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Margin Notes

Another pitch in favour of SOTL

How do we know what students are learning if we don’t encourage the scholarship of teaching and learning?


In a recent opinion piece in the CAUT Bulletin, University of Winnipeg psychology professor Jim Clark makes the case that compressed courses short-change students. University Affairs published an article last year on such a course at Brock University.

I have no issue with what Dr. Clark wrote. Rather, I would like to use his opinion piece as an opportunity to make a pitch in support of the scholarship of teaching and learning, or SOTL.

In his piece, Dr. Clark cites “relevant literature” in making his case against compressed courses, but admits that “empirical tests of alternative formats addressing these issues are limited.” That is my point. How do we know what works and what doesn’t work in terms of teaching and learning if the empirical research isn’t being done? Universities are very good at supporting disciplinary scholarship, but more could be done to support and encourage faculty to engage in the scholarship of teaching itself. How do students learn best?

According to Richard Gale, formerly a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation and now director of Mount Royal University’s Institute for Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, most faculty members are interested in tips and techniques to improve their teaching. However, for these efforts to be properly considered as scholarship, they need to be investigated in a methodical way, analyzed, peer-reviewed, disseminated and built upon.

Speaking last year, Dr. Gale acknowledged that SOTL is far more widespread now in Canada than it was five years earlier. But, he added, it is still occurring mainly in “pockets” and has not yet become “the kind of national movement that we’d hoped.” Gary Poole, another tireless advocate for SOTL, made much the same point in 2009 at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Many universities do have funds for SOTL-like activities, but the uptake from faculty has been sporadic. I think this is partly due to the legitimate concern by faculty that anything to do with teaching excellence simply doesn’t compare to research output in tenure and promotion considerations. SOTL is research, of course, but it falls into a sort of definitional grey zone.

This recent piece in Campus Technology makes a somewhat different point  — about the need to move beyond “teaching” to “learning” — but it is very much related:

There is no requirement that faculty in higher education understand learning theory. Even saying that, and knowing it is true, seems astonishing. … This is the 800-pound gorilla in the middle of the room. Faculty members in higher education are researchers. The focus of their research has traditionally been on disciplinary knowledge and not on how humans learn. To make the turn from teaching to learning become a reality and not just a phrase, the first step should be toward a faculty development effort across the board to dramatically increase awareness of the basic research in learning theory of the past 30 years.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Gavan Watson / June 21, 2011 at 15:05

    It’s curious that five days after posting this, I’m the first commenter. Does it speak to the priority of SoTL within Canadian Post-secondary institutions as a focus of research?

    That being said, I know that at my institution, the University of Guelph, we are starting to roll out SoTL awards for faculty ( and are planning to fund graduate student SoTL awards. We are also, obviously, not the first institution to do so.

    I would agree that it is a case of (academic) cultural change. But I would argue that the value of SoTL will be recognised as the quality and quantity of research improves; that will be supported by funding initiatives such as this.

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