The SoTL Advocate

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


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Student Teaching in Eastbourne, England: A SoTL Small Grant Project Grant One Year Later

Written by: Erin Mikulec and Jill Donnel, School of Teaching and Learning at Illinois State University

globalThe College of Education and the University of Brighton have worked in partnership for over 25 years to provide ISU students with the opportunity to complete half of their 16-week student teaching experience in schools in Eastbourne, England. However, to date, there has been no longitudinal research using multiple measures of data to investigate the impact(s) of the program. To that end, we proposed a study to examine the personal and professional learning outcomes of students who complete half of their student teaching in Eastbourne, England.

We began with a pilot study in October 2015 with five students participating in the program and collected the first iteration of data with a group of 18 students in February 2016. The students represented three different majors in the School of Teaching and Learning: Early Childhood Education, Elementary Education and Middle Level Education. Prior to leaving for England, the students had completed eight weeks of student teaching in schools in Illinois.

The study included multiple measures of data over the course of the students’ 8-week experience in England:

  • Students completed pre-departure modules to help prepare them for living in England and to familiarize them with the English school system, the National Curriculum, and classroom management practices.
  • We then traveled with the students for the first week of their experience, where we participated in their induction and orientation activities, and accompanied them to their schools to meet their cooperating teachers. We held a focus group discussion after the school visit in which the students discussed their first day at school, their decision to participate in the program, and their expectations for their student teaching experiences.
  • Over the course of the semester, students completed weekly reflections. This allowed us as the researchers to observe growth and development over the course of the experience, rather than at a fixed point in time. Each reflection provided guided questions focusing on different aspects of teaching and also allowed for making comparisons between student teaching experiences in Illinois and England. Site supervisors from the University of Brighton visited and evaluated the students twice during the program. These reports were also collected as data and provided an external perspective on the students’ teaching practices.
  • At the end of the 8-week student teaching program, students completed a final reflection in which they discussed how they believed the experience had changed them personally and professionally, their challenges and successes, what they will take with them from the experience into their future classrooms, and their preparation to return home to the United States.

Although we are now in the final stage of collecting our third iteration of data, we have identified several emerging themes from looking at our first two cohorts of data. Our initial findings indicate that there were personal and professional learning outcomes across all three majors, within each major, and even several shared between two majors.  For instance, the data revealed that the experience led to increased self-confidence both personally and professionally, as well as an increase in cultural awareness, in and out of the classroom for all three majors. In terms of themes shared between two majors, Early Childhood Education and Elementary Education students reported that the experience helped them to practice differentiation in instruction, and to see the value of student choice in the classroom. Data from Elementary and Middle Level Education students indicated that their experience helped them to work with diverse student populations and to negotiate classroom management strategies that are different from what they had experienced during their student teaching placement in Illinois.

Across all program areas, the participants identified ways in which they believed that the English school system exemplified certain aspects of teaching that they had not seen in a similar manner in their Illinois placements. Overall, the initial findings indicate that the student teaching experience in Eastbourne provided participants with a hands-on opportunity to compare and contrast the U.S. and the U.K. educational systems. By finishing the remainder of their student teaching in England, the students were able to recognize differences in practices and how they could use this practical experience improve upon their own in their future classrooms.

With the third and final iteration of data concluding, we look forward to analyzing the remaining data and completing the project. We presented our initial findings at the ISSoTL conference in October, 2016 in Los Angeles, as well as at ISU’s University-Wide Teaching and Learning Symposium in January, 2017. Both presentations yielded constructive and positive feedback. In addition to submitting a manuscript for publication, the results from this study will also be used to inform practice in the School of Teaching and Learning’s student teaching program, both in Illinois and England.

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Why SoTL Matters

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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Designing SoTL Studies for Out-of-Class Learning: Learning as a Process over Time

Written by Erin Mikulec, SoTL Scholar-Mentor, Associate Professor (Teaching & Learning), and Interim Director of the English Language Institute at Illinois State University

Out-of-class learning offers many opportunities to examine student learning outcomes as the result of participation in various activities, ranging from student organizations, study abroad experiences, field-based or service learning projects associated with courses on campus. In order to support researchers who may be interested in engaging in this kind of SoTL work, this post outlines ways in which such a study might be designed. As a SoTL researcher, I have carried out several studies that have examined out-of-class learning and, in the process, have learned a great deal in regard to designing tasks and activities that serve as data measures. Although my own work has focused on study abroad and student organizations, the suggestions presented here may be applied to a variety of SoTL contexts for out-of-class learning.

As with any study, it is important to specify exactly what it is you want to know. When I first began studying out-of-class learning, my guiding questions were broad and general regarding student learning outcomes. However, in looking at out-of-class learning, one thing I’ve come to understand is the value of differentiating between personal and professional learning outcomes that students experience as a result of participation in such activities. For me as a researcher, this allowed me to examine student growth through different lenses beyond that of academics.  Therefore, when thinking about your guiding questions for a study on out-of-class learning, think about how the project, experience or activity may impact students both professionally and personally. For instance, does the activity in the study develop students’ professional skills through a field-based experience? Which ones and how so? Or perhaps the experience supports students in their development of leadership and communication skills? Further still, does the experience allow for opportunities for personal growth and reflection? Although themes often emerge in data analysis, it can be helpful during the design process to be mindful of these differences in learning outcomes.

When thinking about how to design your out-of-class learning outcomes study, consider your initial data points. We know that good SoTL research considers multiple measures of data collection, thus, the means you use to capture this information at the on-set are important. These data measures can be used to identify where your students are in terms of skills and the potential for growth and development as the project or experiences progress. Some possible tasks and activities to do this include:

  • Surveys, which can have Likert-scale items, open-ended questions, or both,
  • Reflection exercises which help students to consider what they hope to gain from the project or experience, what they already know about a certain issue or topic, or what they are most excited about, apprehensive about, etc.,
  • Online group discussions, based on materials provided by the researcher, such as videos, news or research articles about the topic of the project or experience, or simply questions posed by the researcher,
  • Proposed work plans or schedules of tasks to be completed throughout the project or experience,
  • Multimodal means of capturing students’ starting points, such as photos or videos that students create as part of their own documentation of the journey on which they are about to embark.

In my own out-of-class learning research, I have found that it is equally important to think of this as broadly as possible and more as a starting point rather than simply the “pre” in a pre-post scenario. In this way, using SoTL to assess out-of-class learning is more robust and not limited to a before and after picture of learning outcomes. This allows you as a researcher to examine a progression of learning outcomes and even, as will be discussed next, at which points in the project or experience these outcomes begin to take shape.

Once the project or experience has begun, consider the ways in which you can capture data as progress points along the way. The number of these data points and when you collect them will of course depend on the specifics of the project or experience and what you want to know in order to answer your guiding question(s). For instance, if it is a four week long project or experience, perhaps you are interested in tasks or activities that serve as data measures once a week or once every two weeks. Even a project or experience that is one day long can have data measures at different critical points throughout the time in which students are engaged. Regardless of how you design this aspect of your study, it will allow for more robust data collection and may reveal progress towards outcomes that support your findings in the end.  Not only do in-progress measures serve as ways to collect more data, they can also point to issues arising within the project or experience that may require intervention, allowing the researcher even more insight into learning processes and outcomes as the result. These tasks and activities can be carried out individually or in pairs or groups. Some examples of means to do this are:

  • Weekly reflections on how the project or experience is going, or what the students are experiencing,
  • Diary or journal entries in which students discuss the highs and lows, the challenges and breakthroughs,
  • Photos or videos,
  • Observations of students engaged in various project or experience activities,
  • Social media activity, for instance posts to Facebook or Twitter or blogs,
  • Summaries of project tasks or activities in which the students have engaged.

As your project or experience draws to a close, what are some final sources of data that you can collect that will aid in answering your guiding questions? Consider carefully what these could be and what they could tell you about the out-of-class learning that has taken place over the course of your project or experience. These final tasks or activities could be summative in nature or more reflective. Perhaps they require that your students return to their initial thoughts and ideas about the project or experience and how those have changed or been impacted as the result of their participation. Through this type of data measure, you provide students the opportunity to reflect on their own out-of-class learning, which has the potential to support, or maybe even refute, your own findings within the data. Some examples of final data measures include:

  • Final reflection writing activities,
  • A survey with Likert-scale items, open-ended prompts or both that revisit initial survey questions or ask completely new ones,
  • A focus group with your students,
  • Interviews with student participants,
  • A final project report or summary,
  • A presentation of the work that was carried out,

There is no doubt that SoTL provides a unique opportunity for researching and assessing out-of-class learning. Given that many university classes across the disciplines offer field experiences, service learning activities or special projects that take students out of the classroom in an effort to make real-world connections between content and practice, this kind of research can be used to provide insight into what students actually take away, both personally and professionally, from such experiences.  However, in order to do this, SoTL researchers must be purposeful in how they not only design the project or experience in which students engage, but also how they will capture data at the beginning, end and at various points throughout.