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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Benefits to Faculty who Lead SoTL Research Teams with Students

Written by: Phyllis McCluskey-Titus, Professor of Educational Administration and Foundations at Illinois State University

Students can gain a number of important outcomes through participation in SoTL research teams with faculty. These outcomes include: enhanced research skills (Kardash, 2000); increased satisfaction with group learning (Panelli & Welch, 2005); helpful out-of-class contact between faculty and students (Cotten & Wilson, 2006); and increased connections between students and their discipline (Wayment & Dickson, 2008).

There are also significant benefits to faculty who facilitate SoTL research teams with students as co-researchers. As someone who has now led three different teams of students that studied teaching and learning, I can attest that there are some real benefits to faculty who invest time and energy into this process.

As a program coordinator as well as a faculty member, having willing student researchers allowed me to conduct a significant program evaluation that assessed student learning outcomes using national guidelines. The students developed and administered surveys, conducted interviews, and served as a review panel to rate and make recommendations from the information collected. Their assistance with writing the final report allowed the evaluation to be completed significantly faster than if I had been responsible for the entire process.

As a senior faculty member, conducting SoTL research with “learners” allowed me to keep the process fresh, and to examine different ways of conducting, publishing, and presenting research about teaching and learning with others who were not faculty. The students wanted to know why we used certain methods to collect or analyze data and forced me to reconsider and offer a rationale for what we were doing. One of the teams which was assessing learning outcomes contributed to the development of a survey instrument by asking not only what outcomes were achieved, but where and how students believed these outcomes were learned (class, graduate assistantship, volunteer experiences, professional associations) and this allowed our team to make stronger recommendations to faculty, supervisors, and other students about how to best direct their energies within the program to maximize their learning.

New faculty can certainly use a SoTL research team as “research support” when graduate research assistants are not available. For a small investment of time in teaching the team members, this group of student volunteers can be trained to help with any part of the SoTL research process. In exchange for authorship opportunities or presentation experience, even if funding is not available, SoTL research team members who are students can be more beneficial than finding a faculty mentor or partner to assist you. As the expert about SoTL and how to conduct research, you have to make sure you are very clear about the process and organization of your study in order to have students assist you. This forces you to be organized and prepared, and not put off research in favor of other responsibilities. Having the students involved will help you stay on task and on a specific timeline. By dividing the different tasks among the team members, everyone is able to contribute and learn in the process, and you may be able to be more productive and able to submit more research for publication or presentation.

Leading a SoTL research team is an important form of teaching, and a way to develop strong relationships with students outside the classroom. These relationships may allow a faculty member to better understand students in their program and classes and to adapt teaching methods accordingly. By conducting SoTL research with a team of students outside of class, faculty can learn about how students in their classes are making meaning of material covered and how they respond to teaching methods used. This information can assist in revising and updating syllabi, readings, assessments, and classroom activities to enhance the learning that students report or demonstrate.

Although the development of a SoTL research team takes time, the benefits to faculty in terms of possible enhanced productivity, nurturing relationships with students, developing new motivation and methods for teaching and conducting research, and being able to assess students’ learning are benefits that make this process worth it.


Cotton, S.R., & Wilson, B. (2006). Student-faculty interactions: Dynamics and determinants. Higher Education, 51(4), 487-519.

Kardash, C. M. (2000). Evaluation of an undergraduate research experience: Perceptions ofundergraduate interns and their faculty mentors. Journal of Educational Psychology,92(1), 191–201.

Panelli, R., & Welch, R.V. (2005). Teaching research through field studies: A cumulativeopportunity for teaching methodology to human geography undergraduates. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 29(2), 255– 277.

Wayment, H.A., & Dickson, K.L. (2008). Increasing student participation in undergraduateresearch benefits students, faculty, and department. Teaching of Psychology, 35(3), 194-197.


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Students Learning Research Skills Outside of Class: Benefits of Working on Research Teams

Written by: Phyllis McCluskey-Titus and Anne McDowell, Illinois State University (Department of Educational Administration and Foundations)

Dr. McCluskey-Titus and her student, Anne McDowell describe a SoTL study to track student learning as a result of out-of-class research experiences:

Introduction to the research study

This SoTL grant-funded study was undertaken to understand what type of learning occurs when graduate students participate with classmates in faculty-led research or assessment projects outside their structured curriculum. According to Jiang and Roberts (2011), graduate students who engaged in research opportunities outside of class reported learning more about conducting research and research methods, increased content knowledge about the topics being studied, and that learning research by actually doing it was active and engaging. This study involved ten master’s program alumni from two previous research teams and four current students as a part of the third research team, all directed by the same faculty member, who reflected on their experiences in writing and in one-on-one interviews about what they learned from conducting and presenting research with a team of their classmates. Some of the early findings about what students reported learning from their research experiences with teams are presented here.

Structure of the research team process

Students volunteered to be a part of an out-of-class SoTL research project that would allow them to write and edit a grant proposal and be trained on writing an IRB and completing CITI training. Students also learned how to:

  • develop appropriate research methodologies (including interview protocols and survey instruments)
  • conduct interviews
  • analyze quantitative and qualitative data
  • write proposals
  • present programs for conferences
  • write articles to be submitted for publication.

The teams met regularly (weekly or bi-weekly) over a year’s time for training and to complete work associated with the research projects. In between the meetings, everyone had assignments to be completed including literature searches, data collection, data analysis, writing and sharing drafts of the grant/IRB/surveys/interview questions/program proposal/article.

Learning outcomes reported by students working on research teams

For graduate students engaged in SoTL, there is compelling evidence that exposure to research experiences can enhance learning and other beneficial outcomes when the content is specifically designed to educate learners about scholarship or research. According to Schram and Allendoerfer (2012), SoTL “has the potential to train graduate students to be reflective teachers, gain research experiences, and integrate their teaching and research skills” (p.8). Many of the participants involved expressed that their learning expectations were met or exceeded as a result of participation in the research project teams.

“I hadn’t had any grant writing experience, but I knew that grants are important to education” (Adam, pg. 1). He goes on to state, “My expectations for learning were high to be totally honest, but those high expectations were met and exceeded as I got farther and farther into the project and I was able to articulate better what I had learned, what I was researching, the process that we were doing and the methodology that we used” (Adam, pg. 5).

Another student reflected,

“I’m really glad I participated in the project and had the opportunity to work with a professor and my cohort members on something that wasn’t required for a class assignment, but just for the sake of learning and experience” (Kaitlin, pg. 4).

Insights such as these support other research related to the relevance of engaging students in SoTL projects as part of a research team. According to McKinney, Jarvis, Creasy and Herrmann (2010), “When students seize such opportunities, they tend to find these experiences highly motivating and often demonstrate improvements in basic research and scholarly skills (p. 83).

Benefits reported by students working on research teams

In addition to the practical learning outcomes gained by the participants in this study, every participant in all three projects discussed the perceived benefits from participating in the out-of-class research opportunities. These included understanding the process of conducting assessment and research, having an opportunity to work closely with and redefine relationships with faculty and peers outside of the classroom, and the opportunity to give back or contribute to the profession.

For many, the experience also transformed their views about research as a valuable skill set.

“This project has definitely changed my view on research as a whole…Being part of this team has sparked an interest in research for me that I plan to continue” (Sean, p. 4).

Another member of the team stated,

“I never saw myself as one who would engage in research opportunities because I thought it was something only clinicians and professors pursued. After this experience I know this is not the case” (Anne, p. 3).

One of the unexpected discoveries realized by participants was the impact of research on the student affairs profession and their role in influencing work in the field. Using research in their day-to-day work was mentioned by members of the research team.

“I learned that, when done correctly, research data could be used to greatly improve parts of my job, said (Jeff, p. 4), and “I have gained such a large appreciation for research and assessment and hope to continue to give back to the field in these ways” (Janelle, p. 5).

The value of these findings solidifies the importance of exploring and engaging students in research for the betterment of themselves now, as well as their future work in their chosen profession.


Blog References

Jiang, F. & Roberts, P. J. (2011). An investigation of the impact of research-led education on student learning and understandings of research. Journal of University Teaching & Learning

Practice, 8(2). Available at:

McKinney, K., Jarvis, P., Creasy, G., Herrmann, D. (2010). A range of student voices in the scholarship of teaching and learning. In C. Werder & M. Otis (Eds.), Engaging student voices in the study of teaching and learning. (pp. 82-95). Sterling (VA): Stylus.

Schram, L.N.& Allendoerfer, M.G. (2012). Graduate student development through the scholarship of teaching and learning. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 12(1), 8-22.



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“Like a Fish Out of Water Coming Together” — What Students Learned as Research Team Participants for SoTL Grant-Funded Studies

Written by: Brandon Hensley, doctoral student and Phyllis McCluskey-Titus, Associate Professor, Department of Educational Administration and Foundations

At Illinois State University (ISU), grants are awarded to research teams that include students conducting Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) studies. There hasn’t been an assessment of students’ learning as members of these research teams, so this project was undertaken to understand what students learned from their experience conducting SoTL research with faculty. We hope this research contributes to knowledge of student-faculty research team learning outcomes on our campus.

We conducted a face-to-face focus group and email survey for data collection. Student participants involved in these teams since 2010 (n=7, 5 female and 2 male) were contacted and asked to participate. Only 3 students were able to be on campus for a face-to-face audio-taped discussion, but 4 students agreed to respond via email to the same discussion prompts. Two participants were undergraduates at the time of participation and five were graduate students.

The written email responses and transcription were analyzed using the constant comparative method. We engaged in thematic analysis of the data, reading the documents separately and then coming together for several sessions to identify patterns/clusters, meaningful quotes, and possible themes from the responses.

Students involved on these research teams had different responsibilities, like writing the literature review or IRB protocol, managing and analyzing data, or reviewing draft surveys. Some students were co-researchers, compiling research notes, analyzing and interpreting results, co-authoring or presenting conference papers, posters, peer-reviewed articles or book chapters.

Insights we gained from the results of this research included:

How much the students valued the collaborative process gained from conducting research with a team. “I think the most valuable thing I learned was how to be a part of a research team…and that’s tremendously valuable to me because I feel like now if I want to go forward and do more team research, I’ll probably walk in with more confidence…”

The value students placed on being able to “talk-through” or “reflect” about their learning. If reflection and communication did not occur between students and faculty, students reported feeling “undervalued, misinformed, and confused about their roles on the research project team.”

How students felt more socialized into their discipline by “…expanding the scope of my own academic pursuits and becoming more involved in the academic community.”

How students learned to struggle with theoretical concepts. A feeling of struggling “like a fish out of water” when learning and applying theory was expressed by a few respondents, with almost all of them noting some degree of difficulty in connecting theoretical frameworks to their research and their larger projects.

Students recognized research as a process rather than a destination. Students expressed learning the journey can be as significant as the outcome. “I also learned about how much work goes into the research process and what that process includes.”

In addition to the themes noted, we grouped students’ perceived learning outcomes into four clusters and used some of their own words to illustrate what they meant.

Cognitive/intellectual learning: “I think being a [research] partner made me a better thinker, made me a better writer. You persevere through these projects…that process of coming together, of thinking out loud, working toward end goals, made me a much better student and… a better researcher.”

Affective/interpersonal learning: this project “…increased my awareness of my own biases in working with diverse folks from different ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as academic fields (i.e. nursing, political science, etc.).”

Life/career skills: “I think this experience helped me gain more confidence in my talent and knowledge on certain subjects. This allowed me to step out of my comfort zone and learn that I am capable of doing research and presenting it to other professionals.”

Self-awareness: “I developed the ability to judge my own performance and abilities based on my limited knowledge of the type of research I entered into as a graduate student.”

What students did as members of their research teams and what meaning they made from these experiences was underscored by most of the participants as critical to their learning in college. Taken together, the findings in this study strongly suggest that SoTL research teams offer rich terrain to study student learning and development in ways that are engaged, critically reflective, and out of the traditional, often passive classroom lecture setting.