The SoTL Advocate

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


SoTL Applied: Evidence-based Strategies for Better Classroom Discussions

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

Over the last few years, my colleague, Kathleen McKinney, has been adding to a document titled A Sampling of What We Know About Learning from Scholarship of Teaching and Learning and Education Research. In this resource, she has summarized “evidence-informed” knowledge about successful pedagogical practices. McKinney outlines major points from texts which draw conclusions from SoTL and other educationally-based research. Almost uniformly, each of the works summarized specifically state that too many faculty members rely on lecture as their main pedagogical approach in the classroom when research has shown for the last decade that more active forms of learning leads to increased student engagement and involvement in the learning process. A variety of techniques have been suggested by researchers to engage students in active learning, including classroom discussions, problem-based and/or case-based learning, reflection, service learning, and rich experiences as collaborators in ongoing faculty research.

The focus of today’s blog is on increasing active learning through the promotion of high-quality classroom discussions. In-class discussions can encourage active learning though practice and integration of skills (Ambrose et al, 2010), application of knowledge to support deep learning (Christensen & Mighty, 2010), integration of knowledge in a safe, moderated learning environment (Svinicki, 2004), and active collaboration with peers (Weimer, 2013).

Despite these advantages to using in-class discussions as a deliberate pedagogical choice, many faculty feel that setting up an environment to support engaged participation by students in an in-class discussion can be quite challenging. James Lang wrote an interesting advice column this week for the Chronicle of Higher Education titled Building a Better Discussion. In this column, Lang summarizes findings from Jay R. Howard’s SoTL research presented in his new text: Discussion in the College Classroom: Getting Students Engaged and Participating In Person and Online. Three main suggestions were made to guide successful in-class discussion efforts:

  1. Good class discussions require active attention by all stakeholders, moving away from “civil attention” towards a more honest and full attention to topic, speakers, and classroom community.
  2. A new norm must be created to avoid the “consolidation of responsibility” that can occur when a small number of students contribute frequently to a class discussion while their classmates sit by more passively.
  3. Purposeful exploration of what different definitions for participation is needed to develop a shared understanding of expectations for participation for both students and the class instructor.

Previous research findings would indicate that students who are actively engaged in learning should be actively engaged in designing and managing their learning. Thus, it would seem that Howard’s suggestions encouraging moderation between students and instructors to design a better class discussion make good sense. That said, I am curious. What strategies beyond those listed here are you using in your college classrooms to encourage high-quality in-class discussions? What would you consider to be the essential components of a good class discussion?

Blog References:

Ambrose, S., Bridges, M., Lovett, M., DiPeitro, M., & Norman, M. (2010). How learning works: 7 research-based principles for smart teaching. Jossey-Bass.

Christensen, J. & Mighty, J. (eds.). (2010). Taking stock: Research on teaching and learning in higher education. McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Howard, J. (2015). Discussion in the college classroom: Getting students engaged and participating in person and online. Wiley.

Lang, J. (2015). Building a better discussion. Retrieved from:

Svinicki, M. (2004). Learning and motivation in the post-secondary classroom. Anker.

Weimer, M. (2013). Learning-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice (2nd edition). Wiley.

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Using Social Media in Higher Education: An Opportunity for SoTL Inquiry

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

Last fall, in response to intense student interest, I created a private Facebook group for a graduate course I was teaching in my department. I invited all students to join and 100% did, much to my surprise. Initially, my intent in using this Facebook group was to post course information (duplicated from our institutionally-sponsored course management site); however I found myself sharing links to disciplinary news, information related to our course, and other sources that I thought might be of interest to my students. These were all things that I might not have had the chance to cover in class in a traditional sense; Facebook afforded me easy, convenient access to my students. At the end of the semester, open-ended student evaluation comments indicated that due to our Facebook group, students felt more connected to their instructor, learned information about our discipline that they wouldn’t have looked into independently, and extended their learning by searching for additional information based on links I had shared. At the start of the semester, I would never have anticipated this outcome.

I would imagine that most faculty would agree that social media (e.g., blogs, wikis, social networking sites, video sharing sites) is something students and faculty seem to be increasingly aware of and (perhaps) increasingly adept at using. There may even be an expectation on the part of some students that such technologies be a part of their undergraduate and/or graduate experience. Dabbah & Kitsantas (2012) and a report that a large number of students are currently using social media to create personal learning environments (PLEs) as part of the learning process (33% currently use wikis and 50% use social networking sites). These numbers are expected to rise.

Based on my experience with the course Facebook trial described above, coupled with the growing use of social media in the higher education classroom, I wanted to investigate the impact of social media on student learning as (admittedly) I was a bit skeptical of its potential impact. A bit of searching yielded some interested outcomes:

While it seems that there have been some positive gains in student engagement and learning that can be attributed to the use of social media in the higher education classroom, I found the following caveat that seems appropriate to share:

…successful integration of social media interventions may stand or fall on the basis of a complex interaction between a number of factors, including timing of content delivery, the integration of social media content with course assessment, and the students’ own perceptions of using social media for academic purposes (Dyson, Vickers, Turtle, Cowan & Tassone, 2015, p. 303).

I would argue that from my preliminary review, there is work yet to be done to study the impact of social media as a pedagogical tool. The quote above provides direction in terms of important variables to consider. Currently, much of what we know about the impact of social media on student learning is reported incidentally in blogs and other online communications. While this is a start, carefully-planned studies investigating the impact of social media on student learning are needed. With that in mind, I would urge any reader of this blog planning to use social media to support student engagement or learning in a class this coming academic year to study the implementation of the social media in a systematic way and share your findings with others in and beyond your institution. This is a huge opportunity for SoTL work across and within disciplines. To those of you who have studied the impact of social media on your students’ learning, we would love to hear from you here! If you’re planning a study, we’d love to hear from you, as well. Please comment below and share your experiences!

Blog references:

Blessing, S., Blessing, J., & Fleck, B. (2012). Using twitter to reinforce classroom concepts. Teaching of Psychology, 39(4), 268-271.

Dabbagh, N. & Kitsantas, A. (2012). Personal learning environments, social media, and self-regulated learning: A natural formauls for connecting formal and informal learning. The Internet and Higher Education, 15(1), 3-8.

Dyson, B., Vickers, K., Turtle, J., Cowan, S., & Tassone, A. (2015). Evaluating the use of Facebook to increase student engagement and understanding in a lecture-based class. Higher Education, 69(2), 303-313.

Harrison, D. (2011). Can blogging make a difference? Campus Technology. Downloaded from

Lampe, C., Wohn, D., Vitak, J., Ellison, N., Walsh, R. (2011). Student use of Facebook for organizing collaborative classroom activities. International Journal of Computers to Support Collaborative Learning, 6(3), 329-347.

Skiba, D. J. (2008). Nursing education 2.0: Twitter and tweets. Nursing Education Perspectives, 29(2), 110-112.

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Facilitating the IRB Process for SoTL Research Projects

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

One of the most common questions I am asked at various SoTL workshops and trainings that I facilitate center on the IRB process for securing approval for research with human subjects, particularly when the subjects of a study are the students of the investigator conducting the research in question. Specifically, faculty want to know how to streamline the process of completing, submitting, and revising an IRB. In an effort to help with these issues, this blog has highlighted the IRB process in SoTL research in the past, including topics such as common errors/weaknesses in SoTL IRB protocols, which suggested that faculty consider aspects of research such as inadequate risk identification and/or explanation of benefits in the construction of IRBs. Additionally, the Cross Chair in SoTL at Illinois State University also houses a tremendous number of resources to help facilitate the process of constructing a high-quality IRB for SoTL research.

All the resources described above, however, are in place to aid in the construction of IRB proposals for SoTL projects which mirror IRBs created to support disciplinary (non-SoTL) research. Recently, the University of Michigan described an “abbreviated ethical guidelines” process for faculty engaged in their SoTL grant program, essentially a streamlined process for creating an IRB for research funded by internal campus grants for to support SoTL. This abbreviated IRB process was negotiated between representatives from the university’s teaching and learning center, the university’s IRB, and the university’s legal council. Together, this group determined that so long as certain criteria were met by faculty and the teaching and learning center, all future SoTL research emerging from internally grant-funded projects would be exempt from further review. The process looks as follows:

  1. Faculty submit SoTL grant applications. All applications are peer-reviewed, with the most meritorious project being funded by the teaching and learning center.
  2. Those engaged in funded research projects meet at least twice with staff from the teaching and learning center to specifically discuss issues of research ethics when interacting with human subjects.
  3. Student notification and consent for SoTL research can be obtained as follows: “Students will be notified (e.g., via a syllabus paragraph) when research is done in the course of ‘normal work expectations’ — that is using exercises instructors would typically ask them to complete for their courses (regardless of their participation in the grant program). Consent will be obtained for research that goes beyond normal work expectations, such as focus groups or surveys (Wright, Finelli, MEizlish & Bergom, 2011, p. 52).”
  4. Students’ grades cannot be influenced by participation/non-participation in the SoTL research in question.
  5. All identifying information must be removed prior to public dissemination of research to protect student anonymity.

We are curious if other colleges/universities are engaged in the design or implementation of streamlined IRB processes such as those described above. What has been the impact of these programs? How might they help or hinder the SoTL research process? We would love your input and feedback!

Blog References:

  • Wright, M. C., Finelli, C. J., Meizlish, D. & Bergom, I. (2011, March/April). Facilitating the scholarship of teaching and learning at a research university. Change: The Magazine for Higher Learning. Available from:

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SoTL and Assessment: Siblings?

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

Over the years, people have discussed the relationship between the scholarship of teaching and learning, and assessment. Hutchings, for example, referred to them as “cousins” (personal communication, 2005). In this post, I briefly outline –adapted and paraphrased from a small section of a published chapter I wrote (McKinney, 2006)– my views on a comparison of SoTL and assessment. In this comparison, I am using ‘assessment’ to refer to the process of obtaining and interpreting evidence of student outcomes for internal improvement rather than assessment as grading and evaluating particular students. Though the 2006 chapter is almost a decade old, I think the perspectives are mostly still valid.

In my view, the characteristics of SoTL and assessment overlap. They may even be ‘siblings’ rather than ‘cousins’. And, in an ideal world, they would ‘play with’ each other, strengthening and improving, through a functional relationship, the ‘family’ (teaching-learning) unit. Assessment work can raise questions that become SoTL research questions. The design of our assessment data gathering might be refined to become a SoTL study methodology. What we learn from assessment at some level could help us interpret SoTL results at another level. The results of SoTL studies and/or SoTL products (presentations, papers, blog posts, videos…) can be used in assessment reports or as assessment evidence in program reviews or accreditations. These are just a few ways reciprocal benefits of SoTL and assessment.

Let’s compare SoTL and assessment on ten characteristics, keeping in mind that the differences and similarities between SoTL and assessment on these factors are really continuums with overlap, not dichotomies. In addition, these comparisons vary somewhat by national, institutional, or disciplinary context. Thus, I readily admit that I am oversimplifying here.

  1. Purpose: SoTL is for internal, formative use but also for wider external generalizability and sharing to add to the extant literature, knowledge base, and researcher productivity. Assessment is for internal, formative use for improvement with limited, confidential external accountability use.
  2. Audiences: SoTL is public; it is scholarship. It has local audiences but goes beyond those to external, wider audiences by being shared or made public in some way. Assessment is primarily intended for local, internal and often limited audiences. It is usually not made public.
  3. Disciplinary emphasis: SoTL has been primarily discipline-based though, in recent years, we have seen more cross- or inter-disciplinary SoTL. Assessment is both discipline-based and broader (program, college, institution).
  4. Levels: SoTL has focused on, primarily, classroom or course levels; sometimes a program level. Assessment has more often focused on program, department, college, and institutional levels.
  5. Role of IRB: SoTL studies usually require IRB approval as they involve human subjects and the intent may be to ‘generalize’ via making the work public. Assessment generally does not require IRB approval, as it is not seen as ‘research’ due to its internal, formative, private nature and use.
  6. Methods/data gathering: SoTL uses many data gathering strategies that fit the research question but, also, often related to the methods of the researcher’s discipline. Qualitative methods are as accepted as quantitative. SoTL work often involves small numbers of participants from whom data is gathered. Assessment uses a wide range of methodologies as well but including institutional data, large datasets, and measures other than about learning. Assessment may have large groups of participants.
  7. Use of past literature: SoTL products (and, hopefully, the design of SoTL projects) must use and cite past research. Assessment work is less likely to explicitly draw on past research.
  8. Peer review: SoTL must be peer reviewed in some way. This may be broadly defined or defined by the discipline but it is ‘formal’ and transparent. Assessment is less likely to be peer reviewed though it may be informally and internally judged by others.
  9. Resistance to the work: The patterns of resistance probably change overtime and by context but it is still the case that both SoTL and assessment suffer from resistance by some groups (faculty and/or administrators) in the academy. I think the resistance is less that in the past.
  10. Value, reward: These vary by context or setting but it is likely that both SoTL and assessment work are undervalued and insufficiently rewarded relative to other academic work in many—though certainly not all– settings. This, too, has likely improved over time.

McKinney, K. 2006. “Attitudinal and Structural Factors Contributing to Challenges in the Work of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.” Pp.37-50 in Analyzing Faculty Work and Rewards: Using Boyer’s Four Domains of Scholarship- New Directions in Institutional Research, #129, spring. J.M. Braxton (ed.). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.