Practicing Scholarly Teaching

 

Scholarly teaching is a reflective and intentional way of approaching teaching and learning in courses through which the instructor consults the literature on best practices and designs an intervention to improve student learning in a course. Scholarly teachers read pedagogical literature in both their discipline and in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) to reflect on their own teaching practices. They then use this reading and reflection to approach a teaching challenge with curiosity and an attitude of inquiry to determine ways to change their approach for better outcomes.  

Scholarly teaching draws on the instructor’s knowledge of research practices because this approach empirically yet informally includes a literature review, inquiry question, specific plan to explore the question, “data” collection and assessment, and application of findings to improve their teaching. While it uses a scholarly, empirical approach, scholarly teaching is not “scholarship” because the goal is not publication but instead improving one’s teaching. 

The peer-reviewed blog, The Scholarly Teacher: Applying Evidence Based Strategies to Enrich Student Learning, is a rich resource to follow for more information and examples. 

How is it different than the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL)? 

Scholarly teaching and SoTL are different levels of reflective teaching. SoTL takes scholarly teaching to the next level as intention shifts from improving one’s teaching to conducting IRB-approved research for publication or presentation that might have a broader impact and theorizing about teaching and learning.  

SoTL formally dates to Ernest Boyer’s 1997 Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate report in which he articulated four types of scholarship to better encompass the work faculty do: the traditional scholarship of discovery, but also the scholarship of integration, the scholarship of application, and the scholarship of teaching. Boyer argues that “teaching, at its best, means not only transmitting knowledge, but transforming and extending it as well” (emphasis in original). Boyer’s original conception of the scholarship of teaching is more like what we would consider scholarly teaching today but has evolved into what we now call SoTL. 

In this eight-minute video, SoTL leaders share their perspectives on the relationship and differences between scholarly teaching and SoTL:  

 

For an in-depth comparison, read “The Relationship between Scholarly Teaching and SoTL: Models, Distinctions, and Clarifications,” by Michael K. Potter and Ericka Kustra (2011). 

 

How do you design a good scholarly teaching project? 

The same way you would another research project – develop an inquiry question, review the literature, create an empirical way of collecting data, and analyze that data.  

One reason instructors may turn to a scholarly teaching approach or SoTL is to understand a “problem” in the classroom. We regularly explore problems in our research, that’s the very nature of research. But admitting to a “teaching problem” can feel much more personal and, sometimes even shameful, as Randy Bass discusses in his classic article, “The Scholarship of Teaching: What’s the Problem?”.  Bass tells us that “Changing the status of the problem in teaching from terminal remediation to ongoing investigation is precisely what the movement for a scholarship of teaching is all about...How might we think of teaching practice, and the evidence of student learning, as problems to be investigated analyzed, represented, and debated?” 

Visit this resource from the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University about develop questions to use for scholarly teaching or SoTL research. Some examples of research questions they give include 

  • Do students learn more when they have to teach the content to their peers than when they only have to summarize it for their own use? 
  • How might a systematic reflection activity completed when I return graded work prompt students to apply the feedback they receive to future class assignments? 

 

 

How do you collect data and assess students’ learning in my scholarly teaching project? 

The easiest way to collect data about learning from your students is to simply collect their work in the course or educational setting being studied, such as a lab or study abroad program. For example, if you want to test a new strategy for teaching students how to solve a particularly complex type of problem, you might ask them to do it the traditional way and then compare that to work they do after you teach them the new strategy. In this case, you would collect the work students did at both points in the class, perhaps the problem sets themselves for example. If you wanted to track students’ development over the course, you might collect a pre-, mid- and post-assessment or reflection.  

Class material is the most readily available data in a SoTL study, but you might collect other anonymous data as well. For example, you might do a mid-term survey on a specific aspect of learning you are interested in and compare that to a survey at the end of the semester and then six months after the course. If that survey also helped you understand student learning and how to adapt the course effectively, all the better. 

If you want to hear from students directly about your teaching, consider asking a trusted colleague to conduct those interviews or focus groups and summarize the responses for you, especially during an active semester. 

Since scholarly teaching projects are not for public presentation but instead centered on improving your teaching and your students’ learning, you do not need humans subjects from your institution’s Institutional Review Board IRB approval. But you will need that approval if you intend to publish or present at a conference. 

If you are not familiar with human subjects research, this resource from the NIH provides a solid history of how these federal and international laws developed, and this resource is an excellent overview for new SoTL researchers. This article also does an excellent job exploring the complexities of this type of research. If you want to pursue SoTL research at Tech, you are required to complete the CITI certification process which includes modules explaining the history of this research protection, defining terms like “vulnerable subjects,” and sharing ethical practices to use in this research. Because SoTL IRB applications can be different from other types of proposals, here is a resource for considering the differences. 

 

What do you do with the data and analysis at the end of the semester? 

Scholarly teaching is about you as the instructor checking in on your students’ learning by some sort of empirical study, formal or informal. As mentioned above, scholarly teaching projects may be very similar to SoTL projects, but in this case, the knowledge gained from the project is for you to improve your teaching and student learning rather than for publication.  

Consider not thinking about student work as “data” until the end of the semester after grades are submitted to stay focused on the learning during the course. 

Once the semester is over, you might ask yourself,  

What patterns did I see in the data? Where do my students seem to have the most success? Challenges? What knowledge did I gain that I can use for the next time I teach the course or to inform all of my courses? How might I practically implement changes from that knowledge? 

You might also share your findings with your peers, for example a course design group or curriculum development group for a shared core course. This is not dissemination as in traditional research, but instead knowledge that can improve student learning in a program, major, course, etc. 

If the results are intriguing, consider taking the next step and designing a SoTL project. 

 

When does scholarly teaching become human subjects research, and what do you do? 

Because scholarly teaching is for your own improvement and that of close peers, you are not required to teach that work as human subjects research. However, if you are studying how your students learn and/or examining the effects of your teaching on students’ learning with the intent to publish or present publicly, you must apply for humans subjects research approval from your institution’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) before you can collect any student works as “data.” 

Human subjects research guidelines are driven by three ethical principles: voluntary informed consent, favorable risk/benefit analysis, and right to withdraw without repercussions. So in SoTL work, you must make sure your students consent to participating in the study, that they will not be harmed as part of the study, and that they can withdraw at any time without it impacting their grade if they are currently in your course.  

A question you will see in IRB applications is whether or not the study participants are considered vulnerable subjects which are people not capable of making a decision of informed consent or who the researcher has some power over. When conducting SoTL research, your students are due human subjects protection and acknowledged as “vulnerable subjects” because you do have power over students’ grades when studying your own course. There are multiple steps you can take to ensure students are treated fairly: 

  1. Plan for a colleague to visit your class, speak to the students about the research, and collect the informed consent forms. That colleagues would then hold the consent forms until after grades are submitted for the course. It’s a good idea to have that colleagues on the IRB protocol so they can ethically hold the consent forms. This way, you do not know which students have consented to the study until grades are submitted and, therefore, cannot treat students differently. 

  1. As much as possible, make the study part of the pedagogy of the class. For example, if you want to do a pre- and post-test of student attitudes, consider using that tool as part of student learning as well. You might return their pre-tests at the end of the semester and have them reflect on the changes between the pre- and post-. This strategy allows you to say in the IRB application and consent forms that students will not be expected to do anything they would not already be doing for the course. 

  1. Avoid using “control groups” of students in the same class or even multiple sections of the same course you might be teaching in a semester. If you are trying a new strategy that you think may help students learn more effectively, you are ethically bound to offer that to all your students. You can consider past sections of a course as the control group if you do feel that you need one. 

  1. Plan to look at students work as “data” after the semester is completed. You can be collecting student work and your own notes, but keep in mind that those practices during the semester should be part of the course.  

 

 

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