Helping students to progress using the SOLO Taxonomy
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The Structured Overview of Learning Outcomes (SOLO) Taxonomy is an extremely simple five-stage hierarchy that allows students to understand their learning journey: where they’re at, where they need to be and what they need to do to get there. SOLO was created in 1982 by John Biggs and Kevin Collis, who described their taxonomy as ‘providing a simple and robust way of describing how learning outcomes grow in complexity from surface to deep to conceptual understanding’ (Biggs and Collis 1982). It is a model of learning outcomes that helps schools develop a common understanding and language of learning, in turn supporting teachers and students to understand the learning progress.
SOLO Taxonomy is an extremely simple five-stage hierarchy that allows students to understand their learning journey: where they’re at, where they need to be and what they need to do to get there
One of the UK forerunners of SOLO Taxonomy, Darren Mead describes SOLO as having the ability to ‘break down overarching learning intentions into manageable, progressive chunks’. He goes on to say, ‘SOLO taxonomy is not a starting point for planning learning – no tool or activity is – however, it does help ensure clarity and progression within the content knowledge.’ Another of the initial SOLO Taxonomy advocates in the UK, Chris Harte, comments: ‘It is very interesting to note that the original SOLO taxonomy was entirely focused on outcomes (hence the name) but that the teachers (mainly from Twitter) that I have come across use it much more as a tool for learners, as a roadmap of what learning looks like in a particular domain or idea at each stage of the taxonomy.’ The fact that SOLO is now a frequent subject and discussion point on Twitter due to hashtags like #SOLOarmy (the author is to blame for this hashtag – sorry!) probably explains the popular nature of the pedagogical principle and why it is now being used up and down the UK. So what is this taxonomy that everybody is talking and tweeting about?
The Taxonomy consists of five stages:
Prestructural: the learning outcomes show unconnected information with no organisation. The student may complete the task with no real connection or understanding, they may have missed the point or need support to make a start. This is the ‘I have no idea!’ stage – I believe this an important pre-learning stage that is often overlooked. It is essential that students feel comfortable in placing themselves on this stage. The prestructural stage could be at the start of a new topic or possibly at the start of a learning journey.
Unistructural: this stage is associated with the students understanding a single fact or a single piece of information. The learning is often disconnected and limited. This stage is an example of shallow learning. This is the ‘I know one thing about what we’re learning!’ stage.
Multistructural: again, this stage is an example of quantitative learning, where the students can simply recall a series of separate pieces of information and facts. The multistructural stage differs from the unistructural stage simply by the number of facts. The student knows several aspects of the task but fails to recognise the relationships between them. This is the ‘I know loads of things about what we’re learning about!’ stage.
Relational: this stage exemplifies deep learning. The learning now becomes qualitative. Here the student links and relates the pieces of information, allowing them to have a deeper understanding of the task or subject. This is the ‘All the things I know I can link together and connect my learning!’ stage.
Extended abstract: this stage is the epitome of deep and profound thinking. Students will rethink their ideas from the relational level and look at their learning in a new way. They will then be able to use this as a basis for a prediction, generalisation, summary, reflection or creation of new understanding or learning. I have recently christened this stage the ‘Expert Area’, as this seems easier to explain to students.
SOLO Taxonomy can be effectively used:
- to create and co-create success criteria for learning
- to use as differentiated learning intentions
- to measure students’ progress
- for students to plan and structure extended writing tasks
- for students to deconstruct exam questions to understand marks awarded
- for students to describe and analyse new concepts
- as a structure to embed a common language of learning for students and teachers
- as a vehicle for self-assessment and peer-assessment
- as the structure of a differentiated carousel-style lesson.
The key principles of Assessment for Learning easily fit with using SOLO and encourage effective feedback between students and teachers
It has proved to be invaluable in my lessons because the simple yet robust rubric allows students to clearly identify where they’re at, where they need to go next and what they need to do to get there. The key principles of Assessment for Learning easily fit with using SOLO and encourage effective feedback between students and teachers. Using the common language of learning and eye-catching symbols, students can articulate and share feedback on how well they and others are doing; ‘feed-up’ on where they are going and finally ‘feedforward’ on the next steps in learning. It seamlessly fits in with Graham Nuthall’s work on promoting effective social constructivist learning – enabling students to use the structure to self-regulate and support each other in their learning.
Connecting ideas and information is an effective way to deepen students’ learning; however, it is often overlooked for the safety and apparent requirement of hammering our students with content. One of the most effective ways of encouraging students to connect their learning is by using the most important shape in learning… hexagons! We’ve all used card sorts or keyword dominoes, asking our classes to link the cards together in a linear, ‘one answer is correct’ manner. However, as hexagons tessellate together so can the learning, and thus students can reach relational understanding. By placing pieces of information, facts or keywords on the shapes and asking students to link these together, it is extremely difficult for students to stay at the multistructural stage. Students really enjoy fitting the learning hexagons together and explaining why and how they have connected their learning.
I have also seen and heard the effect SOLO Taxonomy has had on literacy and articulating learning in my classes. Using a series of displayed connectives on my walls students have used the phrases to articulate their learning up the stages. For example, giving students a framework of useful phrases, such as ‘due to the fact that…’; ‘despite this…’; ‘this means that…’ can really help them write and discuss learning at a multistructural level. Similarly, encouraging them to use vocabulary such as ‘hypothesise’, ‘theorise’; ‘create’; ‘predict’, etc, has supported students to show their learning at the extended abstract stage.
As well as displaying learning vocabulary and connectives, I would also encourage teachers and schools to display the SOLO Taxonomy stages on their learning walls. The eye-catching symbols allow students to visualise the hierarchical stages and are a continual point of reference. My classes now confidently use the correct terminology for the five stages, but there was a time where they were described as the dot, the dash and the Adidas symbol! I have to say, as long as your students can use the symbols effectively to reflect on where their learning and thinking is, there is no rush for them to be using the specific terminology – however, you’ll be surprised how quickly they pick it up! In fact, students see the benefit of using SOLO Taxonomy almost immediately; they can accurately judge where their learning is at based on the simple rubric and, more importantly, recognise where they’re going and through either self-or peer-assessment can follow targets set that support them in achieving their learning goals.
Students also really like the fact that they can understand the simple levels of learning rather than being confused by the (very overrated, in my opinion) Bloom’s Taxonomy or the common site of graded/levelled differentiated outcomes. Should we really only use numbers and letters to show that progress has been made in a lesson or in 20 minutes? The common language of learning of SOLO Taxonomy makes this effective ‘feedforward’ visible and effective across subjects.
So how would you introduce SOLO Taxonomy to a class? Well, I would encourage the constructivist approach of creating an opportunity for your students to ‘get it’ on their own. I used sets of five quotes and statements on subjects that are relevant to my students: The X Factor, the 2012 Olympics, our school and Leeds United. I then asked students to place the statements on the SOLO stages and explain and justify their decisions. Using a grid with each stage simply explained allowed the class to complete the task with minimal difficulty. As soon as they master the hierarchical taxonomy (which depends on the abilities of the groups) you’re ready to go!
Students really like the fact that they can understand the simple levels of learning
I created the activity of ‘SOLO stations’ to incorporate SOLO into a student-regulated differentiated lesson activity. This empowers students to have ownership of their learning choosing where they start their learning journey and stimulates and develop students’ resilience and independence. In this activity each SOLO station is completely student-regulated (which allows the teacher to circulate, question and provide feedback for students throughout the lesson).
A hinge question is a great way to assess the prior knowledge of the students (either a multiple-choice question on the board or something more sophisticated such as Socrative and thus indicating to them where they should start their SOLO journey. Once every student is confident as to where they would start, a SOLO station protocol needs to be explained. At this point it’s important to stress that the lesson is not a competition as to who would finish first but to see it as a challenge to deeper learning. The room can be set up so that in the classroom are five distinct SOLO stages – each of these SOLO stations has its own success criteria (‘I can… because I have…’ and so on). It’s fascinating to see which station students start at: many will start at the prestructural station, as they want to go around the stations in order (interestingly, these are the students who generally complete the extended abstract challenge – perhaps illustrating the power of genuine deep learning being built on building blocks of facts and information).
And finally, for all you Ofsted hoop-jumpers out there, what better way to show real progress of learning in your lessons than using SOLO Taxonomy? Ask students to assess their and others’ learning throughout the course of a lesson using SOLO Taxonomy. If they started at prestructural (and many might if it’s a new concept they are learning) and then reach multistructural during the first part of the lesson, it stands to reason they have learnt more and progressed.
You must try SOLO Taxonomy in your classroom, I guarantee your students will have a much better understanding of how well they are learning and what they will need to do to improve.
- Biggs, J and Collis, K (1982) in Hook, P and Mills, J: SOLO Taxonomy: A Guide for Schools