The growing importance of monitoring learners’ progress

A beneficial tool for evaluating development
Martin Thomas,, CC BY 2.0
Martin Thomas,, CC BY 2.0

Today, people may have several different careers in the course of their lives. Skills that can be transferred from one field to another, also known as “soft”or transversal skills, are therefore becoming more and more important. Education at every level needs to pay more attention to developing and evaluating those skills.

When I embarked on a journey to research learning processes relating to a specific transversal skill (ethics), I looked into different types of taxonomy (classification of categories) and happened to stumble upon an article about SOLO – the Structure of the Observed Learning Outcome taxonomy. To my embarassment, I had never even heard of it. In the margin of the article, I scribbled “What is this? Find out more!” And I proceeded to look into this topic.

SOLO taxonomy has been around since the early 1980s, when John Biggs and Kevin Collis published a book introducing this approach. While it is generally associated with the evaluation of students’ progress at the university level, the system is so simple that even 5-year-olds can use it to assess their progress based on the rubrics provided by teachers.

SOLO posits five levels of understanding that show how far a learner has progressed:

  • At the pre-structural level, the learner has not yet approached the issue in a meaningful way, but is simply repeating the words in the question without understanding them.
  • At the unistructural level, the learner has sufficient knowledge to identify, recognise, count, find, label, match, name, and perform simple procedures. The learner has mastered one relevant aspect – dealing with terminology, completing part of the task, defining concepts – but not others.
  • At the multistructural level, the learner has understood several aspects but is unable to relate them to one another. The learner can enumerate, describe, illustrate, sequence, select, combine, and follow procedures, but struggles to make connections between them or draw conclusions based on interrelationships.
  • At the relational level, relevant aspects are integrated into a coherent structure. The learner is able to address the point and provide explanations, give details, and connect to the whole, offering relevant examples.
  • At the extended abstract level, the coherent whole is generalised or re-conceptualised at a higher level of abstraction. The learner grasps a more abstract version of the concept, and recognises other domains to which the concept might be applied.

When SOLO is used for self-evaluation, the instructions and rubrics reflect the level of the learner.

I have used SOLO taxonomy in two contexts. First, I use it at university, to evaluate my material development and teaching, but also to give feedback. Second, I use it at the middle school level, to provide feedback and help students assess their own progress. While SOLO taxonomy may have a number of advantages over other assessment tools, in my view its main advantage is its simplicity. I appreciate the impact it has had on my teaching and assessment, but also on my students’ learning.

“Self-assessment enhances students’ sense of control over their learning and makes them more autonomous learners.”

In my teaching at the university, SOLO guides curriculum and task development as I ask myself whether I am giving my students a chance to perform at every SOLO level. It also allows me to evaluate my students’ development more quickly and efficiently, since I am already able to monitor their progress during meetings and can provide immediate feedback.

With my middle school students, I use SOLO grids to help them evaluate their own progress, and then we compare my evaluation with theirs to see whether the two match. It is clear that the students are getting better at recognising not only where they are, but where they need to go.

Self-assessment enhances students’ sense of control over their learning and makes them more autonomous learners. As educators continue to seek alternative ways of using formative assessment to evaluate learning and teaching, SOLO taxonomy could be a useful tool.



EARLI 2019

The European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction (EARLI) is an international networking organisation for junior and senior researchers in education. Representing over 2000 members in more than 60 countries, EARLI is the biggest educational association in Europe.

In times of constant change, the future is a moving target – difficult to predict and prepare for. Yet, education is doing just that. At the 18th Biennial EARLI Conference and the accompanying 23rd Conference of the Junior Researchers of EARLI, researchers in learning and instruction from all over the world come together to discuss current research findings. In order to think tomorrow’s education and education research, it is crucial to relate new findings to what we already know and elaborate how this will help foster sustainable learning processes and navigate what is yet to come. EARLI 2019 will take place in Aachen, Germany, from August 12th to 16th, 2019. More information at

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