What is SoTL
January 6, 2020
by Hillary Steiner
Associate Director for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning
Associate Professor of Educational Psychology
Kennesaw State University
As a faculty member, it is deeply satisfying and professionally rewarding when your teaching and research interests align. That synergy can be especially powerful when it results in improved student outcomes, publications and grants, and development of one’s own teaching practice—all at the same time, and with efficiency. Fortunately, the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning—abbreviated as SoTL, and pronounced “Soe-tull” or, less commonly, “Sah-tull”—meets these goals, is accessible to everyone, and can be conducted alongside your disciplinary scholarship.
Understanding the Difference Between Good Teaching, Scholarly Teaching, and SoTL
In a nutshell, SoTL is formal inquiry into your students’ learning or your own teaching practices, disseminated to others so that they might be able to modify and replicate good practices for their own classrooms. Just as it brings together teaching and research, SoTL bridges the gap between theory and practice, arising from Boyer’s (1990) model of scholarship which expanded our traditional notions of faculty productivity.
In the early days of conceptualizing what we now call SoTL, Hutchings and Shulman (1999) distinguished between good teaching, which most faculty attempt to do, and scholarly teaching, which is good teaching that is reflective and informed. Scholarly teachers know the literature on teaching, they seek out and incorporate best practices, they pay attention to students’ feedback, and they invite peers to evaluate them. SoTL takes an area of inquiry about teaching and learning, subjects it to the appropriate research methodology for the discipline, and makes it public through peer-reviewed presentations or publications. Thus, SoTL represents a special step beyond scholarly teaching. You might strive to be reflective and informed (i.e., scholarly) about most of your good teaching practices, but you probably won’t empirically study them all.
Kern, Mettatal, Dixson, & Morgan (2015) have presented another way to look at SoTL in terms of the activities we do as instructors. Consider two continua—one ranging from private to public, and one from informal to systematic. You might put together a new course or develop some new curriculum—this is part of the practice of teaching; it’s informal and not necessarily publicly shared. You might read some literature on teaching or attend a conference. It may be systematic, but again, it’s done for your own private use. You might even share your teaching practices at one of these conferences, which is public, but this still isn’t SoTL, because you haven’t gone through a systematic, scholarly process to evaluate and reflect on it. It’s only when it is both systematic and publicly shared that it is considered SoTL as most people define it.
[Caption: Adapted from Kern, et al. (2015)]
Definitions of SoTL vary, with blurry lines differentiating SoTL from other types of educational research. At CETL, our definition of SoTL is systematic inquiry into student learning and/or one’s own teaching practices in higher education which is situated in context and involves methodologically sound application of appropriate research methods, peer review, and distribution as scholarly work. This definition is loosely based on Peter Felten’s (2013) paper describing the five principles of good SoTL, one of the most referenced works in the field. He said that SoTL must be:
- Inquiry into student learning,
- Grounded in context,
- Methodologically sound,
- Conducted in partnership with students, and
- Appropriately public.
This definition ensures rigor while allowing for the variety of approaches that different disciplines bring.
And therein lies the beauty of SoTL: it is conducted by those on the front lines—the instructors themselves. This allows our disciplinary perspectives and strengths to emerge in the work, and enables the findings to more authentically represent the context. This is a key difference between SoTL and other kinds of educational research. Faculty in my own discipline, educational psychology, also conduct research on student learning. However, that research is often conducted in a lab or controlled setting. In SoTL, we have less control over the research than we might in a lab, but the findings have more ecological validity because they represent authentic situations (Daniel, 2012). Thus, SoTL is often messy, and not meant to be fully generalized. A SoTL study wouldn’t make the claim that “students in introductory chemistry learn this way.” Instead, it might claim that “students in this particular chemistry course, within this context, learned this way,” and the reader can make their own generalizations based on what’s similar to their own context.
Overcoming Barriers to Engaging in SoTL
Some faculty avoid SoTL because they are fearful of a potentially steep learning curve. The first step of a SoTL study—narrowing the initial research question—is especially challenging for many. New SoTL scholars are encouraged to reach out for assistance during this stage of the process, as research questions will ultimately drive the study’s design. However, because SoTL is rooted in one’s own disciplinary perspective, the new skills that are required may be fewer than one expects. A typical SoTL study (for example, the one conducted by KSU faculty Wynn, Mosholder, and Larsen (2014)) might draw from three bodies of work—general literature on teaching and learning (e.g., cognitive development), specific literature on the topic (e.g., problem-based learning), and literature from the discipline (e.g., history).
Similarly, methodologies for SoTL are also often rooted in one’s own discipline. As part of their study, humanities faculty might use close reading techniques while business faculty might analyze quantitative data. On our website, we recommend several points of entry into the literature on how students learn, as well as literature on specific pedagogies and methodologies. Those faculty who are new to working with human subjects may find the IRB process daunting at first. However, because SoTL usually involves normal classroom activities, the IRB application process is simple, and most SoTL studies are exempt from continuing review by the IRB. CETL has resources available to support you as you prepare your IRB application, including a Frequently Asked Questions page and examples of approved IRB applications for SoTL projects.
Finally, others might avoid SoTL because they fear the rigor does not equal that of disciplinary research. However, as SoTL evolves, this argument is quickly losing validity. Many interdisciplinary SoTL journals (for example, Teaching and Learning Inquiry) and disciplinary SoTL Journals (for example, Issues in Accounting Education) are among the most selective academic publications, with the latter receiving the highest rating from the widely used Australian Business Deans Council journal quality list. CETL’s popular journal and conference databases can help you find outlets for your work. Grants for SoTL are also increasingly available from government agencies such as NSF and NIH, private organizations, and disciplinary associations.
So why engage in SoTL? We know it has good outcomes for students, for faculty, and for the advancement of teaching at large. This is something just writing about good teaching can’t accomplish, because without empirical evidence, we can’t really be sure our “good teaching” is truly effective (Grauerholz & Zipp, 2008). Thus, as professionals in higher education, we all have a mandate for improving higher education in our field. If not us, then who?
If you’re ready to get started, CETL has several programs and resources for those new to SoTL. Please see our website for more information about how we can support you.
Boyer, E. L. (1990). Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Daniel, D. B. (2012). Promising Principles: Translating the Science of Learning to Educational Practice. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 1, 251–253.
Felten, P. (2013). Principles of good practice in SoTL. Teaching & Learning Inquiry, 1(1), 121-125.
Grauerholz, L., & Zipp, J.F. (2008). How to do the scholarship of teaching and learning. Teaching Sociology, 36, 87-94.
Hutchings, P. & Shulman, L. S. (1999, September/October). The scholarship of teaching: New elaborations, new developments. Change, 31(5), 10-15.
Kern, B., Mettetal, G., Dixson, M., & Morgan, R. (2015). The role of SoTL in the academy: Upon the 25th anniversary of Boyer’s Scholarship Reconsidered. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 15(3), 1-14.
Wynn, C. T., Mosholder, R. S., Larsen, C. A. (2014). Measuring the effects of problem-based learning on the development of postformal thinking skills and engagement of first-year learning community students. Learning Communities Research and Practice, 2(2), Article 4.
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