The SoTL Advocate

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

Why SoTL Matters

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Written by Erin Mikulec, Associate Professor (School of Teaching and Learning) & SoTL Scholar-Mentor at Illinois State University

As the semester draws to a close, I have been reflecting on how SoTL has impacted my teaching and research.  This semester has been different than others for me in terms of SoTL as I have had the wonderful opportunity to serve as a SoTL Scholar-Mentor and to participate in the SoTL Commons Conference in Savannah, Georgia. These activities have led me to think about how SoTL has shaped the work that I do, both in terms of teaching and research.

One valuable aspect of SoTL is that it provides insight into how class projects and activities are effective…or not. For instance, one of my first SoTL projects examined the learning outcomes of 4-week peer-teaching and classroom management project that I have had my students do for several years.  While I had always felt strongly that the project was an impactful experience for my students, it wasn’t until I analyzed their work and reflections as data that I was able to identify not only the strengths of the project, but also where it could be improved.  Of course, not all projects go as planned or have the outcomes that one would hope for.  This became clear during a subsequent SoTL project in which I studied the learning outcomes of an online international experience. My students communicated via online discussion forums with students at a university in Japan, and while the students were excited about the project, it fell short due to differences in communication styles and beliefs about the role of educational technology which varied across the two cultures. While it would have been possible to simply conclude that the project was not as successful as I had hoped, it was the analysis of the student work, both from the U.S. and Japan, which led me to understand those two important pieces, and to not simply chalk it up to “logistics”.

SoTL research not only identifies learning outcomes, but it also informs instruction.  The data generated by the two projects described above, one successful and one less so, impacted my classes significantly. In the class with the peer-teaching project, I was able to place greater emphasis on certain aspects, such as preparing students for the experience and providing more opportunities for discussion and reflection. This made the project even stronger. In my class with the international experience, I worked closely with my university partner in Japan to identify ways in which we might support and encourage more interaction and communication amongst both groups of students.  In both instances, it would have been easy to simply say that one project worked and the other didn’t. However, it was through SoTL that I was able to take the results of my research and apply them to my practice.

In addition to supporting classroom practices, SoTL serves as a means for instructors and advisors to work effectively with university students. In my first semester at Illinois State, I began working with the ISU Equestrians.  As a faculty co-advisor, I attended meetings, accompanied riders to horseshows, and provided administrative support as well as conflict management.  This led to my very first SoTL study in which my co-author and I examined the learning outcomes of participation in a Registered Student Organization (RSO).  It was through this project that I realized the importance of recognizing that university students are in a constant process of transitioning from student to professional and that our role as instructors and RSO advisors is instrumental in supporting this process, through learning to work with others on the team, working with external stakeholders, problem solving, and communication.  Our research, which began with our own ISU team, eventually led to collecting data regionally and nationally.  What’s more, making our research public through conference presentations and publications, allowed others to begin to look at these processes as well.

Finally, SoTL conferences and events provide a venue for instructors and researchers to share their work in a supportive environment. I have attended a number of such conferences, such as ISSOTL and SoTL Commons, and am always impressed and inspired by the work that others are doing.  Often, I believe that in the College of Education we take for granted the validity of researching our teaching and using the results to inform our practices.  It was at my first SoTL conference that I understood that this is not necessarily shared in all colleges and departments. This only reinforced for me the importance of SoTL and encouraging SoTL researchers to participate in conferences and make their work public.  It is through these venues that SoTL researchers have a voice that will hopefully encourage them to continue in their work. Furthermore, having served as a SoTL Scholar-Mentor this semester has been a wonderful experience in working with colleagues across campus to develop their own SoTL work.  All in all, while I have always believed strongly in the power of SoTL, this semester has helped me to understand the multiple ways in which SoTL matters.

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