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SoTL Symposium: Derek Bruff answers ‘What is SoTL?’

Posted by on Wednesday, April 27, 2011 in Events.

At the recent SoTL Symposium, CFT Assistant Director, Derek Bruff, shared his remarks in response to the common question: ‘What is SoTL?’ with the attendees who gathered to listen to, ask questions of, and provide feedback to the group of presenters at the event. Derek’s remarks are included here:

What Is SoTL? The scholarship of teaching and learning (or SoTL) is a way of investigating the nature of the teaching and learning processes in one’s own classroom.  It’s an activity that’s open to academics from all disciplines, not just those with appointments in schools of education.  Academics in all disciplines teach, and all of us can learn more about our students, their learning, and our own teaching.

Think for a moment about how research and scholarship is done in your discipline, whether that’s mathematics, psychology, engineering, or history.  You ask questions that are interesting to you and to others in your field.  You seek to answer those questions by making sense of evidence.  The kinds of evidence you gather and the ways you make sense of it vary dramatically by discipline, but we all make sense of evidence in one way or another.  And you share your work with others, so that they can provide you useful feedback on your work and so that they can learn from and build upon your work.  These three elements—questions, evidence, and “going public”—lie at the heart of the scholarship of teaching and learning.

Questions – The scholarship of teaching and learning involves asking questions about student learning and the teaching that fosters it.  Often those interested in SoTL start with a “What Works?” kind of question—Does teaching method X work better than teaching method Y?  However, answering that question involves figuring out what “works better” means in a particular context.  That’s a “What Is?” question—What is happening in my students’ heads right now, before I try some new teaching method?  Some of the best SoTL work I’ve seen has shed light on what and how students learn in a particular context.  That work, in turn, often provides assessment tools useful for answering those “What Works?” questions.

Evidence – What kind of evidence is used in SoTL?  It might be quantitative—student exam scores, student ratings of aspects of their learning experience.  It might be qualitative—observations of students at work, content analyses of student responses to essay questions.  It might be direct—what, exactly, did student learn?  It might be indirect—what do students *think* they’ve learned?  The kind of evidence collected and analyzed in a SoTL project depends on the question asked, the learning objectives at play, the format of the learning experience, and the discipline of the investigator.  In all cases, one of the toughest parts of designing a SoTL project is figuring out just what kind of evidence of student learning can be collected that will shed light on the question of inquiry.  Creativity is often required!

Going Public – If I spend my nights and weekends proving mathematical theorems in my garage but I never share my work with other mathematicians, I’m not engaged in mathematical research—I have a math hobby.  “Going public” with our work is a key part of what makes it scholarly.  We invite others to critique our work, and we contribute to the ever-growing body of knowledge in our field.  By “going public” with our teaching, with our questions about student learning and the answers we generate by analyzing evidence of student learning, we treat our teaching as scholarly work, as well.  When it comes to our teaching, we can learn from each other and we can help each other.

You can read more about the SoTL Symposium here.



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