The SoTL Advocate

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

SoTL, ER, and DBER: Thoughts Inspired by a Twitter Conversation

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

A few weeks ago, I published a blog post titled “Finding the Goldilocks fit for your SoTL manuscript.” As always, I publicized the new blog post on my Office of the Cross Chair Twitter account (@ISU_SoTL). Who knew that a really great question from Erin Whitteck (@EWhitteck) would engender such a great conversation over the following days?

tweetstorm

Folks contributing to the subsequent tweet stream offered the suggestion that there is overlap between disciplinary-based educational research (DBER), SoTL, and educational research (ER), but that the lines between these types of inquiry could be a bit blurry. Questions were raised about rigor, methodological differences, and resources for better understanding. Since then, I’ve been pondering. To get us into the same semantic sandbox, consider the following definitions:

SoTL “involves the systematic study of teaching and/or learning and the public sharing and review of such work. ‘Study’ is broadly defined given disciplinary differences in epistemology and the need for interdisciplinary SoTL…SoTL focuses on teaching and learning at the college level, and is primarily classroom based. Ideally, SoTL also involves application and use” (McKinney, 2007, p. 10).

“ER is the scientific field of study that examines education and learning processes and the human attributes, interactions, organizations, and institutions that shape educational outcomes. Scholarship in the field seeks to describe, understand, and explain how learning takes place and how formal and informal contexts of education affect all forms of learning. Educational research embraces the full spectrum of rigorous methods appropriate to the questions being asked and also drives the development of new tools and methods” (AERA, 2018).

“DBER is grounded in the science and engineering disciplines and addresses questions of teaching and learning within those disciplines…DBER investigates teaching and learning in a discipline using a range of methods with deep grounding in the discipline’s priorities, worldview, knowledge, and practices…DBER is informed by and complementary to general [educational] research on human learning and cognition” (Singer, Neilsen, & Schweingruber, 2012, p. 9).

In response to the suggestion that there is overlap between SoTL, ER, and DBER, I believe that to be an undeniable truth. Each focuses on research on teaching and learning, serves to add knowledge to better understand educational processes, demands rigor, and has the potential for impact across contexts (e.g., micro, meso, macro, mega). SoTL, DBER, and ER also each purport to embrace a wide array of research approaches, including qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods designs.

So, then, what about the differences? Here are a few that are important to consider:

  1. Both DBER and ER apply to K-12 research in addition to research in higher education. SoTL is focused on higher education.
  2. DBER is a form of ER, with a focus on science and engineering disciplines.
  3. The purpose of SoTL is to advance the practices of teaching and learning through systematic study and reflection (Larsson, Martensson, Price, & Roxa, 2017). The purpose of ER and DBER is to create generalizable knowledge about teaching and learning (Felten, 2015), though it should be noted that DBER scholars acknowledge a need to translate DBER findings to classroom practice, in line with SoTL (Singer, Neilsen, & Schweingruber, 2012).
  4. A common tenant of SoTL is that scholars study their unique learning contexts to better understand their teaching and/or their students’ learning. Most ER removes the investigator from the context being studied.
  5. While ER and DBER seek to create generalizable findings, most SoTL is not inherently generalizable as it often studies a single learning context and might study a small(ish) number of individuals. Rather, SoTL should be inherently replicable through the explanation of a systematic approach to investigation that is reported when results are disseminated. SoTL seeks to build generalizability over time as different constructs are studied in different places by different people at different times.
  6. SoTL embraces a “big tent” philosophy with a wide array of disciplines and diverse approaches to inquiry recognized as making important contributions to research on teaching and learning. As ER and DBER typically focus on education or STEM fields, theories, methods, and practices for these disciplines are typically utilized in those types of inquiry.

ER, DBER, and SoTL are all valuable forms of teaching and learning research. While there is overlap between and across these categories of research, they are not competitors. They exist on a continuum that encourages scholarly approaches teaching and further research on teaching and learning. I would argue that it is the interpretation of the similarities and differences of SoTL, ER, and DBER that friction might emerge, as we typically consider research through our own disciplinary lenses. That might be topic for a future blog all on its own…

So, Erin, I’ll try to answer Twitter question from earlier in November that launched this discussion: “what is the difference between a disciplinary SoTL journal and a DBER journal?” Honestly, there may not be a difference. In some fields, SoTL and DBER might both be published in the same journal. In others, it might be one or the other. I’d suggest that you look at the aims and scope statements for your discipline’s SoTL and DBER journals. Identify which aligns with the work you’ve done in terms of purpose (e.g., add or apply knowledge). If you’re not sure, editors LOVE getting emails from prospective contributors. I really mean this! Send an abstract of your work and ask if it’s suitable for their journal or ask a question or two to guide your efforts. Good luck!

Blog References:

American Educational Research Association. (2018). What is educational research? Downloaded from http://www.aera.net/About-AERA/What-is-Education-Research.

Felten, P. (2015). Principles of good practice in SoTL. Teaching & Learning Inquiry, 1(1), pp. 121-125.

Larsson, M., Martensson, K., Priace, L. & Roxa, T. (2017). Constructive friction? Exploring patters between educational research and the scholarship of teaching and learning. Paper presented at the 2nd EuroSoTL Conference, Lund, Sweden.

McKinney, K. (2007). Enhancing learning through the scholarship of teaching and learning: The challenges and joys of juggling. Anker Publishing: Boston, MA.

Singer, S. R., Nielsen, N. R., & Schweingruber, H. A. (Eds.). (2012). Discipline-based education research: understanding and improving learning in undergraduate science and engineering. National Academies Press: Washington, D.C.

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