Six Doors to Enter the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL)

By Rachel Braun, Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) Program Specialist, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning

This month, Nancy Chick kicked off the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) Series with the session, “Getting Started.”  by introducing participants (graduate students, postdocs, academic and university staff from across seven faculties) to key thinkers and ideas in the field. Beginning with Gary Poole’s (2013) prompt for prospective SoTL practitioners to ask, what is research?, Nancy emphasized that research design in SoTL is as multi-disciplinary as its practitioners’ disciplinary backgrounds. Therefore, there is no definitive way to start. Such multiple points of entry are embodied in the Taylor Institute’s SoTL Strategic Plan. For additional commentary and videos featuring many of the authors cited (and many more!), I invite you to browse the SoTL Guide.

Door #1: Identify a Problem Think about a teaching or a learning context you are involved with. What captures your interest? What confuses you? Here, Nancy drew on Randy Bass (1999) to introduce the concept of a problem in SoTL via his essay, “The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: What’s the problem?”

In scholarship and research, having a ‘problem’ is at the heart of the investigative process; it is the compound of the generative questions around which all creative and productive activity revolves. But in one’s teaching, a ‘problem’ is something you don’t want to have, and if you have one, you probably want to fix it. Asking a colleague about a problem in his or her research is an invitation; asking about a problem in her or his teaching would probably feel like an accusation. Changing the status of the problem in teaching from terminal remediation to ongoing investigation is precisely what the movement for the scholarship of teaching and learning is all about (Bass, 1999).

Door #2: Ask a Question Consider the nature of a research question in your discipline. Next, consider what this kind of question may look like with a focus on student learning. Bill Cerbin (2013) offers the following prompt to guide your considerations:

…start with questions about how students develop knowledge and skills from a particular instructional strategy, where and why students have difficulty, and why they don’t achieve as well as expected. The goal is to better understand learning itself, not just in terms of general principles, but how students learn and develop specific concepts, skills, habits of mind, and sensibilities relevant to one’s discipline. Understanding how students learn what we teach is an important ingredient or precursor for instructional design and decisions about how to better support learning (2013:2).

Door #3: Critically Reflect For Stephen Brookfield, to critically reflect is to see beyond the common-sense explanation of what’s happening and to seek different viewpoints, particularly those of our students. In his canonical Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher (1999), Brookfield outlines four lenses for critical reflection: our personal experiences, our students’ eyes, our colleagues’ experiences within a disciplinary context, and scholarly literature (1999: 29-30). For such reflection, Nancy recommended to seek data that makes student learning visible. Here, Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross’ Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers (2nd edition) is a detailed resource for techniques to try.

Door #4: Be Curious In Nancy’s upcoming collection of essays, Doing SoTL: Thin Slices of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Action (2018), Poole captures a potential source of curiosity as follows:

Sources of our beliefs (e.g., intuition, anecdote, and observation) can become sources of our curiosity that, in turn, become the origins of SoTL projects… In teaching and learning, we must systematically examine that which we take to be obvious, because it so often turns out to be anything but.

Door #5: Dig into Data Many SoTL projects start from observations within a classroom, such as problematic exam questions, patterns in student preparation and participation, student-instructor and student-student interactions, etc. In addition, SoTL problems and questions can arise from diverse sources beyond individual classrooms, such as National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), student evaluations, and curriculum review. 

Door #6: Explore Institutional Initiatives As with much research across disciplines, context plays an important role in SoTL work. Look into campus initiatives for potential learning-focused problems, questions, reflections, curiosities, and data unique to the University of Calgary; e.g., Campus Mental Health Strategy, Institutional Sustainability Strategy, Indigenous Strategy, etc.

References Ambrose, T.A. & Cross, P.K. (1993). Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers (2nd edition). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Barr, R. & Tagg, J. (1995). From teaching to learning: A new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change, 27(6). 12-25.

Bass, R. (1999). The scholarship of teaching and learning: What’s the problem? Inventio, 1(1).

Brookefield, S.D. (1995). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Cerbin, B. (2013). Emphasizing learning in the scholarship of teaching and learning. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 7(1): 1-6.

Felten, P. (2013). Principles of good practice in SoTL. Teaching & Learning Inquiry 1(1): 121-125. DOI:

Hutchings, P. (2000). Introduction. Opening Lines: Approaches to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (1-10). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Poole, G. (2013). Square one: What is research? in Kathleen McKinney and Mary Taylor Huber (Eds.), The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning In and Across the Disciplines (135-151). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Poole, G. (2018). Using intuition, anecdote, and observation as rich sources of SoTL projects. In N. Chick, Doing SoTL: Thin Slices of SoTL in Action. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful and inspiring blog! A lovely synthesis of some key literature towards helping people imagine a smooth path into SoTL work – nicely done!

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