The SOLO taxonomy in Learning & Development

By Bart

A colleague introduced the SOLO taxonomy to me a few years ago after they had attended a professional conference. SOLO stands for Structure of Observed Learning Outcome. What I find so appealing in the Learning & Development context is the emphasis on outcomes. A learning objective can be important, but the result elicited by a learning experience is the actual reason for doing it. Additionally, the form and complexity of the outcome can have direct benefits in a business setting.

While young learners perform along the SOLO taxonomy more or less equal to their cognitive development (Biggs 1986 p164), adult professionals—particularly in creative fields—should expect to perform consistently at the highest levels. Clark Quinn raises important points about the importance of performance outcomes in his post, What to do?. Behaviors and products associated with more complex categories on the SOLO taxonomy drive innovation. Emergent benefits can be generated by an organization using the SOLO taxonomy to design, implement, and monitor the impact of its learning strategy.

First, what are the categories?

Level 1 – Unistructural

Consider typical compliance training: A set of learning objectives and a list of knowledge points to remember can be assessed with simple tasks such as a multiple-choice quiz. Compliance training has its necessary place, and in the SOLO taxonomy would be located at the most basic, or unistructural stage. In this form of learning, recalling facts or procedures is the desired outcome and can be measured directly. The bulk of the work of many instructional designers and e-learning developers exists at the unistructural stage.

Level 2 – Multistructural

A comprehensive L&D program displays characteristics of multistructural understanding. Rather than isolated training materials, modules are organized into logical sequences. As the learner progresses, they not only acquire new knowledge and skills, but also build upon prior knowledge. However, learning at the multistructural stage is often still passive: The learner works through the modules but is not required to delve deeper.

Level 3 – Relational

Adults learning at the relational stage generalize the content of their learning. A professional level of knowledge is demonstrated by application and independence. Skills are applied more creatively and learners participate actively in their learning, for instance in seminars or workshops. All creative learning occurs at the relational stage or higher. At this stage, learning is comprehensive. Unexpected breakthroughs may occur, but a relational stage system does not actively promote creative learning.

Level 4 – Extended abstract

For an organization to innovate, its members must engage in continuous creative learning. A system that encourages learning at the extended abstract stage generates unplanned, emergent qualities.

In a work environment that requires continuous creative learning, the novel application and creative transfer of new skills is essential. This cannot easily occur in highly-structured learning experiences. Learners at the extended abstract stage apply new knowledge and skills in unpredictable ways.

This is the hallmark of LXD: Designing bespoke systems that maximize interactions among learners and apply a variety of methods based on Social Constructivism, such as situated learning.

How to use SOLO in L&D

A robust learning and develop program engages learners at all stages, but is designed to encourage progression from lower stages of complexity to higher. To shift from unistructural to multistructural, managers consider how learners progress from one module to the next. To achieve a relational system, learners participate more actively. Finally, to learn at the extended abstract stage, an organization embraces learning in a wider variety of forms and venues, especially connected to performance.

The Learning Experience Designer, Instructional Designer, or L&D Manager views a learning and development program through the lens of the SOLO taxonomy so that it becomes a catalyst for creativity and innovation. By analyzing learning tasks based on their desired outcomes, a system gains clarity and efficiency. By embracing and designing for more complex and emergent outcomes, there are increased possibilities for disruptive individual and group breakthroughs.

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