Turning a Classroom Conundrum into a SoTL Research Project: Reflections on the SoTL Academy
Miriam Moore, Assistant Professor of English
I first heard of the “Scholarship of Teaching and Learning” (SoTL) several years ago, at a time when I was teaching at a community college in Virginia. I encountered the term in Teaching English in the Two-Year College, in an article encouraging two-year college faculty to reframe their identities as teachers, scholars, and activists — a difficult proposition given my teaching conditions and lack of institutional support at that time. But the notion of SoTL intrigued me; it seemed like a natural counterpart to applied linguistics, which focuses on the processes of instructed and natural language acquisition. It also offered me a more structured way to think about my classes at the time.
In those classes at the community college, I saw first-generation and multilingual students wrestle with assigned readings, new vocabulary, expectations for critical thinking and information literacy, and — perhaps above all else — an assumption that they should have already mastered the conventions and rhythms of written academic English. I worked with students who struggled with those conventions, but who had learned to apologize — and to apologize profusely — for their failures. “I know it’s not good English,” I would hear them say. Grammar anxiety could paralyze students during essay exams; more than once, I had a student submit just three or four sentences at the end of an hour.
I didn’t want to dismiss these students as “not proficient” in English or “not ready for college.” After all, I had seen them contribute profound insights to class discussions. SoTL offered a pathway for investigating pedagogies to support these students — and to producing theory-informed research at the same time.
Unfortunately, moving from research questions to an actual project proved difficult without a culture of support for SoTL and an active IRB. And it seemed something always came up; there was accreditation, a state-wide redesign of developmental education, and a five-five teaching load. Research was inevitably sidelined.
When I arrived at UNG in August of 2018, Mary Carney hosted our faculty orientation. During a session concerning the broad umbrella of research initiatives at UNG, she mentioned that there was a SoTL academy that would be beginning the next month: a two-year collaborative experience that would provide theoretical foundations, IRB training, IRB support, and monthly check-ins with fellow researchers and mentors, all with the goal of taking a project idea from design to data collection, analysis, and article development. She didn’t mention the pizza lunches provided each month, but that wasn’t really necessary for me. I knew I wanted to apply and participate.
The SoTL academy met monthly throughout the 2018-19 and 2019-20 academic years. There were several highlights and benefits, but two moments stand out now in my memory. First, in November of 2018, Dr. Hillary Steiner of Kennesaw State University hosted a webinar, walking participants through the theoretical foundations of SoTL research from a perspective that was primarily cognitive, although she also drew on socio-constructivism. Her PowerPoint was a treasure; each construct she introduced provided me with a set of filters and frameworks to give some structure to the ideas swirling in my head. The filters provided different ways of seeing what was happening in my writing classrooms, while frameworks gave me a language for verbalizing a targeted research question.
As an example, one of the first slides in the presentation addressed “shallow vs. deep processing.” Anyone who has worked with first-year writers and given reading assignments knows how difficult it can be to move students toward deep processing of reading. But what about deep processing of conceptual information about language, specifically syntax? The next slide noted that one avenue for exploring processing was to look at prior learning. That certainly resonated — my students seemed to have a hodgepodge of conceptual knowledge about language acquired from previous educational experiences, and they could state with certainty only some pseudo-rules, like not starting a sentence with the word “because.” But that same slide recommended investigating the role of elaboration: doing something with new knowledge so that it sticks. In the Sydney School — a literacy approach that blends socio-constructivist learning theory with systemic-functional linguistics — that notion of elaboration is critical: a grammatical concept isn’t fully learned until students can identify it in new contexts and see its potential for meaning.
Dr. Steiner also covered metacognition, self-efficacy, motivation, goal-orientation, mindset, and learned helplessness — all of which could be applied to the grammar struggles and anxiety I was seeing in some first-year writers. A number of potential directions for research were taking shape in my mind in the weeks following the presentation.
In early February of 2019, I requested a mentoring session with Mary Carney, who invited Becky Johnston, Minsu Kim, Samuel Prestridge, and Laura Ng to join us. During that conference call, I talked through the need I was seeing in my classroom and my goal of re-thinking grammar pedagogy in light of both SoTL and linguistic theory. Despite the framing help provided by Dr. Steiner’s earlier presentation, my thinking on that call was all over the place. The mentors on the call listened to my ramblings as I traipsed (verbally) through the web that connected basic writing pedagogy, linguistics, our SoTL readings, and cognitive learning theory. At one point, I remember saying that there were just so many linguistic or grammatical constructs that my students did not know. And Mary said, “Well, what do they know?” The proverbial light went off in my head. With the exception of some research out of the UK, much of the work on grammar pedagogy is about the negative: what students don’t know, what they can’t do, what they haven’t learned (or what they need to unlearn). But if learning is about scaffolding (a socio-constructivist concept) from what is known to what is new — a process that should help carry students across so-called liminal spaces into disciplinary knowledge — shouldn’t we have a defined sense of what is known (and what the target is) so that our scaffolding actually supports learning?
My SoTL project (“Grammatical Concepts and Metalinguistic Awareness: A Study of Reading Journals”) came into focus during that phone call. I wanted to know what students know, conceptually, about language, and how they describe language. I chose to work with reading journals, in part because this was a classroom assignment that could be assessed without changing the nature of the course, and in part because the whole issue of “correctness” was taken off the table — students were writing about language used in the articles assigned for class. (I also looked at their reflections on their own writing, in which anxiety about correctness and performance were prevalent. A full report on that part of the investigation is coming soon). I wanted to see if the students were able to read with grammatical awareness, as I had modeled in class, and if they could articulate how language choices influence a reader’s sense of the meaning of a text (not to mention the reader’s evaluation of an author).
My goal was to answer Mary’s question: what do they know? From my initial investigation, I’ve learned that they know a lot about the effects of lexical choices; they are sensitive to the voices constructed by word choice, and to some of the ways that word choice negotiates the reader/writer relationship (through what Ken Hyland has called stance and engagement). But students are much less likely to discuss syntax or grammatical structures when asked to consider the way an author uses language. In fact, despite hearing grammatical metalanguage throughout the course, students rarely applied that language to their readings (despite the prompts), and when they did so, they generally used the terms that also appeared in the prompts. Still, there is evidence of sensitivity to language in the data I collected, even if students do not articulate syntactic concepts readily.
What’s next? I still have the student reflections on their own writing to analyze, and I hope to do a follow-up study, interviewing students from the initial cohort who are still at UNG and working toward completion of their majors. Ultimately, I would like to look at metalinguistic awareness across disciplines, investigating reflections on linguistics choices by upper-division students (from several majors), as well as the impact of a course like ENGL 2050 (Standard English Grammar) on metalinguistic awareness for English majors. Whether insights from systemic functional linguistics or cognitive linguistics can help frame more useful pedagogies is also a part of the ultimate direction of the research.
In so many ways, the SoTL academy experience for me has been like a writing classroom. Two of the key researchers in metalinguistic awareness, Deborah Myhill and Ruth Newman, have asserted that “potentially, classroom talk can be the cultural tool which supports the construction of shared declarative metalinguistic knowledge and the psychological tool which supports writers’ cognitive capacities to use that knowledge procedurally in the shaping of their own written texts” (2016, p.178). I see that as analogous to what the academy did for me: the various types of talk served as tools that supported construction of knowledge (or co-construction of such knowledge) about learning theory and research design so that I could shape my own project.
With the article submitted and clearer sense of the next step, I’d say the SoTL experience was well worth the two-year investment. And the pizza wasn’t too bad, either!