Category Archives: Bloom

SOLO Taxonomy – a Learner’s Perspective

Some of my most read blog posts have been on the SOLO taxonomy – as a teacher I found it an interesting and useful tool. My small scale research suggested that SOLO was something worth investigating further. This post aims to look at SOLO from a slightly different perspective – that of the learner.

Since September, I have been embarking on a very different educational experience – that of a PhD student. This has been a very different, and at times rather unsettling, experience. As a teacher (I don’t say ‘former teacher’ as I hope to teach again at some time in the future), part of me has been evaluating the process, thinking about the structure of my learning.

One of the most difficult parts of my PhD (so far) is the realisation that there is so much I don’t know. As a student at this level, you like to think that you have some expertise in your subject, that you know ‘stuff’. My topic is 19th Century literature – I have read and taught many of my chosen texts and am pretty confident discussing and writing about them – however, the more I read, the more unsure I become. But, this is normal, it is a key part of the learning process, and this is where I have found the SOLO taxonomy useful.

In my post ‘What is the SOLO taxonomy?’ I highlighted the following:

 An additional criticism, in particular when the taxonomy is compared with that of Bloom (1956), is the SOLO taxonomy’s structure. Biggs & Collis (1991) refers to the structure as a hierarchy, as does Moseley et al. (2005); naturally, there are concerns when complex processes, such as human thought, are categorized in this manner. However, Campbell et al. (1992) explained the structure of the SOLO taxonomy as consisting as a series of cycles (especially between the Unistructural, Multistructural and Relational levels), which would allow for a development of breadth of knowledge as well as depth.

The structure suggested by Campbell et al. is key for learners; learning is not finite, there isn’t a point at which you know ‘everything’. The key to the Extended Abstract level is that, as you look at the topic from different perspectives and consider ‘what if?’, you need to return to the Multistructural and Relational levels in order to make sense of new learning.

For example:

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It is easy, especially in your first year of a PhD to feel that you are somewhat lost, that there are so many things that you don’t know. But that is the point, you need to develop your understanding in a wide range of areas, and spend a large proportion of your time with your head in a book, or journal article.

Rather than being despondent about the amount I have yet to learn, I have tried to think about it using SOLO. In this case I am the observer of my own learning. I need to evaluate my existing position and identify areas for further development.

As with learners at any level, there are some things I have a more detailed knowledge of than others. My knowledge of my chosen literary texts is strong (generally Extended Abstract), my knowledge of R programming is still in its early stages (Multistructural/Relational), my understanding of statistical measures slightly lower again (Multistructural).

This way of viewing my learning has had two main effects: firstly, it has encouraged me to be far more open in my attitude to what I can learn (a growth mindset). Five or ten years ago I would never have believed that I would be taking Computer Science and Statistics modules at university level – nor that I would be enjoying them. I used to say that I was not very good at maths, something of an English teacher cliché, although I didn’t really have any evidence that this was actually the case; now I know that I can learn what I need to.

Secondly, I am far more comfortable with the seemingly disjointed nature of PhD research. It is only disjointed at the moment, as my understanding and knowledge develops links will gradually become apparent – this is a core part of the process, accepting and acknowledging this makes it far less stressful.

I believe that SOLO can be used with students of all levels to self-assess, as well as to enable their teachers to assess and provide feedback. In particular, I feel that it can address two very different problems, how to extend and challenge the most able, and how to encourage and support the weakest. Encouraging pupils to be responsible for their own learning, to be active learners and have a growth mindset can only be a positive step.


What is the SOLO Taxonomy?

Learning taxonomies and frameworks are researchers’ and theorists’ attempts to categorise and explain learning (Bloom, 1956; Anderson, et al., 2000; Moseley, et al., 2005). These frameworks help teachers gain an insight into how students think and learn, however, due to the complexities of the human brain, they can only be used as a guideline. As our knowledge of the human mind develops, so will the frameworks used to explain the structure of thinking and learning.

In education, Bloom’s (1956) taxonomy, in its original form and as updated by Anderson et al. (2000), is probably the most familiar, examination questions often follow the hierarchy. However, it is not without its problems. Sugrue (2002:1) points out that the original taxonomy ‘was developed before we understood the cognitive processes involved in learning and performance’, and criticises the ‘consistency’ with which it can be applied. Teachers can avoid these problems through an awareness of alternative taxonomies, for example the SOLO taxonomy (Hattie & Brown, 2004).

SOLO (the Structure of the Observed Learning Outcomes) taxonomy was first introduced by Biggs & Collis in their 1982 study. The SOLO taxonomy maps the complexity of a student’s work by linking it to one of five phases:  little or no understanding (Prestructural), through a simple and then more developed grasp of the topic (Unistructural and Multistructural), to the ability to link the ideas and elements of a task together (Relational) and finally (Extended Abstract) to understand the topic for themselves, possibly going beyond the initial scope of the task (Biggs & Collis, 1982; Hattie & Brown, 2004). In their later research into multimodal learning, Biggs & Collis noted that there was an ‘increase in the structural complexity of their [the students’] responses’ (1991:64).

It may be useful to view the SOLO taxonomy as an integrated strategy, to be used in lesson design, in task guidance and formative and summative assessment (Smith & Colby, 2007; Black & Wiliam, 2009; Hattie, 2009; Smith, 2011). The structure of the taxonomy encourages viewing learning as an on-going process, moving from simple recall of facts towards a deeper understanding; that learning is a series of interconnected webs that can be built upon and extended. Nückles et al., (2009:261) elaborates:

Cognitive strategies such as organization and elaboration are at the heart of meaningful learning because they enable the learner to organize learning into a coherent structure and integrate new information with existing knowledge, thereby enabling deep understanding and long-term retention.

This would help to develop Smith’s (2011:92) ‘self-regulating, self-evaluating learners who were well motivated by learning.’

 A range of SOLO based techniques exist to assist teachers and students. Use of constructive alignment (Biggs & Tang, 2009) encourages teachers to be more explicit when creating learning objectives, focusing on what the student should be able to do and at which level. This is essential for a student to make progress and allows for the creation of rubrics, for use in class (Black & Wiliam, 2009; Nückles et al., 2009; Huang, 2012), to make the process explicit to the student. Use of HOT (Higher Order Thinking) maps (Hook & Mills, 2011) can be used in English to scaffold in depth discussion, encouraging students to:

Develop interpretations, use research and critical thinking effectively to develop their own answers, and write essays that engage with the critical conversation of the field (Linkon, 2005:247, cited in Allen, 2011).

It may also be helpful in providing a range of techniques for differentiated learning (Anderson, 2007; Hook & Mills, 2012).

 The SOLO taxonomy has a number of proponents. Hook & Mills (2011:5) refer to it as ‘a model of learning outcomes that helps schools develop a common understanding’. Moseley et al. (2005:306) advocates its use as a ‘framework for developing the quality of assessment’ citing that it is ‘easily communicable to students’. Hattie (2012:54), in his wide ranging investigation into effective teaching and ‘visible learning’, outlines three levels of understanding: surface, deep and conceptual. He indicates that:

The most powerful model for understanding these three levels and integrating them into learning intentions and success criteria is the SOLO model.

 However, the taxonomy is not without detractors; Chick (1998:20) believes that ‘there is potential to misjudge the level of functioning’ and Chan et al. (2002:512) criticises its ‘conceptual ambiguity’ stating that the ‘categorization’ is ‘unstable’. In these two studies, the SOLO taxonomy was used primarily for assessing completed work, so use throughout the teaching process may mitigate these issues.

 An additional criticism, in particular when the taxonomy is compared with that of Bloom (1956), is the SOLO taxonomy’s structure. Biggs & Collis (1991) refers to the structure as a hierarchy, as does Moseley et al. (2005); naturally, there are concerns when complex processes, such as human thought, are categorized in this manner. However, Campbell et al. (1992) explained the structure of the SOLO taxonomy as consisting as a series of cycles (especially between the Unistructural, Multistructural and Relational levels), which would allow for a development of breadth of knowledge as well as depth.

Allen, I. J., (2011) ‘Reprivileging reading: The negotiation of uncertainty’. Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture, 12 (1) pp. 97–120. Available at: [Accessed March 26, 2013].

Anderson, K. M., (2007) ‘Differentiating instruction to include all students’. Preventing School Failure, 51 (3) pp. 49–54.

Anderson, L. W., Krathwohl, D. R., Airasian, P. W., Cruikshank, K. A., Mayer, R. E., Pintrich, P. R., Raths, J., & Wittrock, M. C. (2000) A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: Pearson, Allyn & Bacon.

Biggs, J. & Tang, C. (2009) ‘Applying constructive alignment to outcomes-based teaching and learning.’ Training Material. “Quality Teaching for Learning in Higher Education” Workshop for Master Trainers.  Ministry of Higher Education. Kuala Lumpur. 2010. [accessed 19 August 2012]

Biggs, J. B. and Collis, K. F. (1982) Evaluating the Quality of Learning: the SOLO taxonomy. New York, Academic Press

Biggs, J. B., & Collis, K .F. (1991) ‘Multimodal learning and the quality of intelligent behaviour’. In: H. Rowe (Ed.) Intelligence: Reconceptualization and measurement.  Hillsdale, NJ.:  Lawrence Erlbaum. pp. 57-75.

Black, P. & Wiliam, D., 2009 ‘Developing the theory of formative assessment’ J. Gardiner, ed. Educational Assessment Evaluation and Accountability, 1 (1), pp. 5–31. Available at: [accessed 23 August 2012]

Bloom, B. S. (1956) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Co Inc.

Campbell, K. J., Watson, J. M., & Collis, K. F. (1992) ‘Volume measurement and intellectual development’. Journal of Structural Learning. 11  pp. 279-298.

Chan, C.C., Tsui, M.S. & Chan, M.Y.C., 2002 ‘Applying the Structure of the Observed Learning Outcomes ( SOLO ) taxonomy on student’s learning outcomes : an empirical study’. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 27 (6) pp. 511-527

Chick, H. (1998) ‘Cognition in the Formal Modes: Research mathematics and the SOLO taxonomy’. Mathematics Education Research Journal. 10 (2) pp. 4-26

Hattie, J. (2003) Teachers make a difference: what is the research evidence? Melbourne: Australian Council for Educational Research

Hattie, J. (2009) Visible Learning. New York: Routledge

Hattie, J. (2012) Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. Abingdon: Routledge

Hattie, J. & Brown, G. (2004) ‘Cognitive processes in asTTle: The SOLO taxonomy.’ University of Auckland/Ministry of Education. asTTle Technical Report 43. [accessed 6 March 2013]

Hook, P. & Mills, J. (2011) SOLO Taxonomy: A Guide for Schools Book 1: A common language of learning. Laughton, UK: Essential Resources Educational Publishers

Huang, S.-C. (2012) ‘Like a bell responding to a striker: Instruction contingent on assessment’. English Teaching: Practice and Critique 11 (4), pp. 99–119.

Moseley, D., Baumfield, V., Elliott, J., Gregson, M., Higgins, S., Miller, J., & Newton, D. (2005) Frameworks for Thinking: A handbook for teaching and learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Nückles, M., Hübner, S. & Renkl, A. (2009) ‘Enhancing self-regulated learning by writing learning protocols’. Learning and Instruction, 19(3), pp.259–271. Available at: [Accessed March 26, 2013].

Smith, A. (2011) High Performers: The Secrets of Successful Schools. Camarthen: Crown House Publishing

Smith, T.W. & Colby, S.A. (2007) ‘Teaching for Deep Learning.’ The Clearing House.  80 (5) pp. 205–211.

Sugrue, B. (2002) ‘Problems with Bloom’s Taxonomy.’ [accessed 2 May 2013]