Learning to Learn – a SOLO perspective

Many [students] are unaware of their own thinking processes. [Fewer still] are aware of their own thinking processes while they are thinking. When asked, “How are you solving that problem?” They may reply, “I don’t know.  I’m just doing it…” They can’t describe the steps and sequences they use before, during and after problem-solving.’ Costa [i] (1991)

I recently celebrated (rather quietly) 25 years in international education – both as a practitioner and as an observer. In that time, I have had the privilege of working in, and with, some outstanding schools and have witnessed some inspirational classroom practice, particularly in the field of curriculum development and school community mobilisation.

However, one area about which I can make fewer claims is the extent to which my colleagues and I deliberately sought to develop students’ capacity to think about their thinking – something that is more formally referred to as ‘metacognition’. As I reflect upon those 25+ years, I can point to very little evidence of ‘metacognitive talk’ in the classroom or examples where we explicitly developed metacognitive strategies with our students.

I’m not entirely sure why this was the case: I expect the problem lay partly in the fact that it never used to come up in initial teacher training. However, it is more to the point that, even in later years, we were never exposed to the kind of professional development that revealed the potential impact on students’ overall achievement, when they begin to ‘think about their thinking.’

This post then is an attempt to rectify that. It will start with a brief discussion of what metacognition is, and then continue by focussing on one particular strategy you might want to use in your schools to foster metacognitive practice.

The word metacognition is, of course, a compound of ‘meta’, from the Greek word about, and ‘cognition’, which refers to the process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought. Hence the rather simple definition – “thinking about one’s thinking” – referred to above.

Whilst this might be acceptable short-hand initially, further insight is required to get to the heart of this complex concept.

According to Baker and Brown [ii] (1984), metacognition involves two basic constructs:

1) A student’s awareness of the processes s/he needs to successfully complete a task (solve a problem, for example).

2) A student’s cognitive monitoring – the ability to determine if the task is being completed correctly and to make changes along the way if not.

Fusco and Fountain [iii] (1992) have contributed further by explaining that metacognition also involves the monitoring and control of attitudes. These could include the following: the student’s beliefs about themselves; the value of persistence; the nature of work; and their personal responsibility in accomplishing a goal.

Therefore, perhaps Ridley et al [iv] (1992) should have the final say in terms of a definition when they state that, “metacognitive skills include taking conscious control of learning, planning and selecting strategies, monitoring the progress of learning, correcting errors, analysing the effectiveness of learning strategies, and changing learning behaviours when necessary.”

So, how do we encourage the development of these skills in our students?

Well, the good news is that metacognitive strategies can be taught and developed in all learners. And even better, at least for school leadership, is that it doesn’t take a large slice of your professional development budget to do so. The key is to shift the culture of the classroom to one that places greater emphasis on learning and establishes a climate that is conducive to teaching for thinking and understanding – what Watkins[v] (2010) refers to as making learning ‘an object of attention’, as well as ‘an object for conversation’.

There are many ways to do this, however I would like to draw the your attention to one strategy in particular.

Writing in 1982, Biggs and Collis [vi] developed what they refer to as the SOLO Taxonomy. This starts from the basic premise that as learning progresses it becomes more complex and that it is useful to have a framework to understand the level of complexity.  As Biggs himself explains, “the Structure of the Observed Learning Outcome (SOLO) enables students to evaluate their work in terms of its quality, not in terms of how many bits of this and of that they got right. At first we pick up only one or few aspects of the task (Unistructural), then several aspects but they are unrelated (Multistructural), then we learn how to integrate them into a whole (Relational), and finally, we are able to generalise that whole to, as yet, untaught applications (Extended Abstract).”

The following image, taken from HookED, represents the taxonomy graphically and includes examples of command terms the student might expect to have mastered at each level for a given topic, idea, concept, etc.











What is important is that students determine and articulate where they are on the taxonomy for themselves, and then work out what they need to do in order to progress further.

Watch the video below to briefly hear how two primary school students in New Zealand use the SOLO taxonomy in their thinking.

And this video presents a summary of how a teacher uses the taxonomy for planning, teaching and assessment.

In summary, research literature around effective classroom practice tells us that powerful learning comes from cognitive experiences. It also tells us that good teachers develop lessons and schemes of work that emphasise specific types of thinking to improve student learning, e.g. drawing inferences, synthesis, hypothesising, analytical reasoning, inquiry, interpretation, etc. Alongside this must be the view that students can increasingly become aware of this thinking and monitor and regulate it – that metacognition becomes a central part of the learning process as well.

I encourage you all to consider this in your own contexts and learn more about how developing metacognition in your students can lead to a marked and sustained improvement in their achievement.


[i] Costa A L (1991) The school as a home for the mind: A collection of articles. Palatine, IL. IRI/21 Skyline Publishing.

[ii] Baker L and Brown A (1984) Metacognitive skills and reading. In P.D. Pearson (Ed), The Handbook of Reading Research (pp 353-394). New York, Longman.

[iii] Fusco E and Fountain G (1992). Reflective teacher, Reflective learner. In A.L. Costa, JA Bellanca, and R Fogarty (Eds), If minds matter: a foreword to the future, Volume 1 (pp 239-255).  Palantine, IL. IRI/21 Skyline Publishing.

[iv] Ridley DS, Schutz PA, Glanz RS, and Weinstein CE (1992). Self-regulated Learning: The Interactive Influence of Metacognitive Awareness and Goal-Setting. Journal of Experimental Education, 60 (4), 293-306.

[v] Watkins C (2010).Learning, Performance and Improvement. In J Reed (Ed) INSI Research Matters No. 34. International Network for School Improvement. Institute of Education, London.

[vi] Biggs J and Collis K (1982) Evaluating the Quality of Learning: the SOLO taxonomy New York: Academic Press.

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11 thoughts on “Learning to Learn – a SOLO perspective

  1. Metacognition or thinking about thinking

    I enjoyed your post focusing on Biggs & Collis’s 1982 work and their book “Evaluating the Quality of Learning, the Solo Taxonomy” New York: Academic Press. You wrote:
    “…we were never exposed to the kind of professional development that revealed the potential impact on students’ overall achievement, when they begin to ‘think about their thinking.’”
    Your comment resonated, not because professional development people had failed to tell the world about metacognition but because the concept and its application is much larger and has more complex implications than Professor Biggs has imagined.
    It is not simply thinking about thinking but it becomes part of what I call “heuristic vision”; the term is not original, there is a mathematical implication that I am using but it becomes a skill set with huge qualitative implications. Think of the “heuristic gaze” In my world it refers to a baseball player who nine times out of ten manages to run and be in the position to catch a ball that was randomly hit high in the sky by the batter.
    Why is it that a Chess Master invariably wins his game playing a highly competent young player. Think about Michael Schumacher’s expertise on the race track, is it reckless courage or something else. How about some of the visionary corporate chief executives, Jack Wells, Richard Branson, Steve Jobs?
    My driving example can be imagined easily when you teach your son or daughter to drive. All a 17 year old adolescent can do, certainly at the beginning of driver training, is handle the controls. You sit and bark at your child to make sure s/he does not hit the pedestrian who has unexpectedly appeared from behind a bus. Your “vision” of what might happen ahead and on either side of the road is at least one hundred metres forward and twenty five metres on either side of the car while you son or daughter can barely “see” ten metres in all directions.
    The difference of course is experience and a thousand and one iterations that are records of the past and then projected into the future. For every two moves the good amateur chess player sees the Master sees maybe ten!
    I enjoyed the Utube film clip featuring the two primary school pupils. While the sound was poor, they clearly were getting on with the surface mechanics of practicing metacognitive skills!
    Regarding your comments about how to teach pupils to develop metacognitive skills I feel that Biggs is a little fuzzy. For some reason he has not appeared to have researched the more recent work of Bloom et al. On the other hand CIE has not only thoroughly investigated the ongoing Bloom research but also has developed highly successful assessment procedures and processes as outlined in the several A level marking schemes and Chief Examiners’ comments. As a “user” I can attest to the value of CIE’s A level assessments – while my CIE teaching experience is entirely in A level Economics (9708) I have spoken, in the past, with my fellow content teachers. We all seem to agree.
    On a personal note, Cambridge Assessment has identified economic essay writing as a good test and measure for evaluation skills ( the “HOTS” highest level) Reading the essays written by my hundred plus students it has been clear the teaching strategies implemented by my teaching partner and me were successful. Some of the economics essays written by AS students with only three months in school have been quite remarkable. Admittedly at the Cambridge Centres that I managed and taught our pupils were all intellectually very bright and of course highly motivated to succeed. To achieve a grade of B or above CIE markers require scripts that demonstrate well developed higher order thinking skills.
    One final point, I am in ongoing discussion with members of the European Centre for Modern Languages regarding their project to develop teaching for CLIL course material. There will be a website with the topic “Literacies through Content and Language Integrated Learning: effective learning across subjects and languages.” Metacognition is a theme that runs through their work. While CLIL is not a policy approach that is suitable for Asian countries, many of their teaching ideas can be used successfully. The group clearly is addressing the need to develop metacognitive skills in EU young people.
    I will be sending this note and your blog address to my contacts on this committee so that they will be aware at least of my interest. If you and your department have an interest in speaking to them directly, when you respond to my comments please give me your CIE email address.
    Iain Wyder
    Yantai China and Surrey British Columbia, Canada.

  2. Whoops I forgot my bibliography!
    Cummins, J. Supporting ESL students in learning the language of science. Pearson Scott Foresman . (Research into practice: Science series)
    The thresholds theory was developed by Cummins (1986) to explain the different levels of cognition found depending on how developed learners were in either their first or second language.
    Cummins, J. (1986). Empowering minority students: A framework for intervention. Harvard Educational Review
    Anderson, L. W. and Krathwohl, D. R., et al (Eds..) (2001) A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Allyn & Bacon. Boston, MA (Pearson Education Group)
    Bloom, B.S. and Krathwohl, D. R. (1956) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals, by a committee of college and university examiners. Handbook I: Cognitive Domain. NY, NY: Longmans, Greenview 56 (1), 18-36.

  3. This is a very interesting link and the video with the children is awesome, imagine having that level of cognition in every class……..wow! As a language trainer myself and a Mind Mapper I frequently combine the two to help people/trainees/clients to attain the big picture in whatever field they are working in or on – some of the results are quite amazing. Have you tried Mind Mapping yourself? Regards Julie

  4. Thank you for your comments, Iain. Very useful contribution.

    Thank you, also, for the reference to Bloom. I deliberately omitted it for reasons of brevity initially, but the connection you have made is important and provides me with the opportunity to emphasise the slight differences in the two taxonomies – at least for our purposes here. In Bloom, we might want our students to ‘analyse’, ‘evaluate’, etc, in order to demonstrate their higher order cognition in a particular area. With SOLO, on the other hand, at least in the way I have presented it, students are telling us the extent to which they understand something, where they want to go based on shared success criteria, and how they intend to get there. And at the meta level, of course, they’re also telling us how well that journey is going and what they need to do to improve. That’s the usefulness of the taxonomy for me.

    I was interested in the connection you make to language awareness and CLiL methodologies. I agree with you that the ‘language of thinking’ is critical to success here and this is where I would encourage teachers in the deliberate use of cognitive vocabulary or terminology. Examples such as, ‘What evidence do you have?’, ‘How would you justify..?’ and ‘How would you distinguish between..?’ model the metacognitive awareness we want our students to develop. When teachers use this type of language regularly, students are able to internalise these terms and make them a part of their own vocabulary over time.

    Thank you again, Iain.


  5. Thank you for your comment, Julie.

    I have tried Mind Mapping, yes.

    Clearly, a very important tool for helping students arrange and structure their thinking – then reflecting upon the result.

    One word of caution, though. Check the export functionality of any solution readers consider and make sure nothing else is downloaded surreptitiously when looking at supposedly free versions.

  6. You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this topic to be really something that I think I would never understand. It seems too complicated and very broad for me. I am looking forward for your next post, I’ll try to get the hang of it!|

  7. I don’t even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was great. I do not know who you are but certainly you are going to a famous blogger if you aren’t already 😉 Cheers!|

  8. I simply want to mention I’m all new to blogging and site-building and truly loved you’re blog. Almost certainly I’m want to bookmark your blog post . You absolutely have superb stories. Bless you for sharing with us your blog.

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Lee Davis
By Lee Davis

Lee is Deputy Director, Education at Cambridge International Examinations. Prior to joining us in 2014, he held several high profile positions including Director of Academic Planning at The Aga Khan Academies and Head of Online Professional Learning at the International Baccalaureate Organisation.

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