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SOLO Taxonomy
Author: Steve Martin, Howick College | April 15th, 2014

The SOLO Taxonomy is a conceptual framework which is growing in popularity internationally. It was devised by Kevin Collis and John Biggs in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Its origin lies in the classification of student answers to questions according to their level of the answer’s complexity. The framework consists of five levels: Prestructural, Unistructural, Multistructural, Relational and Extended Abstract.

The following is a brief description of each level: A Prestructural answer implies the student does not understand the question, a Unistructural answer means the student has identified one relevant idea or fact and Multistructural means several relevant ideas or facts have been identified. A Relational answer means the student has linked two or more facts or ideas and has shown how one affects the other. The most complex answer a student provides is at the Extended Abstract level and here the student not only has explained the relationship between ideas or facts but has also made a connection to another context. An example of this level of thinking would be to analyze an historical event and use this knowledge to predict the outcome of a current event.

In summary, the SOLO Taxonomy demonstrates to learners and teachers the progression required to move from low level thinking to higher order thinking. Each level of the taxonomy are connected and reliant on each other. This means that in order to think at the highest level of complexity the learner must be able to identify relevant facts or ideas before the relationship between them can be explored and then applied to another context. This makes sense and is obvious to most educators but the SOLO Taxonomy can be understood by the learner who can with practice begin to assess where they are along the taxonomy and the steps required to move to the next level.

The implications of the SOLO Taxonomy on providing a more personalized learning environment is significant. Imagine if a learning intention was broken down into three levels of success criteria: 1. Unistructural/ Multistructural, 2. Relational and 3. Extended Abstract. Each student will be presented three levels of complexity, aligned to the same learning intention, each level providing a different level of challenge to the student. This approach will more than likely provide an appropriate level of challenge to each student in the class depending on their prior knowledge. Think of it this way, a garden which has a variety of conditions is more likely to allow different plants to thrive.

Now if at each level of success criteria there are learning activities designed to develop competence and the student can identify when they have reached the required level of competence, then students are now empowered to self-assess and self-regulate their own learning. Typically, in a classroom a small number of students would only have to spend a relatively short time at the Unistructural/ Multistructural level before they could demonstrate competence, whilst other students may have to spend much longer at the same stage.

The time spent developing the different levels of success criteria, defining the skills required and the design of learning activities is of benefit to both teacher and student as they now have shared understanding of what success looks like at a variety of levels and how competence can be demonstrated. It cannot be understated how motivating it is to a student to recognize when they have been successful and to a teacher who can more readily identify the impact they are having on their students.

Here is an example what it could look like utilizing technology: At the Unistructural/Multistructural level students could use self-marking tests based on vocabulary or flashcard apps like Quizlet, at the Relational level students could use images in Thinglink to highlight similarities or differences between different ideas or concepts and at the Extended Abstract level students could use OneNote to collaborate on the design of an energy efficient building which is drawn using google sketchup and then printed using a 3D printer.

The SOLO Taxonomy is a simple but yet powerful framework which has many applications not discussed here, such as: provides a common language of learning, creation of questions and as a tool to assess a student’s attitude to learning. Its value to teaching and learning is being recognized globally and is well worth further investigation.

Steve is a teacher at Howick College in Auckland, New Zealand. He is a Honorary Lecturer at Auckland University and author of 'Using SOLO as a Framework for Teaching'. Steve has received the Prime Ministers Award for Excellence in teaching Science in 2010, 'Most Inspiring Individual Award' and People's Choice 'Innovator of the Year' at the NZ Innovators Awards 2011 and in 2013 he was recognized as 1 of 250 Expert Educators by Microsoft.

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