With HSC results just being released, it is time for teachers to reflect on the year that has been. Part of that reflection is how to improve practice, tweaking here, modifying there. All with the aim to improve student outcomes.

Whilst Lucy Schroeder, our Dux for 2016, achieved 2nd in the entire state for HSC Senior Science, you may be interested in knowing that Senior Science was taught in a Blended Learning model. Many of you would have heard of Blended Learning (BL), but in case you haven’t, it is a teaching model where students complete the bulk of classwork offline, ostensibly changing the focus from completing work after a concept has been introduced to completing preparative work before the concept is discussed in class. This has the advantage that students don’t go in “cold” with new concepts but rather find them most familiar, because they have been reading about it prior to discussion. BL has been around for quite some time. Many university courses use it as part of distance education, whilst schools have dabbled in it from time to time. Even in our own school, we have used many platforms. I had my own website for students prior to 2012, when we started using Moodle. We then made the case to move to Edmodo, and now we have settled on Canvas, which has afforded SMGS an excellent platform from which to develop a contemporary BL environment for students.

Figure 1. Students measuring temperature changes using computer software.

Figure 1. Students measuring temperature changes using computer software.

BL might work differently depending on the subject, but it is important in science subjects. Special Relativity in Physics, or Le Châtelier’s Principle in Chemistry are difficult concepts. Students may not completely understand them the first time, but on repeated exposure can master them.

The content in a BL environment needs to be delivered to students prior to class, and in our case, Canvas serves the purpose well. Not only is all the information available on Canvas, but I can also create instructional videos with examples for students to follow, which would then be consolidated in class with tutorials and appropriate experimentation. Additionally, I could use a voiceover on the content slides for students to gain a deeper understanding on what they were writing. These multimodal activities can prove more engaging for students.

It’s not just a case of throwing everything on pages, hoping that something sticks! Students can get confused, and this confusion can lead to disengagement. For a successful BL environment, teachers need to have content knowledge (CK), which is an understanding of what is going to be taught, pedagogical knowledge (PK), which is an understanding of the methods by which the content will be delivered, and technology knowledge (TK) which is an understanding of technological aspects. This is integrated in a framework called Technological Pedagogical and Content Knowledge (TPACK), first described by Mishra and Koehler (2006). The goal of any online learning environment of a course is to consider all three aspects in combination.

One of the nuances of teaching that I have discovered over the years is never being satisfied with what I have on offer in my classes. On reflection last year, I wondered if I could yet again improve the delivery of the science subjects I was teaching. Armed with continual student feedback, I knew students valued the structure and content on my Canvas pages, and appreciated the videos I created. I decided to undertake an Action Research Project where I introduced further structure to the courses. SOLO (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes) Taxonomy (Biggs & Collis, 1982) was introduced as a framework for students to understand the difficulty of the tasks they needed to complete. This was especially important in online subjects like Senior Science, where I didn’t see students as much as other timetabled courses.

Figure 1. SOLO (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes) Taxonomy levels. First described by Biggs & Collis (1982).

Figure 2. SOLO (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes) Taxonomy levels. First described by Biggs & Collis (1982).

SOLO Taxonomy (Figure 2) has five levels:

  • Prestructural – a student knows nothing about a subject
  • Unistructural – one thing is known (for example, Earth orbits the Sun)
  • Multistructural – several things are known (Earth orbits the Sun and gravity is a force)
  • Relational – connections are made between pieces of knowledge (Earth is in orbit of the Sun due to gravitational influence)
  • Extended Abstract – knowledge is applied to an unfamiliar situation (The Sun also orbits the Milky Way Galaxy due to gravity)

The advantage of SOLO Taxonomy as a framework is its simplicity. Students could easily understand it because there are not many levels to consider and there isn’t a myriad of verbs to unpack, as there is in Bloom’s Taxonomy for example.

The plan was that students could identify the difficulty of a task and adjust the time and effort they place in the task accordingly. A seemingly straightforward task that was identified as Extended Abstract for example, may have alerted students to proceed with caution, resulting in them spending more time on it and therefore understanding it at a deeper level.

Figure 2. Principle Component Analysis (PCA) of 12 Senior Science student data. PC1 (x- axis) explained 78.9% of variation between pre- and post-intervention groups due mainly to research tasks, whilst PC2 (y-axis) explained 14.6% of the data.

Figure 3. Principle Component Analysis (PCA) of 12 Senior Science student data. PC1 (x- axis) explained 78.9% of variation between pre- and post-intervention groups due mainly to research tasks, whilst PC2 (y-axis) explained 14.6% of the data.

SOLO Taxonomy was introduced before Term 2 this year in all my senior classes in what action researchers call an “intervention”. Many students reflected about SOLO Taxonomy favourably after it was embedded into the pages on Canvas. In addition, student marks before and after the introduction of SOLO Taxonomy were analysed using standard paired t-tests, supported by multivariate analysis. The introduction of SOLO Taxonomy significantly improved student marks overall in my six senior classes (p = 0.03), and in 12 Senior Science (p = 0.004). The results suggested that the introduction of SOLO Taxonomy may have enabled students to better understand the requirements of more intricate online tasks. Principle Component Analysis (Figure 3) revealed significant differences lie mainly in the research tasks students were asked to complete (labelled “RT”), suggesting that the “speed hump” that SOLO Taxonomy provides was successful to an extent. There are many other confounding variables of course that need to be considered, but it suggested there was certainly merit in the approach using BL.

Not only did Lucy come second in the state, but the class overall was above the state average by an enormous margin. 60% of this Senior Science class achieved a Band 5 or 6 result, in comparison to 29% for the state. It would not be possible to directly assign the introduction of SOLO Taxonomy to the excellent results achieved this year in Senior Science. Perhaps it was a combination of the resources and online learning, or something else entirely? As a small school, we have considerable variation in our year to year cohorts. SOLO Taxonomy may have worked now, but may not work for the next cohort. Education is highly complex!

What the results have demonstrated is the online learning environments have merit. The combination of online resources delivered in a robust, structured form consolidated by focused “normal” class time may engage and assist students in achieving their best.


Biggs JB, Collis KF (1982). Evaluating the quality of learning: The SOLO taxonomy. New York: Academic Press.

Mishra P, Koehler MJ (2006). Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge: A Framework for Teacher Knowledge. Teachers College Record, 108 (6): 1017-1054