Not all thinking or knowing is the same. Yet 80% or more of all questions teachers ask (spoken or written) can be answered with lower-order thinking skills:

•             recall or remembering

•             by knowledge

•             by simple handling of a small set of ideas, data or knowledge

Therefore, if we can develop students’ higher-order thinking skills this will  enhance their metacognitive abilities and hence their learning.  To do this we need set of broad cognitive categories (a taxonomy) that would describe thinking processes in a scale of increasing difficulty or complexity.  SOLO is such a taxonomy.  It was developed by Biggs and Collis (1982).

SOLO stands for:   Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes

SOLO identifies five stages of understanding. Each stage embraces the previous level but adds something more.  It is a model of learning, that helps develop a common understanding & language of learning that helps teachers (and students) understand the “learning” process. The 5  levels of understanding are  :

Pre-structural – Here students are simply acquiring bits of unconnected information, which have no organisation and make no sense. The student will show a lack of understanding.

Uni-structural – the student will make simple and obvious connections between pieces of information but their significance is not grasped.

Multi-structural – The student makes a number of connections may be made, but the meta-connections between them are missed information is treated independently and additively , as is their significance for the whole.

Relational –  the student is now able to appreciate how the various pieces off information fit together.

Extended abstract – The student is making connections not only within the given subject area, but also beyond it, able to generalise and transfer the principles and ideas underlying the specific instance to a new situation.



“SOLO Taxonomy provides a simple and robust way of describing how learning outcomes grow in complexity from surface to deep understanding” Biggs & Collis 1982.

Why use SOLO

•             It is a diagnostic tool – it can provide useful feedback and makes “next steps” clear

(Feedback – how well are you doing; Feed up – where are you going next; feed forward the

next step)

•             It’s a useful assessment tool

•             It can help plan objectives & success criteria which focus on progress

•             It describes the learning outcome


Each stage of understanding has its own “ Language of Learning”. These can be used to set tasks, assess progress and check student understanding.

Uni-structural – define, identify, name. draw, find, label, match, follow a simple procedure

Multi-structural  – describe, list, outline, complete, continue, combine

Relational – sequence, classify, compare & contrast, explain (cause & effect), analyse, form an

analogy, organise, distinguish, question, relate, apply

Extended abstract – generalise, predict, evaluate, reflect, hypothesise, theorise, create, prove, justify, argue, compose, prioritise, design, construct, perform

Examples –

Picasso “Guernica”

Pre-structural Uni-structuralMulti-structural RelationalExtended abstract
Misses the pointIdentifyDescribeRelateTheorise
You’ve got it the wrong way up?Who painted Guernica?Outline at least two compositional principles that Picasso used in Guernica.Relate the theme of Guernica to a current event?What do you consider Picasso was saying via his painting of Guernica?


Geography – Ox Bow lake

Pre-structuralUni-structuralMulti-structural RelationalExtended abstract
Misses the pointIdentifyDescribe List Combine Analyse Relate Apply Theorise Generalise Hypothesise Reflect
Is it a river?This is a riverThis is a river that is meanderingMeanders are caused by erosion and deposition.Meanders form belts that result in lateral erosion and widen the valley


If students are taught the features of each of the 5  levels and how each level leads to the next , then students will learn to use their understanding of their own thinking to move their learning forward.
SOLO is one way to get students to see and understand their own thinking.  SOLO provides teachers and students with a clear path to higher order thinking skills.

SOLO (used properly) teaches pupils to make relationships between ideas and use those relationships to question the ideas further (independently).

Assessing Pupil Understanding

Pre-structuralUni-structuralMulti-structural RelationalExtended abstract
I’m not sure about this subjectI have one idea about this subjectI have several ideas about this subjectI can link my ideas together to see the big picture.I can look at these ideas in a new and different way

SOLO is based upon a theory about teaching and learning rather than a theory about knowledge, (Hattie and Brown, 2004) Bloom’s is a ‘good’  tool for teachers for planning, questioning & checking learning but progress is not implicit with Bloom’s taxonomy.
Isn’t this like Blooms taxonomy?

These are very good discussions on Bloom vs SOLO’s_Taxonomy

blooms      solo

The advantages of SOLO are

  • It’s a diagnostic tool – provides useful feedback and makes next steps clear
  • It’s a useful assessment tool – clear links with rubrics
  • It can help plan objectives & success criteria which focus on progress
  • It describes the learning outcome



BIGGS J and COLLIS K (1982) Evaluating the Quality of Learning: the SOLO taxonomy New York: Academic Press

BIGGS J and TANG C (2007) Teaching for Quality Learning at University (3rd edn) Buckingham: SRHE and Open University Press some good examples of SOLO provided

John Biggs:

David Didau:

James Atherton:

Tait Coles: