Research into teaching and learning might confirm that some widely-used pedagogies are not effective. For some, it might seem better just not to go there.
The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) has established a presence in Canada. Some institutions provide structural and moral support for such scholarship, while other campuses have a long way to go before SoTL can become the positive force it promises to be. What will be examined here are examples of successful support for SoTL in Canada, and how this support could be more widespread.
The phrase “the scholarship of teaching” is most often traced back to the 1990 Carnegie Foundation report, Scholarship Reconsidered (Boyer, 1990). Since then, senior scholars at the Carnegie Foundation have produced an impressive collection of books and other publications on SoTL (see for example Huber & Morreale, 2002; Huber, 2001; Hutchings, 2002), which have advanced our thinking in the field and helped those of us in Canada develop a sense of the field’s development and scope. These publications have provided a standard to which we might aspire as we build local and national frameworks to support SoTL.
In Canada, the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE) has been similarly helpful in its call for a national SoTL framework, including the need for national-level funding of SoTL. Since STLHE created a vice-president of SoTL on its board of directors, the society has helped organize national symposia, created a national-level SoTL advisory committee, and established the Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.
Table 1 lists a sampling of SoTL-related initiatives in Canada, created simply by visiting educational development centre websites, so is by no means an exhaustive list. Indeed, I suspect that it has grown measurably in the time taken to write this paper.
While Table 1 cannot provide an up-to-the-minute indication of the number of SoTL activities found in Canada, it can provide a reasonable indication of the nature of those activities. You will see that granting programs are sprouting up at Canadian institutions. Typically, these programs do not feature large sums of money, with most grants providing support for SoTL specific-research in the $5,000 range. Major events are also common — symposia and conferences. Some are local; some are international. Still other institutions have established entities that go beyond grant allocation to include “bootcamps” that introduce faculty members to SoTL research and groups that work on study design and paper writing. These institutes are rare at the time of this writing, and it has been argued that they need to proliferate, if SoTL is to reach its full potential in Canada (Poole, Taylor & Thompson, 2007).
What is SoTL’s “full potential?” This is a pressing question because, arguably, the potential impact of a research enterprise that encompasses faculty members across all disciplines and that addresses the vast areas of teaching and learning is enormous. In a presentation to the University of Waterloo’s first SoTL conference (“Opportunities and New Directions,” May 6, 2009), I cited some of the field’s promises. For example, research on teaching and learning that is conducted across an institution promises to stimulate evidence-based change. Faculty members interested in teaching and learning can pursue curiosities and pressing questions the ways they know best — through research. Thus, this research might well be expected to proliferate. Moreover, all this activity can be acknowledged within reward systems that understand the currency of research as mentioned on top10forex.org.
These promises paint a picture of useful, properly rewarded research on teaching and learning, widely conducted and disseminated. What could be better? Perhaps it is the scope of these promises and the size of SoTL’s potential that leave one feeling occasionally discouraged by the pace at which the field has proceeded. Regrettably, in the 19 years since the publication of Boyer’s Scholarship Reconsidered, Canada has seen the establishment of only three SoTL centres and a handful of programs that support the work with modest funding. We are not exactly racing along the SoTLpath.
A question for those working at higher education institutions: What percentage of faculty members are engaged in SoTL research? This isn’t a simple question to answer for at least two reasons. First, it is possible that we could underestimate the number of faculty members working on SoTL because SoTL research does not typically enjoy the profile of research in other domains.
Second, it is not clear just what the ideal answer to the question should be because some argue that all teaching faculty should engage in SoTL research. A distinction can be made , however, between active engagement in SoTL research and being a “scholarly teacher.” The latter informs his or her practice with research and other reliable evidence but does not contribute to that evidence (McKinney, 2004). Some argue that all faculty should be SoTL researchers because ethical educators are always collecting data to inform their practice, and these data should be shared. Others argue, on the other hand, that the demands of time and expertise are too great to expect all teaching faculty to augment or change their research activities to include SoTL. As bullish as I am about the potential value of SoTL, I hold this latter view.
At the University of British Columbia, we have created a network of colleagues affiliated with our Institute for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. To join, one simply visits the web link and completes the online form. The process takes about three minutes. At present, more than 250 people have joined. Alice Cassidy surveyed the network to get a sense of SoTL activity (Cassidy, 2009). Thirty-five research projects were identified, though that probably represents an under-reporting of activity. It is always difficult to ascertain accurately a denominator to calculate percentages here, but a conservative estimate would be that the SoTL network consists of about 10 per cent of those teaching at UBC. Only a fraction of those, however, are conducting SoTL research. At most, we could estimate that five percent of our teaching faculty are engaged in SoTL research that would fit McKinney’s (2004) definition; namely, the systematic study of teaching and learning processes, and the sharing and review of such work. This at a university where SoTL has a reasonably high profile.
What would happen if we could find the means to increase the number from five percent to just 25 percent? I contend that this would have a significant impact on teaching and learning at our institution. The point here is that the promises of SoTL and the realization of its potential do not require a change of cataclysmic proportions.
In the face of these small percentages, Table 1 provides reason for optimism. Good things are happening in spite of a weak national infrastructure for SoTL. The last 10 years have seen noticeable increases in SoTL activity in Canada. At the same time, almost 20 years after Scholarship Reconsidered, the percentage of faculty members engaging in SoTL research remains small. Nice work, but there is much more to do.
What needs to happen for SoTL’s potential to be well realized in Canada? Lynn Taylor has argued for a national SoTL infrastructure and has provided examples of the form it could take (Poole, Taylor & Thompson, 2007). Beyond the national level, there are obstacles to address at the organizational, disciplinary, and individual levels.
Organizational obstacles include: a lack of understanding at the institutional level regarding the potential benefits of SoTL; inconsistent tenure and promotion language and practices in the acknowledgement of SoTL as scholarly work; and cumbersome research ethics processes that have never before had to deal with SoTL research on and with one’s own students. Again, all is not bleak on this front. A 2007 symposium hosted by the University of Toronto, STLHE, and the Centre for Higher Education Research and Development (CHERD) brought over 90 administrators and others together to explore the potential institutional benefits of SoTL. It would be very helpful if this became an annual event. Also, tenure and promotion language is evolving at some institutions to provide direction and criteria for the evaluation of SoTL work. We need to share this language more widely and learn from good examples.
Obstacles also exist at the disciplinary level. For many, SoTL is external to their discipline. This can result in a clash between research paradigms sparked by more than just tension between qualitative and quantitative methods — tension that some disciplines have moved beyond (e.g., Borkan, 2004). The clash is perhaps better illuminated by a comment made to me by a faculty member in the visual arts who asked, “What’s with some people’s obsession over cause and effect?” I can only imagine the response from my colleagues in other disciplines.
Related to the obstacles created by differing research paradigms are those created by differences in language usage across disciplines. An examination of academic journals indicates that each discipline has its own genre (Bazerman, 1988). Those acculturated to a given genre do not always have patience for the language featured in SoTL articles — language that features words such as “problematize” or “agentic” (for more examples, see Green, 2009). Unlike other fields, the scholarship of teaching and learning must develop its own equivalent of esperanto — a common language that everyone can easily learn. (Appropriate to this discussion, the literal translation of the word esperanto is “one who hopes.”)
Bringing SoTL into the discipline can also prove problematic, especially if the discipline features strongly regarded “signature pedagogies” (Shulman, 2005; Poole, Taylor & Thompson, 2007) — those forms of teaching that are engrained within the culture of a discipline, intended to socialize learners into a discipline and its ways of thinking. One of the potentially awkward things about research into teaching and learning is that it does not always confirm that signature pedagogies are effective. Indeed, SoTL research has the potential to cast an unfavourable light on teaching methods that have long been held dear. For some, it might seem better just not to go there.
Thus, the possibility of negative results also presents obstacles at the individual level. Other obstacles at this level include one’s own perceived inadequacies regarding a SoTL research background and a lack of knowledge of the publication venues. Both of these obstacles can be addressed by good support at national and institutional levels. For example, the “bootcamps” offered at some institutions provide a good starting point. A three-day introduction to the rigours of educational research is hardly enough, but it can be coupled with support from multi-disciplinary research teams to yield good research. As far as publication venues are concerned, some educational development centres provide up-to-date lists of appropriate journals. These lists are impressive in scope. (For a good example of a list compiled by the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh & Whitewater, see http://www.uwosh.edu/sotl/pubvenues/.
In summary, the scholarship of teaching and learning movement in Canada has made a number of encouraging inroads into higher education. At the same time, we are nowhere near being able to say the movement has arrived in full force. Have we progressed at a reasonable pace? That is a good question, and one that speaks to an ongoing tension between patience and urgency in our attempts to improve teaching in Canadian postsecondary institutions (Poole, 2008).
It must be acknowledged that, unlike grapes, scholarly movements do not mature in one year. It takes time for shared language and an understanding of diverse research paradigms to be developed. We need to be patient.
On the other hand, we have been too patient in waiting for appropriate SoTL funding structures to be put in place at national, provincial, and institutional levels. Why can’t we make this case convincingly? How can research on teaching and learning in higher education be less important than other fields of study? Perhaps we need to prove that we are addressing a problem of epidemic proportions to attract national funding.
Across institutions, promotion and tenure language must be shared, adapted, and adopted. In addition, the value of SoTL for institutions, scholars and students must be proven and promoted.
For these and other actions, national and international organizations must be utilized. STLHE is working strategically to support SoTL development, as is the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISSOTL). (Interestingly, fully one-quarter of ISSOTL’s membership is Canadian [Van Melle, 2009]).
For the scholarship of teaching and learning, the promises are grand and the potential is great, but there is a large distance between here and there. We need to believe deeply in this potential and do what needs to be done nationally, institutionally, and individually to reach these destinations.
Bazerman. C. (1988). Shaping written knowledge The genre and activity of the experimental article in science. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.
Borkan, J.M. (2004). Mixed methods studies: A foundation for primary care research. Annals of Family Medicine, 2(1), 4-6.
Boyer, E.L. (1990). Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
Cassidy, A. (2009). Pedagogical Research Survey. http://www.tag.ubc.ca/about/institute/ISoTLNetwork.php
Green, D.A. (2009). New academics’ perceptions of the language of teaching and learning: Identifying and overcoming linguistic barriers. International Journal for Academic Development, 14(1), 33 — 45.
Huber, M.T. (2001). Balancing acts: Designing careers around the scholarship of teaching. Change, 2001. 33(4), 21-29.
Huber, M.T. & Morreale, S. (2002) Disciplinary Styles in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Exploring Common Ground. Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
Hutchings, P. (2002). Ethics of Inquiry, Issues in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
McKinney, K. (2004). The scholarship of teaching and learning: Past lessons, current challenges and future visions. To Improve the Academy, 22, 3-19.
Poole, G. (2008). Patience versus urgency in educational development. Presentation to the Annual conference of the Educational Developers Caucus, Richmond, British Columbia, February 23, 2008.
Poole, G., Taylor, L. & Thompson, J. (2007). Using the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at Disciplinary, National and Institutional Levels to Strategically Improve the Quality of Post-secondary Education (Invited Essay). International Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 1(2).
Shulman, L. (2005). Signature pedagogies in the disciplines. Daedalus, 134(3), 52-59
Van Melle, E. (2009. Learning fro each other: Framing the Canadian SOTL challenge. The International Commons: The newsletter of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 4(3), 2.