Not all questions are created equal

Exploring higher-order questioning using the SOLO taxonomy

Rob Mason

Generating Higher-Order Questions to Promote Student Learning

Teachers typically ask a few hundred questions to their students every day. These serve a variety of purposes: to check for understanding, to refocus a chatty student, or to facilitate class discussion. Research suggests that most questions asked in a typical classroom are surface-level, requiring students to recall facts or processes without engaging in critical thinking (Wilen, 1991). Another pattern seen in education research is that questions are asked with the intention of obtaining a correct answer; only 5-10% of the time are incorrect answers used to further student learning (Tulis, 2013).

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While there is always a place for asking questions to build surface-level knowledge and check for understanding, a vital tool in a teacher’s questioning toolkit is an ability to ask higher-order questions that promote student learning moving from surface to deep. This article will explore ways to think about and generate higher-order questions, with the use of the SOLO taxonomy.

What is Surface and Deep Learning?


Surface learning is the foundational stage of acquiring knowledge, and is when students are exposed to facts, concepts, skills and knowledge they were previously not familiar with.


Deep learning occurs when students are able to consolidate and build upon the surface level learning they have previously done, although it is true that surface and deep learning can occur at the same time (Hattie & Donoghue, 2016). Deep learning might involve integrating or comparing pieces of knowledge, or expanding upon previously acquired knowledge to move it into new contexts.

What is the SOLO taxonomy?

The SOLO taxonomy was developed by Biggs and Collis (1982) as a way to categorise student learning outcomes. You might be more familiar with Bloom’s taxonomy – SOLO is similar, but has some advantages. In a nutshell, and in John Biggs’ own words, SOLO enables us to assess the quality of student knowledge, “not of how many bits of this and of that they have got right”.


The SOLO taxonomy consists of four levels of complexity. The first two are considered surface, while the third and fourth are considered deep. They are:


Where the student can work with one aspect of new knowledge – such as being able to identify or name a concept or skill.


Where the student can work with several independent aspects of knowledge. This might involve being able to describe or list a number of different concepts or skills, but does not involve being able to work with them as a combined whole.


Where the student is able to bring together several independent aspects of knowledge into an organised structure. This might involve comparing, analysing, relating or justifying. This is where higher-order questioning typically begins.

Extended abstract

Where knowledge is brought together and synthesised to create or extend on what is known. This might involve hypothesising, theorizing or reflecting.

How can I use SOLO to ask deeper questions?

Questions can be formulated at each level of the SOLO taxonomy to ask progressively deeper, or higher-order, questions. For example, consider the following four questions about the solar system (adapted from Hattie & Purdie, 1998):


Unistructural: “Which planet is furthest from the sun?”. Here, students are asked to deal with one piece of knowledge independent of other pieces of knowledge.


Multistructural: “Is Venus or Mars warmer?”. This question requires students to use two independent pieces of information.


Relational: “How does the movement of the Earth relative to the sun define day and night?”. This question requires students to make a connection between a planet’s movement and sun position, to the experience of night and day on the planet.


Extended abstract: “How does the Earth’s position relative to the sun affect the Earth’s climate and seasons?” This question requires students to use the information available to them to hypothesise about a concept they may not have learned about.


Used at the right time, deeper questions, such as those at the relational and extended abstract levels of the SOLO taxonomy, may promote deeper student learning and engagement in the classroom. The SOLO taxonomy also provides an appropriate scaffold for the generation of test and exam items.

Next Time

In the next article we will consider how to promote self-regulated learning in the classroom by taking an in-depth look at a science of learning research paper.

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Bibliography & suggested further reading

Biggs, J. B., & Collis, K. F. (1982). Evaluation the quality of learning: the SOLO taxonomy (structure of the observed learning outcome). New York: Academic Press.


Hattie, J. A., & Donoghue, G. M. (2016). Learning strategies: A synthesis and conceptual model. npj Science of Learning, 1, 16013.


Hattie, J.A., & Purdie, N. (1998). The SOLO model: Addressing fundamental measurement issues. In Dart, B. & Boulton-Lewis, G. (Eds.). Teaching and Learning In Higher Education. Herndon, VA: Stylus Publishing.


Tulis, M. (2013). Error management behavior in classrooms: Teachers’ responses to student mistakes. Teaching and Teacher Education, 33, 56-68.


Wilen, W. W. (1991). Questioning skills, for teachers. What research says to the teacher. Washington DC: National Education Association.


The 2018 Science of Learning Partnership Schools Initiative connects research and practice, to enhance educational outcomes in Victorian Schools.

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