The Teachers Toolbox – Resources

Methods of Analysis

A generic game for differentiation

There are two ways of analysing a topic. Students often think to do the first for themselves, but only some think to do the second.

A. By sections: You can cut the topic up into discrete bits and look at these parts one at a time. This includes looking at a sequence of events. See the diagram above left.
For example:

  • looking at childhood diseases from the point of view of measles, mumps, whooping cough etc .
  • Splitting up a scientific experiment up into a sequence of tasks
  • Splitting a up a historical event or a novel into a series of events to describe ‘what happened’
  • Splitting a play up into a list of characters
  • Etc.

B. By Spectacles: You can look at the whole from different points of view, including different people’s points of view or different criteria, reasons, factors, issues, themes etc.

For example:

  • looking at all childhood diseases from the points of view of infection process, immunisation, symptoms etc
  • looking at different themes or issues raised in a play, novel, or poem
  • looking at scientific experiment from the points of view of criteria such as: reliability, validity, methodological weaknesses, methods of improvement, error analysis, etc
  • Looking at an historical event from the political, economic, religious, and social points of view.
  • Etc

Analysing by sections often produces what teachers disparagingly call a ‘descriptive’ piece of work. When students have analysed by sections, they often think ‘they have finished’ and can’t think of anything else to write because they have ‘covered it all’. If they are taught to analyse by spectacles as well as by sections, the quality of their work can improve greatly. John Biggs’ SOLO taxonomy shows that students’ work is graded higher if they make effective use of spectacles. Even more highly if they look for relations between or among these different points of view

Sections and spectacles can both help a learner structure their work, and indeed their understanding. Mindmaps or concept maps can help greatly with analysis, especially if both sections and spectacles appear on them.

The SOLO Taxonomy: (John Biggs and Collis 1982)

Biggs ‘SOLO’ taxonomy classifies students’ work in terms of its structure. The more complex the analysis, the more integrated the work, and the more it uses general principles in explanations, the higher the work ‘scores’ on the taxonomy.

The model was discovered empirically by observing the qualities of work for which teachers invariably gave high grades. It expresses overtly the ‘gut feelings’ we have about what constitutes good work.

Biggs believes his taxonomy shows how our learning in a given topic area develops. When we learn a new topic we start at the bottom of the taxonomy, and as our learning improves it climbs the taxonomy. The SOLO taxonomy was developed from studying school-based assessment, but is now very influential in HE where it is often used to decide the degrees students will be awarded. The taxonomy is used to assess work and to help decide assessment criteria etc.
SOLO is an acronym of ‘Structure of the Observed Learning Outcome’.

Biggs taxonomy moves from surface to deep learning and is summarised as:

  1. Prestructural: The student engages in preliminary preparation, but the task itself is not attacked in an appropriate way. e.g. reproduces content from lesson notes without any clear structure
  2. Unistructural: One aspect of the task is picked up but is not interrelated with other aspects. e.g. reproduces material within the structure given by the teacher
  3. Multistructural:Several aspects of the task are picked up serially, but are not interrelated. e.g. The student develops their own structure but only in response to anticipated questions
  4. Relational: Several aspects are integrated into a coherent whole. e.g. the learner adjusts their understanding and structures in response to strategic reading of different sources, in order to represent their own understanding.
  5. Extended Relational:The coherent whole mentioned above is generalised to a higher level of abstraction. The whole is seen as a part or an example of a larger and more general whole. e.g. The student develops an individual conception of the discipline from wide reading and reflection; they have generated their own understanding

Although Bigg’s work was originally designed to aid assessment, it can also be used to help students’ learning. Remember that the higher the work on the taxonomy, the higher the quality of the learning. We can encourage students to ‘climb the taxonomy’ by setting this as a goal for them. For example through self assessment:
‘Spectacles’: Developing Analytical skills using SOLO. An overview

The assumption here is that weak analytical skills are not due to lack of intelligence, or ‘failure of ability’ but to ‘failure of intent’. Students intend to do the wrong thing, to simply describe rather than analyse. Students are capable of analysing at a much higher level, if only they were told what was expected of them and how to do it. When they intend to do the right thing, they can often do it very well. As they practice doing the right thing they get better and better of course.
This is an example of the importance of clarifying goals for students.

Get students to discover that a high quality analysis requires:

  • Looking at what is to be analysed in more than one way
  • The choice of the ways of looking, called ‘spectacles’, is very important. Some ‘spectacles’ are much more revealing of the subject* than others. (“Subject” here means ‘what is being analysed’ e.g. childhood diseases, or the Nazi Party in 1930s Germany etc.)
  • Some ways of looking are used over and over again in a given discipline. e.g. ‘economic’, ‘political’ and ‘social’ spectacles in history.
  • Each effective way of looking makes certain aspects of the subject* of the analysis ‘leap into focus’ (*what is being analysed)
  • Every way of looking at the subject, obscures other aspects of the subject. ‘Every way of looking is a way of not looking’. For example, if you look at a marketing process, you don’t see how motivated the people doing the marketing are. And vice versa, if you look at their motivation, you don’t see the process. (With practice you can alternate spectacles and so get both perspectives at the same time, but this is not at all easy.)
  • No way of looking shows all the subject. This is because our brain does not represent reality perfectly and completely, but ‘models’ what we try to understand, imposing a structure and perhaps analogies or metaphors upon it. The more complex the subject, the more true this is.
  • Spectacles are not just ‘stakeholders’ they might include viewpoints such as ‘fitness for purpose’; ‘likely problems’; ‘economic considerations’ ‘social effects’ ‘scientific point of view’ etc.

Once the different viewpoints or spectacles have been used the student should:

  • Look for ways in which the different viewpoints are related. For example do the ‘economic considerations’ explain the ‘social effects’?
  • Look for key rules and principles. That is, begin to look for generalisations that transcend any particular example of the subject.
  • Look for other situations where these general principles apply. Draw comparisons and contrasts, look for analogies. What can we learn from these similarities and differences?

Once this ‘meta-analysis’ has been clarified with students, ‘spectacles’ can be used:

  • As a teaching method.
  • As a guide to both the content and the structure of essays or assignments
  • As a means of structuring their understanding and as a basis for ‘concepts maps’
  • As a self-assessment process to guide the student in ‘climbing’ the SOLO taxonomy. See the self-assessment proforma earlier
  • As a means to help students to evaluate
  • As a means of getting students to think pluralistically and so to develop intellectually


The Case Study approach

Suppose you were teaching students about marketing policies, (or care-plans or some other topic that could involve a case study).

After a very brief introduction from you that does not give the ‘answers’ away:

  1. You give students one or two marketing policies, (or care plans etc)
  2. You give each group a different pair (or pairs) of spectacles to look at the policies. This will take some time, maybe half an hour. You circulate and look at what the scribe of the group has written down and use Socratic questioning to lead them to some useful conclusions.
  3. Each group feeds back their ideas to the class
  4. You comment and correct their contributions
  5. You summarise key points about marketing policies ( or care plans etc)
  6. You say ‘we have just analysed (or evaluated) a marketing policy (or..)’
  7. How did we do that?
  8. Where else could we use that strategy?

An alternative approach you could use later is to give the case study and then ask students, ‘what spectacles would you use to look at this?’ The group make suggestions, you improve them if necessary, and then you or the group allocate spectacles to each group.

Groups can do more than one spectacle, or could each do them all.

For more on spectacles as a teaching method see 25 Ways for Teaching Without Talking.

Essay Planning Proforma. Adapted from a proforma by Solihull Sixth Form College History Department. (It is best copied A3 size)


Parts or spectacles

e.g. Criterion/Reason/


Points: Development, changes, issues, reasons etc Evidence: illustrations, examples, causes etc






The student uses this proforma to brainstorm content for their essay in bullet point form.












Visual essay planning: ‘Let’s see what we think

This method works at any academic level and is excellent for teaching students to explore a complex topic or to plan their writing

  1. The teacher gives the class a meaty question, essay question, or assignment task.
  2. Students work alone to brainstorm relevant ideas, facts, issues etc, that are worth mentioning, perhaps looking back over their notes.
  3. Students get into pairs to compare their ideas, and together they write agreed points onto sticky message pads. They could use colour coding, for example green pads for arguments in favour and red for those against.
  4. Working in pairs or fours or even as a whole class, students now stick their message pad points onto a white-board, notice-board, or onto flipchart paper.
  5. Students now structure their points, by putting related ones together into clusters. They then encircle these clusters and label them. They can also draw arrows etc to show relations between points and clusters.
  6. Once their points and arguments are structured they can make a personal copy in the form of a mind-map or other essay plan.

There are a lot of advantages in representing ideas and points as mobile objects. It captures ideas from all students as shy students are often happy to write what they dare not to say to the class. They make our thinking visible and this promotes discussion. Labelling clusters helps students to generalise and with abstract thinking more generally. Clusters can even be clustered to create very generalised groupings and concepts. Again these need to be labelled.
It is often much easier for learners to organise ideas and arguments like this than in their head!

Evaluating with spectacles

Students often find evaluation difficult in part because they don’t know what the word means. Again it is failure of intent, not failure of intelligence. They are trying to do the wrong thing, not trying and failing.

We can evaluate with spectacles, there are certain questions we ask when we evaluate, which vary slightly from discipline to discipline. If one uses a “means and ends” approach, which suits many purposes, then typical evaluation questions are as follows. Think of a typical evaluation task in your subject as you look at these, for example:
This experimental procedure for measuring osmotic pressure
The foreign policy of the Atlee government
This care plan for Mrs Brown
This computer programme to add two figures and place the answer on the screen

Typical evaluation questions include:
Ends: What exactly is/was this trying to do? …and why?
Means: how does it try to do it?
Outcomes: Does it succeed in doing what it intends?
Alternatives: Are there other ways of doing it, and are these better or worse?
Evidence: How do you know the above views are sound?

Students need to know when to use these evaluation spectacles. e.g. Questions that ask ‘to what extent?’ and ‘How far’ etc.
If students know these are the evaluation spectacles and know when they should use them they should be able to evaluate better.

Using these spectacles is difficult and class time will need to be spent to practise their use.

An alternative approach is to give students specific criteria for everything they commonly have to evaluate. e.g. criteria for a care plan, criteria for a presentation etc.

Jigsaw (a Cooperative Learning method)

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1. Students study a subtopic in ‘horizontal groups’. Teacher may check their key points
2. Students in each group are then numbered 1 to 4
3. Students are regrouped with ‘vertical groups’, i.e. all the ones together all the twos together etc
5. Students teach each other their subtopic
6. Vertical groups work on an integrative task the completion of which requires all the students’ specialist knowledge
7. There is a test which students do individually: They prepare as a team and every member must get, say, 7/10 minimum.


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