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Synthesis of the Value and Benefits of SoTL

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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"Without observing and collecting data, we have little evidence or direction for improving and are unlikely to learn from our mistakes."


The posting below is Chapter 20 of the book, Doing the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) in Mathematics. It has implications well beyond the teaching of mathematics and represents the synthesis of the editors, Jacqueline Dewar and Curtis Bennett of Loyola Marymount University, of the contributing authors' perceptions of the value of SoTL. In it, they reinterpret Shulman's (1999) "taxonomy of pedago-pathology" consisting of amnesia, fantasia, and inertia, which he had used to describe pitfalls of student learning, to show how the same 3 labels can describe pathologies of teaching, and then discuss how SoTL can operate as an antidote for these. Dewar, J., & Bennett, C. (Eds.). (2015). Doing the scholarship of teaching and learning in mathematics. Washington, DC: Mathematical Association of America. Copyright © 2015. Mathematical Association of America. ( All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis
UP NEXT: Professors of the Year


Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Synthesis of the Value and Benefits of SoTL (Scholarship of Teaching and Learning)Experienced by the Contributors


Editors' Commentary

The primary goal for this volume is to provide guidance for mathematics faculty members interested in undertaking a scholarly study of their teaching practice, but a secondary goal is to promote a greater understanding of this work and its value to the mathematics community. In this chapter we reflect on the value of SoTL, generally, and take stock of the outcomes and benefits that accrued to the 25 contributing authors as a result of their scholarly inquiries into teaching and learning.


In 1999, Lee Shulman, then President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, wrote entertainingly and perceptively about what it looks like when learning does not go well (Shulman, 1999). He coined a "taxonomy of pedago-pathology" consisting of amnesia, fantasia, and inertia. According to Shulman, amnesia refers to students forgetting, as a matter of course, what they learned. He joked that sometimes they even forget that they attended some classes. Fantasia denotes persistent misconceptions, where students are unaware that they misunderstand. Finally, inertia signifies that students are unable to use what they learned.

We suggest that teaching possesses similar pathologies. Amnesia is a good label for the many things about our teaching we forget from one semester to the next, things that went well and things that didn't, even when we are teaching the same course. In fact, Shulman called this "pedagogical amnesia" (as cited in Hutchings, 1998, p.17). Without observing and collecting data, we have little evidence or direction for improving and are unlikely to learn from our mistakes. The remainder of the taxonomy also transfers. Fantasia refers to our misconceptions about what students bring to class, think, learn, find difficult, or don't understand. Inertia signifies that we continue to teach as we have in the past independent of whether or not students are learning all that we want them to learn.

The chapters in Part II showed how the scholarship of teaching and learning helps instructors escape these pathologies. Our authors attested to the power of SoTL in addressing them and noted the many professional benefits that can arise from undertaking SoTL projects.


Undertaking the scholarship of teaching and learning requires us to collect evidence of our students' learning and thinking during class. Doing SoTL pushes us to examine that evidence after the course has ended. This evidence along with our later analysis of it provides us with an antidote to pedagogical amnesia. Whether we undertake to share our results with others, as many of the authors did, or find ourselves making our evidence, as Blake Mellor described in Chapter 16 (p. 166), "more a part of the process by which I revise and continue to develop" a course, just beginning a SoTL project can help fight pedagogical amnesia.

Throughout Part II, our authors commented on how they found compiling evidence important to improving their classes. The authors of Chapter 7 mentioned that they were able to analyze teaching practices at the classroom level and make small evidence-based changes. In Chapter 8 (p. 83), Edwin Herman noted that although he noticed a change in student participation, his investigation was unable to address these ideas more directly because of a lack of evidence, leading him to advise readers "to gather more data than you think you will need or use," as it may be useful later. Michael Burke (Chapter 11) and Derek Bruff (Chapter 13) also echoed this theme when they noted that collecting evidence is an important tool for classroom improvement.

Classroom amnesia also results in an inability to share one's results with colleagues in a meaningful way. As seen in Chapters 6, 8, 9, 11, 14, and 18, SoTL practitioners have been able to promote change by sharing their evidence with others. For example, the Duke University team's SoTL project (Chapter 6) gave rise to "additional adjustments and improvements to Duke's curriculum" (p. 65). Likewise, Curtis Bennett and Jacqueline Dewar's investigation (Chapter 18) contributed to their department's curriculum review. Communicating SoTL evidence and outcomes can have an even wider impact. Mike Axtell and William Turner (Chapter 14) stated, "Perhaps the largest impact of the study was in the conversations that occurred across campus" (p. 141).


While collecting and revisiting evidence helps to prevent amnesia, analyzing it helps us learn what we don't know. Many SoTL projects begin with What works? questions, projects that try to analyze whether a pedagogical strategy promotes student learning. Over and over again, however, our authors talk about shifting to What is? questions because, as they start to look at their data, they discover the unexpected.

Through such discoveries, SoTL has the potential to change us as teachers. As Michael Burke (Chapter 11) stated, he ended "with a different view of my discipline, a different view of how my discipline fits into the college and the world, and a different view of what and how we should be teaching" (p. 107). While for most authors the changes were not so grand, their analysis of evidence often surprised them and gave them a new skepticism about what they thought they knew. As Derek Bruff (Chapter 13, p. 135) stated, "the project has led me to question more regularly the assumptions I have about teaching and learning," because he had expected, "the opposite result." Curtis Bennett and Jacqueline Dewar (Chapter 18) were surprised "that so many students saw their mathematics major as helping them learn to write" (p. 188).

But the analysis of evidence not only allows us to make surprising discoveries, it also makes us more aware as teachers. More aware of what the students bring to the class, more aware of where they encounter difficulties, and more aware of how they think. This new awareness shows up in Chapters 7, 8, 11, 12, 13, 15, 17, and 18. From Edwin Herman (Chapter 8) we heard that he became "more aware of what causes students to participate in class" (p. 83). This awakening to how the students function and learn socially shows up in John Holcomb's statistics project and Stephen Szydlik's work with liberal arts students (Chapters 12 and 15).

Michael Burke (Chapter 11) experienced a larger change in his awareness. He learned that his students' difficulties were at a more basic level than he had thought, and by reading their reflections, he saw his class in a new light. This knowledge led him on his personal "Odyssey" as he called it. For Burke, engaging in the scholarship of teaching and learning was a transformative experience, leading to many changes in his classroom, his teaching, and in his students. Before examining how SoTL combats inertia, we discuss the professional rewards of doing SoTL.

Professional Benefits

In Part II, our authors related how practicing the scholarship of teaching and learning led to professional rewards. For some it counted as merit or in their tenure documents, for others it led to recognition, grants, or moving forward in their profession. They noted how the work resulted in professional connections and fostered new interests, opening doors for them and further professionalizing the work of college teaching.

Almost all of the projects described in Part II resulted in conference presentations or publications (presentations in Chapters 5 and 9 through 19 and publications in Chapters 5, 8, 11, 14, 15, and 19). Moreover, Chapters 5, 7, 9, 10, and 19 mention how the SoTL work undertaken at their institutions counted towards merit, tenure, or promotion. In all of those, except Chapter 7, SoTL counted for more than evidence of teaching. While the decision of what counts in the merit process is institutionally specific, by producing a tangible product with evidence that can be examined by peers, the scholarship of teaching and learning allows for greater consideration of the intellectual work of teaching and improving student learning.

For several authors SoTL work led to professional recognition beyond their departments or institutions. Rikki Wagstrom's project (Chapter 19) played a role in her acceptance into the SENCER Leadership Fellows program. John Holcomb's project (Chapter 12) was a component of his winning the Waller Education Award given by the American

Statistical Association.

Faculty development initiatives on teaching predate the scholarship of teaching and learning by as many as four decades (Sorcenelli, Austin, Eddy, & Beach, 2005). Hutchings, Huber, and Ciccone (2011) took note of their differing but converging histories and how they are coming to find common ground. Our authors attest to the value SoTL as a means of professional development in three ways: enabling them to develop new skills or interests; providing them with new professional connections, collaborators, or networks; and empowering them to take a leadership role in the professional development of others.

In Chapter 5, Gretchen Rimmasch and Jim Brandt told us that they "have become more interested in mathematics education" (p. 57). Many authors implied they learned new skills in collecting and analyzing qualitative evidence. Curtis Bennett and Jacqueline Dewar made this explicit in Chapter 18: "to derive any conclusions, we had to learn about focus groups and social science methodologies for analyzing qualitative data" (p. 188).

All of our twenty-five authors have made new professional connections as a result of doing SoTL. Many of the authors told of new collegial or professional connections on their own campuses and elsewhere. Some connections involved outreach on their part. For example, Cindy Kaus (Chapter 10) co-organized a session, "Teaching Mathematics and Statistics through Current Civic Issues," at the 2009 Mathematical Association of America's MathFest and hosted the 2009 SENCER Midwest Symposium on "Teaching Quantitative Reasoning through Civic Issues" at her institution.

New professional connections can prompt SoTL practitioners to take leadership roles at their institutions or beyond. In Chapter 13 Derek Bruff offered a testimonial to the value of SoTL as preparation for working in faculty development. He wrote, "My SoTL project has paid dividends in my work at the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. I consult regularly with faculty from various disciplines about teaching matters and many times I have shared aspects of this SoTL project with colleagues interested in pre-class reading assignments or the relationship between computational and conceptual learning goals" (p. 134). Pam Crawford's work (Chapter 9, p. 93) led to colleagues requesting more information on "how they could use guided discovery," while John Holcomb (Chapter 12) has been appointed to statistics education leadership groups.


Perhaps the most significant benefit of SoTL for faculty members in general, and our authors in particular, is its ability to fight classroom inertia. Faculty members find balancing the demands of teaching, research, and service increasingly challenging in the 21st century. Teaching as we always have in the past, that is, succumbing to inertia in our teaching, is very tempting. Our authors used words like "growth," "fresh," "courage," "change," "seeking," "fascinating," "challenge," and more. Such words show the invigoration and transformation that SoTL scholars experience and often engender in others.

SoTL work invites us to change and improve our teaching. Rather than fretting about our students, we seek to understand them and to change our teaching in response to them. Michael Burke in Chapter 11 encapsulated this when he stated that as a result of his SoTL project his "goals as a teacher have changed radically" (p. 114). But not all change is radical, nor should it be. In Chapter 10, Cindy Kaus explained that her project resulted in more faculty members "seeking out ways to connect the mathematics they are teaching to civic issues" (p. 105). Sometimes small changes arise from projects. John Holcomb (Chapter 12) mentioned seeking departmental funding for better statistical software as a result of his work, while Derek Bruff (Chapter 13, p. 135) spoke of taking "more care."

Beyond fighting the inertia of how we teach, SoTL encourages us to continually think about improvements and be more reflective in our practice. Stephen Szydlik (Chapter 15) wrote that his inquiry caused him "to examine [his] pedagogical practices" (p. 153) and "heightened [his] awareness of the classroom environment" (p. 153), while Gretchen Rimmasch and Jim Brandt (Chapter 5) mentioned how their SoTL work allowed them to "continue to grow" (p. 57). Blake Mellor (Chapter 16) related that he had become a "more thoughtful teacher" (p. 166). Best of all, as Edwin Herman (Chapter 8) stated, SoTL "encourages the researcher to experiment within the classroom" (p. 83) and made him "more confident and a better teacher" (p. 84).

Beyond breaking the inertia of how we teach, SoTL fights the ennui that faculty sometimes face in teaching. Lynn Geiger, John Nardo, Karen Schmeichel, and Leah Zinner (Chapter 7) mentioned that SoTL allows "a faculty member to cast a fresh eye on classes that may have become routine" (p. 73). Furthermore, SoTL has the ability to inspire as it raises "fascinating, compelling, and important" (p. 115) issues as noted by Michael Burke in Chapter 11.

In closing, it is our hope that you, the reader, have found a greater understanding and appreciation for the scholarship of teaching and learning, whether that translates into your placing a greater value on the SoTL work of others, experimenting with a small project, or engaging whole-heartedly in the scholarship of teaching and learning.


Hutchings, P. (1998). Defining features and significant functions of the course portfolio. In P. Hutchings (Ed.), The course portfolio: How faculty can examine their teaching to advance practice and improve student learning (pp. 13- 18). Washington, DC: AAHE.

Hutchings, P., Huber, M., & Ciccone, A. (2011). Scholarship of teaching and learning reconsidered.San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Shulman, L. (1999). Taking learning seriously. Change, 31(4), 10-17. Retrieved from

Sorcenelli, M. D., Austin, A. E., Eddy, P. L., & Beach, A. L. (2005). Creating the future of faculty development: Learning from the past, understanding the present. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.