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Adventures in Academe

The scholarship of teaching and learning: what works, and why

Disciplinary experts have a responsibility to engage in nuanced thinking about teaching and learning.


Recently, I had a conversation with a colleague that stopped me dead in my tracks. I was in the middle of extolling the virtues of SoTL (the scholarship of teaching and learning) as a research field that is multidisciplinary, accessible and increasingly relevant as we shape what higher education looks like in the 21st century.

Feeling the wonderful effects of a mid-afternoon caffeine rush, I was exclaiming that SoTL has wide appeal for many members of our learning community and provides: 1) support to inform teaching practices; 2) fresh solutions and new ideas, such as how to jump-start a sluggish class or reach the latest generation of students or harness a new technology; 3) opportunities for cross-fertilization between research and teaching; and 4) the option to develop a secondary research field without costly infrastructure.

Confident that I was on a roll, I explained that the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and other funding agencies have increased opportunities for exploring teaching and learning in higher education. Furthermore, institutional factors – from evaluation committees and collective agreements to senate research committees and strategic research plans – are starting to acknowledge and even encourage SoTL as a rigorous research field not just for educational developers but also for faculty from a wide range of disciplines.

My proselytizing came to a grinding halt, however, when my colleague asked, “Why would a professor of English literature, for example, have any right to conduct research on teaching and learning since merely teaching a few classes in your area of expertise doesn’t make you an expert on teaching?”

Cue panicked inner monologue: “Am I an imposter? What do I know about teaching and learning? Am I appropriating a huge body of well-established literature and research? How can I hope to participate in a nuanced and rigorous way?”

And then I took a deep breath. That afternoon my response was simply that, as scholars, we have the ability to transcend content in order to deploy analytical tools to ask questions about the world around us and our place within it. Moreover, who better to study how English literature students learn than English professors, since they must deploy disciplinary knowledge in order to first identify what students need to learn and then measure how and if they are learning.

However, I kept returning to this question in the days that followed. I was unsettled that my colleague’s assumption – that research related to teaching and learning should be left to education experts – might be pervasive, perhaps even systemic. So, like any scholar, I did two things: I did some research and consulted my colleagues.

First, a review of the literature confirmed that SoTL is a diverse and dynamic field. Although SoTL has traditionally been dominated by the social sciences (with a focus on learning and cognition), faculty members from across the disciplines are using their own methodological expertise to explore complex issues in higher education. For example, some of the leading experts on problem-based learning are faculty members of medical schools, while members of business faculties are exploring ways to enhance entrepreneurialism through experiential learning.

Second, consultation with colleagues from diverse backgrounds revealed that familiarity with and participation in SoTL is uneven. SoTL is a topic where, depending on the audience, you are either preaching to the converted or a lone voice in the wilderness. While one of my colleagues did not know what SoTL stood for, another expressed disbelief that my aforementioned colleague could espouse such antiquated assumptions.

The consensus, however, was that disciplinary experts have the right, perhaps even the responsibility, to engage in careful and nuanced thinking about teaching and learning – why we do things, what works and how we can create positive change. As one colleague so aptly stated, “To delegitimize investigation of classroom practice is to ignore the role that the classroom plays in shaping our culture and the values we espouse beyond the classroom.”

SoTL provides us with the opportunity to hold a lens up to all spheres of our professional lives – teaching, service, educational leadership, administration, research, community outreach, etc. – for exploration and analysis. While not all of us wish to pursue SoTL, these scholarly en-deavours should be recognized as legitimate avenues of inquiry, available to all, and valued accordingly.

Jessica Riddell
Jessica Riddell is a full professor in the English department at Bishop’s University, holder of the Stephen A. Jarislowsky Chair of Undergraduate Teaching Excellence, executive director of the Maple League of Universities and a 3M National Teaching Fellow. Her column appears in every second issue of the print magazine.
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  1. Jens Zimmermann, Humanities, Trinity Western University, B.C. Canada / April 6, 2016 at 13:18

    Dear Jessica Riddell,

    I appreciated your column on SoTL very much. The following sentence particularly captured my attention:

    “However, I kept returning to this question in the days that followed. I was unsettled that my colleague’s assumption – that research related to teaching and learning should be left to education experts – might be pervasive, perhaps even systemic.”

    My concern regarding SoTL is that your colleague’s view is taken up by administrators who have either never done research or teaching at any significant level, or long forgotten why these activities matter, and who then hire SoTL experts, who have done nothing else but study teaching. Hence these supposed experts lack exactly the aspect you mention in your column, to “deploy disciplinary knowledge in order to first identify what students need to learn and then measure how and if they are learning.” All they have ever researched or studied is communication of information, but they have no grasp how a subject or discipline itself shapes the way of its communication and transmission. Content and form become completely separated; while I appreciate new methods of communication, I am getting tired of hearing a lot of communications and learning platitudes that have very little grounding in actual familiarity with reading and interpreting texts, with “indwelling” authors or periods and to invite students into doing the same. So if you have any words of wisdom on how to address administrators on this issue, I would appreciate your advice.

  2. Chris / April 6, 2016 at 21:41

    I would suggest that SoTL (yet another abysmal acronym for administrators to put in reports and strike task forces to investigate) interrogate expressions like this one, from this article: “since they must deploy disciplinary knowledge in order to first identify what students need to learn and then measure how and if they are learning.” Perhaps such an interrogation would lead them to unpack buzzwords like “deploy disciplinary knowledge” and to question what form of pedagogy is so limited as to conceive of teaching and learning in such simple terms as finding out “what students need to learn” and “measuring” “how and if they are learning.” Perhaps they would uncover the deeper roots of the compulsion to measure everything these days at universities as well as the tacit “transmission” model of teaching that lurks within this phrase. Maybe too such an investigation would lead to the conclusion that the most important things that students learn might be immeasurable and untrackable and not subject to what I’ve heard called “impact optimization.” SoTL is admin speak for studying and trying to fix teaching/learning problems that arise from budget cuts, the adjunctification of teaching, and increases in class size, amongst other things whose cures lie not in more “innovation” (another preferred term in the SoTL universe) but in simpler, more practical cures that, unfortunately, cost money. And it is beyond me why universities are so willing to throw money at “teaching and learning centres”–thus further bloating the allotment of budgets to admin–but not at class size.

  3. J / April 11, 2016 at 10:19

    Great post! And, your interaction demonstrates the moments in which colleagues lack collegiality. It is easier for this colleague to make that statement, then to listen to what you’re saying. I imagine that this person might have wanted you to have some quantitiave proof or had issues with your disciplinary background. Oh, wait, this person could also just be a jerk.

    Thanks for sharing this post!

  4. Bruce Rutley PhD PAg / April 11, 2016 at 11:05

    My thoughts…as a one time subject matter expert (Animal Science), College Instructor and long-time college administrator (Dean and Director Research & Innovation). Many times I have thought of myself as a pretty good instructor and teacher of adults (my workshop reviews would confirm/delude?) yet l truly do not know much beyond the basics, and little of the psychology of learning (except for a three day workshop) or the subtleties and nuance of learning.

    Also, I suspect that Subject Matter Experts (SME) will remain challenged to understand and or appreciate the nuance and subtleties of andragogy in the way that a Teaching & Learning expert does – and conversely that Teaching & Learning experts (T&L) will remain challenged to understand and or appreciate the nuance and subtleties of the subject to the degree that the PhD in subject matter expert will.

    So….why not both? because I contend that this is not an either or situation, but one that is perfect for research collaboration. I look forward to the results of these collaborative efforts (T&L and SME) which can only be more robust than what is current.

  5. S / July 11, 2016 at 14:17

    Academics should be able to appreciate the importance of studying any phenomenon of value. There is a perception among many academics that SoTL is a lesser form of research conducted by those of us without a sufficiently important program of subject-matter-relevant research. In our “publish or perish” world where external funding, H-indices and knowledge transfer are the metrics of the day, the only requirement of our teaching is that it be “good enough.” Thus, teaching is not, for many of us, a phenomenon of value that is worthy of our precious research energy. Changing that reality is the challenge.

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