SOLO Taxonomy and the art of passing exams

I will start with a confession. I was far from being a model student , but I never failed any test. I passed most of my exams including my degree in physics by getting hold of as many past papers as I could with the mark schemes and working out how to get the right answer. This served me well until I started teaching physics and maths when I realised that despite being highly qualified, I understood virtually nothing. My uncle who was a very wise farmer could never believe that someone with a degree in physics could be so unbelievably stupid . He shook his head slowly as he picked me up from under the rubble of the roof of the shed I was demolishing. I had done this by standing under it and removing the supporting post with a sledgehammer. I can still remember the feeling of surprise when the whole lot fell on my head.

There was the time when five of us, all physics graduates, were driving in a car when it came to a spluttering halt. We opened the bonnet and although we could tell you all the fundamental principles that underpinned how the car worked, like how the electrons moved through the wires, we had no idea what might be wrong nor how to fix it.

I was an expert only in being able to pass exams. I was qualified, but not educated. I made it my mission as a teacher to ensure my students would be able to see the point, to see the connections and not to be just able to use a set of processes to answer questions that they had no understanding of what they were doing. (Although I taught them how to do that as well as their safety net) On my classroom door was Zen Dog, the glory of the ride and the joy of science was my mission.


I did a last minute revision session for some A level students last week and realised from the paper that very little had changed. You could get a decent enough grade in the exam simply by looking at the question, looking at what information was given and what they wanted. Cross referencing allowed you to find the formula in the booklet that had those variables in it and then plug in the numbers to get the right answer. No physics needed at all. See Dan Meyers superb TED talk here 

A great paper by J Buick on Physics Assessment and the Development of a Taxonomy here splits questions into  three categories;

  • A question that is identical or virtually identical to a question that the student has already been exposed to or has already solved. This can be classified as application – previously solved.
  • A question that is broadly similar to a question already encountered, classified as application – routine procedure. 
  • A question that is significantly different (in terms of the application of the law or the method of mathematical solution) that it can be classified as application – novel.

The paper I went through with the students was almost entirely the first two types If an exam board dares to move away and into the novel all hell can break loose – Remember the fuss over the Shrews in the AQA Biology Unit 4 paper in 2010 here

The concern really should be what are we teaching our young people for. Digital technology is such that previously solved and routine questions can be solved by computers. So shouldn’t our focus be on the novel?

Singapore and Finland have both shifted their education systems towards innovation. We cannot complain if our young people cannot compete on a world stage in the future unless we radically alter our approach. It will be like complaining that cars cannot fly, they were never designed to.

SOLO taxonomy is a very interesting paradigm. If you haven’t seen it there is a great lego approach here


The SOLO taxonomy stands for:

  • Structure of

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

It describes level of increasing complexity in a student’s understanding of a subject, through five stages

Prestructural – The student really has little idea of what the meaning is, or worse has embedded misconceptions. Socrative is brilliant for finding their starting point.

Unistructural : The student can identify and name things and can follow simple procedures they have seen before or follow simple instructions. Many lessons go no further than this

Multistructural: Here the students can go beyond naming and can start describing things in their own way. Some elements can be combined as they start to see links to other aspects or concepts

Relational: This is where links are formed and the understanding of the whole come together. Mind maps are good at facilitating this. Students can make justified arguments as to why they have certain beliefs and compare and contrast ideas.

Extended Abstract : The highest level is where new ideas and uses are generated. Hypotheses can be made and experiments planned to test these

Analysing textbooks and schemes of work, how high up the SOLO taxonomy do we teach to?

Looking at the exam papers how high up the taxonomy do they test?

What do we need to have our students able to do in order to find their place in societies of the future. There there will be little need for people to solve the previously solved, or to do any routine procedures. Are we equipping them with the skills they need?

There is some great stuff on SOLO Taxonomy on Purple Elf’s Blog here

3 thoughts on “SOLO Taxonomy and the art of passing exams

  1. I won’t comment every time – but just to let you know I enjoy your blog Neil!

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