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V. Framing a SoTL Question for Research

Mar 16, 2018 by Caroline Eisner

In the previous blog, I discussed how your learning objectives and assessments are a good place to begin your first SoTL research project. In this entry, I will discuss several more important steps to help you conceptualize your SoTL project.

Early on, as SoTL research began to gain popularity, Randy Bass provided what I think is a great way to articulate your research aim: “How might we think of teaching practice, and the evidence of student learning, as problems to be investigated, analyzed, represented, and debated?” (Bass, 1999, “Scholarship of Teaching,” Inventio.)

Notice Changes

As with any research, a strong SoTL project calls for a researchable, well-framed question that you can answer by collecting empirical (observable) evidence. Kathleen McKinney, another prominent SoTL scholar, suggests that you develop research questions from your own experiences with your students, especially as you notice changes in their performance and classroom attitudes. Ask yourself if you delivered the content differently, changed your assessment of their learning, or perhaps the way you asked students to practice what they learned before you assessed them.

Noticing changes in the way that you design the learning experience and noticing the impact of these changes is good starting point for developing a researchable question.

In other words, you could begin your SoTL project by developing a research question based on asking how your students will perform their learning on a new assessment or changes in how you are delivering content material. Ask yourself what is going on? Do you have a question or problem worth investigating? If so, think about framing it as a research question.

Consult the Literature

At the same time that you are considering an issue or problem in your classroom, do some research. What have others said? Review SoTL research in general, and in your field, to see if others have conceptualized and written about similar issues. For example, I have always been interested in research on multiple-choice tests as a measurement of critical thinking skills, flipped classrooms in which students do the homework in class and the school work at home, math tests that require students to explain in writing the process they used to solve the problem.

Situate Your Research

Remember, just as you would write a scholarly paper in your discipline, you need to create a literature review. Always build on prior research in the same way you would provide a literature review if you were writing a more traditional academic article in your discipline. That is, you need to situate your research within the context of what others have researched and written about the subject, which in SoTL should include learning theory, pedagogical theories, and disciplinary theories. In constructing your literature review, ask yourself how does this prior research help you understand your own research and direction?

Consider Methods for Data Gathering

As you are researching and writing your literature review, and even more so, simply surveying the landscape of SoTL research in your field, take note of how these other scholars collected and analyzed the information, i.e., data, for their research. Given your question(s) and the information/data you need, what research strategies or methods (e.g., student reflections, assignments, formative and/or summative assessments, interviews, observations) should you employ to answer your research question(s)? Will qualitative or quantitative data best provide the evidence that your students achieved your learning objectives or if they can transfer the skills you taught them to a different setting?

While this may seem obvious, you need to select a data-collection method that uncovers the evidence you are seeking. For example, if you are seeking to understand the development of critical writing skills in first-year writing, using a multiple-choice test to assess their writing skills does not make sense. To summarize quickly, qualitative evidence examines more in-depth experiences and considers themes. In contrast, quantitative evidence allows for comparisons, and is grounded in statistical analysis. In qualitative research, your position as the researcher is more subjective. Whereas, in quantitative research, your position is more objective.

If you are interested in developing a SoTL project, start researching SoTL work in your field. Analyze the research questions asked, what the researcher collected as evidence, and what methodology the research chose to analyze the evidence. Does it make sense to you? Could you imagine conducting a similar study in your discipline or in your own teaching?

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