Methodological considerations for scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) research

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

What are key methodological considerations in SoTL research? In the sixth installment of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) Series, Glenn Dolphin (Tamaratt Chair in Geoscience) urged critical reflection on this question (and more!) in the “Methodologies” session. The goals of the session were to address the rationale for a strong methodology in SoTL work, to define key considerations when researching student learning, and to compare qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methodologies. The Taylor Institute shares this commitment to modelling evidence-based approaches, and expresses this commitment in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Strategic Plan (2016-2019)

Why think about methodology in SoTL research? 

How we choose and collect data shapes the data we get. Therefore, we need to justify how we do things in order to prove that the research is both feasible and worthwhile. For Glenn, this justification is about scholarly rigour. Here, we want to trust that whatever the researcher claims happened did actually happen (reliability), and that the results the researcher puts forward “make sense” for the context of the investigation (validity).

What do methodologies investigate in SoTL research? 

Foremost, it is important for SoTL researchers of all experience and accomplishment to reflect on their assumptions. Here, Glenn prompted participants to reflect on the question, How do I understand teaching and learning? As participants discussed and shared, any individual researcher’s answer to this question will reflect their unique combination of disciplinary knowledge and personal experience. However, this subjective inquiry is not the boundary of critical reflection. As Glenn argued, we can look even deeper into our assumptions by reflecting on our language. For example, if one thinks of learning as acquisition, what does that imply about the learning processes and products that one can investigate? How might the scope of the investigation shift by thinking of learning as understanding, or as students’ skills or abilities in making connections?

Such reflections can strategically inform our methodological considerations. To illustrate, Glenn drew on his favourite definition of learning, by Marcy Driscoll (2005:9): Learning is a persisting change in human performance or performance potential; this change in performance or performance potential must come about as a result of the learner’s experience and interaction with the world [abbreviated]. If a study was to use this definition of learning, what would its methodology need to be able to identify and measure? Possibilities include:

  • What is “persistent change”?
  • How do we measure the change?
  • How do learners experience this change? etc.

How can different methodologies investigate student learning in SoTL research? 

Once we have explored our assumptions, we can intentionally choose a theoretical framework, i.e. the lens we use to interpret the investigation, including data collection, development, and analysis. For Glenn, every investigation on teaching and learning has a theoretical framework embedded in its design. Whereas in qualitative inquiries, theory selection and application (often) take centre stage, in quantitative inquiries, theory is (often) in the backstage process of building the instrument used to measure the data. To explore potential methodological approaches in SoTL, Glenn compared qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methodologies and typical research designs utilized therein.

Qualitative methodologies

  • Grounded theory: Develops an explanatory model for particular experience or actions that are grounded in the collected data
  • Ethnography: Examines a group of individuals within a setting of interest to understand the groups’ shared way of being
  • Narrative research: Highlights activities or experiences of participant(s) in a narrative form

Quantitative methodologies

  • Experimental (quasi-experimental) design: Measures the impact of an instructional intervention on a group by comparing to a group not experiencing the intervention
  • Correlational design: Measures the degree of association between or among different variables (class size, learning strategy, etc.)
  • Survey design: Measures or describes trends within a large population

Mixed, action research, design-based

  • Mixed methods design: Combines qualitative and quantitative designs together in a purposeful way. In the end, they have some kind of product to put forward (a theory, an instructional intervention, etc.)
  • Action research: Uses mixed methods design (usually) to identify a local educational issue, and to consider the next steps
  • Design-based methods: Use real-time design and testing of a significant educational intervention, while forwarding broader theoretical considerations

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