The SoTL Advocate

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

How Do Students Believe They Learn a Discipline?: An Example from Sociology

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

Recently, I was reminiscing about my years as a SoTL Carnegie Scholar at the Carnegie Foundation in CA…the wonderful staff I worked with, the great colleagues I met and had reciprocal support from, the interesting SoTL projects everyone was doing, all that I learned about SoTL, the friendships that have lasted over the years…AND my own SoTL research conducted for this experience. My SoTL research question was — ‘How do sociology majors think they best learn the discipline?’

In my SoTL project on this question, I used a multi-method approach. I had a relatively small number of sociology majors from which to obtain student voices on learning the discipline. Thus, I gathered data using three small-scale, qualitative studies: a group interview, analysis of content in learning logs, and individual face-to-face interviews. I then looked for common themes across the results of these studies. I had two sets of findings. First, students reported five types of “connections” (their word) that were most important to their learning in sociology: connections to others such as peers and faculty, connections among related ideas or skills, connections to their lives, connections across courses in the curriculum, and connections to the discipline itself. Second, I found that students were at different points on three overlapping pathways of learning: level of success in the major, use of surface-deep approaches, and degree of novice-expert learning. These findings certainly had the potential for practical implications in how we taught our majors (and others), our relationships with students, the learning opportunities we offered students, and curricular integration.

All this reminiscing led me to wonder whether anyone in another discipline or in my own, more recently, has conducted research on a similar question. And, if so, what SoTL methodologies and measures were used? What was found? What were the implications? If you have conducted or know of such work, I hope you will share it by commenting on this post.

Publications from this project on how students believe they best learn sociology:

McKinney, K. 2007. “The Student Voice: Sociology Majors Tell us About Learning Sociology.” Teaching Sociology 35:112-124.

McKinney, K. 2005. “Sociology Senior Majors’ Perceptions on Learning Sociology.” Teaching Sociology 33: 371-379.

McKinney, K. 2005, Fall/Winter.  “Reflections on Learning Sociology: Analysis of Learning Log Entries.”  MountainRise.

McKinney, K. 2004. “How Sociology Majors Learn Sociology: Successful Learners Tell Their Story.” Journal of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 4: 15-24.


One thought on “How Do Students Believe They Learn a Discipline?: An Example from Sociology

  1. When I read that students used the word ‘connections’ to explain how they learned the discipline of sociology, I thought of new learning theory called ‘connectivism.’
    Connectivism developed from the observations and philosophical insights of Stephen Downes when he and George Siemans hosted the prototype for the MOOC in 2008 at the University of Manitoba. presently MOOCs are categorized according to the commercial format developed by American eduction entrepreneurs as xMOOCs or as learning supported by a connectivist theory of learning and afforded by communication technologies on the internet the cMOOC.
    Stephen Downes has published a 600 page text on connectivism available for free download in an EPUB book.


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