My name is Frank.”  Remind the student about how the class brainstormed for good ideas to write about.  Help Frank on-to-one.

Read aloud good openings written by students.  Ask the class to describe why they are good.  I find sharing student writing is a sure way to inspire students to write better.