SoTL: A Beginner’s View

Curtis D. Bennett
Carnegie Scholar, 2000-2001

I received my Ph.D. in 1990.  Over the last 11 years I have striven to be a scholarly teacher, by which I mean that I approach my teaching in a scholarly fashion and use my scholarship in mathematics to improve my teaching.  However, I only started investigating my teaching with the intention of making my work public about a year ago.  Speaking as a beginner, there are many things that I wish I knew before I got started, and there are many thoughts I would like to share with others who are just starting off on the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL).  So, in the spirit of David Letterman:

My SoTL Top Ten List

1. Investigate what you are interested in.  As Randy Bass says, "What matters most is for teachers to investigate the problems that matter most to them" (Bass 1999, p. 7).  Doing any serious scholarship takes time.  Consequently, you have to judge how much time you can devote to any one project.  SoTL is no different.  Moreover, in many places it is not well rewarded, so you need to see a personal value in what you are doing.  If you have a burning question that you want answered, that is wonderful.  In this case, don't let anyone else deflect you from trying to answer your question.  However .

2. Before you can decide if something "works" you need to define "works."  The main question that most of us have is a variant on the theme: "Does method y work in teaching subject x?"  In fact, my initial research question was: "Do semester long research projects work in teaching students to think more like mathematicians?"  While the question sounded really nice, there were a lot of undefined terms hidden inside of it.  I had already operationally defined "semester long research projects."  On the other hand, I had only a vague idea about what I meant by "think like mathematicians."  Worse yet, I didn't really know what I meant by "work."  Everyone has his or her own understanding of this term, so finding a common understanding is much harder.  As in any research, the first step is to turn the problem you are interested in solving into something that is researchable and that can be communicated to others.  For a hard scientist, this comes down to research design; for a mathematician, this means defining your terms; and for someone studying education, it means establishing a framework.  In truth, these are all basically the same idea.  Thus . 

3. Your academic training can be applied to SoTL.  While the exact methodology you have learned for your scholarly research may not be appropriate to investigating your question in SoTL, the basic tools of your trade probably are.  As a mathematician, my skill in writing mathematical proofs probably won't help me discover what my students know.  On the other hand, my experience with defining terms extremely carefully has come in exceedingly handy.  Moreover, since I am interested in knowing how the students approach mathematical problems, using my knowledge about why mathematicians approach problems in various ways helps me understand and categorize student responses.   As another example, Mills Kelly, an historian doing SoTL, discovered that his training in history actually applied to his work on SoTL (Hutchings, 2000 and Kelly, 2000). Scientists might not be able to design a pure research study on different teaching techniques, but they can certainly apply the thought experiments they do.  Remember, just because you can't control all variables doesn't mean that you can't do your best to control some.  To paraphrase Robert Solow: Just because a perfectly aseptic environment is impossible, doesn't mean you operate in a pig sty.  This leads us to .

4. SoTL is not neat and tidy (or as one Carnegie Scholar says, "Make Peace with Reality").  As much as you might want students to interpret questions in the way you mean them, it won't happen.  In my research, I asked students to state questions as part of their weekly assignments.  At current count I have about 4 cases out of 40 where the students actually did what they were asked.  If I do the study again, I will change the assignment.  However, for now I have to deal with what my students actually did.  Students are people, and people are unpredictable.  You have to allow for the fact that just because you want things to happen, doesn't mean they will.  Of course, related to this is a need to look at other methodologies, which brings us to .

5. Read! Read! Read! But don't forget to think.  In any field, keeping up with the literature is important.  When embarking on a new journey into scholarship of teaching and learning, you will probably need to catch up, not only on what people are doing, but also on how to do it.  The first recourse for this is to read.  But while you are reading, you also need to keep an eye on what you want to do.  As in any field, it is easy to spend all of your time reading about what other people have done.  Thus one needs to think about which articles must be read today and which articles can wait until later.  In addition, you need to decide if the research methodologies suggested are actually the right methodologies for you.  These all require spending time thinking and reflecting on what you are doing.   To help with this you might consider working with faculty from other fields.  If you need to do sociological research, you should at least hook up with a sociologist briefly.  One of the greatest time-savers for me has been my collaboration with a faculty member at MSU who does sociological research.  She has told me things it would have taken me weeks to learn from a book.  Similarly, other faculty can suggest articles for you to read.  Of course, none of this is all that different from what we do in our research fields; it is just that we are making more bridges outside of our field.  Of course to build those bridges (particularly as a mathematician or hard scientist), you should .

6. Be prepared to confront your research prejudices.  As a mathematician, I had long believed that sociological research involving numbers was a bunch of bunk.  Of course, once I started becoming educated about such research, I discovered that I had serious misconceptions about this and other fields.  Consequently, I have been forced to drop many of my prejudices towards other fields.  Starting in on such research forces you to open your eyes to a greater reality.  Of course, as you discover things, you will find that .

7. Your research questions will change rapidly.  Once you start investigating topics of teaching and learning, it is amazing how quickly new questions spring up.  Often these new questions must be answered before you can even attempt to make any progress on the old.  On the flip side, it is also the case that, like any research, you end up with more questions than you start with, which is to say .

8. True scholarship is a never-ending story.  As scholars we know that an answer to a good question leads to more questions.  In fact, doing the scholarship of teaching and learning naturally leads to investigating your practice over and over again. At each stage you reflect on what you have done, work to improve your teaching, and collect information to support your arguments to others.  This brings us to making your work public.  My suggestion is that .

9. Your research should speak to you first, your peers second, and the greater academic community third.  Shulman argues that the scholarship of teaching and learning needs to reside in the disciplines (Shulman, 2000).  To undertake such research, it should be something you find interesting.  If colleagues teaching similar classes are to benefit, your work must speak to your peers.  Hence it is important that your work be presented to your peers first and the greater academic community second.  Of course, for it to be listened to, you should .

10. Tell a good story.  Perhaps the most important thing I have learned from Lee Shulman is the importance of telling good stories.  The better the story, the more people will want to read what you tell them, and the more they read, the better they will understand what you are trying to say.  Anyway, that's my story.


Bass, R. (1990), The Scholarship of Teaching: What's the Problem?, Inventio, Vol. 1 (1), 1-9.

Hutchings, P. (2000), Introduction, Approaching the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Opening Lines, Approaches to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Carnegie Foundation, 2000, pp. 1-10.

Kelly, T. M. (2000), For Better or Worse? The marriage of web and classroom, Opening Lines, Approaches to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Carnegie Foundation, 2000, pp. 53-62.

Shulman, L. (2000), From Minsk to Pinsk: Why a scholarship of teaching and learning?, The Journal of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Vol. 1 (1), 48-52








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