26 Jul 2017

Learn the Levels of SOLO Taxonomy

In an earlier post we said that Bloom’s taxonomy, although well known among teachers and schools is unreliable and does not transfer well for classroom tasks (more used for teacher assessments). We said that SOLO taxonomy has a great potential for differentiated instructions, tasks, and assessments, all whilst having students keen about their SOLO development.

In this post we have created a short interactive presentation of SOLO taxonomy. It introduces the basics of SOLO with the symbols for each of the 5 levels (taken from Pam Hook).

Click the image below to get started. More on the way, so make sure your subscribe to our posts and newsletter below.

solo taxonomy sarter

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15 Jul 2017

Improving Student Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Elaborative Interrogation (Part 1)

The achievement gap among students is widening, although there are major strides in the educational systems to bridge the gaps. From my experience as an educator and educational leader, one of the chief factors affecting student achievement is learning techniques. I am talking about the learning techniques that can be reasonably taught to students so that they can independently use it in the same or different contexts at a later date. Many students use ineffective learning techniques that if trained with more effective one can improve their achievement. Many teachers help students to use ineffective learning techniques because they do not know about effective techniques due to their ubiquity (Dunlosky et al., 2013).

A comprehensive review of the literature by Duosky et al. (2013) offered  recommendations for the utility of learning techniques to improve educational outcome. The review yielded 10 learning techniques that are labelled as low utility, medium utility, or high utility. The utility level (degree and scope of effectiveness) was based on the generalizability (educational contexts)  and promise for improving student learning.

In this post series, I will be discussing each learning technique in terms of

  1. General description of the technique and why it should work.

  2. How general are the effects of this technique?

  3. Effects in representative educational contexts

  4. ssues for implementation

  5. Overall assessment

The 10 learning techniques are

2017-07-15_14-05-34Dunlosky et al. (2013

The authors identified generalizability of these techniques’ impact on four categories of variables:

  1. materials

  2. learning conditions

  3. student characteristics

  4. criterion tasks

The authors also stressed the importance factual knowledge not as an ultimate objective but as a prerequisite for deep learning in a subsequent stage – one thing that the new fad into critical thinking in education has overlooked. Therefore, improving student retention of knowledge is essential for reaching other learning targets. They state that “if one does not remember core ideas, facts, or concepts, applying them may prove difficult, if not impossible”.

So, let’s begin with the first learning technique in this post.

Elaborative Interrogation

Explanatory questioning is extremely significant to promote learning, an ample body of evidence suggests. In particular, research has shown that answering “Why?” questions -embedded in elaborative interrogation and self-explanation techniques- can facilitate learning.

Description and Why it should work

Elaborative interrogation , such as asking “Why wasn’t action performed?”,  boosts memory recall. The key to elaborative interrogation  is “prompting learners to generate an explanation for an explicitly stated fact.”

A typical format was followed in most studies for EI prompting “Why would this fact be true of this [X] and not some other [X]?

The predominant conceptual report of elaborative interrogation effects is that elaborative interrogation enhances learning by supporting the integration of new information with existing prior knowledge.


Learning conditions

Although most studies have involved individual learning, elaborative-interrogation effects have also been shown among students working in dyads or small groups.

Student Characteristics

Elaborative interrogation can be generalized to all learners however the extent to how it affects young learners is not clear. Student prior knowledge has significant impact on the EI strategy.


Effects in Educational Contexts

Mostly,  elaborative interrogation enhance learning in representative educational contexts with few studies conducted outside a laboratory setting. One particular study (Smith et al., 2010) conducted a study on undergraduates enrolled in a Biology course. The study was situated during class meetings in the adjoining lab section. Students completed an assessment of verbal ability and prior-knowledge exam over relational but indistinguishable material to the target one.

In the ensuing weeks, learners were given long and complex texts taken from a chapter in the textbook. For 50% of the learners, 21 EI prompts were “interspersed” throughout the text “roughly one prompt per 150 words” , each incorporating a paraphrased statement from the text followed by “Why is this true?” . The other students were only instructed to study the text on their own pace, without any prompts. El students then completed a T/F questions about the material (none were the same as the EI prompts). Performance was better for EI groups than control groups 76% versus 69%, “even after controlling the prior and verbal ability”.

Implementation Issues

There are two advantages to EI :

1- It requires minimal training for students to learn it. Teachers can start with EI prompts interspersed in the text, or text explanation, and gradually let the students come up with their own EI prompts.

2- The EI is “reasonable with time demands”. It does not take a lot of time on part of the teacher to prepare the prompts at the outset nor training the students to derive their own EI.

However, EI is  limited to “discrete factual statements”. It is not clear to what one should ask the why questions for more intricate outcomes. It work great with  fact lists but elaborating on facts incorporated in lengthier texts requires teachers to guide students on the kind of content to focus on to be productively executed.

Overall Assessment: Medium Utility

The authors assessed EI as medium utility primarily because of it generalizability issues. Studies suggest that it is most effective with factual knowledge and especially with students who have low domain knowledge. Also, benefits for comprehension and long delays need more research and is not clear in earlier studies.

Next post will discuss Self-explanation learning technique.

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4–58. https://doi.org/10.1177/1529100612453266

Smith, B. L., Holliday, W. G., & Austin, H. W. (2010). Students’ comprehension of science textbooks using a question-based reading strategy.

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03 Jul 2017

Forget Bloom’s: Here’s to SOLO teaching

During my conversations, interactions, designing, and planning with  teachers and lead teachers in the past decade, one obscure thing stands out in their minds: Bloom’s Taxonomy of cognitive process. This is what they articulate knowledge of. Many may have heard it in the staff room, been exposed to it in  professional development workshops, read it online or in a reference book, or perhaps even studied it during their college years. Many also may have used Bloom’s cognitive nouns and verbs to guide  their lesson planning, instructional practice, and even their assessments. Still, few know that Bloom’s Taxonomy has been updated in 2000. And very few know about Bloom’s knowledge dimensions (factual, conceptual, procedural, and metacognitive). Whatever their level of knowledge of Bloom’s taxonomy, teachers recognize it directly and can even relate their teaching strategies if asked to categorize their practice and assessment.

This is really exciting as it holds real potentials to improve students achievement, but in the education domain one needs to know what works well and what does not work so well, in practice. If teachers want teaching clarity, that is making learning targets and success criteria clear for learners and teachers themselves, if teachers want learners to take more control over their learning,  and if teachers need to systematically use differentiation in their teaching, the taxonomy needs to be clear for both teachers and learners. The teacher, the learner, the tasks, and the assessment should all be clearly informed by the taxonomy.  This clarity is where Bloom’s taxonomy fails. The levels of cognitive processes in Bloom’s taxonomy, and their respective action verbs do not help teachers set clear, measurable learning targets, do no help teachers set learning activities that can meet the learning targets, and do not help learners recognize and articulate the cognitive processes they are involved in. Finally, Bloom’s taxonomy does not provide a whole school framework and common language to systemize instructional routines and assessments, including learner self-assessment. I have rarely, if ever, seen teachers who have designed, planned and delivered lessons with clarity informed by Bloom’s, nor have I seen learners who clearly know what cognitive effort a task entails or success criteria it needs in terms of Bloom’s. Pam Hook  says:

The taxonomy was published in 1956, has sold over a million copies, has been translated into several languages, and has been cited thousands of times.

The Bloom taxonomy has been extensively used in teacher education to suggest learning and teaching strategies, has formed the basis of many tests developed by teachers (at least while they were in teacher training), and has been used to evaluate many tests.

It is thus remarkable that the taxonomy has been subject to so little research or evaluation.

Most of the evaluations are philosophical treatises noting, among other criticisms, that there is no evidence for the invariance of these stages, or claiming that the taxonomy is not based on any known theory of learning or teaching.


The SOLO taxonomy (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes),devised by Collis  Biggs (1982), is divided into several levels  produced by students in terms of their complexity. The name itself reveals its function. The taxonomy is a structure, that is it has a form, and this form permeates throughout all knowledge levels. The taxonomy focuses on clarity since it seeks to make the learning outcomes observable by teachers and learners, unlike Bloom’s cognitive taxonomy which was devised for educational administrators.

The following is taken from Pam Hook’s wiki “The Learning Process – How Do You Know You are Learning?”

  • At the pre-structural level of understanding, the student response shows they have missed the point of the new learning.
  • At the uni-structural level, the learning outcome shows understanding of one aspect of the task, but this understanding is limited. For example, the student can label, name, define, identify or follow a simple procedure.
  • At the multi-structural level, several aspects of the task are understood but their relationship to each other, and the whole is missed. For example the student can list, define, describe, combine, match, or do algorithms.
  • At the relational level, the ideas are linked, and provide a coherent understanding of the whole. Student learning outcomes show evidence of comparison, causal thinking, classification, sequencing, analysis, part whole thinking, analogy, application and the formulation of questions.
  • At the extended abstract level, understanding at the relational level is re-thought at a higher level of abstraction, it is transferred to another context. Student learning outcomes at the extended abstract level show prediction, generalisation, evaluation, theorising, hypothesising, creation, and or reflection.




Here’s a newer representation of SOLO using the house as a metaphor.



SOLO included declarative and functioning learning verbs


Source: Hook (2011)


SOLO verbs are easy to align learning targets with an achievement standard



SOLO can also be used codified for student self-assessment, linking student cognitive level to the task requirement.


source: Hook (2011)

The above are few sample of many, on how SOLO can be easily adopted by teacher and students. IT creates a common school language and framework for instruction, learning, and assessment.


Pam Hook writes a succinct Critique of Bloom’s Taxonomy and details advantages of SOLO model over Bloom’s :

Advantages of the SOLO model for evaluation of student learning
    • There are several advantages of the SOLO model over the Bloom taxonomy in the evaluation of student learning.
    • These advantages concern not only item construction and scoring, but incorporate features of the process of evaluation that pay attention to how students learn, and how teachers devise instructional procedures to help students use progressively more complex cognitive processes.
    • Unlike the Bloom taxonomy, which tends to be used more by teachers than by students, the SOLO can be taught to students such that they can learn to write progressively more difficult answers or prompts.
    • There is a closer parallel to how teachers teach and how students learn.
    • Both teachers and students often progress from more surface to deeper constructs and this is mirrored in the four levels of the SOLO taxonomy.
    • There is no necessary progression in the manner of teaching or learning in the Bloom taxonomy.
    • The levels can be interpreted relative to the proficiency of the students. Six year old students can be taught to derive general principles and suggest hypotheses, though obviously to a different level of abstraction and detail than their older peers. Using the SOLO method, it is relatively easy to construct items to assess such abstractions.
    • The SOLO taxonomy not only suggests an item writing methodology, but the same taxonomy can be used to score the items. The marker assesses each response to establish either the number of ideas (one = unistructural; _ two = multistructural), or the degree of interrelatedness (directly related or abstracted to more general principles). This can lead to more dependability of scoring.
    • Unlike the experience of some with the Bloom taxonomy it is relatively easy to identify and categorise the SOLO levels.
    • Similarly, teachers could be encouraged to use the ‘plus one’ principle when choosing appropriate learning material for students. That is, the teacher can aim to move the student one level higher in the taxonomy by appropriate choice of learning material and instructional sequencing.

Want more? Here is a link on  Problems with Bloom’s Taxonomy (Invalid, unreliable, impractical)


Want to dive into SOLO model? Check out Pam Hook’s Website. Start with these two introductory books:

SOLO Taxonomy: A Guide for Schools Bk 1: a Common Language  by Julie Mills and Pam Hook

SOLO Taxonomy: A Guide for Schools Bk 2 by Pam Hook Julie Mills



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11 Aug 2015

The Techno-Centric Teachers: Will it ever go away?


“Did you check out that cool ClassDojo app? It lets you control your students and their behaviors”, “ I found a great hardware that I can add to my Tablet. I think I can find a way to use it in my classroom”, “ Hey, this tool I came across lets you take photos and add some cool interactive layers. I must fit it in one of my classes”. These are some of the talks you hear whilst sitting with teachers who are fascinated by the next big thing, excited with the  new cool tool, and they can’t wait to try it with their students (their guinea pigs).  What’s up with most of the 21-century teachers, those who are fascinated by technology, those techno-centric teachers? Why do they keep running after the first tool that appears, the first app that they download, and then they try to squeeze it in their lesson plans; whether it fits with the learning objectives or not. In fact, I have seen some teachers change their lesson plans altogether, and the learning objectives just to fit with the cool tool they would like to use. If you want proof, check out any two blogs on education and technology. I bet you that the one that updates the blog readers on new apps and tools get the much higher traffic and social media shares. The other blog that talks about how to help students learn through technology gets a much lower visitor traffic and shares. There are some exceptions of course.

Come on guys! Your are learning experts. Deep learning should be your top priority. I have seen it over and over again, every year, with so many teachers. I have rarely seen a teacher who starts with the learning target and learning activity type in mind, and then fit the right technology. It is always the other way round, with most teachers I meet or work with. They are always charmed by the novelty effect of technology. Their students too think it’s cool, but what about the result?  what about student achievement? What about learning? These are all kicked downstairs, so it seems; a bypass of trying a new technological tool.

The school administrations are not helping too. They are in the same boat with the tech-centric teachers. “We have installed interactive whiteboards in 50% of the classrooms, use them”, “We have bought great classroom projectors”, “We have subscribed all in x website, use it”, it never ends. I am really tired of hearing this everywhere, in schools and educational conferences.

Edtech vendors are also the culprits. They push so hard with their advertisements and marketing strategies, and biased research reports on how their edtech tool helped students increase their achievement in x school, or y university. That is just nonsense. No edtech tool alone can do it. Without proper alignment of technology with the learning objectives and school ecology, it won’t work. You are just deluding yourself that it works because what you see as “student engagement” you interpret as “student achievement”.

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