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Margin Notes

Congress ’09 – Scholarship of teaching and learning ‘not good enough’

We've made big strides in terms of SoTL in Canada over the past few years, but we've hit a ceiling, says expert Gary Poole.


Gary Poole is a tireless advocate for the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) because he thinks it will improve how academics teach and how students learn. We’ve made good progress in Canada in terms of SoTL, he says, but not good enough. He admits he’s getting a bit impatient.

Dr. Poole, director of the Centre for Teaching and Academic Growth at the University of British Columbia and a past-president of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, shared his views in a keynote address this morning at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences at Carleton University.

There is no single agreed-upon definition of SoTL, but it is generally understood to be scholarly research into teaching practices that advance student learning. It applies to any academic discipline – it is not restricted to the faculty of education – but it is not necessarily informed by the type of research commonly associated with your own particular discipline.

Richard Gale, quoted in a 2005 University Affairs article, says for it to be properly constituted as scholarship, SoTL must go beyond simple tips and observations of what works for you in your own classroom. It must be a formal, systematic process of inquiry that provides evidence of what works and why, and that evidence must be disseminated, critically reviewed and built upon.

SoTL holds huge potential to improve teaching, said Dr. Poole, and the movement has blossomed in Canada over the past five to six years. For example, a quick search of the web sites of university teaching support centres will find numerous references to SoTL. Likewise, SoTL is starting to make its way into the language used in tenure and promotion policies at many institutions.

Nationally, the STLHE is launching the Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning this September; and internationally, the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning – founded in 2004 – has held two of its annual conferences in Canada (Edmonton in 2008 and Vancouver in 2005).

But, “we’ve started to bump up against a ceiling” in terms SoTL in Canada, and we must break through that, said Dr. Poole. “There is the danger we could get complacent and self-satisfied.”

Among the challenges he identified:

  • The lack of a national infrastructure to promote and advocate for SoTL
  • A lack of tri-council funding for this type of research
  • At the institutional level, there is a lack of understanding regarding the potential benefits of SoTL
  • At the departmental level, there are language barriers and differing research paradigms across disciplines.

For SoTL to succeed, Dr. Poole continued, funding structures must be put in place nationally and institutionally; tenure and promotion language around SoTL must be shared and adopted; and the value of SoTL for institutions, scholars and students must be proven and promoted.

“I believe SoTL will continue to grow and have increasing impact on our practice, our careers and our student learning,” he said, “but only if we persevere through these challenges.”

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Jo VanEvery / June 4, 2009 at 18:22

    I think the push in the US has included a SoTL approach to the teaching part of the tenure portfolio. This has some advantages over relying solely on student evaluations of teaching which have their own biases. But it does require a culture change.