The SoTL Advocate

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

SoTL and Assessment: Siblings?

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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.


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