The SoTL Advocate

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

Updated Advice for New SoTL Researchers

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

Screen Shot 2018-06-23 at 6.48.06 PM.pngAlmost three years ago, I penned a blog post titled Advice for New SoTL Researchers. In that post, I offered seven suggestions for those just getting started with a SoTL research agenda. In the last few months, I’ve had the good fortune to work with several cohorts of faculty and students who are part of “Intro to SoTL” cohorts. In working with them, I realize that the advice I offer to new researchers has changed. So, the following is my best effort at updating a list of things that new SoTL scholars might want to keep in mind.

  1. Design your project carefully. Examine the macro (classroom-level) context around you, looking for problems, opportunities, or wonderments that might be the basis for a SoTL project. Do you have a new technology that you’re wanting to integrate in your class, but aren’t sure it will work? Are you teaching an evening section of a very large class and you have an idea about improving student engagement? Might there be a way to study an out-of-class learning experience you’ve set up for your students? All of these – and many others! – could be a great place to start!
  2. Once you have a glimmer of an idea of the topic you might like to study, search for teaching and learning research in your field or another that might demonstrate how your topic has been studied in the past. Because SoTL research functions to provide a snapshot of your teaching/learning context at a point in time, it is fine to replicate a project that has already been done to see if similar outcomes are evident in your context. That said, reviewing past literature might drive you in a different research direction or provide an idea of how other scholars have approached research design in the past.
  3. Talk to a person who has completed a SoTL project and ask for advice or consultation. I have found individuals involved in teaching and learning research to be some of the most giving and collaborative colleagues I’ve encountered. Most would be quite happy to share lessons learned or chat about your idea(s) for a project. Seek out experienced SoTL scholars and learn with and from them. Then, when it’s your turn to be the experienced mentor, offer your wisdom often and broadly.
  4. Choose your data source wisely. There are SO many options in terms of potential data sources for SoTL work. As we are studying teaching and learning, SoTL scholars frequently use class artifacts, assessments, or reflections as a source for data. Other surveys, interviews, or focus groups beyond the typical business of your course might be useful. You are only limited by your own lack of creativity here. Carefully asses the focus of your project to suss out the richest sources of data for your study. Think about direct vs. indirect sources and the impact of your data on the overall rigor and quality of your work. Identifying a data source for your work should not be a quick decision, but rather, a careful deliberation.
  5. Consider more than one data source. As there are inherent biases in SoTL (e.g., it’s not meant to be inherently generalizable in most cases, we study our own students, true randomization or control is hard to exert), it’s optimal to have at least two data sources to compare and contrast to help validate the conclusions that you draw.
  6. Analyze and interpret your data appropriately. This piece of advice likely doesn’t need a lot of explanation; however, I would simply offer that you should think carefully about whether a qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods approach to data analysis and interpretation is best for your corpus of data. Don’t force a fit, just finesse what you have so that the path to understanding your teaching/learning question is clear.
  7. Think about the audiences most suited for your work as you plan to share it with peers and others. Don’t assume that the potential audience for your work is broad and cross-disciplinary if your project only studies a phenomenon that is part of your discipline. Conversely, if your SoTL project focuses on a topic that has multi-disciplinary appeal, don’t narrow your audience unnecessarily. Share, publish, and promote your work in meaningful contexts with the individuals who will find it valuable!
  8. Put students at the heart of your SoTL. It has been well-stated that the heart of SoTL is the classroom. I choose to interpret this sentiment as not just a reminder that the single classroom context is the typical and intended focus of SoTL. Rather, I believe that the heart of SoTL subsumes the entire classroom environment and all the stakeholders within. Yes, you may study your students as research participants, but does that preclude you from sharing what you’ve learned with them? That is an opportunity that is often missed, in my view. Also, why not invite students to assist with your SoTL with the same frequency that you invite them into your disciplinary research? From my experience, it’s valuable for your students AND for you.

Of course, this is in NO way an exhaustive list of recommendations for new SoTL researchers. What is represented here is a continued starting place, on that will likely continue to evolve. Maybe three years from now, I’ll feel obligated/motivated to revise this list again! Until then, happy SoTL-ing! J

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