Getting Started With SOTL

Jeffrey Bernstein • Eastern Michigan University

 John Ishiyama • Truman State University


This essay originally appeared in the Political Science Educator’s April 2006 edition.  


During the 2006 American Political Science Association Teaching and Learning Conference, we were pleased to do a workshop that introduced colleagues to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL) and offered some resources for getting started. This work builds on our experiences as Carnegie Scholars in the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (CASTL). Here, we reproduce some material from this workshop for those who were unable to be there.

This essay is part of the Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List

1. What is the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning? (Adapted from the website of MountainRise, an online Scholarship of Teaching and Learning journal published at Western Carolina University):

In 1990 in Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate, Ernest Boyer said the professoriate must “…break out of the tired old teaching versus research debate and define, in more creative ways, what it means to be a scholar.” Lee Shulman, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, adds that “viewing teaching as scholarly work is essential. Teachers have to carry out their work in isolation from their colleagues. The result is that those who engage in innovative acts of teaching do not have many opportunities to build upon the work of others… we seek to render teaching public, subject to critical evaluation, and us-able by others in the field.”

Teaching and teachers benefit from this new awareness that teaching, not only disciplinary study, is a worthy subject for research in constructing a public body of knowledge that is steadily reviewed and developed. As Bender & Gray state, “More than simply a new term for traditional tasks, the scholarship of teaching describes a new concept of academic work. In the scholarly classroom, guided by reflective practitioners, students are encouraged to become speaking subjects, and teaching becomes the object of ceaseless and generative” inquiry. (The Scholarship of Teaching)

Pat Hutchings, Carnegie Vice President, and Lee Shulman, Carnegie’s President, point out in their article “The Scholarship of Teaching: New Elaborations, New Developments” (Change, September/October 1999), that the scholarship of teaching is characterized by “being public, open to critique and evaluation, and in a form that others can build on. . . . It requires a kind of ‘going meta,’ in which faculty frame and systematically investigate questions related to student learning—the conditions under which it occurs, what it looks like, how to deepen it, and so forth—and do so with an eye not only to improving their own classroom but to advancing practice beyond it.” In other words, faculty set out to do the scholarship of teaching and learning not only to improve the teaching and learning in their own classroom but also to improve teaching and learning beyond their local setting by adding knowledge to—and even beyond—their disciplinary field.

For the two of us, one of the best statements on the scholarship of teaching and learning comes from Randy Bass, 1998 Carnegie Scholar and Associate Provost at Georgetown University. Bass frames his understanding of SOTL work in terms of problems:

“One telling measure of how differently teaching is regarded from traditional scholarship or research within the academy is what a difference it makes to have a “problem” in one versus the other. In scholarship and research, having a “problem” is at the heart of the investigative process; it is the compound of the generative questions around which all creative and productive activity revolves. But in one’s teaching, a “problem” is something you don’t want to have, and if you have one, you probably want to fix it. Asking a colleague about a problem in his or her research is an invitation; asking about a problem in one’s teaching would probably seem like an accusation. Changing the status of the problem in teaching from terminal remediation to ongoing investigation is precisely what the movement for a scholarship of teaching is all about. (From Randy Bass, 1999. “The Scholarship of Teaching: What’s the Problem?” Inventio, Volume 1, Number 1).”

  1. What are the “big pieces” I should be reading?

Below, we have produced an annotated starter bibliography for those considering working in this area:

  • Boyer, Ernest L. 1990. Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. Princeton: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The first book to explicitly discuss a scholarship of teaching. Boyer proposed this category in addition to the more traditional “scholar-ship of discovery”—this book also talked of the scholarships of application and integration.
  • Glassick, Charles E., Mary Taylor Huber and Gene I. Maeroff. 1997. Scholarship Assessed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Following on Boyer, this book begins the process of exploring how we would evaluate SOTL work. It calls for similar standards for this and other work—clear goals, adequate preparation, appropriate methods, significant results, effective presentation, and reflective critique.
  • Bass, Randy. 1999. “The Scholarship of Teaching: What’s the Problem? Inventio, Volume 1, Number 1. http://www.doit.gmu.edu/ archives/feb98/randybass.htm Bass’ formulation of the role of a “problem” in both traditional research and teaching is a very succinct formulation of what motivates many of us pursuing SOTL work.
  • Huber, Mary Taylor and Pat Hutchings. 2005. The Advancement of Learning: Building the Teaching Commons. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. A fine new book by two scholars at the Carnegie Foundation, this book discusses the progress of the SOTL movement and suggests an action agenda for growing the movement on campuses.
  • Shulman, Lee S. 1993. “Teaching as Community Property: Putting an End to Pedagogical Solitude.” Change 25: 6-7. Lee Shulman, President of the Carnegie Foundation, has written a great deal in this area. This piece is a personal favorite, suggesting a model of the university where teaching is given a place of prominence.

III. Anything else I should know?

One thing we have both learned, through our Carnegie experience and at our home institutions, is that the best allies for this work may come from colleagues outside our disciplines. Some disciplines, like psychology and sociology, have a much longer tradition of engaging in SOTL. Someone starting a program in Asian Studies, for example, would not look solely within political science departments for allies, but would instead seek out others with an interest in Asia—perhaps historians, literature folks, and the like. Political scientists thinking about teaching issues should be open to alliances outside the discipline.

We would also urge people considering doing this work to aim for methodological pluralism. The methods we use in our re-search may be useful, but documenting learning may take other forms—close reading of writing assignments, videotaping and evaluating student performance, etc.—that are less familiar to us. Remember, though, that different problems need different methods. Think broadly!

Doing SOTL elevates us as teachers and as professionals and dovetails nicely with the increasingly popular “teacher scholar” model. By applying the techniques we use in our own substantive work to better understand how our students learn, we can improve our teaching and ultimately better serve our students. Slowly but surely, political science as a discipline is becoming more and more open to such efforts to systematically understand the learning process. A window of opportunity has opened, and we urge our colleagues to look at the references cited above and consider involving themselves in this growing area of political science.


Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List presents select PSE articles from the previous 15 years. APSA Educate is please to announce it will feature all future Political Science Educator‘s issues.

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