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.
Unfortunately, I missed Tony Ciccone’s closing talk on Friday to get an early start for the drive back to Chapel Hill. Since the three talks were interconnected, I felt that I missed a crucial part of the story. A recording would have been a great resource for future reference by conference attendees and the broader community.
Conference Themes & Memes
In general, the conference organizers strived for a discursive, engaging atmosphere to foster community building and dialogue. One neat way to achieve this was door prizes, handed out at the end of each keynote. Another organizational choice that agreed less with me was to hold the keynotes during lunch break without assigning a fixed time slot for each presentation. I found this difficult to plan for, albeit definitely facilitating lunch conversations.
Though the focus of the presentations was rather diverse, two major recurring themes were flipped classrooms and faculty development through SoTL.
Flipping the Classroom
My overall take-away message from the talks, which reported both anecdotal evidence as well as systematic evaluation of flipped experiences, is that the flip can easily belly flop: Without instructionally sound design, careful preparation and skillful delivery, students are likely disappointed and often tend to prefer the traditional lecture format. Besides the discussion of potential benefits and challenges of flipping the classroom, I enjoyed the many hands-on ideas that presenters shared.
Lisa Larson from the College of Saint Scholastica raised an important point for flipped settings: “If study time comes to the classroom, it has to become more audible or visible.” During her presentation, she introduced several active learning components and tools, i.e., the “Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique.”
Beau Beaudoin (Columbia College, Chicago) delivered a highly energetic presentation on teaching in a circle. She uses this approach in every class to shift the attention from the instructor’s input to the students discourse. “Method is at least as important as content,” Beaudoin stressed.
Faculty Development Through SoTL
Approaches for engaging faculty in SoTL were highlighted in several talks. I particularly liked the idea of Faculty Learning Communities — a cross-disciplinary faculty and staff group of 6-12 who engage in an active, collaborative, year-long program about enhancing teaching and learning (Cox 2004).
A group from the UNC Center for Faculty Excellence organized a panel to share their experiences with faculty learning communities (FLCs). The Center currently hosts five distinct FLCs in different departments to foster course redesign, particularly for large classes and STEM subjects. The members of UNC’s faculty learning communities often receive funding in the form of competitive grants for their redesign efforts. The panelists emphasized that these incentives helped bring the faculty to the table initially; but that those involved usually stay active members of the community after the funding period had ended. As advice on how to direct and moderate FLCs, the panel emphasized that each community is different and that the directions should be based on the members’ needs and desires. They also discussed ways to research the impact of FLCs on student learning.
Other contributions about faculty development provided ideas for including students in conceptualizing new teaching strategies or conducting SoTL research. As an example, Patricia Rieman (Carthage College) introduced a web-based discussion platform that was collaboratively designed by students and professors.
While the presentation sessions offered some of the usual ups and downs in quality, the poster session on Thursday evening was a real surprise: It provided great opportunities to discuss new, original ideas such as Augmented Reality (AR) .
Worth mentioning were the excellent student contributions. I was particularly impressed by a poster from Lauren Cook (University of North Georgia). She presented her findings about a study on “social contagion.” In an experimental setting, her research exposed groups of three to a memory exercise where one group member had an additional false attribute to memorize. Participants reported their memories before and after a discussion session. The results may have implications on how instructors think about group assignments. Though group discussion overall enhances the individual’s memory, it also opens the door for false memories to spread among the group members – and, contrary to what one might think, this process holds true if the student with the false memory has a dominant or conscientious personality.
SoTL commons is a great conference if you are looking for a small venue with a welcoming, collegial spirit. Personally, I would have preferred a concentration on one or two specific aspects of SoTL to allow for a more focused debate. I also hope that future events will offer recordings of the keynote addresses. Presentation slides are currently collected and will be available at the conference website.
Thank you to the organizers, and I hope to be back at Savannah!