The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning
The University of North Dakota’s Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) initiative can
be counted as a major success story.
That’s a standout claim in higher education, where successes are often measured at the individual, rather than institutional, level — but one Anne Kelsch, director of the UND Office of Instructional Development (OID), is proud to make about SoTL research on campus.
Kelsch, who is also a tenured faculty member in the Department of History, notes that a number of UND faculty are at the forefront of the SoTL movement. It’s all about figuring out what works in the classroom and how best to enrich the academic experience of students who attend this university.
“We have a key group of faculty on campus who have engaged in that kind of work for some time and have developed an impressive body of publications and presentations resulting from their SoTL research,” said Kelsch.
“Between 2001 and 2006, almost 40 faculty did training in SoTL research methods as part of a major grant OID had from the Bush Foundation; a significant portion of that grant funded the Bush Teaching Scholars Program. In cohort groups of 10, faculty got together for a summer workshop and then developed a SoTL project that they carried out in their classes over the next year. They met throughout the year and helped each other develop some of their research questions and analyze their data.”
Building on that foundation, more faculty are conducting SoTL research, and UND encourages and spotlights that work.
“SoTL is really important for UND. It advances our academic mission by demonstrating the clear intersections between thoughtful teaching and research that make members of our faculty terrific teacher-scholars,” said Steve Light, associate vice president for academic affairs and professor of political science and public administration.
Faculty involved in SoTL extend across UND’s undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools. Kelsch cites the example of Patti Alleva, an award-winning UND School of Law faculty member who was recently selected as one of the subjects of a nationwide study about what the best law professors do to produce extraordinary learning.
Other examples include longtime UND Geology and Geological Engineering faculty member Dexter Perkins, noted for his work on a multi-institution National Science Foundation grant that’s looking at the connections between the affective domain and the cognitive domain for thousands of students in introductory geoscience courses.
In Physical Therapy, Renee Mabey is gathering data in a class that aims to teach students about moral behavior, empathy, and ethical reasoning.
Daphne Pedersen and Frank White have published the results of their analysis of student learning across the sociology curriculum.
At the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences, anatomists Ken Ruit and Patrick Carr are looking at how best to assess student learning; that includes learning more about how to write exam questions that get at higher learning.
“All this work impacts student learning on our campus,” Kelsch said. “It’s action-oriented research, scholarship that has implications for improvement in terms of student learning. That’s what inspires faculty to do this research. It feeds back into their own classrooms.”
Where did SoTL come from?
This is how SoTL works — but how do the professionals define it?
“SoTL involves taking the principles of inquiry that most of us learn in our disciplines — English, physics, sociology, theater, or music, for example — and applying them to our classroom environment,” Kelsch said. “We’re gathering data to make sure that students are learning what we think we’re teaching them. SoTL sets up a systematic inquiry into student learning, drawing conclusions about that, and sharing that analysis, like other scholarship and research, in a scholarly forum.”
Ernest Boyer (1928-1995) was the first educator to effectively articulate why the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning was the same as any other scholarly activity. In a long and distinguished career, Boyer served as chancellor of the State University of New York, U.S. Commissioner of Education, and president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
“Earlier, if a chemist wrote a paper about teaching chemistry, his colleagues would probably have said, ‘That’s not like lab work. That’s really a form of teaching, not research,’ ” Kelsch said. “Boyer was the first to effectively argue that this kind of scholarship is just like other forms of scholarship and should be valued by faculty, departments, and disciplines as an important contribution to the field.”
That really got the SoTL ball rolling in the 1980s.
“What Boyer really did was pave the way for solid teaching-related research to become the equivalent of doing research in the discipline,” Kelsch said. “SoTL has been given legitimacy. It ‘counts’ in higher education and SoTL research became the focus of some scholarly careers.”
Quantity and quality
SoTL research can be quantitative (numerical data or statistics-based) or qualitative (based on observation, interview, case study, or the like). For example, quantitative data might be derived from student scores; qualitative data from a survey questionnaire.
“You may teach a class in one way and keep student scores on a standardized national test. Then next year you may add an active learning component and compare that group’s scores on the same national standardized test. That’s a very clear quantitative data set,” Kelsch said.
On the other hand, one might conduct qualitative research through student interviews or by observating students in a course or program of study.
“A program may design a capstone course, and the faculty conduct exit interviews with seniors,” Kelsch said. “In the interview, you ask about their capstone experience, or maybe you interview alums a year out, asking, for example, ‘Did this prepare you for work in the field? If so, in what way?’ That’s very useful qualitative data.”
Kelsch and other SoTL advocates on campus who help to encourage that and other teaching-related efforts, such as assessment of learning outcomes and the recently implemented Essential Studies curriculum in general education, say SoTL is enormously helpful to both faculty and students.
“Even if you’re not engaged in this type of research, if you want to do something to improve student learning in your classroom, there’s a lot of published research in areas related to what you teach that you can draw from,” said Joan Hawthorne, UND’s director of assessment and regional accreditation.
In business terms, SoTL aims to answer two key questions: Are you getting what you pay for? And if so, how?
“This process of inquiry on your teaching — which is what SoTL is all about — leads to enhanced learning for students,” said Tom Steen, professor and coordinator of teacher education in the Department of Physical Education, and director of UND’s Office of Essential Studies.
The experts all agree: people who are thoughtful teachers tend to connect better with students, and they do a better job of helping students learn.
“The path of scholarly inquiry stimulated by SoTL is a nice way for faculty to wed the intellectual process that drew them to research in the first place to the experiences that students are having in their classrooms,” Kelsch said. “It’s a good way to merge the two things that matter most to faculty. You don’t have to feel pulled in two directions.”
UND’s academic leadership cites multiple reasons.
First and foremost, said Light, SoTL aligns with the University’s current priority to enrich the student learning experience driven by the institution’s ongoing vision to create an “Exceptional UND.” An SoTL initiative was a primary recommendation of a recent working group of faculty and staff that considered how to enhance undergraduate education and incorporate “high-impact” teaching and learning practices.
“Under Exceptional UND, SoTL can be a real area of strength for us, unique in some regards because it fits our niche very nicely: we’re large enough to be a research institution, we’re
small enough to give students really good one-on-one experiences with faculty, to get to know them,” said Kelsch.
Another key reason is the ongoing national movement to link focused assessment of student learning and promoting student success. As Kelsch said, “We want to find out if students are learning what we say we are teaching. A whole assessment movement has come out of that push for accountability. When people are being asked to assess student learning, they start to gather data around that learning, then they start to draw conclusions, and it makes sense to publish those findings. SoTL is driving the process further with focused research.”
At the forefront
As Light and Kelsch emphasized, it makes sense for UND to be at the forefront of using data and evidence to encourage and reward excellent teaching and learning.
“Nationally in the last decade or so,” Light elaborated, “faculty have been encouraged to systematically examine their classroom performance through the lens of learning outcomes. Now, colleges and universities are seeking to support faculty in asking what do we want our students to know, and how do we know what they’ve learned?
“The experts still tell us that a lot of what great teachers do is by feel,” said Light, “reflecting a teacher’s intuitive sense about whether he or she is connecting with students. On the other hand, anyone who’s an expert in any field doesn’t rely only on their intuition.
“SoTL provides the opportunity to connect the feeling and thinking dimensions of being a professor,” he continued. “By actually conducting research on what students know, what they learn, and what they get in the classroom, faculty engage with a national conversation about best practices. When you put research and study behind what you do — in this case, teaching — it makes it better, and students as well as faculty benefit.”
Ultimately, Light concluded, SoTL helps UND’s community of teacher-scholars “think carefully and critically about how we convey information to our students and prepare them to be lifelong learners. All of us at UND care about that mos
Juan Pedraza | Staff Writer