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LRDC Senior Scientist
Professor of Psychology, Intelligent Systems, and Learning Sciences and Policy
For hundreds of years, teaching at the college level has primarily resembled a solo sport, in which faculty members independently discover how to improve their own teaching. As a result, individual insights remain individual ones, rather than benefiting the wider academy of teachers, whose critical eyes might also further shape those insights. In other words, the traditional, individualistic process of improving college teaching runs directly counter to practices of research. Increasingly, however, faculty seek to apply the tools and practices of their research lives to their teaching lives, to help advance teaching in higher education in new ways.
Many first undertake the move to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) as consumers, attending presentations or reading the contributions of others, or perhaps trying out some of the new techniques they have heard about in their own classrooms. But then the inquisitiveness of the natural scientist takes over: What if we, ourselves, did something a little different in our classrooms? Would better outcomes result? If not the first time, eventually? How could we assess success, failure, or mixed results? Could the strategies we develop be replicated in multiple disciplines?
It is at this point the SoTL consumer transforms into producer and practitioner—when he or she begins asking, “Is it time to share successes with others, and what would be the benefit?” Below, you will find three broader questions to help you decide whether you are ready to share your own scholarship in teaching and learning.
1) Do you have a contrastive case? Educational research can use a random clinical trials model, creating two learning situations (e.g., new teaching and old teaching conditions) and then randomly assigning students to one of the two learning situations. But educational research very often takes other useful forms that also involve comparing something you have created to some other approach. The random assignment approach is so restrictive that almost no one can do it successfully in education—even with millions of dollars in funding. But some kind of baseline for contrast is required to assess progress: someone else’s section using a different approach, your own section from a prior year, or perhaps a subset of your own section who received the new approach a little later.
2) Have you evaluated student outcome data in a systematic way? If the research question centers around student dissatisfaction with or problematic attitudes toward the old way of teaching or specific subject matter, then student surveys can provide a useful assessment tool. But if measuring the development of students’ skills and knowledge are the real goal, then other forms of assessment may be necessary: common tests, common assignments, or papers evaluated in common ways.
3) Do you have a theory for why your approach works? Did you change student motivation levels, the comprehensibility of your material, the number or rate of practice opportunities, or the directness of feedback guiding learning? A theory of your successful results helps others interpret the plausibility of your claims, generate new ways to test your claims, and predict the range of situations in which similar results should be found. Ideally, you would also have some information (e.g., student surveys about amount of time spent studying, surveys on motivation levels, or changes in typical student problems in papers) to support your particular theory, even if anecdotal.If you can answer all three questions positively, then it is time to start writing up what you did and what you found in your classroom. More work lies ahead, but you have a product worth sharing. If you think you have a solid idea, but you have not yet obtained the data to support your case, recruit some colleagues to help. Perhaps they can give you access to papers from another way of teaching, help generate a fair test, suggest a theory for why your innovation is useful, or suggest an even better variation of your innovation to try out. By inviting others to evaluate and refine what you have, you have also taken the first step toward spreading the innovation.
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The Teaching Times newsletter is devoted to the support of teaching and learning at the University of Pittsburgh. The Teaching Times shares faculty teaching experiences, strategies and techniques that can be applied in classrooms across the University. The Teaching Times welcomes letters and articles from faculty about any topic affecting University teaching and learning.
Carol DeArment, Editor