Written by Kathleen McKinney, Professor of Sociology & Cross Endowed Chair in SoTL, Emeritus, Illinois State University; Maxine Atkinson, Professor of Sociology, and Tyler Flockhart, Graduate Student, North Carolina State University
We were honored to be invited to write, and submit for review, a paper for the journal, Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, for their special section of ‘Cross Fertilization’ papers. In these papers, SoTL researchers from a discipline other than psychology offer ideas that might be of interest and use to psychologists doing or considering doing SoTL. Though our focus was on this sociology to psychology idea transfer, we believe some of what we discuss and illustrate in the paper might be of use to those in other disciplines as well. Thus, in this blog post, we briefly outline the content of our paper and provide a reference to the full paper.
Recognizing the overlap between the disciplines of sociology and psychology as well as the significant contributions of psychologists to the research on learning and SoTL, we focus in the full paper on three areas in sociological scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) and sociology that offer potential contributions to psychologists (and others) engaged in SoTL research. Though our suggestions come directly from the heart of theory and method in our discipline in general, we began by offering some grounding of our ideas in the history and literature on teaching and SoTL, specifically, in sociology as well as in the field of SoTL more generally. To do this, we offer example citations of early (1980’s) writing in the sociology teaching-learning movement and more recent writing in the field of SoTL that support the importance of both context and qualitative methods in SoTL research.
Drawing from analyses of content in the journal Teaching Sociology, we then offer a brief overview of the ‘face of SoTL in sociology’ that might be of interest to others by reviewing some of the recent trends in SoTL in sociology including what research methods are used, the topics covered, and a few common findings. This overview of SoTL in sociology shows, empirically, that sociologists value critical thinking and deep learning as important learning objectives, that active learning and strong relevance of content to students are both useful pedagogies, and that student attitudes as well as student demographics or group membership can be related to student learning. SoTL research in sociology is also evidence-based, is very often at the classroom level, and uses multiple methods or measures to gather data, though often including student self-perceptions of learning.
Next, we address the utility of the ‘sociological imagination’—as well as two related, example theories that involve social structure, stratification, and social interaction—as a perspective for further understanding of teaching, learning, and SoTL. The sociological imagination is the key threshold concept (Meyer and Land, 2006) of our discipline and this paradigm tells us that human behavior exists in social context. C. Wright Mills (1959) defined the sociological imagination as the intersection of individual biography and historical context and emphasized the importance of distinguishing between personal troubles and public issues. Thus, sociologists argue that viewing learning as something that happens within individuals without consideration of the historical and social context within which these individuals learn is a limited and problematic view. Based on the sociological imagination and sociological level theories, we then urge psychologists and others doing SoTL to include three sets of variables and measures in their SoTL research: demographic or sub-cultural, interpersonal, and contextual. Including such variables and measures, we argue, will improve SoTL research and our ability to understand findings, as well as increase teacher effectiveness and student learning. We briefly summarize several SoTL in sociology studies that include one or more of these types of variables. We also apply the sociological imagination to a concrete example of a psychological construct and a teaching-learning issue– that of studying self-efficacy for learning statistics– to illustrate the types of research questions and variables to measure that would stem from such an analysis.
We then discuss the value, and sociological examples, of qualitative methods for SoTL research. As many of you know, qualitative methods– such as ‘think-alouds’, interviews and focus groups, observation, open-ended survey questions, and qualitative analysis of student writing and other products –have a variety of characteristics that fit well with many SoTL research questions. “Qualitative data are data in verbal or textual or visual form. Such data are more detailed and more directly reflect the voice of the participant. Qualitative work generally uses a naturalistic and interpretive strategy. The participants’ understanding of the meaning of the phenomenon is critical. You can obtain rich and elaborate data, look for emergent themes, draw some ideas about process, and quote the actual words of your respondents.” (McKinney, 2007, p. 68). Qualitative methods and data may also be especially useful for including ‘student voices’ in our SoTL research and providing data to help us understand process and intervening variables– the how, when, why– in our studies. We end this section of our paper with a brief summary of several SoTL in sociology studies that use qualitative methods.
Finally, we conclude the article by offering numerous additional sociologically-based research ideas that stem from the sociological imagination and the use of qualitative methods. Though the paper focuses on what psychologists might learn from our ideas, we hope that some of you in other disciplines will enjoy the full paper and find some uses for our suggestions.
McKinney, K. (2007). Enhancing learning through the scholarship of teaching and learning: The challenges and joys of juggling. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Meyer, J. H. F., & Land, R. (Eds.). (2006). Overcoming barriers to student understanding: Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. London: Routledge.
Mills, C.W. (1959). The sociological imagination. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
 This post includes original text as well as edited excerpts from the full article: McKinney, K., Atkinson, M., & Flockhart, T. (2017). A Sampling of What Psychologists Engaged in SoTL Might Learn from Sociology: Cross-fertilization article. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology. (in press, June). http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2017-19187-001/