Applying Good Research Technique to Questions on Student Learning

Jeffrey L. Bernstein • Eastern Michigan University


This essay originally appeared in the Political Science Educator’s December 2005 edition. 


If your graduate school experience was similar to mine, teaching and research were viewed as two very different aspects of the professional career, with an uneasy interaction between them. Time devoted to teaching was viewed as time not spent researching; in some cases, whispered warnings were circulated to take care not to be viewed as a “teacher” for fear that it might weaken one’s research credentials. Students informally “tracked” themselves into whether they intended to primarily teach or do research, and the pecking order of potential jobs often focused on whether the hiring institutions were “research” or “teaching” schools.

On the other side of the job market, of course, most of us realize that there is a strong connection between the research and teaching. While some academic research shows little correlation in the aggregate between teaching ratings and scholarly productivity (Marsh and Hattie 2002), most of us believe that good teaching can lead to good research, and vice versa. For many, forays into Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL) work provide a nice way to combine these two aspects of our professional careers, using practices derived from the research world to investigate our teaching and our students’ learning. I suggest here that engaging in SOTL can help us use effective research practice not only to enhance teaching and learning in our classes, but also to vastly transform how the academy views, and values, the teaching enterprise.

Two of the most seminal SOTL works argue that we should bring the same rigor to teaching as we bring to scholarship. Ernest Boyer’s (1990) Scholarship Reconsidered explicitly ties the term “scholarship” to the work we do as teachers; to Boyer, traditional research (the scholarship of discovery) was just one of four forms of scholarship an academic could practice (along with the scholarship of application, integration and teaching). The successor to Boyer’s volume, Scholarship Assessed by Charles Glassick, Mary Taylor Huber and Gene Maeroff (1997), suggested that work in the scholarship of teaching can be judged by the same rubric with which we judge all other forms of scholarship—does it display clear goals, adequate preparation, appropriate methods, significant results, effective presentation, and reflective critique?

Despite this line of work, our teaching practice all too often seems disconnected from the way we do our research.

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

Echoing Glassick, Huber and Maeroff, I argue here that many good practices we use in traditional scholarship are abandoned when we enter the classroom—to the detriment of our students, our selves, and the academy. Aspects of good scholarly practice— seeking feedback, broad dissemination, and use of evidence to support claims—should also be aspects of our teaching practice.

Making it such, I believe, will improve the work we do and how the academy views it.

  • Good Researchers Seek Frequent Feedback on their Work Read the acknowledgments section of any book, journal article, or other form of traditional scholarship. The conscientious author demonstrates in this section that he or she consulted with experts in the fields the work explores, gotten their input, and (hopefully) made the work better as a result. Researchers who do not share their work with others before seeking to publish their work lose an opportunity to improve through the wisdom of those around them.

And yet, to echo Lee Shulman’s (1993) classic “Putting an End to Pedagogical Solitude,” this is exactly what we do when we teach. We rarely talk with others about what we are doing. We rarely watch others teach or engage in systematic discussion about how their students are learning. These discussions are rarely a big part of a job interview. If, as Glassick, Huber and Maeroff suggest, the standards for evaluating scholarship are similar across Boyer’s typology, this lack of conversation is troubling.

It may be troubling, but it is also understandable. Engaging in these sorts of discussions might be taken as acknowledgement of a “problem;” as Randy Bass (1999) suggests, nobody wants to have a problem in their teaching. Bass correctly notes that “problems” drive productive discussions about research; the scholarship of discovery typically begins with an investigation of some serious problem in the discipline. Sadly, by minimizing “problems” in our conversations about teaching and student learning, we shut this area off from serious intellectual inquiry, to the detriment of the academy.

  1. Good Research is Broadly Disseminated

The notion of scholarship implies an obligation on the part of the scholar to share his or her work with the broader community. The most remarkable piece of research that sits in a desk drawer, never to be seen by others, cannot advance knowledge nor educate future scholars. It is no wonder that tenure and promotion committees require not only that scholarship be good, but also that it be disseminated to the appropriate audience. This is how research remains alive for others.

Good teaching practice, however, usually lives and dies in the classroom. Few faculty members actively document their students’ learning in any meaningful way (for two superb exceptions, see Randy Bass’ Visual Knowledge Project at <http://cr ossroads.georgetown.edu/vkp> and examples of Dan Bernstein’s work on course portfolios at <http://www.ku.edu/~cte/gallery/ index.html>. Anyone looking at these sites can get a good sense of what people have done, the processes they have used to build their teaching, and how the reader can implement similar ideas in his or her classroom. But these are the exceptions; good examples of work in the classroom are being lost because of our failure to capture it, through teaching portfolios and other means, the way we would capture critical data in scholarly inquiry.

  1. Evidence, Evidence, Evidence

Good scholarship is characterized by appropriate use of data to defend the arguments we make. These data can take many forms—laboratory trials, statistical results, close textual analysis, etc.—but at its heart, the research process requires that we be able to support the arguments we make. A scholar who claimed something was so because “it seems that way” would likely publish little. Good scholarship involves appropriate rigor in evaluating the claims we make.

When it comes to teaching, however, some of the very best scholars enter the classroom and lose much of their rigor. In many cases, we fly by the seat of our pants in making and testing pedagogical innovations. This usually does not lead us astray; good teachers have good teaching instincts. Evidence-based arguments, however, allow for more confidence in what we do. Evidence can be varied—my own work, for example, uses surveys, teaching journals, and content analysis of student essays. When completed, I will have been able to test hypotheses about teaching practice and student learning against data so I will know, more convincingly than before, what works and what does not in building the civic competency of students. Following good research practice will have enhanced my work in the classroom.

THE POLITICAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR 5

I’ll conclude by echoing Shulman’s idea (1993) that traditional work in the scholarship of discovery is valued because it is visible. We can read traditional research articles, discuss them, learn from them, and reward those who write them. Our ability to assess research enables us to determine whether we find the work compelling. Teaching is less valued in the academy because it is less visible. We don’t talk about it as much, we don’t share our practice with each other, and we don’t hold scholarly work on teaching to evidence-based standards of rigor. The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning can help enhance the nature of professionalism in the teaching world (Shulman 2000); incorporating the basic principles outlined in this piece can lead directly to teaching being appreciated more by others. When we move in this direction, we can help reclaim the rightful place teaching deserves at the center of the academy’s mission.

 

References

Boyer, Ernest L. 1990. Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. Princeton, NJ: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Glassick, Charles E., Mary Taylor Huber and Gene I. Maeroff. 1997. Scholarship Assessed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Marsh, H. W., & Hattie, J. 2002. “The Relation between Research Productivity and Teaching Effectiveness.” Journal of Higher Education 73: 603-641.

Shulman, Lee S. 1993. “Teaching as Community Property: Putting an End to Pedagogical Solitude.” Change originally published in Change 25 (6): 6-7.

Shulman, Lee S. 2000. “From Minsk to Pinsk: Why a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning?” Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 1 (1): 48-52.


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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