Assessing Learning across the Four Performance Domains


The purpose of learning is to increase knowledge. Assessment provides insight into what learners know. Knowledge includes four different domains of performance: cognitive, affective, psychomotor, and social. Effective assessment examines all of these. Whether it is a college classroom or a corporate training program, a key question is how do we know what learners learn when learners learn?The starting point is to begin with the end in mind. What are the learning goals of the learning experience? What do we and our learners hope to accomplish because of the learning experience? What type of performance do we expect from learners? Benjamin Bloom created a framework for learning outcomes that included three domains: cognitive, affective, and psychomotor. I add a fourth domain: social.

Every four years, I re-discover how interesting it is to watch competitive volleyball at the Olympics. Volleyball serves as a great example of these four domains and how we can assess learning.

Cognitive Domain

The cognitive domain is what we usually think of when we think of learning and intelligence. This is the domain of book smarts and mental knowledge. In volleyball, knowing the rules is the first cognitive principle. I learned this in elementary school gym class. For competitive players, there is also strategy and positioning. The difference between kids in gym class and competitive players is that the competitive players don’t just hit at the ball and hope it goes over. The competitive player has a certain action to take about when and where to hit the ball based on a predetermined strategy.

We can assess the cognitive domain through tests. We could quiz players on what is the right play in different circumstances. In the middle of a game, players must make decisions about what strategy to use when. This requires analysis and evaluation, which we might test with more open-ended tools such as an essay or a paper or a verbal presentation on what strategy to use and why. The cognitive domain is all in the head, and assessment is intended to draw out what is in the learner’s head.

Affective Domain

The affective domain lives in the heart and gut. It is the domain of emotions. In any competitive sport, emotion is critical to performance. Emotion includes things like confidence and motivation. An athlete who believes that they can win and who can get past mistakes and lose is critical. Volleyball includes many points in a game, and multiple games in a match. A player who is not engaged in the game will do poorly as will a player who is angry or trying too hard. In sports psychology (and psychology in general), the best player finds the flow between these two extremes.

Assessing the affective domain is not as well established as measuring the cognitive domain. In an ideal world, we could assess the quantity of certain hormones in the bloodstream as physical indications of emotional states. In practice, we generally ask individuals what they are feeling, or an observer might use certain behaviors as clues to emotional states.

Psychomotor Domain

Volleyball along with all other sports is a game played through movement. A player who understands game strategy and has confidence will lose every time if she (or he) cannot hit the ball appropriately. Knowing where to be on the court is not useful if one cannot get to that spot without falling. Psychomotor skills are hands-on skills, and typically have been neglected in formal learning which favors cognitive skills.

Too often psychomotor skills are assessed the same way as cognitive skills, which is mistake. Tests and writing measure cognitive skills not psychomotor skills. The only way to assess psychomotor skills is by demonstration. The process can be assessed through observation. This is what players do in practice. They perform skills either in drills or in simulated play so that coaches can assess performance. The output of the process can also be assessed. Did the application of the skill achieve the target result or not? Was the serve in-bounds or not? Did the ball go to a spot where the defending players had a difficult time returning it?

Social Domain

Western education has traditionally focused on the individual. In real life, though, the individual rarely performs alone. Soviet psychologists such as Lev Vygotsky have provided some of the key understandings of the social aspects of learning, which contrast with the Western traditions that Bloom operated within. The social domain includes how the team (or group) operates together and how individuals operate within the team. Volleyball requires tight integration of the individual players. Communication is one aspect of this process as is the ability to know how to support teammates without explicit communication. How we interact with opponents also involves the social domain. Intimidation or making opponents think you are doing one thing when you do something else all involve social interactions.

Social outcomes can be observed and can also be self-reported. Individuals can report their own experience of the group and other individuals. The group can also debrief on its own effectiveness. Social dynamics cut across the other domains. Group performance can have a significant influence on cognitive and affective performance, and it can be difficult to isolate what is the individual and what is the group. The results of the group effort also provide some measure. The team either wins or loses, and while individual actions contribute to the outcome, those actions occur in a social environment.

Application to Business

Most meaningful human performance does not easily sort into one of these four domains. How do we measure innovation or problem solving? How do we evaluate the effectiveness of courses on safety or sexual harassment or diversity? How do we measure agility or transformation?The starting point should always be what is the larger purpose. In volleyball, the point is to score points to win the game and the match. The way this is accomplished is to develop plans and behaviors that lead to scoring more points than your opponent. Innovation generally means developing new ideas. Measuring the number of new ideas might be the performance metric and the effectiveness of learning is based on how much the metric changes after learning.

An additional challenge, though, is that innovation is not an everyday thing. An individual or group that constantly innovates will have no stability and have other performance issues. Transformation is a powerful outcome of learning, but it does not happen at the same time for everyone. A learning experience that leads to one learner’s transformation might be considered successful. Transformation, though, might occur long after the formal learning experience. In these situations, a logic model might be used to identify key process outcomes. If we believe that creativity is a precursor to innovation, and we have a way to measure creativity, then we measure creativity as a placeholder for innovation. The effectiveness of the learning will be dependent on the validity of our logical model, but sometimes you must have faith. The important thing is to state your assumptions explicitly and not confuse the finger pointing at the moon for the moon.

Concluding Thoughts

I have been involved in assessing learning in higher education for over two decades. I have trained many faculty on both the techniques and the purpose of assessment. I remember a conversation with a music professor who was resistant to the idea of assessment and felt that at least in her field that assessment was not possible. Looking back, I missed an opportunity to point out that assessment was not all cognitive. In music, we also want to look at other domains. What is the confidence of the performer? How does the music make the listener feel? What technique is being used whether singing or playing an instrument? How do the members of a band or an orchestra collaborate? These can be more difficult questions to address, but if it is worth teaching something, it is worth knowing whether we were successful in those teachings.

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