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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Graduate Students and SoTL: Informing, Encouraging, and Supporting

By Kathleen McKinney, Cross Endowed Chair in SoTL, Illinois State University

Many campuses work to involve graduate students in reading, assisting, conducting, and applying scholarship of teaching and learning projects/research. At Illinois State University, through the Office of the Cross Endowed Chair in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, we also do this via several mechanisms. We believe it is critically important for graduate students to learn about and have the opportunity to participate in SoTL as both an opportunity for more research experience and as a way of understanding and improving their teaching as graduate students and/or future faculty members. In this brief blog post, I summarize some of the mechanisms we have used. I encourage blog readers to comment and add ideas for other readers.

SoTL Reading Circle

We offer a SoTL reading circle to graduate students. We provide a book on SoTL (and sometimes other readings). In the past, we have used The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in and Across the Disciplines (McKinney, 2013, IU Press). Students do reading ahead of attending two required, facilitated group discussion meetings. At those meetings, particpants explore ideas about SoTL research, understand the value of SoTL in the role of professor, and consider opportunities that exist at ISU to support scholarly productivity as a SoTL researcher.  Generally, we limit each reading circle to 8-10 students. Participating students also earn a $150 stipend for reading the text and for active participation in both sessions. The stipend is applied to their student account at ISU (any funds remaining in a student’s account after account is paid in full are refunded to the student). And, of course, we feed the students as well!

SoTL Toolbox Session via Graduate School Toolbox Program

Our Graduate School offers regular professional development sessions, one hour in duration, on a wide range of topics to graduate students on campus. This year, we were able to add a SoTL Toolbox session to that list of offerings. About a dozen graduate students signed up for the session. We created a power point presentation about SoTL, its uses, making it public, and support on campus. We shared some SoTL related handouts. There was no monetary compensation for the graduate students but we did feed them!

Require Student Co-researcher on SoTL Grants

We offer a variety of SoTL related grants during the year for faculty members and academic staff. These include travel grants, mini-grants, and SoTL University Research Grants (URGs up to $5,000). For many of these grants, but especially the URGs, faculty/staff applicants must include at least one student (can be an undergraduate but is most often a graduate student) in meaningful roles on their research team. Doing so and outlining the non-trivial research duties in which the student will engage is one criterion for funding. This often leads to SoTL research presentations and papers co-authored by the PI and the student. Students have also presented on their experience working on the SoTL grant.

Selected SoTL Development Events Open to Graduate Students or Special SoTL Workshop for Graduate Students

Sometimes our office is able to offer space in SoTL workshops or other opportunities to graduate students. This depends, however, on the purpose of the workshop or opportunity, funding issues, timing, demand from faculty and staff, etc. Occasionally, we will offer a SoTL workshop just for graduate students and are able to target their interests, needs, and experience.

Opportunities for Involvement in SoTL Support Work by Our Office

A few years ago, when ISU was a leader in the Carnegie Foundation CASTLE Program, 2-4 graduate students were involved on the campus teams for these initiatives including traveling to CASTLE events and co-authoring chapters in a book on student voices in SoTL. More recently, graduate students in Art, English, and Communication have been hired to use their professional skills in our SoTL support efforts including designing the original cover of Gauisus (our online, multimedia SoTL journal), copyediting and formatting papers for Gauisus, designing PR material for events, and planning a major on-campus SoTL event.

Encourage/remind Graduate Students how to Make their SoTL Public Locally

Finally, we offer a variety of ways anyone on campus, including graduate students, can share their individual or team SoTL research and products locally. We inform graduate students about these opportunities via fliers, information to Chairs/Directors, FaceBook, Twitter, the graduate school, and so on.  The opportunities include writing very brief ‘articles’ for the SoTL at ISU Newsletter or The SoTL Advocate Blog, submitting a representation of their SoTL work to Gauisus, presenting at the annual Teaching-Learning Symposium, or having a poster at the annual University Research Symposium.




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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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SoTL Graduate Student Reading Circle at Illinois State

Written by Jennifer Friberg, SoTL Scholar-Mentor at Illinois State University

Last week, the office of the Cross Chair in SoTL at Illinois State University hosted its first SoTL Reading Circle for graduate students. Nine students representing five academic disciplines participated to understand the contributions SoTL can make in and across disciplines. Jen Friberg organized and facilitated this reading circle.

The reading circle was organized in two sessions over the course of one week. Sessions were organized as follows:

  • Session 1 served as an introduction to SoTL for graduate students. ISU’s definition of SoTL and several foundational readings were discussed to assist students in understanding the difference between scholarly teaching and the scholarship of teaching and learning. Resources were presented to help students find disciplinary and cross disciplinary SoTL research to support their pedagogical choices. Students brainstormed possible SoTL research questions based on their own teaching experiences and talked about ways to develop relationships with SoTL research mentors.
  • Session 2 focused on readings from The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in and Across the Disciplines (edited by Kathleen McKinney). Students read 4 chapters of the text and discussed issues facing SoTL scholars, including acceptance of varied research methods and the need for both disciplinary and cross-disciplinary SoTL research. Students drafted an informal action plan for how they could move towards scholarly teaching and build capacity towards SoTL research involvement.

Student reactions to the reading circle experience were overwhelmingly positive. Comments indicated that all participants felt that it was a good “crash course” in SoTL and scholarly teaching and appreciated constructive discussion and problem solving. Many indicated an interest in establishing a SoTL research project over the next academic year. The Office of the Cross Chair in SoTL at ISU hopes to repeat this experience for a new cohort of graduate students in the fall of 2015 or spring of 2016.

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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.