SoTL – When scholarship becomes research

Riccardo attempts to answer questions about where scholarship of teaching and learning sits in relation to professional development and research.

A few months ago we had a CPD session on SoTL, which left as many questions unanswered as answered. Much of the confusion about SoTL, at least on my part, seems to be down to the appropriation of an already meaningful academic (traditional) idea of research and scholarship and its conflation with other ideas and activities related to reflection on teaching practice and CPD.

I understand that traditional idea of research and scholarship (at least in our school) to generally mean:

A: extended research into content related to a subject specialism resulting in a text (article in edited collection/journal, or monograph) which is published in a widely recognised publication. The main outcome of this is a peer-acknowledged addition to subject knowledge base/debate (an incidental/additional outcome might be professional advancement).

And I understand the latter, SoTL, idea of scholarship to include a much more diverse range of activities, but in essence it seems to mean:

B: reflection on teaching practice (what one does as a university teacher), evidenced (in a variety of ways) and shared (in a variety of ways). The main outcome of this would be professional development/advancement.

Obviously, there can be overlap between A & B when that ‘content’ area/subject specialism is teaching/education.

Both of A & B are important, although in terms of my job as an EAP tutor, it is B which is most immediately relevant to my current role. But I do have two main questions about what B means in practice:

1) Given what I take to be the nature of SoTL and how it is broken down into (i) the doing of teaching, (ii) evidencing ‘reflection’ on that and then (iii) disseminating that ‘reflection’, the first concern is simply finding the time within the working week to do (ii) & (iii) at all, let alone, as one would hope, do them well. I think pretty much all my year round colleagues actively reflect on their teaching practice as a fundamental part of doing their job by integrating reading, attending talks and conferences, sharing and discussing ideas with colleagues, etc.. But the additional time required to ‘evidence’ this, and then disseminate it, even with an accurately apportioned SoTL ‘allowance’ (still yet to be clearly defined) and excellent time-management skills, would be a challenge.

This also means that those tutors who are fully invested in the actual doing of teaching, course directing,  course development and design (presupposing reflection as an integral part of these activities), may be at a disadvantage when SoTL output is used as part of the system of recognition and promotion. Often tutors use any ‘additional’ time they may have, not to mention over-time, to directly and immediately improve the students’ experience and their learning because, for them, this is the priority. I understand that a balance needs to be struck in how we use our time, but when choices have to made surely it can’t be right that a teacher who chooses to invest that extra bit directly in their students’ development is potentially ‘penalised’ because a self-produced portfolio of demonstrated development will be incomplete (it has also been suggested to me that this portfolio will always be incomplete because demonstrating a preponderance of the promotion criteria is already too far out of realistic reach).

3/365 Research Aspirations

2) The other main question I have is that, given the shortage of time to do SoTL at all, and then do it well, there are possible impacts on the quality of this output, and the variety of ways of evidencing and disseminating it might mean that ‘anything goes’. I’ve done a few sessions myself, and given talks and presentations, but I would feel very uncomfortable about describing what I’ve done as scholarship or research. I think to do so both does a disservice to the more traditional research which is being done, as well as undermines the very real and valuable role of CPD and reflection. This question is of particular relevance to me as an EAP tutor given that my job here is about these things called academic standards, processes and practices, and what this more extended idea of research and scholarship therefore means in terms of what I teach. If academic discourses are indeed broadening out in this way, and if the idea of ‘research and scholarship’ is likewise changing, then what constitutes meaningful engagement with, and contributions to, ‘knowledge’ within the academy must also be changing. I’d be very interested to know what colleagues think some of the implications of this last point, in particular, might be in terms of our EAP provision and what we teach.


Riccardo’s Bio

Riccardo is an EAP tutor, course director and course designer at Glasgow University. His current research interests include the relationship between knowledge development and course design, as well as improving models of in-sessional EAP delivery.

Image credits:

3/365 Research Aspirations by catspyjamasnz under CC Licences


4 thoughts on “SoTL – When scholarship becomes research

  1. “what colleagues think some of the implications of this last point, in particular, might be in terms of our EAP provision and what we teach.”

    Nice to end with some sort of question Ricardo! I’ll pick up that invitation and drop a small incendiary in the couple of minutes I have spare before going to teach (I’d obviously love to leave something deeper but students wait for no man).

    I think you understand knowledge in a way that SoTL doesn’t. My understanding of SoTL is that it is about sharing ideas, which of course may lead to knowledge, but doesn’t need to satisfy any particular standard of academic rigour or epistemology- if it did, most active teachers wouldn’t be able to do it, indeed there is possibly “no need for any high level of intelligence in the rank and file, except to applaud his actions”


    1. Riccardo

      Hi Neil, thanks for commenting… I think where you’re trying to take this is indeed loaded and quite particular. I hope I haven’t given the impression that I’m trying to assign a social or epistemological status to either SoTL or ‘more conventional research’, with one counting as knowledge, and the other not (and I certainly don’t know where your mention of ‘high-level of intelligence’ comes from, not my piece anyway!). The questions I had were less philosophical or even political, and more practical and related to outcomes with regard to roles and different disciplinary contexts, because many excellent ideas might well be shared in the context of SoTL, but due to lack of time and resources, as well as different purposes, etc., those ideas might just not get developed or disseminated in ways that are more formally and/or conventionally recognised.


  2. Adam Donnelly

    Hi Riccardo

    Thanks for your post. Very interesting. I’m taken with the disparity you highlight between SoTL and ‘traditional’ research (intended vs. incidental professional advancement) and the practical issues surrounding the affordance of meaningful time, thought, etc. to SoTL. In a previous life as a History Masters student, a supervisor once (rather crudely) summed up the working year along the lines of “the teaching semesters pay for the summer research”. Although much too simplistic (unfair?) a view as it casts some doubt on commitment to student development, it does I think highlight one of your points. If what your research is “about” is teaching itself, and your academic year is portioned unlike any other, with no ‘down time’ as such, when/where/how are the ‘outcomes’ of scholarship (the evidencing, etc.) to be afforded meaningful attention? I’d be interested to know how colleagues in other disciplines who transcend the boundary between A & B view their working year and where the periods of scholarship/research output fall. I wonder also about the various paths by which people arrive at EFL/EAP and how that differs from the academic ‘tradition’, too. At post-grad level, students from early Masters level are trained in ‘traditional research’, presenting at PG seminars, etc., and the progression to PhD (usually) happens immediately and instinctively. That’s not necessarily true of our field and presents a fundamental knowledge gap when it comes to the ‘doing’ of research, not least dissemination. I love the idea of being published in a peer-reviewed journal, for example, but have virtually no idea of what that process looks like. In my History Masters, friends 1 year ahead in 1st year doctoral studies were being encouraged to submit papers to journals. In that case , I feel there are also fundamental ‘knowledge’ deficits with regards scholarship and research, as well as practical issues of the when/where/how.


  3. Riccardo

    Hi Adam, You make some really interesting observations, and I think that those differing routes into the academy that you mention are indeed especially key to what, where and how one develops scholarship and research. More clearly identifying and articulating some of those deficits would be a very useful enterprise….


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