SOLO taxonomy

I am pleased to say that John Biggs himself has endorsed this representation of his ideas; "I've just found your website on SOLO et al. via google. I'm delighted! Your diagrams of prestructural-extended abstract are very elegant..." (Unsolicited email, 29 May 2005)

The SOLO taxonomy stands for:

It was developed by Biggs and Collis (1982), and is well described in Biggs and Tang (2007)

It describes level of increasing complexity in a student's understanding of a subject, through five stages, and it is claimed to be applicable to any subject area. Not all students get through all five stages, of course, and indeed not all teaching (and even less "training") is designed to take them all the way.

There are fairly clear links not only with Säljö on conceptions of learning, but also, in the emphasis on making connections and contextualising, with Bateson's levels of learning, and even with Bloom's taxonomy in the cognitive domain. Like my pyramidal representation of Bloom, the assumption is that each level embraces previous levels, but adds something more:

1 Pre-structural: here students are simply acquiring bits of unconnected information, which have no organisation and make no sense.


2 Unistructural: simple and obvious connections are made, but their significance is not grasped.

3 Multistructural: a number of connections may be made, but the meta-connections between them are missed, as is their significance for the whole.

4 Relational level: the student is now able to appreciate the significance of the parts in relation to the whole.

5 At the extended abstract level, 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.

I confess to a slight distrust of this kind of "progressive" model, which aspires inexorably to a final state. I am not convinced that every subject area fits the model, but nevertheless it is quite a good guide, and gives some idea of the place of the Gestalt insight (at the fourth, relational level). What it does not deal with is the student who establishes a relational construct which is nevertheless wrong, and those who pursue wild geese at the extended abstract level because they are insufficiently informed at more modest levels. See Umberto Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum".

However, the emerging field of work on Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge links in very effectively with the SOLO taxonomy and offers some points about how the above issues might be addressed. Go here to follow up.

There is a small but enthusiastic group of teachers using the SOLO taxonomy to structure their teaching in schools, and blogging about it. Here are a few, in alphabetical order of authors:

(corrected 4 September 12)


To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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