Originally written for NACADA Journal, September 8, 2014:
This particular volume focuses on “SoTL,” or, the scholarship of teaching and learning. If you’re like me, you’ve probably heard of SoTL over the years but never really had a good understanding of just what that means. (As far as that goes, I’ve never heard anyone pronounce it, so I don’t know if it rhymes with “bottle” or “yodel.”) Pronunciation notwithstanding, the authors provide a succinct and helpful definition. They define SoTL as a process of “intentional, systematic reflections on teaching and learning resulting in peer-reviewed products made public” (p. 2). What truly defines SoTL is that it is a process that goes beyond isolated individual pedagogical reflection and assessment. This “shift” moves from a “researcher asking an independently derived pedagogical question for an isolated course to faculty collectively considering student learning within an academic program” (p. 11).
This volume, part Of Wiley’s “New Directions for Teaching and Learning” series, is intended as a “manual for the prospective SoTL scholar” (p. 3). The book is divided into nine short chapters that walk said scholars through the SoTL process: using assessment and SoTL to enhance student learning; designing SoTL studies, including chapters on validity, practicality, data analysis and statistical models, and “navigating” the IRB (Institutional Review Board) process; and tips and advice for writing and publishing SoTL studies after data collection and analysis.
As the book is designed for prospective SoTL scholars, it will have more value for tenure-track faculty members with research experience who are just beginning with or transitioning into SoTL research. These professors will probably be referred to the book by their faculty development center directors and mentors. Those who want more of an “introduction” to SoTL and its background and development would benefit by reviewing the tables of introductory literature: examples of successful teaching-scholars programs, and suggested books/articles for campus teaching scholars groups (p. 108).
The volume’s main drawback is its innate research and disciplinary bias. The middle chapters on research design and data analysis focus almost exclusively on quantitative research interests and designs. (Also, at least one contributor to each of the nine chapters has a background in psychology.) All that remains for individuals with qualitative research interests is the suggestion to “discuss their ideas with a campus expert in qualitative research” (p. 31). The second drawback also comes from these same middle chapters. If readers already have experience setting up research designs and conducting subsequent analyses, they will benefit from the overview (or re-view). Those newer to research and analysis will come to a halt in Chapter 5 when terms like “ANOVA,” “Pearson correlation,” “Cronbach’s alpha,” and “Cohen’s d” are mentioned in passing with no further follow-up. Finally, perhaps the last two chapters (writing/publishing advice, and the role of faculty development centers) could have been sacrificed in favor of earlier chapters devoted to more introductory and background SoTL material.
Paradoxically, the book’s middle chapters also demonstrate its strengths. Chapter two provides good, clear examples and accompanying diagrams of effective assessment efforts, processes and cycles. Chapter three describes many common strategies for improving the construct validity of an assessment, while chapter four discusses common practical problems, solutions, and common SoTL research designs. Especially useful are the tables and summaries of research design types and characteristics, and strengths and weaknesses of each type. These chapters would make great complements for doctoral-level research-design courses.
“Academic advising” is never once mentioned in the volume, even though in our profession “advising is teaching.” I find it fascinating that while making the case for SoTL research in the academy, the authors unknowingly unite academic advising and SoTL. Both are vital and necessary, yet both continue to battle the status quo. Replace “SoTL” with “academic advising” in the following sentence, and you’ll see what I mean: “[I]f SoTL is not deemed acceptable scholarship, most faculty members would not likely devote time out of their increasingly busy schedules to this type of scholarship. Rather, most would conduct research in the more traditional areas to fulfill the scholarship component evaluated for reappointment, tenure, and promotion” (p. 104). In the end, this book reminds us that we need a SoTL research guide for academic advising…and advice on how to pronounce “SoTL.”