The SoTL Advocate

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

Leave a comment

Examples of Discipline Specific SoTL that is Relevant to Other Fields: Accounting for Class Absences, Private Journals vs. Public Blogs, and Peer Review in Research Methods

By Kathleen McKinney, Cross Chair in SoTL, Illinois State University

Much SoTL research is published in discipline-specific pedagogical journals such as my own field’s Teaching Sociology. Though some teaching-learning issues and questions are discipline-specific (e.g., related to a unique skill, a threshold concept or a signature pedagogy), many others have relevance to multiple disciplines. In this blog post, I briefly summarize three recent articles from Teaching Sociology that have SoTL questions, study methodologies, results, and implications of interest to instructors and SoTL researchers in other fields.

First, O’Sullivan et al. (2015) used focus groups, an open-ended questionnaire, and an on-line survey to examine how undergraduate students understand and explain their absences from sociology classes at University College Dublin. Based on this multi-method approach, the authors concluded that students often understand attendance as an “optional feature of student life” and that individual-level frameworks to explain attendance were of limited use as individual student’s attendance behavior varied across classes. Rather, attendance was reportedly influenced by situational factors such as the pedagogical strategies used in the class, students’ and peers’ beliefs about the usefulness of the class, course content, students’ ability to use legitimate accounts to excuse or justify their absences, and perceived consequences of missing class. Thus, as the authors noted, faculty/staff as well as departments and institutions have some control over improving student attendance.

The quality of reflective writing when assigning private journals or public blogs is the topic of study in Foster’s research (2015). He conducted a comparative content analysis of over 2000 journal entries and blogs from Introduction to Sociology classes at the University of Michigan. From this wealth of data, Foster concluded that the two types of writing assignments do not result in different levels of quality of reflection but, rather, in distinct forms of reflection. These distinctions appear to be, at least in part, due to the risks taken in the two forms of writing. The blogs involve peer readership and, thus, “enable students to take more intellectual risks and engage in logical mental endeavors” whereas the journal entries are not read by peers and allow students to “take more personal risks and engage in emotional labor” when understanding material. An implication of this research is that teachers should think about their learning and developmental objectives for asking students to do reflective writing and assign specific writing formats best suited to those objectives.

Finally, Crowe, Silva, and Ceresola (2015) focused on the use of peer review in multiple sections of a quantitative research methods class at “a small, urban university in Texas.” The authors used a quasi-experiment to assess the effects of having four in-class sessions of peer review/feedback on a variety of dependent variables including final course grade and the quality of several draft portions of the proposal. In addition, to peer review, several student variables (e.g, age, sex, race, year in school) were included as independent variables. The results of the study are complex but, generally, the authors found a positive impact of peer review on only one of six dependent measures. Senior-level students, however, performed significantly better on all the dependent measures than did junior-level students. The authors concluded that peer review may not be worth in-class time and must be thoughtfully structured. They also noted, however, that there may be benefits of peer review not measured in this study that faculty should consider. These benefits could include the opportunity to interact intellectually with other students, strengthening of confidence and social skills, and contributing to a culture of shared expertise in the classroom.

Blog References:

Crowe, J. A., Silva, T., and Ceresola, R. 2015. “The Effect of Peer Review on Student Learning Outcomes in a Research Methods Course.” Teaching Sociology 43(3):201-213.

Foster, D. 2015. “Private Journals versus Public Blogs: The Impact of Peer Readership on Low-stakes Reflective Writing.” Teaching Sociology 43(2):104-114.

O’Sullivan, S., McMahon, L., Moore, G., Nititham, D. S., Slevin, A., Kelly, C., and Wixted, L. 2015. “’I Did Not Miss Any, Only When I had a Valid Reason’: Accounting for Absences from Sociology Classes.” Teaching Sociology 43(1):15-26.

1 Comment

Advice for New SoTL Researchers

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

Perhaps it’s due to the timing of a new academic year getting underway, but I have been asked several times lately for advice to help new SoTL researchers get their first SoTL projects up and running. In response to these requests, I’ve constructed this list as a starting point for advice for new SoTL researchers. I’d love to see additions and expansions as comments below!

  1. Develop your research questions carefully to reflect the purpose of your inquiry. Often times, an investigator’s first foray into SoTL research is motivated by a reflection on their own teaching or by a concern regarding student learning. These are wonderful foundations for SoTL inquiry! Having a clear idea as to the purpose of your research is vitally important to creating a cohesive project. While this is not an exhaustive list, perhaps your research question might be developed to:
    • measure changes in teaching or learning over time
    • ascertain the effectiveness of a specific assessment, assignment, or pedagogical approach
    • compare groups of students across a single class or across multiple course experiences
  2. Contemplate collaboration. While you may be seeking to systematically investigate some issue specific to a course you teach or to students you work with, it can be very useful to engage collaborators for your SoTL research efforts. It might be possible to seek out peers working to answer questions similar to yours for a larger SoTL project. Or, you can recruit students to serve as research collaborators for data collection, analysis, or writing.
  3. Seek mentorship. If you have not undertaken a SoTL research study in the past, consider seeking a mentor who does have SoTL experience to help you plan and execute your study. This mentor could become a collaborator or could simply serve as an experienced voice of support and guidance in helping you though your first SoTL project. You can seek mentors though your academic unit at your university, though a teaching/learning center on your campus, or through connections with others interested in teaching and learning in your discipline.
  4. Compose a well-written IRB protocol. IRB protocols for SoTL research can be tricky to write. It is critically important that any IRB describing SoTL research adequately account for issues related to privacy, coercion, and fairness. The Office of the Cross Chair in SoTL at Illinois State University has created several resources to assist new SoTL researchers in the process of IRB design:
  5. Consider your data source(s) carefully. Your ability to collect data is limited only by your own lack of imagination! If you seek to represent student perceptions, you aren’t restricted to using a survey or questionnaire (though those can be effective!). Consider interviews or focus groups to gather data for analysis. If you’re attempting to determine the effectiveness of a pedagogical approach, consider looking at student produced artifacts or course portfolios as a potential source. If you can, seek out data from multiple sources to triangulate your findings and increase the strength of your research. Think carefully about your specific research question, determine the “best fit” data to address your question, and determine the best way to collect that data. Convenient data isn’t always good data, so be prepared to work to collect high-quality data to investigate your research question.
  6. Represent your SoTL project in a way that will be welcome in your own discipline. SoTL work can and should be represented in a way that reflects your own disciplinary practices and expectations. For some researchers, that may mean that SoTL research is shared in more “traditional” formats such as research papers, research notes, and oral/poster sessions at SoTL or disciplinary conferences. For others, SoTL can be represented though books, blog posts, wikis, and creative endeavors such as a video, a documentary, a play, a piece of artwork, or through dance. This is not meant to be an exclusive list, but simply one to make new SoTL researchers think about how they plan to share their SoTL work as that decision may influence other aspects of their research.
  7. Match your dissemination outlet(s) with your intended audience. Is the research question you’re seeking to answer with your study one that might appeal to a cross-disciplinary audience? If so, an outlet that allows a broad viewership is appropriate. Likewise, if the SoTL work you’re engaged in is most applicable within your own discipline, it would be wise to choose an outlet to share your work that is visible to your disciplinary peers. Don’t feel as though you need to only share your SoTL work in one place, however. With a bit of effort, most SoTL research can (and perhaps should!) be shared in multiple ways and forms.

If you have colleagues who are considering a SoTL research agenda, please share this list with them! And, as requested at the top of this post, please DO add any other advice you might offer to a new SoTL researcher in the comments below. We would love to expand this list to reflect the ideas of our blog’s readers!

Leave a comment

Fall SoTL Opportunities at ISU

This fall, the Office of the Cross Chair in SoTL at Illinois State University is offering several opportunities for faculty, staff, and students to support new or ongoing SoTL projects. Each is described below (headers link to additional information for each program):

Go Global with SoTL Mini-Grants: The Go Global with SoTL Mini-Grant program will provide mini-grants to study the developmental and learning outcomes of ISU students as a result of global/international/cross-cultural curricular or co-curricular experiences.These experiences could be part of an ISU class or program on campus, a study abroad experience, a co-curricular travel and/or volunteer experience, etc. as long as a global/international/cross-cultural component is clearly a major aspect of the assignment or experience. Mini-grants are for $1,000per proposal. Funds may be used for any appropriate budget category (e.g., printing, commodities, equipment, travel, student help, and salary in FY16). We expect to award five grants.

SoTL Travel Grants: The SoTL Travel Grant program is designed to encourage public sharing of SoTL work on the teaching and/or learning of ISU students. The program provides partial funding for travel to present SoTL work. Funds up to $700 per application/conference will be awarded. Funds may be used toward conference registration and/or travel costs for a trip taken (and not fully reimbursed), or to be taken, to present SoTL work this fiscal year. We expect to award 10-14 grants for FY16.

University-Wide SoTL Award: The Dr. John Chizmar & Dr. Anthony Ostrosky Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Award recognizes and encourages high quality and quantitiy of SoTL work at ISU and in the discipline beyond ISU that contributes to the SoTL field, the SoTL body of knowledge, improved teaching, and enhanced student learning. A monetary award of $3000 is offered to the winner of this award annually. The recipient of this award will be recognized at the CTLT Teaching and Learning Symposium, at Founder’s Day, and at an RSP event.

Please contact Kathleen McKinney ( with questions about any of these specific funding opportunities!

Leave a comment

SoTL Applied: Taking a Metacognitive Approach to Teaching and Learning

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

Recently, I came across a blog written by Ed Nuhfer titled Developing Metacogntive Literacy though Role Play: Edward DeBono’s Six Thinking Hats. I will admit to being intrigued, having not heard of this approach before. Nuhfer’s blog focused on DeBono’s “Six Thinking Hats” as a foundation for training students to learn via perspective taking. He suggests and describes six “hats” that students can wear, and suggests ways course instructors can implement the use of these “hats” to:

  • urge students to present factual evidence about a given course topic
  • advocate for the use/implementation/acceptance of the topic being discussed
  • challenge the use/implementation/acceptance of the topic being discussed
  • express emotion to share positive, negative and/or neutral feelings about a specific course topic
  • question assumptions and/or challenge peers to think differently about a given course topic
  • reflect and increase awareness on a given course topic

Each of these approaches asks students to demonstrate their understanding of course content in a different manner, channeling their metacognitive (aka: “thinking about thinking”) learning processes. Nuhfer argues that by engaging in this form of perspective taking, students become more self-aware as learners and can increase deep learning for specific course content. SoTL researchers have advocated for such metacognitive approaches to learning for decades, indicating that:

Integration of metacognitive instruction with discipline-based learning can enhance student achievement and develop in student the ability to learn independently (Donovan, Bransford, & Pelligrino, 1999, p. 17).

While the Six Hats method for teaching via metacognition is one approach course instructors can adopt for their use, many sources (e.g., Ambrose et al, 2010; Lovett, 2008) agree that when students engage in the following activities, metacognitive learning can be achieved in many different learning contexts:

  1. demonstrate the ability to assess the demands of a learning task
  2. evaluate their knowledge and skills for the task at hand
  3. plan an appropriate approach to undertake the learning task
  4. self-monitor their learning progress throughout the task
  5. make adjustments to their approach to learning as they work towards task completion

How are you emphasizing metacognitive learning in your classrooms? What processes are you using? How are you mediating these processes to allow students to understand your expectations and practice with the above mentioned metacognitive skills? We’d love to hear about your experiences — so please comment below!

Blog Resources:

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., Lovett, M. C., DiPietro, M., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: 7 research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Donovan, M. S., Bransford, J. D., & Pellegrino, J. W. (Eds). (1999). How people learn: Bridging research and practice. Washington DC: National Academy Press.

Lovett, M. C. (2008, January). Teaching metacogntion [featured presentation at Educause conference]. Retrieved from:

Nufer, E. (2015). Developing Metacogntive Literacy though Role Play: Edward DeBono’s Six Thinking Hats [blog]. Retrieved from:

1 Comment

Become a Social Change Agent for SoTL

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

In the many workshops and keynotes on SoTL that I have given over the years at many institutions and conferences, participants always express complaints about the insufficient value, reward, use, and support of SoTL. And though we talk about the many reasons why these problems exist, I prefer to focus the conversation on what can be done. I suggest that everyone, in different ways and to different degrees, should be a social change agent fighting to enhance the value, reward, use, and support of SoTL both within their institution and within their discipline. Below are several actions those of us who care about SoTL, and improving teaching and learning, can take to advance the field in these contexts.


  • Support junior faculty and graduate students in SoTL work.
  • Co-opt respected colleagues as allies in the social movement.
  • Push for more SoTL resources on campus (e.g., research grants and travel funds) and/or help with faculty development about SoTL including a SoTL conference, publication, contest, blog and other social media to provide local outlets and sharing of SoTL work.
  • Facilitate collaborations (e.g., joint workshops, pooled resources for grants, opportunities to share SoTL work on campus) between the office that offers support for SoTL and related offices (e.g., Research and Sponsored Programs, IRB, Assessment Office, Teaching Center, University Marketing, Admissions, Faculty/Academic Senate).
  • Send SoTL citations and results that are relevant to campus initiatives or concerns to decision makers.
  • Facilitate the use of SoTL data/results in course design, pedagogical choices, incorporation of new technologies, and curriculum reform.
  • Inform and work directly with Chairs, Directors, and Deans to use SoTL in the above processes and to support SoTL work by their faculty/staff members (e.g., send them information about opportunities for their faculty/staff, hold SoTL information sessions, offer examples of how SoTL can be useful in their unit).
  • Educate colleagues and administrators making decisions in the reward system about SoTL work and volunteer to help rework the reward system to increase value for SoTL.
  • Work to have SoTL as an explicit value or goal in your institution’s strategic plan. Goal 2, strategy 2F in
  • Work to have a University level SoTL award and/or one or more prestigious SoTL positions on campus.


  • Connect people in your discipline to the broader, cross-discipline, international SoTL movement by informing them of conferences, organizations, and publications. For example,
  • Encourage support for faculty engaged in SoTL in your discipline.
  • Volunteer to lead a workshop or organize a session on SoTL at your disciplinary conference.
  • Push for a plenary/keynote on SoTL at your disciplinary conference.
  • Work to make sure SoTL is an explicit and significant part of any formal ‘teaching-learning’ subgroup in your discipline/disciplinary organization.
  • Work to write, and have accepted by governance, a formal statement about SoTL in your disciplinary organization.
  • Help establish an award for SoTL work in your disciplinary organization.
  • Offer SoTL small grants from your disciplinary association.