The SoTL Advocate

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

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

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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.


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