Getting Involved in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning
Like many others in higher education, I began my teaching career with no formal training in education. As a graduate student in Mathematics, I began teaching classes by trying to emulate the classes in which I had learned best myself. For me, that meant delivering detailed lectures over the course material and assessing with problems similar to those done in class. While that was somewhat successful, I saw two problems. First of all, no matter how much preparation I put into my lectures and explanations some students failed. Perhaps even worse, I observed that some of my “good” students could mimic procedures without understanding the underlying concepts. Desiring to become a better teacher, I pursued a PhD in mathematics education. In graduate school, I learned about theories of learning including constructivism, and I was introduced to alternative approaches to instruction including inquiry-based learning (IBL) in which students explore problems and concepts without first being taught through direct instruction. This has been a major theme in my own teaching and Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) research. For my dissertation, I explored ways to use technology to create collaborative online environments for problem solving in college algebra, and at North Georgia, I have worked with others to investigate the use of IBL practices in precalculus classes. My ongoing research question involves finding the right balance between student discovery and direct instruction in introductory college mathematics classes.
While pursuing a formal degree in education is not practical for everyone in higher education, I think everyone can learn and improve the experiences of his or her students through SoTL activities. Shulman (2000) argues that there are three reasons to pursue the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, which he calls professionalism, pragmatism, and policy. He argues that we belong to the profession of our chosen field (such as Mathematics) and the profession of higher education. As members of these professions, “we bear the responsibilities of scholars—to discover, to connect, to apply and to teach (p. 49).” Shulman also argues that SoTL research can affect policy by providing research based evidence about what does and does not work in the classroom. While these are important, my primary motivation in SoTL has always been what Shulman calls Pragmatism. I want to find ways to improve my own teaching and the learning experiences of my students. This is something that I think all higher education faculty members need to consider. It is easy to become comfortable with our teaching practices, especially if those practices mirror our own successful experiences as a student. I encourage faculty to seek out other SoTL and education resources in one’s own field. Professional organizations, conferences, and scholarly journals are a great source of inspiration. There is a growing list of resources devoted entirely to SoTL, including the following web sites:
Here in Georgia, we do not even have to leave the state to attend the international SoTL Commons Conference hosted by Georgia Southern University. I have attended and presented at this conference twice, and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in connecting with a large network of SoTL researchers.
There is no doubt that faculty have busy schedules, and finding time to do systematic research on teaching and learning must compete with many other activities, including field specific research for many faculty members. One thing that I have found very helpful in balancing my research on teaching with my actual teaching and numerous other activities has been to collaborate with other faculty. I have taken part in teaching circles with faculty members from other departments, and I have collaborated with fellow math department faculty to acquire external funding to conduct SoTL research. Working with others is a great way to generate fresh ideas and to balance the work load. The externally funded projects that I have worked on would not have been possible without my colleagues, and I strongly encourage other faculty members to seek out collaborators. In my experience, the faculty at all UNG campuses are enthusiastic about teaching and eager to work together.