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Hierarchical Task Analysis – Make A Learning Hierarchy Diagram

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In our last tip on Procedural Task Analysis we suggested using the technique of flowcharting the procedural tasks so as to not miss the decision points one needs to make to accomplish a goal. In this tip we will focus on prerequisite learning to accomplish a goal. The result of this type of task analysis is a learning hierarchy diagram.

The process for making one is called Hierarchical Task Analysis. For teaching topics/tasks that have dependencies involving prerequisite learning, we suggest creating a learning hierarchy diagram. Click here to see an illustration of how a learning hierarchy diagram might look for a whole course or program.

So, how to proceed?

Here are the basic steps for working with content experts (SMEs) to complete a hierarchical task analysis and create a learning hierarchy diagram:

  1. Specify the main tasks for your goal. This step requires a comprehensive statement of the task’s objective, or at least a clear goal. It should indicate the skill the learners are expected to acquire upon the completion of instruction and the conditions under which the skill is to be used.
  2. Identify subtasks at the next easier level. This step is accomplished by asking, “What skills should the learners possess in order to perform the main task?” Although hundreds of skills contribute to any performance, at this stage we are only interested in identifying those that immediately contribute to the main task.
  3. Treat each subtask as a main task and repeat the procedure. Using the same approach as in Step 2, we examine each subtask as if it were a main task by asking the question, “What skills should the learners have in order to perform this subtask?” We only list those skills that immediately contribute to the subtask.

Stop the analysis when a subtask reaches the learners’ entry level.

Whenever the analysis of a subtask reaches a skill the learners already possess, it stops. The learners’ entry level is then said to have been reached. The analysis then resumes on another subtask until once more the entry level is reached. This continues until all subtasks and sub-subtasks have been analyzed to the learners’ entry level. At this point, we can consider the entire task analysis complete.

Rule of Thumb: Do not go beyond five levels in task analysis. If you must, chances are your main task is too complex for the learners. Choose one of your subtasks as a main task.

See you next time.


See also our tip Content Analysis: Better and Faster – with Post-Its

For more detail, see Jonassen, D.H., Tessmer, M., & Hannum, W.H. (1999) Task Analysis Methods For Instructional Design.

Many more ideas and resources are available at the DSA Tips Archive; now searchable and organized by subject area.