Levels of Learning Models


Learning Hierarchies
Learning Taxonomies
Types of Learning


Differentiated and ranked levels of thought and skill

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … established facts and creative possibilities based on those facts
  • Knowing is … recalling (to apply, analyze, evaluate, create)
  • Learner is … a student
  • Learning is … remembering and performing
  • Teaching is … structuring experiences (to engage all cognitive levels)




Levels of Learning Models focus on what is to be learned rather than how learning happens.  Typically, such models are generic (i.e., not discipline specific; contrast with Stages of Understanding Models), and they tend to be presented as hierarchies, trajectories, sequences, or cycles, as exemplified by the following generic images: Ubiquitous notions across Levels of Learning Models include:
  • Higher-Order Thinking (Higher-Order Cognition; Higher-Order Thinking Skills; HOTS) – a construct that is common across Levels of Learning Models and other learning taxonomies. The notion of Higher-Order Thinking is typically applied to the more sophisticated or demanding modes of thinking across such models.
  • Strategic Learning – a phrase that is subject to a wide range of interpretations, but that when used in education most often refers to efforts and strategies designed to improve learner autonomy through the development of more sophisticated learning/thinking strategies (which are typically defined in terms of specific Levels of Learning Models)
Some of these models have so many variations that efforts to trace original authorship are futile. Most date to the mid-20th century, with Bloom's Taxonomy (a.k.a., Taxonomy of Educational Objectives – i.e., Remember, Understand, Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, Create) being by far the best known. Other notable examples include the following:
  • Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy (David Krathwohl, 2000s) – a two-dimensional model by adding a “Knowledge Dimension” to the cognitive processes identified in Bloom's Taxonomy, resulting in many more, finer-grained categories of consideration:
  • Hierarchy of Learning Types (Robert M. Gagné, 1960s) – an 8-level typology of learning events
    • Signal Learning: learn to respond to an arbitrary signal
    • Stimulus-Response Learning: learn precise responses to precise signals
    • Chaining: learn procedures by chaining stimulus-response learnings
    • Verbal Association: use words in verbal chains
    • Discrimination Learning: learn to distinguish between similar stimuli
    • Concept Learning: identify entire classes of stimuli for single responses
    • Principle Learning: learn to apply rules
    • Problem Solving: flexibly apply learnings to unfamiliar challenges
  • Levels of Competence (German Education Council [Deutscher Bidungsrat], 1970s) – a 4-category taxonomy of learned competencies.
  • Modes of Learning (D. Rumelhart & D. Norman, 1970s) – three modes of learning
    • Accretion: adding new knowledge (the most common type of learning)
    • Structuring: forming new conceptual structures (less common than accretion, and requiring more effort)
    • Tuning: adapting established knowledge to a specific task (slowest type, and involved in expert performance)
  • Gradual Release of Responsibility Model (D. Fisher & N. Frey, 2010s) – a combining of levels of learned competence with (1) types-and-extents of the teacher’s actions and (2) types-and-extents of student engagements, designed to support the suggestion that teacher control should diminish as learner competence develops.
  • Three Stages of Motor Skill Learning (Three Stage Theory) (Paul Fitts & Michael Posner, 1960s) – a 3-level trajectory of in the development of physical skills
  • CRESST Learning Model (Eva Baker of the Center of Research on Evaluation, Standard, and Student Testing; 1990s) – a composite of prior taxonomies, aiming to describe five kinds of learning
  • Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (Norman Webb, 1990s) – a four-level taxonomy of the complexity of thinking required for various tasks: Level 1. Recall and Reproduction (recall of facts; application of familiar procedures); Level 2. Skills and Concepts (decision-making required to compare, organize, predict, etc.); Level 3. Strategic Thinking (planning and justification required to solve non-routine problems, design an experiment, etc.); Level 4. Extended Thinking (synthesizing information from multiple sources over time)
  • Cognitive Rigor (Cognitive Rigor Matrix) (Karin Hess, 2000s) – a crossing of the six levels of Bloom's Taxonomy with the four levels of Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (see above), giving a 4-by-6 matrix that is intended to inform curriculum development and lesson planning


Most of these sorts of typologies and taxonomies lack a systematic rationale for their construction. Consequently, any given model may be more an instantiation of common wisdom than a contribution to thinking. In addition, the tendency to describe taxonomies in hierarchical terms has prompted many educators to focus on the "higher" levels and attend less to the "lower" ones – often in active ignorance of the simultaneity of such competencies in many problem-solving settings and the critical role of facts and skills in supporting creative competencies across most domains.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Diffuse. Illustrative cases as stated above.

Status as a Theory of Learning

Levels of Learning Models do not engage with issues around the complex dynamics of learning, and so are not considered learning theories in this analysis.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Levels of Learning Models are principally theories of teaching, most often employed in articulating learning outcomes for lessons and courses.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Levels of Learning Models tend to fall short on most of our criteria for scientific status.


  • Cognitive Rigor (Cognitive Rigor Matrix)
  • Conscious Competence Learning Model
  • CRESST Learning Model
  • Gradual Release of Responsibility Model
  • Hierarchy of Learning Types
  • Higher-Order Thinking (Higher-Order Cognition; Higher-Order Thinking Skills; HOTS)
  • Levels of Competence
  • Modes of Learning
  • Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy
  • Strategic Learning
  • Three Stages of Motor Skill Learning (Three Stage Theory)
  • Webb’s Depth of Knowledge

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Levels of Learning Models” in Discourses on Learning in Education. https://learningdiscourses.com.

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