By Stefanie Panke
Editor, Social Software in Education
The 7th SoTL commons conference at Savannah, Georgia, was held from March 26-28, 2014. The annual event is organized by Georgia Southern University. SoTL commons is a small conference; the 2014 edition attracted around 180 participants. The majority of the participants came from small colleges and universities in the southern United States, though the event also had national reach with people from Wisconsin, Louisiana, and the Midwest, as well as a few international attendees from Colombia, South Africa, Sweden, Portugal and Nigeria.
My personal conference highlight was the keynote by Peter Felten, Director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning at Elon University. Peter used an amusing and powerful analogy to clarify the question that seems to be a crucial, non-negotiable ingredient of every SoTL gathering: What do we mean by Scholarship of Teaching and Learning?
He characterized SoTL as a mutt discipline — in contrast to the “best in show approach” of disciplinary research. Just as a show dog will be only appreciated by few experts in the breeding trade, disciplinary research often resides in the ivory tower. SoTL has the advantage of being widely accessible to a broader audience. However, it has to define its boundaries to be (accepted as) a scholarly discipline.
To this end, Peter presented five principles, which offer a heuristic framework to characterize any SoTL project:
- The inquiry is focused on student learning.
- The research is grounded in context — both scholarly discourse and local, organizational environment.
- The approach is methodologically sound.
- The project is conducted in partnership with students.
- The results are appropriately public.
These principles allow for common ground among SoTL inquiries, can help clarify and demystify SoTL to others and ultimately enhance the influence of SoTL. (For more details, see “Principles of Good Practice in SoTL.”)
The talk spurred a debate among the audience, in particular the absence of “teaching” as a perspective in the first principle. What if you are working with faculty to improve their teaching? Peter argued that ultimately every SoTL project aims at improving student learning and referred to Angelo and Cross (1993), who stated that “learning can — and often does occur without teaching but teaching cannot occur without learning; teaching without learning is just talking” (p.3 — see full text at ERIC).
Peter’s thoughts were taken up by Nancy Chick’s keynote address on the following day. She focused on the question “What is methodologically sound research in SoTL?” As editor of Teaching & Learning Inquiry, the new ISSOTL journal launched in spring 2013, Nancy was in a perfect position to highlight methodological aspects. What sets SoTL apart from disciplinary research is the variety of data sources scholars use to trace learning. Although SoTL projects comprise a wide range of theoretical, methodological, and empirical perspectives, it is crucial to find a good fit between research question and data sources. Continue reading