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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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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More on SoTL ‘Stories’: Motivations for and Roles in SoTL

Written by Kathleen McKinney, Cross Endowed Chair in SoTL, Illinois State University

In a recent post on this blog, Jennifer Friberg, SoTL Scholar-Mentor at Illinois State University, shared a bit of her SoTL story –why she does SoTL, how she came to be involved in SoTL, how her SoTL career developed over time. Jennifer was responding to a blog post by Janice Miller-Young, director of the Institution for Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at Mt. Royal University titled “How to tell the story of SoTL.” In her post, Janice suggested that faculty engage in SoTL research for three main purposes (quoting Jennifer): “to generate and study innovations in teaching, to apply and study innovative pedagogies, and to better understand the complexities in teaching and learning.” In this post, I add to these SoTL stories by summarizing highlights from my SoTL story then, based on this story as well as observations of, and conversations with, others in the field, I list 1. motivations for doing SoTL and 2. SoTL roles.

Thirty years ago, in 1985, I published with a colleague about our sociology curriculum and advising practices. Though our ideas were based in past literature, the work was in the ‘we tried it, we liked it’ anecdotal genre. My SoTL work stayed discipline-specific and somewhat ‘tips’ oriented as I shared what I believed were best teaching practices. I had the privilege of meeting excellent role models and mentors in the teaching-learning movement of the American Sociological Association beyond my institution. Over time, my SoTL work became focused on questions that arose from my lived experiences helping students learn inside and outside the classroom, and was evidence-based and peer-reviewed. In the mid 1990s I had the opportunity to serve as Editor of Teaching Sociology and learning so much from every submission I had the joy of reading. As I moved into an institutional role as director of our teaching center, I began to do more and ‘better’ SoTL work on sociology student learning and to help others do SoTL. I had the chance to work with amazing folks as a Carnegie SoTL Scholar, meeting more wonderful people from many disciplines and around the globe. I became an Endowed Chair in SoTL at my institution, began to write about the field of SoTL, and increased my involvement in SoTL research and service in my discipline and in the international, cross-discipline SoTL field through ISSOTL among other organizations and contexts. My focus now, as a (mostly) retired faculty member, is to provide service, mentoring, and support to others doing SoTL. I also continue to learn from others doing SoTL and writing about SoTL.

I offer nine forms of motivations as to why people do the scholarship of teaching and learning.

  • It builds our vitae and our cases for rewards and promotions.
  • It is valued by others in our institution and/or discipline.
  • To improve our teaching.
  • To improve our students’ learning outcomes.
  • To involve students as co-researchers in SoTL–a high impact teaching-learning practice.
  • To help our department, discipline or institution with high priority initiatives, assessment, accreditation, and program review.
  • Because we cherish our interactions with other SoTLers.
  • Because it becomes part of our professional, and even personal, identity.
  • Because we enjoy the specifics of the ‘work’ itself.

I think there are several types of roles in which we choose to engage within the field of SoTL. Of course, many of us engage in more than one of these roles at the same time and/or over the course of our SoTL careers. These roles include consuming SoTL (read, listen to, adapt, use others’ SoTL work); producing SoTL (conduct and make public original SoTL work); being an active colleague in the SoTL community in your institution and beyond and in your discipline and beyond (e.g., attend conferences, join organizations, use SoTL beyond your classroom…); and/or serving the SoTL field (e.g., editor, mentor, committee member in a SoTL professional organization…).

I look forward to hearing some other SoTL ‘stories’, including examples of these or other motivations for and roles in SoTL.

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Why do you SoTL?

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

Dr. Janice Miller-Young, director of the Institution for Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at Mt. Royal University, recently authored a blog post title “How to tell the story of SoTL,” focusing on the reasons that researchers engage in SoTL inquiry at her university. In this post, she suggests that faculty engage in SoTL research for three main purposes: to generate and study innovations in teaching, to apply and study innovative pedagogies, and to better understand the complexities in teaching and learning. Likely most SoTL researchers fall into at least one of those categories. .

My involvement in SoTL began with my desire to understand my students more thoroughly as learners. I sought evidence to connect what I subjectively observed as an instructor to the actual reality for my students. I wanted to know what activities, experiences, and methods were most successful in helping them to learn and expand upon course material. My initial SoTL studies helped me to move beyond scholarly teaching to become a scholar of teaching and learning. And, while I still engage in such studies, my interests have turned to studies which might help build the commons (Huber and Hutchings, 2005), synthesizing and combining my SoTL work with that of other professionals to allow for broader understanding of teaching and learning questions. In short, my SoTL work crosses all three categories suggested by Dr. Miller-Young in her post, though I would add that I also engage in SoTL to give my students an active voice in their learning processes.

Why do you SoTL? What motivates you to engage in SoTL and share it with others? Feel free to comment below!

Huber, M. T. and Hutchings, P. (2005). The Advancement of Learning: Building the Teaching Commons. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.