The SoTL Advocate

Supporting efforts to make public the reflection and study of teaching and learning at Illinois State University and beyond…

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SoTL Book Information: ISU Faculty Authors

The announcement below is a press release from the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) that has just published a book on SoTL in Mathematics in higher education. This book could serve as a model for such books in other disciplines. In addition, chapter 17 was written by ISU faculty members in our department of Mathematics: Chapter 17. Mathematics Research Experiences for Preservice Teachers: Investigating the Impact on Their Beliefs by Wendy A. O¹Hanlon, David D. Barker, Cynthia W. Langrall, John A.Dossey, Sharon M. McCrone, and Saad I. El-Zanati. Another book focusing on SoTL in a particular discipline is also a model and one author is also an ISU faculty member (Jennifer Friberg): Ginsberg, S., Friberg, J., & Visconti, C. 2012. Scholarship of Teaching and learning in speech-language and audiology: Evidence-based education. San Diego: Plural Publishing. It is great to see ISU faculty take leadership roles in promoting SoTL in their disciplines.

A new book from the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) serves as a how-to guide for collegiate mathematics faculty who want to know more about conducting scholarly investigations into their teaching and their students’ learning. Out this month as part of the MAA’s Notes series, Doing the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Mathematics aims to both assist mathematics faculty interested in undertaking scholarly study of their teaching practice and promote a greater understanding of this work and its value to the mathematics community. The volume was envisioned and edited by Jacqueline Dewar and Curtis Bennett (Loyola Marymount University).

The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) movement encourages faculty to view difficulties encountered in the classroom as invitations to conduct research. In this growing field of inquiry, faculty bring their disciplinary knowledge and teaching experience to bear on questions of teaching and learning. They systematically gather evidence to develop and support their conclusions. The results are peer reviewed and made public.
The four chapters in Part I of Doing the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Mathematics provide background on this form of scholarship and specific instructions for undertaking a SoTL investigation in mathematics. Part II contains 15 examples of SoTL projects in mathematics from 14 different institutions, both public and private, spanning the spectrum of higher educational institutions from community colleges to research universities. The final chapter offers the editors’ synthesis of the contributing authors’ perceptions of the value of SoTL.

“Dewar and Bennett’s volume gives a vivid overview of the fresh field of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning,” says Frank Farris (Santa Clara University). “It provides exactly what you need to get started doing research with your own classroom as the laboratory.”
Dewar, J., & Bennett, C. (Eds.). 2015. Doing the scholarship of teaching and learning in mathematics. Washington, DC: Mathematical Association of America.)

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‘Gaps’ in SoTL Research and Reflection

Written by Kathleen McKinney, Cross Chair in SoTL at Illinois State University

It would be interesting and useful to hear what you, our subscribers, believe are ‘gaps’ in SoTL reflection and research (i.e., under considered or under studied areas, methods, disciplines, contexts…). Someone’s views of what these gaps are depend, in part, on their definition of SoTL. Such views also reflect what SoTL work one happens to hear, see, or read. Keeping such caveats in mind, a few suggestions of ‘gaps’ in the field of SoTL that we might want to try to fill follow.

In terms of disciplines, more practitioner work could be done on our students’ learning in all fields but much extant SoTL is done by those in the social sciences and sciences. The Humanities have a growing presence. What about technical fields? What about the fine arts? In addition, it is wonderful that much of higher education SoTL focuses on undergraduate students. Yet, it seems we may neglect the learning experiences and outcomes of graduate students. Is there an assumption that we know how to teach and mentor graduate students and that they know how to learn?

It is also key to, perhaps the heart of, SoTL that it is practitioner reflection or research made public that focuses on the learning of one’s own students often in a particular classroom. Yet, teaching, learning opportunities, and learning take place in contexts other than our individual classrooms. We need more SoTL at the course and program levels. We need more SoTL looking at participation in co- and extra-curricular activities and learning outcomes from such activities. And, related to this, there are SoTL questions shared by those in the same discipline but at different institutions or those at the same institution but in different disciplines. Thus, we might consider more multi-institutional and/or multi-discipline SoTL projects.

In terms of ‘design’ of SoTL work, at least two gaps can be noted. First, we lack sufficient longitudinal SoTL work. We need more SoTL work that has multiple ‘data’ points over time and/or follow-up of students’ learning for longer than one semester or term. Such work offers us more information by which to speculate about causation, allows us to consider issues of transfer and retention of learning or impact, and strengthens the validity of our understandings/findings. Second, much SoTL involves an ‘intervention’ (new assignment, new technology, change in pedagogy…) and reflection or research data on learning outcomes from that ‘intervention’. It is certainly exciting to see increased learning or development after some intervention but this is not the most important part of the picture. To make improvements, to encourage adaptations, to understand, we must gather data/information about the intervening processes that occur between any ‘intervention’ and learning. We need to know more about the ‘why’, ‘how’, ‘when’, ‘where’, and ‘for whom’ of any intervention-outcome relationships.

Finally, we could do a better job applying –and sharing such applications of –SoTL results, findings, and implications. And, these applications should be, not just at the level of our classroom but beyond, as appropriate, to your discipline, a course or module, a program or department, general education, student affairs, and academic decision- making in the institution.

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Publishing SoTL Work: Directions for the Future and Tips for the Present

Written by: Jennifer Friberg, SoTL Scholar-Mentor at ISU

While I was at ISSOTL, I attended a panel discussion on the evolution SoTL research publishing. Editors in attendance represented the following journals:

  • Canadian Journal of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning
  • Journal of Excellence in College Teaching
  • Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning
  • Journal of Teaching and Learning with Technology
  • College Teaching
  • Teaching and Learning Inquiry

Panelists discussed the changing face of publishing for each of their journals. Most have segued to an open access format successfully; several indicated a strong preference for inter-disciplinary SoTL work to be submitted for review. Looking towards the future, editors recognized a need to increase the involvement of researchers from around the globe through recruitment of SoTL work from other countries, publishing in languages other than English, and increased collaborations with international SoTL colleagues.

All panelists agreed that they have maintained a strong emphasis on providing thorough, but constructive reviews of all submitted manuscripts, indicating a distinct preference for reviewers to treat submitting authors professionally and supportively. Attendees asked questions related to how researchers could maximize their success in having work accepted by these journals for publication. Editor responses centered on a few main themes which can be best summarized as follows:

  1. Think of ways your SoTL work can appeal to a broad readership. While your research might be in one discipline, there are ways to write your manuscript to be inclusive and applicable to other fields of study. Broad disciplinary appeal adds to publishability.
  2. Carefully consider the evidence you present in your study in data-based SoTL work. While data can be quantitative , qualitative or a mix of the two, data should clearly provide evidence for readers to consider which provides novel insights into teaching and/or learning.
  3. Share your work with peers prior to submitting to a journal for consideration. Provide them with the mission and specific criteria for publication for the journal you plan to target for publication. Request feedback and consider making improvements to maximize the flow, content, and style based on feedback you receive.

In 2011, Patricia Rogers published the following recommendations for authors titled: What Makes a Great Article for IJ-SoTL. Those seeking to publish their SoTL research might find this article helpful, as well!

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The “Big Tent:” Benefits and Limitations

Written by: Kathleen McKinney, Cross Chair in SoTL at ISU

There have been many discussions in writings and at conferences about the “big tent” of SoTL since Huber and Hutchings coined the term in 2005. They with Ciccone (2011, pg. 9) argued there are “narrow constructionists” who stress how SoTL is, presumably in form, closely related to traditional academic research (with some allowances for practioner, local inquiry). Then there are “broad constructionists” or “big tent advocates” who have a view of SoTL as including much more than a form of academic research into our students’ learning. Rather, in their big tent view, SoTL covers “a wider range of work (documentation, reflection, inquiry) in greater or lesser degrees of polish, made public in forums with nearer or farther reach.” They also argue that the former is valued as research while the latter is valued as research and teaching, and is, thus, “more hospitable to teachers who want to participate if only occasionally or in modest ways.”

As many others, I think the “big tent” image is a wonderful one. I also think the concept is, of course, a continuum, not either–or. In addition, the big tent is, as those authors hint at, about more than whether SoTL falls on the research or teaching side of the academic reward system. It is also about the questions we consider, how we do the work, and how we share the work. Thus, the concept is about multiple continuums of narrow to broad.

Our definition of SoTL at Illinois State University is ‘the systematic reflection/study of teaching and learning (of our ISU students) made public.’ Thus we support the big tent, allowing for various types of reflection as well as more formal studies. The work should be made public but that is defined broadly in terms of location, product, venue and so on. We have always wanted to encourage and support SoTL in and across all disciplines, acknowledging differences in definitions, methods, and ways of sharing the scholarship on teaching and learning. Given the diversity of SoTL scholars in terms of discipline, training, institutional type and culture, interests, and nationality, the big tent –to a certain degree –makes good sense.

But, is it possible to go too far with this concept? I believe we can and sometimes do. I think the distinctions made by many (Pat Hutchings originally, I believe) among good teaching, scholarly teaching, and SoTL are valid. Good teaching and scholarly teaching are critically important but not the same as SoTL. I think SoTL is not doing our jobs as teachers. Nor is it traditional educational research or research on faculty development. I think the three biggest assets of SoTL are that it is work done by the practioner, evidence-based (broadly defined), and public (broadly defined). If SoTL becomes everything, it is nothing. We need a big SoTL tent but we need one whose span of fabric is not stretched so far that it collapses. We need a tent with flaps that open and close freely but still offer some differentiation or protection from the outside weather.

Huber, M. T. and Hutchings, P. 2005. The Advancement of Learning: Building the Teaching Commons. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hutchings, P., Huber, M. T., and Ciccone, A. 2011. The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Institutional Integration and Impact. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


SoTL and Institutional Review Boards (IRB), Human Subjects Approval

Written by: Kathleen McKinney, Cross Chair in SoTL at ISU

Both on my home campus and at external SoTL conferences or workshops, issues around obtaining institutional approval for SoTL as human subjects research are often raised. Given differences in what is meant by SoTL as well as in IRB (or similar groups) process and policy by institutional type and country, it is difficult to be too specific or to generalize in offering advice. Each SoTL scholar/researcher should learn the IRB/human subjects’ culture, policies, and process at their own institution. Below, however, I offer a few key points that may be of interest.

If you are planning a SoTL project involving faculty/staff or students as participants and you plan to generalize from that work or to share it with others, you likely need to complete and submit an IRB protocol for approval. Some of the key issues you must address in your IRB protocol include:

  • Possible risks to participants
  • Possible benefits to participants
  • Protection of confidentiality and/or anonymity
  • Avoiding coercion or perceived coercion in participation
  • Accurate and detailed informed consent statement/procedures

According to the current Chair and Compliance Officer of our IRB at ISU, there are two sets of common errors or weaknesses in SoTL IRB protocols they review.

  • Lack of Clarity: Your SoTL IRB protocols should clearly describe all aspects of the research project being proposed. Don’t assume the IRB members share your understandings of SoTL or your discipline. This information may need to be included in more than one place in the protocol and appendices.
  • Inadequate Risk Identification and/or Benefit Explanation: In human subjects research, including SoTL research, there is rarely a case where there are no potential risks to participants. All risks must be clearly identified and explained. You should consider both current and future threats for participants. You should also make clear all actual and probable benefits (clearly distinguishing the two) to the student participant and others who may benefit. Discussion of risks and benefits must be included in response to relevant questions on the protocol AND in the actual informed consent statement and procedures.

Researchers often wonder whether there are circumstances that would preclude the need for an IRB Protocol for a SoTL research project. It is generally best for you to write an IRB protocol for all SoTL research and let your Department IRB representative or the IRB members decide what level of review (exempt, expedited, full) is appropriate. There may be a few situations where a protocol is not needed. These decision flow charts are to help IRB members and researchers make such decisions.

For additional and more detailed information, resources, examples, check out the resources below.