The SOLO Taxonomy; finding the Goldilocks Zone for learning activities

We believe that understanding the goals of a workplace learning solution is essential for creating the best experiences. If you’re clear about why your organisation wants your team to learn something, you’re in the best place to choose the optimal learning activities.  

It is helpful to determine how much depth of understanding is required for learners in their roles. There is no value in overwhelming people with learning aimed at creating deep understanding of topics if all they need to do is get the basic concept. Similarly, learners get frustrated when they’re really trying to make sense of something but don’t get the rich feedback loops they need to be sure they’ve got it. 

We use the Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes (SOLO) taxonomy, developed by Collis and Biggs in 1982, to make sure learning activities are pitched at the right level. Here’s how. 


The SOLO taxonomy 

Imagine an employee is attempting to learn a new skill or acquire knowledge through a training module. We want to help them succeed by giving them an activity at the right level. 

The SOLO taxonomy lays out distinct stages representing different levels of understanding. With a clear picture of what level of understanding is required for the employee to succeed in their work, we can then plan learning activities that will give them meaningful feedback on their performance at that level. Different types of activities are suitable for providing feedback at different SOLO levels.  



  • Pre-structural| Whakarangaranga 

At the Pre-structural level (Whakarangaranga – Māori translations are those of Lisa Te Aurere Reweti), the learner may be struggling to grasp the purpose of the training and approach the topic with oversimplified notions.  

Learners in the pre-structural stage of understanding usually respond to questions with irrelevant comments. 

  • Uni-structural | Rangaranga Takitahi 

At the Uni-structural level (Rangaranga Takitahi), the learner’s focus remains on one relevant aspect of a topic only, without an integrated perspective.  

This level may be all that is required in some workplace learning situations; for example, when staff need to call on a specific team when they encounter a specific type of issue. They might not need to recognise all the aspects of the issue – just know that the issue exists and that they should seek help. 

For example, in an e-learning module introducing learners in a government department to a new policy, we started the module with a short animation mimicking a news article. Headlines stacked up in front of the learner as a voiceover talked through the context that had led to the policy being written. It was accompanied by a prompt for learner reflection – what relevance could they see in the policy for their role? 

The aim of the activity was not to teach much about the policy – just to make the learners aware that it was important for them to learn about it, moving them from Pre-structural to Uni-structural understanding. 

  • Multi-structural | Rangaranga Maha 

As learners progress to the Multi-structural level (Rangaranga Maha), they begin to know about several relevant aspects of a topic, but these are often treated in isolation. They are aware of multiple aspects but are not bringing them together into a coherent whole. 

Articulate Rise is often suitable for providing activities to support the development of this level of understanding. Each section of a module can look at a different aspect and provide formative activities helping learners to check their understanding of it.  

For the policy learning we have discussed above, we continued the learning pathway with activities aimed at each part of the policy, providing learners with feedback on their understanding of why each section was important.  

  • Relational | Whanaungatanga 

The Relational level (Whanaungatanga) marks a significant milestone, where the various aspects come together to form a coherent whole, representing an adequate understanding. 

Supporting this level of understanding is easier to do when feedback activities help the learner relate different aspects of the topic to each other.  

In our policy learning programme, we used a blended learning approach to support this level, with team workshops that followed on from the e-learning module, aimed at helping each team find the links between the concepts they had learned and the context of their own work. Learners finished the programme with knowledge about the policy and an understanding of how it related to them in their roles.  

  • Extended Abstract | Waitara Whānui 

Finally, the Extended Abstract level (Waitara Whānui) represents the deepest understanding, where integrated knowledge can be conceptualised at a higher level of abstraction and applied to new topics or areas, leading to innovative ideas. 

Educating at this level requires rich feedback – either from a subject-matter expert or through the learner trying out their ideas in projects where they will be able to self-assess meaningfully. 

We were targeting level recently in a project where a level-6 NZQF programme was being developed to be delivered through Te Pūkenga. The learners needed to develop a deep understanding of not just one topic, but how many topics related to each other, and the ability to apply this learning in new environments, recognising how to create a coherent analysis of a new situation using a framework, generating novel insights about the situation. This learning is tutored by a subject-matter-expert and has a scenario-based multi-stage project as the primary feedback mechanism. 

Benefits of the SOLO taxonomy for organisations 

Understanding the depth of learning goals can be a way to help design learning that is tailored to the organisation’s needs. This can significantly enhance the process of learning design. By using this tool, learning designers can create more effective and targeted learning experiences. 

By utilising the SOLO taxonomy, @Synapsys can identify what depth of understanding is being targeted, so we can design learning activities that will meet the needs of your learners, in their roles.  

Contact us to find out more about how SOLO could improve your learning solutions. 

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Biggs, J. B., & Tang, C. S.-k. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university: what the student does (4th ed.). Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill; Society for Research into Higher Education; Open University Press. 

Reweti, L. T., & Hook, P. (2023, July 19). Retrieved from Hooked: Te Reo: 

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