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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14 Years and 63 Projects Later: The SoTL Small Grant Program in Review

Written by Michaelene Cox and Jessica Infelise, Department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University

To support scholarly inquiry into Illinois State University student learning and to advance the practice of teaching, the Office of the Cross Chair in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning offered its first round of small grant awards in the academic year 2001-2002. The program provides up to $5000 for SoTL work that will be peer-reviewed and publically disseminated. An overview of funded proposals illustrates the varied nature of SoTL projects conducted at the University, and may stimulate submission of equally diverse and promising proposals down the road. It should be noted that requirements varied across the years in terms of team members (e.g., in recent years, a student member was required; some years, teams had to be interdisciplinary) and topic of the SoTL research (e.g., some years, it was an open call; other years, the general topic area was specified such as teaching and learning civic engagement). In addition, data for this brief report came from the required on-line reports or initial products from the projects submitted 18 months after the start of the research. Thus, the data is limited and does not yet include any follow-up data.

As of 2014-15, a total of 63 small grant proposals were awarded, with primary investigators representing 28 disciplines. Altogether these projects engaged 194 team members, including 41 student members. While a variety of research questions and findings emerged from the studies, they all succeeded in addressing one or more goals of the University’s strategic plan Educating Illinois with 40 percent of the projects, for example, involving Goal 2 (strengthening the University’s commitment to continuous improvement of educational effectiveness) and Goal 3 (increasing opportunities for students to engage in high-quality, high-impact educational experiences). Among the many disciplines represented, the largest share of funded proposals was led by a faculty member from Psychology although a good number also came from Educational Administration and Foundations and from Criminal Justice. Nearly all proposals listed between two to four researchers but there was one with 13 and another with 14 investigators! Most projects adopted qualitative approaches though many gathered both qualitative and quantitative data. Projects drew heavily on content analysis (64% of the projects), broadly defined to encompass any study that primarily relied on information from documents and artifacts, and systematically identified and categorized their properties, and questionnaires/survey data (33%). The majority of the projects used multiple methods. Finally, more than half of all systematic studies/reflections funded through the SoTL Small Grant Program were presented at professional conferences at the 18-month from project start date. For more information about SoTL funding opportunities, please see

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SoTL Graduate Student Reading Circle at Illinois State

Written by Jennifer Friberg, SoTL Scholar-Mentor at Illinois State University

Last week, the office of the Cross Chair in SoTL at Illinois State University hosted its first SoTL Reading Circle for graduate students. Nine students representing five academic disciplines participated to understand the contributions SoTL can make in and across disciplines. Jen Friberg organized and facilitated this reading circle.

The reading circle was organized in two sessions over the course of one week. Sessions were organized as follows:

  • Session 1 served as an introduction to SoTL for graduate students. ISU’s definition of SoTL and several foundational readings were discussed to assist students in understanding the difference between scholarly teaching and the scholarship of teaching and learning. Resources were presented to help students find disciplinary and cross disciplinary SoTL research to support their pedagogical choices. Students brainstormed possible SoTL research questions based on their own teaching experiences and talked about ways to develop relationships with SoTL research mentors.
  • Session 2 focused on readings from The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in and Across the Disciplines (edited by Kathleen McKinney). Students read 4 chapters of the text and discussed issues facing SoTL scholars, including acceptance of varied research methods and the need for both disciplinary and cross-disciplinary SoTL research. Students drafted an informal action plan for how they could move towards scholarly teaching and build capacity towards SoTL research involvement.

Student reactions to the reading circle experience were overwhelmingly positive. Comments indicated that all participants felt that it was a good “crash course” in SoTL and scholarly teaching and appreciated constructive discussion and problem solving. Many indicated an interest in establishing a SoTL research project over the next academic year. The Office of the Cross Chair in SoTL at ISU hopes to repeat this experience for a new cohort of graduate students in the fall of 2015 or spring of 2016.

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The Right Questions at the Right Times

Written by Jennifer Friberg, SoTL Scholar-Mentor at Illinois State University

I was fortunate enough to attend the first EuroSoTL conference in Cork, Ireland earlier this month. Speakers addressed issues germane to SoTL in a multiude of ways, each touching upon the tremendous importance of asking the right questions at the right times. David Pace advocated for identifying “bottlenecks” where students struggled in specific courses, then using SoTL to understand and resolve these issues. While acknowledging that gaps in knowledge provide uncertainty which creates anxiety for both students and teachers, Kathy Takayama urged faculty to seek learning gaps in order to grow and improve their teaching practice, always “living the question” in a way that leads to careful reflection and analysis via SoTL. Beth Marquis asked “how do you transition students from passive to active participants in SoTL?” Ultimately, the great similarity amongst EuroSoTL presentations was the notion that the questions we ask are important for our teaching and our students’ learning — we just have to be brave enough to identify the issues we face as teachers and be willing to investigate how to best solve them.

In her closing plenary for EuroSoTL, Pat Hutchings identified future directions for SoTL, calling them “Visions of the Possible” to add to the SoTL work scholars already have underway. She urged attendees to seek answers to the following:

  1. How can we best move SoTL towards regular practices of teaching (e.g., asking contextually-based SoTL questions such as “How do you craft assignments that are evidence-based?).
  2. How can SoTL best be integrated into institutional policies and agendas (e.g., making SoTL a special program in its own dedicated place).
  3. How can students be more fully engaged as SoTL research associates and collaborators (e.g., reflecting on learning as a metacognitive experience).

What are your visions of the possible? What are the questions you are asking yourselves as you plan for the new academic year?

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Universal Characteristics of SoTL?

Written by Jennifer Friberg, SoTL Scholar-Mentor at Illinois State University

Last week, Joelle Fanghanel delivered one of three keynote presentations at the inaugural EuroSoTL conference on the campus of the University College Cork in Ireland. In an address titled, “Defining SoTL — Still a Challenge After 25 Years,” Dr. Fanghanel proposed a list of possible universal characteristics of SoTL research derived from work she is engaged in with colleagues from several other universities, indicating that those near the top of the list were most likely to be agreed upon by those involved with SoTL. These SoTL characteristics included the following:

  • SoTL is inquiry on practice.
  • SoTL involves the process of seeking review and critique by making SoTL work public.
  • SoTL is community-based in nature.
  • A global community exists to support SoTL.
  • SoTL is a potential change vehicle.
  • SoTL engages students are partners and co-researchers.
  • SoTL provides an environment for experimentation and innovation.
  • SoTL is at the same time disciplinary and interdisciplinary.
  • SoTL exists in a state of tension with discipline-specific research.
  • There are issues of recognition, career advancement, and professionalism associated with SoTL in some environments.
  • SoTL is about conveying values and beliefs.
  • SoTL is a big tent, but a tent that might need to become more inclusive.
  • SoTL is a vehicle to translate across disciplines and contexts.

In your experiences with and around SoTL, is this list inclusive of possible universal characteristics of SoTL? What modifications would you make, based on your experiences with SoTL? How would any additions to or deletions from this list make a stronger case for universal SoTL characteristics?

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“Like a Fish Out of Water Coming Together” — What Students Learned as Research Team Participants for SoTL Grant-Funded Studies

Written by: Brandon Hensley, doctoral student and Phyllis McCluskey-Titus, Associate Professor, Department of Educational Administration and Foundations

At Illinois State University (ISU), grants are awarded to research teams that include students conducting Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) studies. There hasn’t been an assessment of students’ learning as members of these research teams, so this project was undertaken to understand what students learned from their experience conducting SoTL research with faculty. We hope this research contributes to knowledge of student-faculty research team learning outcomes on our campus.

We conducted a face-to-face focus group and email survey for data collection. Student participants involved in these teams since 2010 (n=7, 5 female and 2 male) were contacted and asked to participate. Only 3 students were able to be on campus for a face-to-face audio-taped discussion, but 4 students agreed to respond via email to the same discussion prompts. Two participants were undergraduates at the time of participation and five were graduate students.

The written email responses and transcription were analyzed using the constant comparative method. We engaged in thematic analysis of the data, reading the documents separately and then coming together for several sessions to identify patterns/clusters, meaningful quotes, and possible themes from the responses.

Students involved on these research teams had different responsibilities, like writing the literature review or IRB protocol, managing and analyzing data, or reviewing draft surveys. Some students were co-researchers, compiling research notes, analyzing and interpreting results, co-authoring or presenting conference papers, posters, peer-reviewed articles or book chapters.

Insights we gained from the results of this research included:

How much the students valued the collaborative process gained from conducting research with a team. “I think the most valuable thing I learned was how to be a part of a research team…and that’s tremendously valuable to me because I feel like now if I want to go forward and do more team research, I’ll probably walk in with more confidence…”

The value students placed on being able to “talk-through” or “reflect” about their learning. If reflection and communication did not occur between students and faculty, students reported feeling “undervalued, misinformed, and confused about their roles on the research project team.”

How students felt more socialized into their discipline by “…expanding the scope of my own academic pursuits and becoming more involved in the academic community.”

How students learned to struggle with theoretical concepts. A feeling of struggling “like a fish out of water” when learning and applying theory was expressed by a few respondents, with almost all of them noting some degree of difficulty in connecting theoretical frameworks to their research and their larger projects.

Students recognized research as a process rather than a destination. Students expressed learning the journey can be as significant as the outcome. “I also learned about how much work goes into the research process and what that process includes.”

In addition to the themes noted, we grouped students’ perceived learning outcomes into four clusters and used some of their own words to illustrate what they meant.

Cognitive/intellectual learning: “I think being a [research] partner made me a better thinker, made me a better writer. You persevere through these projects…that process of coming together, of thinking out loud, working toward end goals, made me a much better student and… a better researcher.”

Affective/interpersonal learning: this project “…increased my awareness of my own biases in working with diverse folks from different ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as academic fields (i.e. nursing, political science, etc.).”

Life/career skills: “I think this experience helped me gain more confidence in my talent and knowledge on certain subjects. This allowed me to step out of my comfort zone and learn that I am capable of doing research and presenting it to other professionals.”

Self-awareness: “I developed the ability to judge my own performance and abilities based on my limited knowledge of the type of research I entered into as a graduate student.”

What students did as members of their research teams and what meaning they made from these experiences was underscored by most of the participants as critical to their learning in college. Taken together, the findings in this study strongly suggest that SoTL research teams offer rich terrain to study student learning and development in ways that are engaged, critically reflective, and out of the traditional, often passive classroom lecture setting.

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Examples of Practical Implications for Teaching and Learning from Recently Published SoTL Research

Compiled by Kathleen McKinney, Illinois State University (Note: these excerpts are direct quotes from the published abstracts.)*

In this blog post, I offer the actual abstracts (and citations) of four recently published SoTL studies that offer explicit potential implications of the results for the teaching and learning of/by other faculty and students. These abstracts are intended simply as examples of diverse SoTL projects and of possible implications for our classrooms.

Student Perceptions of a Form-Based Approach to Reflective Journaling

“The author describes the principal findings of a survey study looking at student perceptions of a new form-based approach to reflective journaling. A form-based journal assignment was developed for use in introductory lecture courses and tested over a two-year period in an Honors General Chemistry course for engineers with a total of 157 first-year students. The form contains a series of written prompts for which students supplied short answers to help them own their learning, identify and articulate their needs in the course, and identify possible solutions to improve their performance in the course. Perceived benefits from student self-reports include improved course performance, identification of problems that by their own admission the students likely would not have identified otherwise, increased course attentiveness, and increased motivation to seek assistance from their instructor and/or other local resources. Benefits to the instructor include the ability to provide timely feedback and assistance to large groups of students at several key intervention points over the course of the semester.”

Mabrouk, P. A. (2015). “Student Perceptions of a Form-Based Approach to Reflective Journaling.” The Journal of Excellence in College Teaching. Vol. 26, 2.

Using Reading Guides and On-line Quizzes to Improve Reading Compliance and Quiz Scores

“This study compared students’ daily in-class reading quiz scores in an introductory Child Development course across five conditions: control, reading guide only, reading guide and on-line practice quiz, reading guide and on-line graded quiz, and reading guide and both types of on-line quizzes. At the beginning of class, students completed a 5-item quiz over the assigned readings. With the exception of the control section, all students had access to an instructor-designed reading guide for each of the 20 assigned readings. Results revealed that reading guides significantly increased student learning as demonstrated by increased scores on the in-class reading quizzes, with marginal additional gains when practice quizzes were also utilized. The addition of on-line graded quizzes resulted in lower scores on in-class quizzes. Results held even after multiple subsidiary analyses controlling for time spent studying. These findings suggest that reading guides may be a valuable study aid for improving student learning.”

Maurer, Trent W. and Longfield, Judith (2015) “Using Reading Guides and On-line Quizzes to Improve Reading Compliance and Quiz Scores,” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Vol. 9: No. 1, Article 6.

Student Management Teams Increase College Students’ Feelings of Autonomy in the Classroom

“The use of Student Management Teams (SMTs) is a relatively new teaching technique designed to increase students’ motivation and involvement with the planning and execution of college courses. However, to date, little systematic, empirical research has validated the effectiveness of using SMTs. To test the effectiveness of this technique, the current research utilized a pretest–posttest paradigm consisting of two courses taught by the same professor (both Social Psychology courses). In one course, the professor implemented a SMT; the other course served as a control comparison. Results revealed that students in the course with the SMT increased their feelings of autonomy relative to students in the control comparison course. Implications for teaching techniques and their potential impact on student motivation are discussed.”

Troisi, Jordan D. (2015). “Student Management Teams Increase College Students’ Feelings of Autonomy in the Classroom.” College Teaching, Vol. 63, 2, 83-89.

Training final year students in data presentation skills with an iterative report-feedback cycle

“Although practical laboratory activities are often considered the linchpin of science education, asking students to produce many large practical reports can be problematic Practical reports require diverse skills, and therefore do not focus the students’ attention on any one skill. They are also time-consuming to write and mark, limiting the speed at which feedback can be returned. To refocus students specifically on the skills of data presentation and interpretation I asked the students to produce a results figure, as would be found in a journal article, one for each of four practical topics. The students found this a challenge, but their skills improved markedly over the semester due to an efficient feedback cycle. Students were very engaged with this assessment, as it caused them to re-consider what they understood about the results of the practical. As this assessment is a small focused version of a practical report, it allows faster marking and return of practicals, and reduces the proportion of marks allocated to practicals, allowing more marks to be allocated to other components of the unit/class such as exams. This is therefore a successful method of focusing students’ attention on presenting and interpreting practical results, in an efficient and cost-effective manner.”

Verkade, Heather. (2015). “Training Final Year Students in Data Presentation Skills with an Iterative Report-feedback Cycle.”Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Vol.15, 2. 70-82.

*Bolding of text added by compiler.