Despite the admirable goal of improving student learning by assessment, many faculty members are uneasy about participating in assessment-related activities. One way to overcome negative feelings about assessment while promoting improved student learning is to encourage faculty to engage in the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL).
The scholarship of teaching and learning, as outlined by Mary Taylor Huber and Pat Hutchings in The Advancement of Learning: Building the Teaching Commons (2005), contains four core elements:
- Framing questions about student learning
- Gathering and exploring evidence related to those questions
- Trying out and refining new teaching and learning ideas and strategies in the classroom and assessing their effect on student learning
- Going public with what is learned in ways that others can critique and build on
The scholarship of teaching and learning and assessment are complementary processes, says Scott Simkins, director of the Academy for Teaching and Learning at North Carolina A&T State University and an SoTL advocate. An important difference between the two is that SoTL seeks to build a scholarly base over time that others can learn from, whereas assessment often leaves out this public scholarship element. In addition, SoTL often considers teaching and learning at the individual faculty or course level, and assessment is often focused on learning outcomes at the program, college, or institution level.
Simkins notes, “The scholarship of teaching and learning generally starts with a faculty member or a group of faculty members who are curious about [the learning challenges] a particular student…[faces] in their classes and want to do something about it. It starts with a question-why is something happening or not happening in terms of student learning? Because it begins with the faculty member rather than a chair, dean, or provost, there’s a greater sense of ownership of the process and greater motivation for carrying out the activity.
“So how can administrators promote this kind of student-learning-focused reflective inquiry among their faculty members? I think there’s a close parallel to what the best teachers do in the classroom. They don’t just tell their students to do specific tasks, they provide a structured environment in which students are encouraged to investigate and make new discoveries for themselves. In the same way, I think the best chairs and deans provide a safe, professional environment for their faculty members in which they are encouraged to openly inquire about student learning in their classes and are rewarded for investigating and assessing the learning outcomes associated with pedagogical innovations, and in sharing effective teaching and learning practices with their colleagues-that is, carrying out the scholarship of teaching and learning.”
Simkins prefers to use carrots rather than sticks to encourage faculty involvement in the scholarship of teaching and learning and related assessment activities. Incentives might include course release time, a monetary stipend, or a travel grant for participation in teaching/learning conferences. Perhaps most important is to include this type of scholarship in merit pay, tenure, and promotion decisions, an idea consistent with Ernest Boyer’s expanded view of scholarship first laid out in Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate (1990).
In order to get faculty buy-in for the scholarship of teaching and learning, and for internal assessment activities, support cannot be confined to a single department. “There has to be an institutional commitment. It has to be supported and rewarded by the deans and provost,” Simkins says. “It also means that there has to be ongoing professional development for chairs. Oftentimes department chairs are put in place who may have been good faculty members and good researchers but may not currently have the management skills or breadth of knowledge that is essential to effectively manage, support, and lead an academic department. Good leadership is central to effective assessment. Without it, assessment becomes simply a series of isolated events rather than an ongoing process of continuous inquiry and improvement.
“When it comes to improving student learning outcomes, being curious about what our students are actually learning is critical for success,” he continues. “That’s a place where teaching and learning centers can play an important role, especially if the teaching and learning center is viewed as an integral part of the institution and has the respect of both faculty members and administrators. Teaching center directors can work together with department chairs and deans to promote an environment in which questions about student learning are continuously encouraged, supported, and rewarded.”
Additionally, he says, “Department chairs arguably play the most important and influential leadership role in colleges and universities. The department is where faculty live; this is their professional home and this is where tenure really gets determined. Chairs can have a dramatic impact on student learning outcomes, as well as retention and graduation rates, simply by focusing attention on the teaching and learning process and actively rewarding faculty members who make it part of their normal process to engage in the scholarship of teaching and learning.”
Once faculty members get involved in the scholarship of teaching and learning, they view what they do in the classroom differently, and just as the scholarship they do within their disciplines encourages them, the scholarship of teaching and learning leads to further inquiry. The challenge is to convince faculty that the scholarship of teaching and learning is an inquiry process, not an evaluative process.
Boyer, Ernest. Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997. (Formerly Boyer, E. Scholarship Reconsidered, Priorities of the Professoriate. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Princeton University Press, Lawrenceville, New Jersey, 1990.)
Huber, Mary Taylor, and Pat Hutchings.The Advancement of Learning: Building the Teaching Commons. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005.
Excerpted from Academic Leader, June 2007.