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A Worthy Endeavor

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Undertaking both traditional research and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) is not easy. But we have found that faculty involved in traditional disciplinary research bring important and different perspectives to SoTL. 


The posting below looks at value of undertaking both traditional discipline-based research and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL).  It is from Chapter 0: A Worthy Endeavor, in the book The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: A Guide for Scientists, Engineers, and 

Mathematicians by Jacqueline Dewar, Curtis Bennett, and Matthew A. Fisher, published by Oxford University Press on 03 May 2018, available in hardback and eBook formats, £45.00

9780198821212 © [Oxford University Press] All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.




Rick Reis

UP NEXT: The Effective Thesis Project

Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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A Worthy Endeavor

The history of higher education offers many examples of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians who began their career as researchers and later became involved in improving education. In 1900, the great mathematician Felix Klein wrote thoughtfully about pedagogy and was elected the fi st president of the International Commission on Mathematics Instruction. Around the same time, in biology, Franklin Paine Mall, the first head of anat- omy at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine made major reforms in the teaching of anatomy (Buettner 2007). Somewhat before that, engineers like Robert H. Thurston at Cornell initiated a debate that took decades to resolve about the proper balance in engineering curricula between preparation for real-world practice and involvement in research (Marcus 2005). 

While these scientists, engineers, and mathematicians of the late 1800s and early 1900s wrote about how and what to teach, they were not engaged in what we would consider the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) or discipline-based education research. By the 1970s, however, active disciplinary researchers were making contributions to pedagogical research in science, engineering, and mathematics. In addition to his significant work in pure mathematics, Hans Freudenthal of the Netherlands established what is now the Freudenthal Institute for Science and Mathematics Education (O’Connor and Robertson 2000). Miles Pickering, earned a doctorate in chemistry from State University of New York, Stony Brook, and worked at Princeton prior to becoming a well- known scholar in chemistry education (Kandel 1997). Richard Felder of North Carolina State University published widely in chemical engineering before shifting the focus of his research to engineering education. More recently, Carl Wieman, recipient of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics, became a leading researcher in the teaching and learning of physics (Deslauriers et al. 2011; Hadfield and Wieman 2010; Holmes et al. 2015; Smith et al. 2009) and a fervent advocate for changing how science is taught (Wieman 2007, 2017). 

An informal community of SoTL scholars in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) arose in higher education in the late 1990s. This community tends to engage in a more action-based research, that is, research where professors investigate the learning in their own classrooms in a scholarly fashion. This work requires time, and in today’s world of specialization, many will argue that most faculty members would be more productive focusing on their disciplinary research. We believe, however, that wide participation in SoTL, including faculty active in traditional research, benefits the entire teaching and learning enterprise. Undertaking both traditional research and SoTL is not easy. But we have found that faculty involved in traditional disciplinary research bring important and different perspectives to SoTL. 

The same can be said for STEM faculty at community colleges, but for different reasons. While they face little or no expectation for scholarly research, their duties include signifiantly greater teaching assignments, often with courses at the most elementary levels and students who are older and have more life experience. Their situation offers a rich context for study and research (Burns 2017; Huber 2008; Tinberg et al. 2007). 

While some faculty engaged in pedagogical research may spend significant time learning to perfect the techniques used in such research (many of which are discussed in this book), making contributions to teaching and learning in our disciplines does not always require complete perfection. We should not let the perfect be the enemy of the worthwhile. This version of an old aphorism nicely sums up a point-of-view shared with us by Carnegie scholar Kate Berheide. In fact, engaging in pedagogical research is one of the best ways to learn more about doing it. 

No one else is likely to study our question in our classroom. Each small study makes a contribution to the collective knowledge about teaching and learning in science, engineering, and mathematics and supports the effort to make teaching in these disciplines community property (Shulman 1993). 

Speaking from our experience, doing SoTL can be rewarding for anyone in the professoriate. Investigating teaching and learning provides us with many benefits, ranging from improving our own teaching and making it more enjoyable to offering the intellectual challenge of trying to develop better pedagogical approaches. The scholarship of teaching and learning helps us avoid what Shulman (1999) described as “pedagogical amnesia,” the many things about our teaching we forget from one semester to the next. SoTL enables us to capture insights into our teaching in a way that allows us to revisit them time and again. 

SoTL work redirects our attention from whether or not students are learning topics to understanding the reasons why students have difficulty learning those topics. Consequently, SoTL gives us greater insights into teaching and learning, which moves us toward the ultimate goal of improving student learning. 

Perhaps most importantly, SoTL makes explicit the intellectual challenges involved in teaching. SoTL spurs us to discover what happened when a course goes poorly, whether because of disappointing student performance, negative student evaluations, or something else entirely. The process of investigation encourages us to confront our assumptions about students and their learning and to try to determine whether or not they are valid. Learning can be far more complex than we might imagine. Collecting and analyzing evidence to gain insight into the factors that inhibit or promote learning can be intellectually stimulating. Using our content knowledge to discover how to help students overcome these difficulties is a challenging but worthy endeavor. Making the effort rewards us with increased satisfaction in teaching, greater faith in students, and, in the end, a real sense of accomplishment. 


Buettner, K. 2007. “Franklin Paine Mall (1862–1917).” Embryo Project Encyclopedia. Accessed August 31, 2017. 

Burns, K. 2017. “Community College Faculty as Pedagogical Innovators: How the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) Stimulates Innovation in the Classroom.” Community College Journal of Research and Practice 41 (3): pp. 153–67. doi: 10.1080/ 10668926.2016.1168327. 

Deslauriers, L., E. Schelew, and C. Wieman. 2011. “Improved Learning in a Large- Enrollment Physics Class.” Science 332 (6031): pp. 862–4. doi: 10.1126/science.1201783. Hadfield, L., and C. Wieman. 2010. “Student Interpretations of Equations Related to the First Law of Thermodynamics.” Journal of Chemical Education 87 (7): pp. 750–5. doi: 10.1021/ed1001625. 

Holmes, N. G., C. Wieman, and D. A. Bonn. 2015. “Teaching Critical Th king.” Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences 112 (36): pp. 11199–204. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1505329112. 

Huber, M. T. 2008. “The Promise of Faculty Inquiry for Teaching and Learning Basic Skills.” Strengthening Pre-collegiate Education in Community Colleges (SPECC). Stanford: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.