Grand Challenge for SoTL #5
SoTL practitioners study postsecondary teaching and learning to better understand and improve the practice, use, and growth of SoTL. SoTL practitioners explore, share, and translate the knowledge generated by its diverse research approaches in order to improve teaching, learning, and higher education more broadly.
What is it?
Unlike the previous four, this final Grand Challenge isn’t focused on doing SoTL or identifying topics for SoTL projects. Instead, it’s about the field of SoTL, specifically its practice, use, and growth.
The Practice of SoTL: As the multidisciplinary field that strives to enhance postsecondary teaching and learning by investigating educational practices (including SoTL) and contexts, SoTL is practiced by members of the educational community, most often disciplinary experts who teach classes and conduct SoTL projects in their classes by drawing on their disciplinary expertise. Although plenty of SoTL projects are conducted individually, a common practice in SoTL is collaboration or partnership, often with other instructors, students, academic developers, librarians, instructional technologists, and other members of the educational community.
The Use of SoTL: What practitioners learn from SoTL projects is meant to be used to improve teaching practice and, most importantly, student learning experiences. On one hand, since SoTL typically emerges from an instructor’s own teaching practice, its results are used to inform that instructor’s immediate context. On the other hand, as scholarship and “the mechanism through which the profession of teaching itself advances,” SoTL is also meant to contribute to broader knowledge and be used by other educators (Hutchings and Shulman 1999, 14).
The Growth of SoTL: As an academic field, SoTL is relatively young, so efforts to grow the field tend to focus on 1) increasing the diversity and breadth of who practices SoTL, 2) expanding the questions asked, the aspects of learning it focuses on, and the methods by which it’s conducted, and 3) strengthening its ability to effect change in higher education and extending its influence more broadly.
Why and how is this Grand Challenge important?
The practice, use, and growth of SoTL is important because of its potential to effect change within and beyond higher education. SoTL is an evidence-informed approach to understanding and improving postsecondary teaching and learning. Educators become more knowledgeable and reflective by learning from SoTL—their own and others’ work—rather than simply replicating traditional ways of teaching or relying on potentially incorrect beliefs informed by faulty assumptions (Poole 2013). As educators become better teachers, they more effectively facilitate the learning experiences of all of their students, who carry what and how they’ve learned into their important roles beyond these learning contexts. Students are, after all, family members, voters, community activists, artists, neighbors, politicians, reporters, and more. Through this trajectory, SoTL has the potential for “creating a better world in and through higher education” (Kreber 2013, 866).
This SoTL-facing Grand Challenge has its roots in the birth of SoTL. Although some disciplines have long included research on postsecondary teaching and learning, the overarching field that brings together academics from all disciplines was given a name and an identity in 1990 when Ernest Boyer described “the scholarship of teaching.” The central argument in his book Scholarship Reconsidered: The Priorities of the Professoriate is that “the most important obligation now confronting the nation’s colleges and universities is to break out of the tired old teaching versus research debate and to define, in more creative ways, what it means to be a scholar” (Boyer 1990, xii). (Although he was writing about the United States, his argument has resonated more broadly.) He explained that institutional reward and recognition, which are tied to “how faculty should, in fact, spend their time,” need to be extended to activities or “scholarships” beyond traditional disciplinary research, or what he called “the scholarship of discovery” (1, 17). (He also presented two others: the “scholarship of integration,” which crosses disciplinary boundaries, and “the scholarship of application” or “engagement,” which connects with broader communities.) Boyer’s call for opening up the priorities of the professoriate is part of his broader claim that higher education’s purpose is “to meet today’s urgent academic and social mandates” (13). More than three decades later, however, the privileging of traditional disciplinary research continues, though it varies across contexts (e.g., different institutions, institution types, countries, within individual institutions).
This enduring challenge for higher education is a Grand Challenge for SoTL. First, it has implications for the practice of SoTL. If SoTL isn’t valued highly enough (or at all), educators who do any work in SoTL will have to treat it as above and beyond their regular workload, and it will go unrecognized and unrewarded. This is perhaps the greatest barrier to the practice of SoTL.
This model of higher education also has implications for the use or impact of SoTL. Institutions that devalue teaching discourage efforts to change or improve it by disincentivizing not only learning from one’s own SoTL practice but also learning from existing SoTL-produced knowledge about effective teaching and learning. An institutional culture that discourages this use thus encourages the status quo of potentially ineffective teaching approaches and practices. Use of SoTL is already challenging, as it requires time and effort to implement new approaches, and it also often requires educators to translate the lessons of highly contextualized SoTL projects to their own contexts. This translational challenge is increased by differences between contexts. For instance, centering key ideas (e.g., conceptions of learning, higher education’s purpose, assumptions about influence of context in SoTL) and language in the English-speaking West and the Global North limits SoTL’s use and growth beyond these regions (Chng and Looker 2013; Looker 2013; Chng, Leibowitz, and Mårtensson 2020).
Institutional inertia around the value of teaching—and the value of improving teaching—also inhibits the growth of SoTL. This kind of educational culture limits the number and variety of people who do SoTL, as well as the extent of their involvement. It also limits practitioners to those who see SoTL as aligned with their current situation (e.g., discipline, institutional priorities, conception of learning, language, geopolitical context) and thus easier to do, in effect homogenizing SoTL’s practitioners and practices (Looker 2011; Chng and Looker 2013; Chng, Leibowitz, and Mårtensson 2020; Felten and Geertsema 2023).
Ultimately, this Grand Challenge for SoTL is particularly knotty because the practice, use, and growth of SoTL are intertwined, and each depends upon changing entrenched institutional cultures and models of higher education.
What’s needed to address this Grand Challenge?
Like the previous Grand Challenges for SoTL, what’s needed here is a paradigm shift in higher education. The Boyer model of four scholarships is just one vision for transforming what’s expected, valued, and rewarded in a way that will include SoTL as both a practice and a driver of change within higher education and beyond.
How might SoTL practitioners study this Grand Challenge?
Scharff, Lauren, Holly Capocchiano, Nancy Chick, Michelle Eady, Jen Friberg, Diana Gregory, Kara Loy, and Trent Maurer. “Grand Challenges for SoTL #5.” International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, November 2023. https://issotl.com/grand-challenges-for-sotl/gc-sotl-5/