by Nathalie Sheridan
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. The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) also necessitates a strong element of reflectivity – or better reflexivity – to become a meaningful activity. However, SoTL is more than ‘just’ scholarship. Indeed, it would be of little use for educators, if it would not involve for instance researching the impact of learning and teaching strategies, or interventions.
There is debate about the definition for SoTL and it has not yet reached a satisfactory conclusion or sound framework, despite attempts such as that by Miller-Young and Yeo (2015). However, most of the publications trying to explore positioning SoTL assume that it involves some form of research, as they speak of methods, methodology, and theories. That SoTL tends to focus on a specific context, very often a narrow view of a classroom, a course, programme or a faculty, does neither mean it is not research. Nor that the way we collect data should not adhere to research processes and standards (Reinman, 2019). If educators in their subject disciplines aim to gain meaningful insights about their practice, the data needs to be meaningful and this is done by research design.
The nomenclature is confusing. I would like to get away from the notion of equating a term for a specific context with the meaning behind it. The actual philosophies, methodologies, and approaches to which this this subfield of educational scholarship and research relates are the same as those employed generally in scholarship and research in education. SoTL is the context of educational research in higher education, with an emphasis – but not exclusionary – on exploring the effects of learning and teaching strategies on the students’ learning experience and often attainment and retention, usually with a very specific focus. However, the content of SoTL, the stuff people who ‘do’ SoTL engage in, is research and scholarship of education within the higher education context. Therefore, SoTL ought to use the same tools and rigour as educational research (and scholarship). When teaching my masters level course ‘Approaches to Educational Inquiry’, I try to convey that SoTL goes beyond an evaluation of a new classroom activity, or the use of end-of-course questionnaires as the sole measurement for course evaluation.
As an Erziehungswissenschaflter (Learning Sciences Scientist, there is no actual translation for my discipline) who moved into the English language context, it never sat easy with me that my Wissenschaft ‘science’ – simply because I changed language – suddenly was a little less and I am not a scientist anymore. Educational research has attracted a barrage of not unreasonable critique as to its quality. But it also attracted critique which demonstrates a lack of understanding of Erziehungswissenschaften (learning science, education).
A recent critique (Hazel, 2019) was that educational research does not even use the scientific method. This point of critique is based on a flaw in thinking; unlike in a chemistry or engineering lab, the variables and factors affecting our learning and understanding cannot be controlled nor can all of them be observed (at the same time). In our team we joke about learning following the Heisenberg principle; one cannot observe all variables at the same time, and the act of observing will change at least some of them.
To suggest testing and modification of hypotheses as a reasonable approach to understand an effect on learning shows a clear lack of understanding the complexities of learning. Learning is a social, neurological, cognitive, and personal process. The effects of one learning instance cannot often be predicted. As an example, if you have been teaching for a while, you will have noticed that an activity which worked well with one cohort, completely flatlined with a different cohort, or the same cohort on a different day. Experienced educators might be able to draw from tacit knowledge and make decisions that lead to planned outcomes but this is a whole other debate. However, we need to remain vigilant in addressing the various levels of theoretical framing and not confuse worldviews, theories, paradigms, methodologies and methods. If we, for the sake of simplification, cut out these steps it will just lead to more confusion and less sound scholarship or research.
Valid points in the aforementioned critique (Hazel, 2019) were the lack of replicability and sharing of data in educational research. Sharing data about our learners might appear to be in conflict with open science. However, there is an imperative for the public sector to share data, and institutions work towards making it ethically possible (UKRIO, 2018). The often narrow focus on exploring the effect of an intervention cannot tell us much more than an analysis of a conjunction of circumstances within a certain period of time. Will we know that evaluating one cohort’s reaction to a change in assessment, is transferable to another cohort, in another year? If so, how do we know? To ensure replicability we need to attempt to answer these questions. Replicability is a complex issue, which I can’t address fully within the word-limit here. Maybe one point to make would be to explore the emergence of patterns amongst similar projects. I was taught that any educational research which claims an undisputable truth is flawed, due to the complexity of influencing factors. It is near to impossible to isolate influencing variables and draw conclusions that are generalisable; this is due to human nature not due to lack of research rigour.
Let’s embrace the chances for gathering rich data and gaining in-depth understanding which the use of SoTL permits us, and explore how to strengthen the validity and reliability of our approaches to data collection and analysis.
Nathalie Sheridan is a lecturer in academic and digital development at the University of Glasgow (LEADS). Her first degree is in Erziehungswissenschaften (Learning Sciences, TU Dresden) with an MPhil (University of Glasgow) and PhD (University of Strathclyde) in education. She has worked in culture and museums education throughout her studies and been teaching in higher education since 2006. Her focus is the translation of creative learning and teaching practices into higher education, through active pedagogies and rethinking learning spaces with the aim to improve the student experience and include disenfranchised learners and educators.