The SoTL Advocate

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

Beyond the Psychological and Individualistic in SoTL Research

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

As a sociological social psychologist, I believe in (from theoretical perspectives) and know (from research data) the importance of demographic/sub-cultural, interpersonal, and situational factors in human behavior. This is not to say that individual traits or states and individual behaviors are irrelevant; they play critical roles as well. But I think we tend to be psychologically focused and individualistic (in the U.S. at least) in our understandings and explanations of behavior and outcomes.

It seems to me that this applies to our views and research on teaching and learning as well. We focus on the role of teacher traits, attitudes, actions or best practices in the classroom. Our addition of an explicit concern with student learning is rather recent and it is my sense that much SoTL work does not systematically include measures of, or theorizing about, student characteristics, interpersonal or relational factors, environmental variables, and institutional characteristics and context.

I realize that this is likely due, in part, to SoTL most often being practitioner research and action research. Thus the perspective on ‘causes’ or correlates of learning is that of the instructor and his/her actions with his/her students. In addition, SoTL is very often classroom or course based. Thus the perspective is on an assignment or technology or intervention by the instructor and its’ role in learning. These perspectives are, in part, what separate SoTL from more traditional educational research. But, I believe SoTL researchers can also take a broader view of what is going on in and around their classrooms, their courses, and with their students in terms of learning.

I do want to acknowledge an exception to the psychological and individualistic emphasis in SoTL research that I have argued exists. It is expected in good SoTL presentations, publications, and other representations of SoTL projects that researchers will describe the context (usually student characteristics and/or institutional variables) of their SoTL studies. This is, in fact, often done by many of us. Such factors, however, are most often shared for comparability, generalizability, and replication rather than as explanatory factors of or correlates to learning.

Thus, I urge you as SoTL researchers to consider and measure –depending on your research question, theoretical perspectives, and your own practitioner knowledge– three sets of factors or variables in your research and their roles in student learning. These are in addition to teacher traits, states, or behaviors and the existence of a course intervention (broadly defined). Taking a look at some of these factors in your SoTL research can give a more complete picture of what is happening and why as well as add to your understanding and knowledge about future application of your SoTL results.

  • demographic/sub-cultural (examples include student gender, age, year in school, social class, race/ethnicity, background knowledge/experiences, goals for the class)
  • interpersonal/relational (examples include amount or type of class interaction, teacher immediacy, level of rapport or conflict among students and between teacher and students, peer relationships or interaction opportunities, student roles in the classroom)
  • situational/environmental/context (examples include number of students, physical aspects of the classroom such as size, technology, seating arrangement, etc., time of the class, purpose or role of the class in the major or the institution, connections to any co-curricular learning opportunities or institutional teaching-learning initiatives)
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