SOTL: Taking the "Scholarship" Part Seriously

Remarks at the 2020 UC Davis Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Conference

Good morning, everyone. I’m Cynthia Carter Ching, and I’m the Interim Vice Provost and Dean for Undergraduate Education. And I’m also a Professor of Learning and Mind Sciences in the School of Education. I’ll actually be drawing some on both those roles in these opening remarks today. 

But first, I want to welcome you all to the UC Davis Conference on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, where our theme for 2020 is “Guiding Our Way Forward.” Such an appropriate theme. I mean, we’d all love to move forward from 2020, in more ways than one. Right? 

Before I begin, I want to thank you all for being here and dedicating time to not just your attendance, listening, interacting, and presenting today, but for the effort you put in to SOTL work period, particularly in a time when just getting through the day can seem like a ridiculous challenge, let alone going above and beyond in your teaching and your focus on meaningful learning outcomes for our students. All this to say: None of this is easy. I appreciate all of you.

SOTL: How did it start? 

In setting the stage for today, I’d like to do a bit of inquiry into what SOTL actually is, and what its challenges are, and what that means for us.

So let’s first acknowledge that people have been reflective and attempting to make strategic, meaningful improvements in their university teaching forever. As long as there have been teachers, there have been thoughtful teachers. That’s not new. But the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, having been codified as a thing in higher education, is only about 20 years old. It really originated with the Boyer Commission report in 1998, which provided a strong critique of undergraduate teaching at research universities. It was almost a Martin Luther’s list of 95 theses, nailed to the door of the academy. It was fairly controversial at the time, and people were mad at it. But the report also proposed the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning as one mechanism for how we might bring more focus to undergraduate education as an important aspect of who we are and what we do at R1s.

What is it? "going meta" and "going public"

According to Hutchings & Schulman (1999), 

A scholarship of teaching (and learning) is not synonymous with excellent teaching. It requires a kind of ‘going meta,’ in which faculty frame and systematically investigate questions related to student learning—the conditions under which it occurs, what it looks like, how to deepen it, and so forth—and do so with an eye not only to improving their own classroom but to advancing practice beyond it.

It’s not just about thinking and reflection, though. According to Gale (2008),

[SOTL] involves the gathering and interpretation of evidence of student learning. It invites peer review and ‘going public’ with insights about how, where, and why students learn. In its dissemination, scholarship of teaching and learning influences teaching, learning and scholarship beyond the local context.

Both of these descriptions really emphasize the role of sharing our work, of bring insights to a broader community, so that our own inquiry, improvements, and successes can benefit more than just our own students. Great.

What's Missing? 

But, and maybe this is because of my grounding as a learning sciences scholar, in my own examination of a lot of SOTL foundational definitions and descriptions, it feels like there’s something missing.

When we teach graduate students how to form an area of inquiry, how to pose research questions, how to select appropriate methodologies, we don’t allow them to limit themselves to only the particularities of their own wonderings and their local phenomena or field site. We ask them to engage a larger field.

What does "scholarship" mean? 

In fact, scholarship doesn’t just mean targeted inquiry and examining evidence. It means :

  • Participating in a broader research conversation beyond our individual contexts.
  • Situating our work within existing literature on the phenomenon in question and beyond.
  • Using practical and theoretical frameworks and constructs derived from existing literature.
  • Employing rigorous methodology in pursuit of trustworthy findings and disseminating our work to a broader field.

Building a Field

That ”broader field” can be hard to locate, however. It’s there, but sometimes literature is sparse. After all, SOTL as a thing is only about 20 years old.

If we are committed to it, however, we can’t just do it in isolation. We have to engage the field. And we have to build the field. I have some ideas about how we could leverage the power of the University of California centers for teaching and learning to contribute to this.

But ultimately, there’s another reason we do this work, in addition to building a field.

Why do we do it?

We do it for them. Whatever our discoveries, it all comes back to this. Teaching and learning at the university level is meaningful and worthwhile because it changes lives. It changes the future. This is important work. Thank you for doing it.


About the Conference

The fifth annual UC Davis Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Conference took place virtually on December 3-4, 2020. Coordinated by the Center for Educational Effectiveness and the SOTL Committee, the event was co-sponsored by the Office of the Provost and a HHMI grant. 






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