Getting Involved in Research on Teaching and Learning at a Large Research University: A Case Study

Kenneth W. Foster • Concordia College 


This essay originally appeared in the Political Science Educator’s February 2008 issue.


When I took up an assistant professor position in 2003 at the University of British Columbia (UBC—I left this past summer, as discussed below), I had received little training in pedagogy and was focused completely on doing research in my disciplinary specialty (Chinese politics). Yet during the 2006-2007 academic year, I found myself working with two professors from UBC’s College of Education to design and carry out a research project on how the use of informal reflective essay assignments affects student learning. How did this happen? In this essay, I provide a very brief and informal case study of how one novice professor at a large research university got involved in the scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL). My hope is that the story will illuminate the issues involved and shed some light on what departments and institutions can do to promote research by disciplinary professors on teaching and learning.

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

Stumbling onto the SOTL Road

How did I end up doing research on the use of reflective writing assignments when just a couple of years ago I barely knew about reflective writing? How did my experience in the classroom lead me into a pedagogical area completely new to me? During my time at UBC, my flagship course was Chinese Politics and Development. As with many who study a particular country, my encounter with China has deeply affected me. I think this is why, when I endeavored to teach Chinese politics, I was particularly concerned that students somehow personally engage with the material. Yet since these classes had 70-90 students and no discussion sections, it seemed impossible for there to be the types of conversations generally essential for spurring personal engagement. So, as is common practice in similar courses, I decided to rely on having students read a series of first-person accounts by Chinese of their lives during various political periods. In an at-tempt to get them to really think about these readings, I required that students write two informal personal “reaction essays” after reading two sets of accounts. Students were told that everyone who did the assignment would receive an A or A-.

To my surprise—although I didn’t really know what to expect— many students wrote heartfelt and deep essays. Even more surprising, a number of students made a special effort to tell me that these essays were the best part of the course, and some said that they were the most meaningful writing assignments they had done in a political science course. As I taught the course three times over 18 months, this happened each time. Amidst the stressful busyness of working under a ticking tenure clock and a focus on research activities, I took note of this, but initially did not think much about it. Gradually, however, I became intrigued. I soon realized that what I was really targeting was having students engage emotionally with these human stories and recognize and write about their affective reactions to the

stories. Students seemed to be doing precisely this, and it seemed to make a significant impact on them. Upon further reflection, I also realized that what I was doing was trying to supplement the dominant (in most of political science) objective-analytical mode of teaching and learning with something else. This “some-thing else” was new to me, and I had not witnessed in any political science classes that I myself had taken.

So I wondered: what exactly am I doing, and what effect is it re-ally having on my students? By experimenting with a new kind of assignment (new for me, that is) and taking just a little time to take note of and reflect on students’ responses to it, I had started to stumble down the road of pedagogical reflection and research.

Starting Conversations and Finding the Question

Given the pressures on me to focus on disciplinary research, this probably would have gone nowhere if it had not been for several people at UBC with whom I was able to discuss my questions. My department had no institutionalized venue for the discussion of pedagogical issues. Although many of my colleagues valued good teaching and were good teachers (the department is well-respected within UBC for the high quality teaching that it offers), it still did not seem wise for a junior member to express much interest in pedagogical questions. However, I was fortunate to be good friends with Tim Cheek, a professor of Chinese history at UBC who, although a distinguished researcher, had a deep commitment to teaching (and who had taught for years at a liberal arts college). My conversations with him, and his encouragement, led me to organize with him a roundtable on “Teaching about Contemporary China” at the Canadian Asian Studies Association annual meeting. My presentation was entitled “Engaging Students both Intellectually and Emotionally.” As a tenure-seeking assistant professor in a research-focused department, I was somewhat concerned that this would be perceived as a distraction from “the main task” (furthering my disciplinary research agenda), but the support of a senior professor and friend outside of the department helped me to keep moving forward in thinking about the pedagogical issues that intrigued me.

Around this time, I received a newsletter from UBC’s Centre for Teaching and Academic Growth (TAG, a unit focused on enhancing teaching skills of faculty and graduate students). The news-letter reported that a new group called “Teaching and Learning for the Heart and Mind” was forming. Reading this phrase was an “ah-ha!” moment for me. This sounded like what I was trying to do. With excitement, I got in touch with the organizer (and assistant director of TAG), Alice Cassidy. My discussion with her was enlightening, and I became aware of a whole new world of activity at UBC, a world focused on questions of teaching and learning. Some months later, Alice organized a workshop at TAG entitled “Student Journaling: Adding Motivation and Reflection Activities to your Course.” I was asked to introduce what I had done and also to ask several students to share their thoughts on the reaction essays (which, I now realized, might be called reflective essays) that I had assigned. Out of all of this, a research question emerged: what is the impact of reflective learning activities on the student learning experience in large political science classes?

Meeting the Great Facilitator: Institutional Support for SOTL

It’s probably fair to say that without TAG and someone like Alice Cassidy, I never would have ventured much beyond my initial curiosity about the place of emotion and reflection in the political science classroom. Yet moving from a deeper interest in pedagogical issues to actual involvement in research takes much more than talking with knowledgeable and supportive people. Fortunately for me, people associated with TAG were also running an Institute for the Study of Teaching and Learning. And in early 2006, I received, along with all other UBC faculty members, an invitation to submit proposals for support under the two-year-old Research Collaboration Program that it runs in partnership with the Faculty of Education. This program is “for faculty at UBC who are implementing innovative strategies in their teaching and would like to assess the effects of these strategies,” but who “do not have the time, resources, and/or specific expertise to conduct this research.” The program involves creating a research team made up of the initiating faculty member, one or more members of the Faculty of Education, and a graduate research assistant (usually also from education).

This sounded like a brilliant idea and seemed to be tailor-made for someone in my position. I lacked knowledge about pedagogical issues and research practices in the field of education. What better opportunity than to work with people whose career is de-voted to research on teaching and learning? I lacked time, since I was continuing with my disciplinary research agenda. What more could I ask for than to be given a fully-funded RA with expertise in education-related research?

I put in a proposal, and it was selected for inclusion in the program. The proposal was circulated among Faculty of Education professors, which resulted in two people expressing strong interest in the project. TAG put out an advertisement for an RA, I interviewed several candidates and found someone who provided exactly the skills and temperament needed. Thus I found myself intimately involved in research on teaching and learning.

The importance of the institutional support provided by the Research Collaboration Program cannot be overstated. If there is one lesson that I would especially highlight from my story, it is that any department or institution interested in promoting scholarship on teaching and learning by faculty members out-side of schools of education should seriously consider developing a program along the lines of UBC’s.

Confronting the Tough Dilemma

Yet, this is not enough. UBC has several thousand faculty members. Fifteen applied to the Research Collaboration Program. While there may be many reasons why so few show any interest in pedagogical research, I can only speak from my personal experience. My experience is that I only felt able to apply because I had already decided that I did not care if it hurt my chances for attaining tenure in my department. Although I had been making good progress towards tenure, I had decided that I wanted to pursue a career that offered more of a balance between teaching and research instead of the heavily research-focused careers offered at places such as UBC. I remember very clearly thinking, as I prepared to put in the proposal, that I could only do this if I was really prepared to leave UBC and look for a position in a department that would look more positively on pedagogical research by a political scientist.

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

The dilemma is undoubtedly familiar to readers of this news-letter. A person in a tenure-track position in political science at a research-oriented university has to focus intently on research in their specialty area. The pressure on departments seeking to maintain or achieve national prominence is to focus single-mindedly on the production of political science research, and tenure standards reflect this pressure. For tenure-seeking professors, there never seems to be enough time available to generate sufficient new data, to produce enough publications, and to establish a strong-enough reputation. It takes an extraordinary individual to be able to carve out any time for research on teaching and learning without making sacrifices in their core research agenda. Thus those who find themselves with an interest in pedagogical research face a dilemma: do I jeopardize my tenure prospects, or do I ignore a research question that has sparked my curiosity, is undoubtedly important in some way, and is related to my job as a professor who regularly teaches classes? Of course, the basic dilemma also presents itself when deciding how much time to spend on other, more routine sorts of teaching-related activities.

Is there room in political science departments at large research-focused universities for an assistant professor who wants to pursue a high-quality research agenda in their area of specialization while also engaging in pedagogical research (that will invariably slow the progress of their core research agenda)? Should there be room? If yes, then what does it take to make room? Although I am now happily ensconced in a new position at a liberal arts college that embraces a teaching-research balance appropriate for me, these questions continue to stand out to me as meriting careful and sustained discussion by concerned political scientists.

Discovering the Rewards of SOTL

During the 2007 Spring semester, my colleagues from the Faculty of Education and I carried out an exploratory study of how the use of personal reflective essays affected the learning experience of students in a class I taught on “Organized Groups and the State” (we failed to get organized in time to use the Chinese Politics class, taught in the Fall). Mainly through the efforts of the RA, we carried out a survey of the students and conducted focus groups. While we are only just starting to sort through the data, I already know I have learned a great deal—for example, about how to use focus groups in research and about the interplay of emotion and reason. And we are looking forward to writing up the results of our research for publication in both political science and education-related journals.

Yet the best part of the research was seeing students’ positive response to it. A common refrain heard from students was that they were glad to be given a chance (in focus groups) to talk about their views of education and how they felt about different kinds of writing assignments. And they saw the value of the re-search. As one student told the RA, “it’s good that someone cares enough to do this type of research.”


Kenneth W. Foster is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN. He teaches courses in the fields of comparative politics, global studies, and Asian studies. His research focuses on Chinese politics and development, and his current research is on environmental governance and administrative innovation in China.


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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