SoTL–An Approach to Rule Them All

Now that you are here, I have to tell you: There is no such thing as one way to SoTL!
Bear with me this is a working out loud piece. In the following I am trying to make some sense out of recent readings.* So this is a bit of a rambling post trying to establish where we are at with the matter of SoTL so far. Mind you this is not a comprehensive or systematic literature review. Rather a ‘this is how far I have gotten until now’ review.

This is an image from the Highlander film. Showing the highlander during a quickening, flashes surrounding him and he holds what looks like a katana in his right hand, arms outstretched. Text overlaid says: There can be only one
Image from Meme Generator

Over the last weeks I made my way through a variety of SoTL papers these are my thoughts so far. One of the key critique points coming up is: there is no clear definition and no one way to approach or conduct SoTL. We need a framework, a theoretical positioning or an epistemological stance of SoTL is the call. Something I would have joined previously, before diving more into the complexities of the field (discipline).

First point of call has to be words/terms/names/vocables: I think we need to be vigilant with terminology. It seems that some of the confusion is rooted in a generous approach to words (terminology). Things are becoming less murky if we differentiate between scholarship, scholarly, and the young Anglo-Saxon teaching-learning discipline—SoTL (Bromberg, 2015). As I pointed out before: ‘Scholarship historically suggests there are elements of reading, of engaging with other scholars’ and researchers’ thoughts and publications. It is a historical exercise analysing and critiquing a body of existing knowledge.’
Now, so far I have come to understand that: if this exercise is applied to inform teaching practice, that would be considered scholarly, i.e.: a scholarly approach to your teaching practice. If the reflection on this engagement with others’ thoughts and publications in turn is published that would be considered one way to SoTL (but it could also still be ‘just’ scholarship). And there the issues begin…

My Prediction from the Educational Crystal Ball: There is never going to be one way to undertake or one epistemology for SoTL. SoTL could be considered either a subdiscipline or a field of education, depending a bit which argument you agree with; or where the developments will carry us over the next years.

However, there appear to be some points of agreement across the sector: in general colleagues seem to agree that SoTL is concerned with learning and teaching in higher education–nomen est omen. In particular it is concerned with the acts of interrogating, exploring, researching, or reflecting on learning and teaching in higher education. For me this means as such it belongs into the wider canon of other educational disciplines, such as Didaktik, curriculum development et cetera et infinitum. The differentiations are an ongoing process.
Additionally, SoTL needs to be public and open to peer feedback–if it is not public than it is scholarly practice, practice informed by scholarship, or when informed by data (evidence based practice).

I summarize briefly before going on. SoTL is:

  1. concerned with matters of teaching and learning in higher education context
  2. public
  3. subject to peer feedback (or peer-review)

I have not yet found an agreement about how to SoTL. For instance some authors call for it to be classified with research for the UK Research Excellence Framework (e.g. Tierney, 2019) which might be less of a concern in other countries. Others fear this particular suggestion, and its inherent consequences. The issue with this debate is that it only focusses on the type of SoTL that employs educational research approaches.
If we agree on the premises above (which generally the publications seem to), then we will establish very quickly that there are other ways of undertaking SoTL. There is no one way to rule them all. Because what concerns teaching and learning in higher education, is such a vast interdisciplinary (dare I say transdisciplinary) field* that the ‘how to make sense of it’ can not, and should not be restricted to one way of going about it.

Maybe the solution is somewhere entirely different?

What if we try to develop characteristics (Bestimmungstücke) of SoTL. One such characteristic could be the level from which we look: macro-, meso-, micro-level (Bromberg, 2015 & Fanghanel et al., 2016)). For instance, are we undertaking policy analysis influencing teaching, are we collaborating across institutions to explore the implementation of a teaching tool, approach, method? Or are we evaluating the implementation of say flipped classroom in our own course?

Which naturally leads to the question: Is SoTL always data collection?

Not according to the various SoTL publications out there. There are SoTL publications which are reflective practice pieces, systematic literature reviews (although we could argue about what constitutes data here), thought papers, or one of our (Tasler & Dale, 2021) recent exploits which is currently in print: development of a theoretical framework. Just by the variety of these it becomes clear very quickly that one epistemology and one approach to SoTL, won’t fit them all. All of these have their place and significance in the wider canon of SoTL, as they address different needs to further the enhancement of learning and teaching in higher education.

I don’t really have the answers. But I have some questions:

  • Would the different approaches to SoTL be characteristics (Bestimmungstücke) or are they categories of SoTL–or even subdisciplines?
  • Is SoTL a field or a discipline? (I inadvertently seem to land on field. How about you?)
  • How to we build in ethics and academic integrity in the various approaches (categories)?
  • The three items above are a start, the level at which we explore could be a fourth characteristic. What other characteristics across should be added? And should we have categories and characteristics or both?
  • If we employ educational research approaches, how do we ensure there is sufficient training, resources for quality in these projects (which seems to come up as an issue)?

Where I am at right now:

Scholarship of Teaching and Learning belongs into the field of education
It is concerned with matters of higher education learning and teaching
It must be public
It must be available to peer feedback
It can happen at macro, meso, or micro level

  • Scholarship of Teaching and Learning can be:
  • Educational Research (using approaches from psychology, sociology, education)
  • Practice evaluations
  • Reflective (Reflexive) Practice
  • Literature Reviews
  • Theory Papers
  • Educational Philosophy

This is not a comprehensive list the educational research approaches can use learning science methodologies or autoethnography, and everything in between depending what the questions are. But other approaches to SoTL, which might not fall under the definition of research, are just as much part of this field (?) of education. What do you think? Where are you at?

Some of the References that Influenced my Thinking

Bennett, R., Hobson, J., Jones, A., Martin-Lynch, P., Scutt, C., Strehlow, K. and Veitch, S. (2016) Being chimaera: A monstrous identity for SoTL academics. Higher Education Research & Development, 35 (2). pp. 217-228.

Bromberg, K. (2015). Akademische Lehr-Lern-Forschung im Vergleich: Wissenschaftliche Selbstthematisierungen aus transnationaler Perspektive. Zeitschrift Fur Erziehungswissenschaft, 18(3), 551–567.

Canning, J. & Masika, R. (2020): The scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL): the thorn in the flesh of educational research, Studies in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2020.1836485

Fanghanel, J., Pritchard, J., Potter, J., & Wisker, G. (2016). Defining and supporting the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL): A sector-wide study Literature review.

Jenert, T., Reinmann, G., & Schmohl, T. (Eds.). (2019). Hochschulbildungsforschung. Theoretische, methodologische und methodische Denkanstöße für die Hochschuldidaktik. Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden GmbH.

Kordts-Freudinger, R., Bücker, D., Braukmann, J., Schulte, R., & Velibeyoglu, N. (2017). Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) als Bestandteil hochschuldidaktischer Zertifikatsprogramme am Beispiel der Universität Paderborn. Neues Handbuch Hochschullehre, 1–24.

Reano, D., Masta, S., & Harbor, J. (2019). Changing Future Faculty’s Conceptions of SoTL. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 13(2).

Tierney, A. (2019): The scholarship of teaching and learning and pedagogic research within the disciplines: should it be included in the research excellence framework?, Studies in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2019.1574732

Webb, A.S. & Tierney, A. M. (2020) Investigating support for scholarship of teaching and learning; We need SoTL educational leaders, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 57:5, 613-624, DOI: 0.1080/14703297.2019.1635905

*For disclosure this is not so recent anymore, I have a current backlog of 80 drafted blogposts … Have I mentioned this semester has been incredibly hard.
**I am beginning to think I would land on field rather than discipline

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