The SoTL Advocate

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

Problems, Opportunities, and Wonderments: Possible Subsets of “What works?”

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Written by Jennifer Friberg, Cross Endowed Chair in SoTL and Associate Professor of Communication Sciences & Disorders at Illinois State University

what worksWhen I talk to people new to SoTL — students, faculty, other interested folks — I am sometimes asked what a “typical” SoTL research question might be. Part of my description of SoTL details that a fair amount of SoTL is context-specific and is meant to gather information or data about a fairly restricted population: the students (or teachers) in the course or experience being studied. I explain that while SoTL is not inherently generalizable, if enough people in enough different contexts study similar questions, we can develop standards for high-impact teaching and learning practices that CAN transfer across classrooms, disciplines, and/or institutions. Kuh (2008) wrote of high-impact practices for undergraduate education that exemplify this idea very nicely.

But back to those “typical” SoTL questions…it’s not always easy for those new to SoTL to identify one thing to study in their first SoTL project. In Opening Lines: Approaches to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Pat Hutchings (2000) laid out a wonderful taxonomy of questions to characterize the main foci evident in most scholarship of teaching and learning work: what works, what is, visions of the possible, and theory building questions. She describes “what works?” questions as being the typical starting place for most new SoTL researchers, as topics falling into this part of Hutchings’ taxonomy focus on investigating the effects of different approaches to teaching and learning. Having facilitated numerous “Intro to SoTL” experiences for faculty and students, I wholeheartedly agree with Hutchings that this “what works?” level of inquiry often is the first explored by new SoTL scholars. It is on that level of Hutchings’ taxonomy that I focus my thoughts today.

I have found that it’s helpful to break down “what works?” concepts into three subcategories in an effort to encompass possible areas of SoTL study. I use the following terms, though many others could be substituted easily:

  • Problems exist in the teaching and learning contexts of most instructors, and typically involve doubt, insecurity, or difficulty in some form or fashion. Problems exist when any aspects of classroom environment, course content, or course management cause trouble for students or for the course instructor. Potential problems that could be studied in a SoTL project include:
    • determining how to use problematic classroom space most effectively,
    • managing active learning with large course enrollment,
    • figuring out why a particular class/lab/experience seems to be very difficult for students.
  • Opportunities are variables that become a part of your learning context, whether you placed them there or they occur via happenstance. These are usually perceived by students and course instructors as more positive in nature than are problems. Opportunities that might be studied as part of a SoTL project include:
    • identifying the impact of a study abroad experience,
    • measuring the differences between flipped and traditional teaching designs,
    • analyzing student learning as a result of a service learning associated with a particular course.
  • Wonderments* lead to pedagogies that are integrated into a course/learning context in a creative manner. Wonderments begin with the question “what would happen if we did ___________?” adding something that otherwise wouldn’t exist in a course to address an instructor-conceived idea. Examples of potential wonderments that might be studied in a teaching/learning context are:
    • implementing pre-course modules designed to decrease math anxiety for students in a chemistry course,
    • using arts-based observation methods to help doctors, nurses, or other clinical professionals be more effective diagnosticians,
    • creating a new pedagogy (or merging others together) to see if they support student learning (e.g., combining case study teaching with perspective-taking to encourage students to understand clinical cases more comprehensively).

The examples above are obviously not exhaustive, but are meant to illustrate each of these terms as I use them. Is it possible that overlap exists across the categories of problems, opportunities, and wonderments? I would think so, particularly in terms of wonderments, as a creative idea might be used in addressing a problem or in creating an opportunity. That said, as wonderments occur on their own as well, I thought them to be deserving of their own descriptor.

Why do these possible subcategories of Hutchings’ “what works?” question matter? I have consistently found that using subcategories makes it easier for new SoTL researchers to identify the focus of their first study – and to understand why they are interested in studying that topic. As a SoTL faculty developer, anything that facilitates research on teaching and learning and helps crystalize ideas about SoTL is something worth using!

*The term wonderment was inspired by Dr. Ken Jerich, my dissertation adviser, who regularly used this term in his teaching and research. Obviously, I do now, as well.


Blog References:

Hutchings, P. (2000). Opening lines: Approaches to the scholarship of teaching and learning. Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching: Menlo Park, CA.

Kuh, G. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. AAC&U: Washington, DC.


One thought on “Problems, Opportunities, and Wonderments: Possible Subsets of “What works?”

  1. Pingback: Updated Advice for New SoTL Researchers | The SoTL Advocate

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