ISSOTL 2013: ‘Doing SoTL Means You Never Have to Say You’re Sorry!’

By Stefanie Panke
Editor, Social Software in Education

The 10th annual conference of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning was held in Raleigh, North Carolina, on October 2–5, 2013, hosted by Elon University’s Center for Engaged Learning (CEL). ISSOTL 2013 attracted approximately 600 participants. Most of the attendees came from universities across the US. Visitors from Canada, Europe, Australia, and other countries added an international flair to the event.

The conference organizers Peter Felten, Jessie Moore and Heidi Ihrig did a remarkable job in bringing together the traditions and values of the SoTL community with innovative ideas and emerging technologies. The conference was preceded by a free online series that featured videos, chats and discussion forums. During the event, participants were able to follow their personalized schedules on their mobile devices using the guidebook conference app.  At the same time, plenary presentations did not rely on Twitter-walls for interaction, but used buzz groups and other small group discussion formats to foster in-depth dialogue and deep processing.

 Schedule, planner and collective photo album: ISSOTL Guidebook App. Click image to enlarge.

Schedule, planner and collective photo album: ISSOTL Guidebook App. Click image to enlarge.

Wednesday, October 2: ‘The 8-track-tape Player of Opening Plenaries’

issotl 02For me, who like most participants did not book an additional pre-conference workshop or symposium, the conference started at 6:30 pm on Wednesday with the initial plenary session. The purpose of the plenary was to bridge from the online pre-conference to the live event, as the moderator Randy Bass (Georgetown University) jokingly explained: “This is not a task that anybody had to do a few years ago, and this is probably not a task that anyone will have to do a few years from now. We are the 8-track-tape player of opening plenaries.” 

Held in late September, ISSOTL online comprised three different tracks, titled “Introduction to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning,” “Studying and Designing for Transfer” and “Student Voices.” Each track featured a video series with interviews of leading SoTL scholars, most of them recorded at ISSOTL 2012. These videos are available alongside recordings of selected ISSOTL 2013 talks on the CEL YouT ube channel. Wednesday evening’s plenary speakers each summarized one of the pre-conference topics and recapitulated the activities in the respective strand.

  • Jessie Moore (Elon University) on the meaning of SoTL: “Experts explained SoTL as reflective practice that brings our habits as scholars to our work as teachers. This systematic inquiry ultimately ends in loop closing – bringing some form of course redesign or development into play.”
  • Chris Anson (NC State University) on the concept of transfer: “Transfer is the strategic ability to take what is learned in previous situations, generalize the knowledge and skills from those experiences, and apply them in new and often unfamiliar settings. It involves a significant degree of metacognition. All of education is predicated on transfer. Teachers assume a smooth learning trajectory as students move through the curriculum from course to course, from year to year and eventually into the workplace.”
  • Jennifer Hill (University of the West of England) on student voices: “How can we conceptualize student voices in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning and what are the benefits? For me those benefits come around students creating themselves, authoring their own lives. Giving students agency shifts the power-relations towards mutual respect.”

Thursday, October 3: Long Day’s Journey into Poster Session

Thursday morning started with a welcoming message from Leo Lambert, president of Elon university, who acknowledged the work of Peter Felten and announced his leadership of the new Center of Engaged Learning at Elon. Lambert officially welcomed the participants to Raleigh and emphasized that in states such as North Carolina where political support is withdrawn from what was considered core, near sacred contributions to education, the voice of the SoTL community is an important one to hear. “Our business is not awarding diplomas, but to foster human transformation,” Lambert concluded.

Keynote by Lee Shulman

Introduced by Lambert as “one of the greats of American higher education,” Lee Shulman delivered an exceptional keynote that set the tone for the rest of the conference and was quoted by many presenters and participants alike.

issotl 03Having directed more than 50 PhD projects, Shulman devoted his talk to the question “What counts as real research?” Or, more precisely: Why are qualitative, situated approaches treated as “minor league” in the Academy? Lee Shulman characterized the scholarship of teaching and learning as opposed to traditional research in education and the learning sciences. Whereas the traditional approach aims to achieve generalized findings and principles that are not limited to the particulars of setting, participants, place and time, the SoTL community seeks to describe, explain and evaluate the relationships among intentions, actions and consequences in a carefully recounted local situation.

“Part of our mission is to help colleagues understand that it is better on our side,” Shulman exclaimed. “Classrooms can be a laboratory of practice, instead of distracting from research.”

Lee Shulman

Lee Shulman

To illustrate his point, Shulman recounted a recent experimental study on the impact of messy vs. neat office environment on creativity and choices, reported in the New York Times. The subjects at the clean desk preferred apples over chocolate bars; the subjects in the messy room came up with more uses for ping pong balls. Morale: Messy desks are good for creativity. Shulman emphasized that he actually took the time to dig up the full report. “It is not that I don’ t trust journalists. I just don’t trust journalists.”’ What context information are readers missing? “The article does not say that the participants were Psych101 students – the one group in the world that is more researched than lab-rats! And do ping pong balls measure creativity anywhere outside the lab? What is the construct of validity? If it turns out that the ping pong ball test really predicts well the kind of creativity that leads to Nobel prizes, I am buying it.”

“The greatest flaw of traditional social science research is that it is not particular enough, that it gains its reputation and its standing by creating situations that are nothing like the real world to come up with findings that can be generalized to everything in the real world.”

Shulman juxtaposed the concept of generalization and universal knowledge against rich, particular and detailed context. Generalizations decay, he explained, referencing Chronbach’s idea of aptitude treatment interactions. Chronbach was not convinced of “general effects.” He encouraged investigators to look at the interactions, not at the manifestations. Over time it turned out that two-way interactions are a phantasy just like general effects. As Chronbach put it, “Once we attend to interactions, we enter a hall of mirrors that extends to infinity.” So at what point does analysis of variants become case study? To fully understand complexity, means treating each experiment as a case study.

What advice can educational research take away from this? “Do not look for generalizations. Try to figure out what to do tomorrow because it matters.” However, local inquiry can only inform the course for tomorrow’s sailing if it fruitfully incorporates theory from experimental-driven, basic research in a dialectical back-and-forth.

As an example, Shulman referred to Angela Duckworth’s research on “grit.” While SAT scores do a moderate job of predicting achievement, measuring grit contributes to the explanation of academic success. For the SoTL community this poses interesting questions: Is grit something innate, or is it teachable? Are we more gritty in one situation than another?

We need to find a way to repair the imbalance of the academy, Shulman concluded. “It is only in the SoTL community that you read study after study that shows SoTL is good for you. Situated investigations make the claim that we get smarter about a piece of the world that we care about. Doing SoTL means you never have to say you’re sorry!” The community rewarded these inspiring words with an ISSOTL award and standing ovations.


After Shulman’s keynote, I was ready to go home and call this a great conference. However, the day had barely started, and I was to deliver my presentation on e-books. It spoke to the good selection and arrangement of topics that the same session featured another talk on electronic books. Samuel Van Horne and Jae-Eun Russell from the University of Iowa presented a study on students’ adoption of interactive features in e-textbooks. Their results suggest that leveraging interactive features in e-textbooks does not come naturally to instructors and students. Instead, instructional designers need to carefully scaffold the adoption of interactive textbook features and be mindful of placing it in the learning ecology. If both the learning management system and the textbook offer collaboration features, learners and teachers need good reasons to choose the textbook environment.

Assessment Approaches

In the afternoon, I attended a great session on assessment.

  • Clair Patricia Hughes (University of Queensland) reported results from a national research project on assessment techniques that employed a mixed method approach incorporating literature reviews, consultation with an international reference group, visits to international agencies like the OECD, and 48 telephone interviews with academics. The results of the Assessing and Assuring Graduate Learning Outcomes (AAGLO) project are available in the online report (102 pages, PDF).
  • Sarah Bunnell from Ohio Wesleyan University investigated how a portfolio exercise in an undergraduate introductory psychology class affected students’ metacognition and learning gains 15 month later. Results indicate that the level of metacognitive reflection in the portfolio is indeed related to better learning outcomes later in the program.


issotl 04Mentoring is a fundamental form of teaching and learning in higher education. Peter Felten organized a panel discussion and workshop session to explore mentoring practices and potential avenues to research this diverse, deeply personal phenomenon.

  • Rebecca Gould (Middleburg College) stressed that a mentor does not have to be a future version of yourself. “Mentoring does not mean to create a mini-me.” She described the practice of mentoring as close to spiritual guidance. It relies on deep companionship. Another point Gould made was that mentoring does not have to stop at the beginning of your career. She recollected a personal example of using mentoring to decide what to do with her career post-tenure when, surprisingly, she did not find the rose garden everyone’s expecting.
  • Anthony Lising Antonio (Stanford University) drew attention to the non-hierarchical nature of mentoring. Mentoring is often provided through “actively passive acts,” like having a generous ear, listening to a person in her complexities, seeing the person in the crazy context of life. Sometimes it is not clear where mentoring starts. Is it recommending a course, research lab or activity? Sometimes mentoring means to bring people into unexpected situations. Antonio brought up the related concept of “sponsored mobility” – making connections for someone in order to get him a job.
  • Manuel Gomez (University of California at Irvine) emphasized the necessity of time. “The requirement of authentic mentoring is time, maybe only five minutes.” He recounted a personal experience of wanting to quit a university program as an undergraduate student and a teacher asking the provoking question, “Well, why don’t you? What are you afraid of?” Accordingly, Gomez defined mentoring as “inspiring people to manage their own learning, explore their own potential and become the person they dream to be.”

The panel concluded with an optimistic message: “Mentoring can bring us back to the roots of the educational enterprise.”

Poster Session

The poster session was one of my favorite parts of the conference, though after two hours of Q&A I was more than ready to call it a day. I presented the assessment of competencies at the Carolina MPA program and enjoyed reviewing several related posters on assessment and emerging technologies.

poster1aposter2aClick images to enlarge.

I had not done a poster session in quite some time and discovered that I actually love the format because it allows me to engage in one-on-one conversations rather ­than deliver a talk.

Friday, October 4: Assessment, Again…

Friday morning, I enjoyed several interesting talks on assessment. Michelle Yeo’s (Mount Royal University) presentation contrasted instructors’ personal concepts and individual thinking about assessment with findings and models reported in the assessment literature and established practices of assessment in higher education. Davida Scharf (New Jersey Institute of Technology) presented the Scharf Model of Core Competency Assessment, an instructional approach to teaching and an instrument to evaluate information literacy gains among students.

Workshop on Metacognition
issotl 06Leah Savion, philosophy professor at Indiana University, gave an introduction to the topic of metacognition from the perspective of analytical philosophy, starting with epistemological concepts. She argued that universities need to instill procedural knowledge: analytical abilities, heuristics for decision making, and metacognitive skills. Metacognition, “thinking about your thinking,” is not innate or automatic but a deliberately acquired type of knowledge, which Savion depicted in a three-layered model. At a basic level, metacognition requires awareness of self, task and strategies. At a second, more advanced level, it comprises encoding new knowledge, estimating what we know and what we need to know, diagnosing when to seek help, and tracing the impact of learning strategies. As a third step, it means to control cognitive processing by replacing mistaken or incomplete beliefs, inhibiting or suppressing irrelevant biases, reviewing resources, reflecting upon and revising learning strategies.

Collaborative Writing

issotl 07Beth Marquis (McMaster University) and Mick Healey (Higher Education Consultant) reported the results of a fascinating group project and collaborative writing experiment that took place at ISSOTL 2012. Nine groups of diverse scholars from 13 countries worldwide came together to co-author reflective pieces about teaching and learning topics. The groups initially worked at a distance to prepare an outline and then met in person for a two-day writing workshop at the ISSOTL 2012 Conference. Following the workshop, the groups took another three-month revision period before submitting to the ISSOTL journal.  The special issue, “Writing Without Borders: 2013 International Writing Collaborative,” was published in September 2013.

TED Talks the SoTL Way

Friday afternoon featured an international trio of TED-style short plenaries. Each of these “conversation starters” was followed by a five-minute buzz group – an opportunity to get to know your seat neighbor and exchange comments and thoughts.

  • Thomas Horejes from Gallaudet University talked about the sensorial aspect of deaf-space classroom ecology and its visual-spatial strategies of instruction: Deaf students are by definition visual learning, integrating written words, images and gestures. This has practical implications for the setup and organization of the University. The classroom space needs to be set up so that everyone sees everyone else. In contrast, the grid classroom design with its rows and columns that is typical for learning institutions leads to a visual one-way knowledge construction. In the grid pattern students see the teacher, not one another. Students do not have ownership of the collaborative, are more tempted to interact with devices and less likely to listen to one another, especially when it comes to resolving bottlenecks.
  • Anthony Lising Antonio (Stanford University) shared a personal regret: “Higher education for me was not preparation for adult life.”  Reciting a quote from Tolstoj in Max Weber’s essay “Science as Vocation,” he described what science education in particular and higher education in general are lacking: “It gives no answer to our question, the only question important for us: What shall we do and how shall we live?”
  • Sian Bayne, a Scot coming to enjoy the warm Carolina sun, gave a fantastic overview of digital literacies in her talk “Writing at the Edge.” She presented examples of student projects in the Master of Science in Digital Education at the School of Education at the University of Edinburgh. (Worth a click: Mark Preston on Medieval Rhetoric, Michael Gallagher on Augmented Reality and the concept of the Flaneur.) Bayne raised interesting questions about assessment. “To what extent are you marking your students’ work and your students’ knowledge, and to what extent do you mark your own capacity to interpret and access this work?” How can instructors assess essays that use digital storytelling techniques? “What I would really like to do as a teacher is give feedback in the same rhizomatic, creative way. But of course, this is not feasible,” she explained. Instead, the program grades are based on formal criteria, specified in rubrics, but also allows students to propose their own criteria.

Saturday, October 5: Retracing Steps

The conference crowd had thinned significantly by Saturday morning. Even without too much travel time between Chapel Hill and Raleigh, I dreaded the loss of my weekend much more than looking forward to Saturday’s program. Those who stayed around for the closing plenary, “Changing Higher Education: One Step at a Time,” listened to four personal recollections of SoTL community members from the US, Sweden, Ireland, and Canada.

  • Julie Reynolds (Duke University) works as an expert on teaching students scientific writing skills. “In changing the conversation in higher education it is important to have a voice, so I am going to tell you a story about how I created agency for myself,” Reynolds announced. To change the conversation about how to work with student writers in Duke’s Biology department and promote undergraduate research, she created the Biology Thesis Assessment Protocol (BioTAP).
  • Marian McCarthy (University College Cork): In 2006, McCarthy co-founded the Teaching and Learning Center at UCC. The center initially offered open lunchtime sessions to create a community of practice among the diverse faculty body. “You have to start where the faculty are.” This approach gradually led to a postgraduate certificate, diploma and Masters in Teaching and Learning.
  • Klara Bolander Laksov (Karolinska Instituet): As an educational developer at a research-intensive medical university, Laksov described her journey into SoTL starting 10 years ago. Early research projects addressed transfer problems of applying anatomical knowledge to clinical practice as well as learner-centered pedagogies. Eventually, she was able to foster a community of practice among faculty – an endeavor that was greatly helped by the purchase of a high-end coffee machine.
  • Arshad Ahmad (McMaster University) started his talk with a quote from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.” Ahmad described how he eventually became the President of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, Canada, initiated the “Teaching Learning Canada” charity and engaged in a global dialogue with the International Consortium for Educational Development (ICED).

Though these individual recollections provided the “rich narratives” Shulman’s keynote called for and were certainly interesting and well delivered, I would have preferred a more systematic approach to current SoTL trends and ongoing challenges. The conference provided several recurring themes – assessment, metacognition and mentoring being among the most prominent.

A Note on Networking…

 issotl 08

I loved the paperless conference experience facilitated by the guidebook app. The app provided the conference schedule, a map of the Raleigh convention center, a list of presenters, a photo album, checklists, and, most important, the ability to create my personal conference schedule. One thing was missing though – and not only from the app but also from the printed program: An easy way to contact presenters you wanted to follow-up with. Providing email addresses, institutions and headshots in the presenter index would have made it easier to keep track of people and topics. Especially when I moved from one room to another during sessions, I found it challenging to follow-up on questions and discussions. However, participants found ways to connect – a reminder that sometimes the best tool is a pencil.


All in all, ISSOTL 2013 was a great experience. The 2014 conference will be held in Quebec, Canada.

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