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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Engaging in SoTL – Sounds Great, but Where Do I Start?

Written by Rebecca Achen, Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Illinois State University (

ideaWhen you first heard of SoTL, were you interested, but had no idea where to start? What would you study? How would you study it? Who can help you? With so many questions, you may have felt overwhelmed. Maybe, you decided you do not do anything in your classes worth researching. Maybe, you felt worried the results of research on your teaching and students’ learning would be unfavorable, frustrating, or not actionable. Guess what? All these questions and fears are normal! Often, one of the most difficult parts of a SoTL project is generating an idea. Here is a list of places to start.

  1. Review the open-ended comments on your teaching evaluations. What are students often saying challenges them? What are they frustrated by in your courses? What suggestions do they have for improving your courses?
  2. Take time to reflect on each course at the end of the semester and physically write down your thoughts. After a few semesters, take a look at the reflections from your courses all at once. What challenges are you consistently facing? What frustrations do you have? What types of assignments do you find yourself questioning or being excited by? What have you continued to use in your courses that you want to better understand in terms of your students’ learning?
  3. Borrow a book from the SoTL library at ISU and take notes while you read it. Which parts of the book excite you? What concepts or theories interest you? Which ones do you think apply to your students?
  4. Take SoTL workshops offered on your campus or nearby institutions (if you’re able). At ISU, we have access to help with SoTL! Not only are there several workshops offered each year on various SoTL topics, but you can make an appointment with Jen Friberg to talk about what you might want to research and work out your ideas through conversation. There may well be a SoTL professional developer/mentor at your university, too!
  5. Attend pedagogy workshops offered by your teaching and learning center. Often, these are catalysts for trying new things in your courses, which you can then study to learn if the changes to your courses were effective in accomplishing the course goals.

What does this look like in practice? Let me tell you about what prompted my most recent SoTL project. In the graduate courses I teach, students have semester-long projects that are designed to assess their learning and understanding over the entire semester. Over the last few years, students across courses have consistently commented (in course evaluations) that they struggled to meet project deadlines, felt overwhelmed by the enormity of the projects, and were unable to stay engaged with the projects. While I have made small changes in my courses to help them be more successful, including more effectively scaffolding projects and providing individual mentoring for students, students have still been consistently frustrated. So, in the spring of 2018, I implemented weekly progress reports where students responded to five questions each week about their progress on their projects. My own observations led me to believe this approach was generally effective, and it allowed me to be more connected to student progress on the projects. On course evaluations, students commented these check-ins were helpful and allowed them to reflect on their projects, keep each other accountable, and meet deadlines. However, some students stated the reports felt like busy work and admitted they were not always honest in their evaluation of their progress.

When I was planning my fall 2018 classes, I decided that based on student feedback, I wanted to implement weekly progress reports again. As I was writing my rubrics and assignment sheets, the light bulb went off – this could be a SoTL project! Because of the courses I teach in the first year of the graduate program, I was able to set up a multi-phase project to explore student perceptions of and reflections on using progress reports to complete major course projects. By the end of the 2018-2019 academic year, I will have evidence that will allow me to make an informed decision on how weekly progress reports function in my classes and whether they are accomplishing my intended teaching and learning goals. Then, I can share this information through SoTL outlets to help others evaluate whether this type of assignment could work in their classes and expand general understanding of supporting student learning through scaffolding and formative assessment. By putting in a little extra time and effort (getting IRB approval, creating a survey, and being intentional in course design and delivery with this research in mind), I will not only potentially improve my teaching and students’ learning, but I will contribute to an important body of scholarly work. We are all doing things in our classrooms that are worthy of scholarly inquiry. Use the tips above to start brainstorming ideas. Together, we can improve teaching and positively influence student learning!


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Improving Writing Through Revision: Stop Complaining and Start Supporting

Written by Rebecca M. Achen, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Illinois State University

A photo by Joanna Kosinska. the spring of 2016, I embarked on a project to discover a revision strategy that would help my graduate students become more accomplished writers. After spending my first semester at ISU hearing students lament about writing and voice frustration with their scores, I decided to implement three revision strategies into one graduate course in the spring of 2016. I received a SoTL Research Mini-Award for June 2016 from the Office of the Cross-Endowed Chair to support the analysis of the data and writing of the manuscript.

Bean (2011) highlights the importance of encouraging revision for improving writing and critical thinking skills. He suggests faculty focus on strategies to help students understand the process of writing. As such, I embarked on a project to improve students’ writing through revision to determine which revision strategy is most effective. In a graduate course, I assigned four written concept papers, with identical assignment instructions and rubrics, but varying concepts. After completing the first paper, students were given the opportunity to rewrite it. Prior to writing the second paper, students were invited to send me a rough draft for feedback. For the third paper, students were required to bring a draft to class for peer review. Finally, none of these revision options were afforded for the fourth paper. After final course grades were submitted, I reviewed student consent forms and then compared scores across papers. While the average score was the highest on the assignment they were allowed to rewrite, t-tests revealed no significant differences in average scores across the written assignments.

I also asked students their perceptions of each revision strategy. Overall, students found rewrites and rough drafts to be useful for improving their writing skills. However, their comments clarified their focus was less on improving their writing skills, and more on getting feedback from the individual who would be grading their paper. Also, they did not value peer review. Most students did not feel feedback provided by peers was detailed or specific enough to be useful.

After reflecting on the results, my own experience teaching the course, and what I observed using the revision strategies, I plan to make systematic changes to my course to help students improve their writing through revision. Below are my suggestions for faculty who wish to encourage revision in their classes.

  1. Teach students to be effective peer reviewers. Being able to provide useful and critical feedback is an essential skill for students in their academic and professional careers. However, students need to be taught how to provide good feedback. First, I intend to spend class time discussing effective and targeted feedback strategies. Then, I plan to provide students with peer feedback forms to use. Finally, I will review the feedback they provide to peers, so I can provide advice to improve their peer review skills.
  1. Require students to provide a rough draft or complete a revision for at least one assignment during the semester. Overall, students were not motivated to revise their work, and less than half the class took advantage of rewrites and rough drafts. Requiring them to do so at least once will help them see writing as a process, and not as something they can complete the night before the paper is due. While I realize this might be time intensive for faculty members, doing so only once a semester provides a good balance between resources and student needs.
  1. Help students understand why improving their writing skills will help them as professionals. While students indicated they valued improving their skills, they were not interested in putting in time or effort to improve. Brandt (2006) interviewed professionals about their writing in the “knowledge economy.” Having students read this article, which includes a plethora of quotes from professionals on writing, will help them understand why technical writing and creativity are valuable skills to foster while in college. Also, this article highlights the use of peer review in the work force. The more we can connect students’ learning to their lives after college, the more likely we will get buy-in from students.

While not all courses are focused on improving writing skills, we have a duty as educators to help students continually learn and develop their communication skills. Writing should be encouraged, assessed, and fostered in each class we teach so that, at ISU, we graduate professionals who defy the stereotype of young employees with poor writing and communication skills.

Blog References

Bean, J. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Brandt, D. (2005). Writing for a living: Literacy and the knowledge economy. Written Communication, 22, 166-197.