Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) - A working definition for this web resource

Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) - A working definition for this web resource

For the purposes of this web resource, we propose a definition of SoTL that, we believe, encompasses the main aspects of the conceptions previously discussed, and so helps to clarify the goals for those of us aiming to be engaged in SoTL.

Therefore SoTL:

  • is focused on improving and supporting student learning through teaching practices;
  • includes reflection on our own teaching and the resultant learning of our students (this may include collecting evaluations from students to inform reflection, or some other way of assessing student learning/engagement with material, etc.), and the implementation of subsequent interventions and improvements that better support student learning;
  • requires considerable familiarity with the publically disseminated knowledge both about the discipline-specific area that is being taught, and about learning and teaching, and the latter should inform actual teaching practice (i.e. it requires the scholar to engage with the literature); and,
  • involves dissemination of teaching practices for public/peer scrutiny.

Our conception of SoTL based on previous work is similar to that proposed by Martin et al. (1999), but not identical.  In more detail, we specifically prefer the term of scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL), as used by Hutchings and Shulman (1999), over the term scholarship of teaching (SoT), because we agree with Hutchings and Shulman (1999), Trigwell et al. (2000), and Trigwell and Shale (2004) that the ultimate aim of teaching is to improve student learning.  Thus we as teachers should be focused upon student learning as the ultimate end, with teaching as the means to that end.  This therefore explains our first point in the above definition that SoTL should be focused on improving and supporting learning, and in encouraging students to actively engage with the topic and develop the skills associated with autonomous learning (Boyer, 1990).

The second point in this definition, that SoTL should include reflection on our own practice (Trigwell et al., 2000), further highlights the desired perspective on supporting student learning, as it is only as we reflect upon and evaluate our teaching that we become aware of how effectively (or ineffectively) our teaching supports students' learning, which particular aspects could be improved, and how we might be able to improve this. 

Thirdly, it is important that for the engagement in SoTL, teachers must have detailed and up-to-date knowledge of the subject area that they teach (Boyer, 1990), and the publically available knowledge about teaching practices and their impact on learning (Hutchings and Shulman, 1999; Trigwell et al., 2000), in order to be able to learn from other teachers engaged in SoTL and so improve their own teaching and support of learning, and also build upon this previous work.  Commonly this involves engaging with appropriate published research findings.

Finally, we are of the opinion, in agreement with Trigwell and Shale (2004), Hutchings and Shulman (1999), Kreber (2002), and Trigwell et al. (2000), that our teaching practices which we consider to be excellent and/or to have significantly improved our support of learning be disseminated to the wider pedagogical community in one form or another (a brief discussion of what forms such dissemination may encompass follows in the next section).  This allows us to receive feedback from the pedagogical community, and so obtain objective assessment of our teaching practice, and also provide evidence of our engagement in SoTL.  Subjecting our work to public scrutiny also ensures that SoTL is subjected to the academic rigour of other forms of scholarship, and means that we are able to benefit from each others’ experiences, so improving our own teaching accordingly and even building further on this previous work (Hutchings and Shulman, 1999).

Therefore, according to this working definition of SoTL, it includes four essential aspects – being learning focused; reflecting on teaching practices; being aware of and influenced by disseminated knowledge; and contributing to this disseminated knowledge by making available one’s own work for public/peer scrutiny.  We consider that these four aspects are all essential to the activity of SoTL, and without any of these aspects the work is lacking and is not indicative of engagement in SoTL.  Thus, we agree more with the conception of the scholarship of teaching proposed by Trigwell et al. (2000), than that proposed by Trigwell and Shale (2004), who argued that it is the dissemination of teaching practices that is actually scholarship. 

In Depth: SoTL activity vs being a teaching & learning scholar

What is implicit in our working definition of SoTL is that the emphasis is most definitely on it being an activity that teachers can participate in.  This in contrast to some of the other conceptions discussed, such as those that purport a hierarchical route to becoming a scholar of teaching.  The emphasis within such a hierarchical conception (such as that of Kreber, 2002) is on the status of the academic, i.e. someone who has achieved the title of ‘scholar of teaching’ based upon merit (their ability to teach - excellent teacher; their knowledge of the pedagogical literature - expert or scholarly teaching; and their contribution to that disseminated body of knowledge - scholar of teaching and learning). 

Thus, our emphasis here is slightly different from the hierarchical conception, in that we are trying to encourage all academics to engage in the activity of SoTL according to the criteria discussed above (a focus on student learning, involving reflection, being influenced by current pedagogical knowledge, and involving a disseminated contribution to that knowledge).  Hence, we would propose instead that SoTL projects should be engaged in for the explicit purposes of improving the support of student learning, and thus can and should be encouraged in all academic teachers.  We would suggest that it is the scholarliness of the project that is of importance therefore.  The scholarliness of the project would be determined according to two main criteria:

  1. The extent to which the SoTL project or activity had a practical influence upon supporting (and/or improving the support of) student learning;
  2. The extent to which the pedagogic community considers the SoTL project or activity to have made a significant contribution to the body of pedagogical knowledge within a particular area (i.e. if articles to peer-reviewed journals are accepted, etc.) - thus, if the pedagogical community embrace someone’s work then this is the bench mark that the work can be considered as an example of engagement in the SoTL.

Nonetheless, since those engaging in SoTL are also practitioners as well as theorists, there should be some evidence that teaching and support of learning is actually improving as a result of a teacher’s engagement in SoTL.  Thus, we agree with Trigwell and Shale (2004) that scholars of teaching should also demonstrate excellence in teaching, but where we differ is in the idea that being a scholar is the top level of a hierarchical journey of having first become an excellent teacher and then an expert teacher.  Instead, we would emphasise that it is engaging in the process of SoTL that influences and improves different aspects of teaching at different times, moving the teacher towards teaching excellence in different areas.  Thus, we expect that the quality of teaching performance (hence student learning) and involvement in SoTL would be correlated.  This point is also discussed by Healey (2000) who argues that:

'Applying the ideas of scholarship to the practice of individual teachers leads to the suggestion that the extent to which staff are scholarly in this element of their academic life should be reflected in how they teach.  There is, however, a lack of research evidence on the relationship between pedagogic scholarship and better teaching.  It is quite possible that some people may be “scholarly introverts” who learn more and more about teaching, but never get any better at doing it (Wareing, 1999).  Similarly, some people are intuitive teachers who are excellent at the practice, even though they may never have studied the theory.  Nevertheless, it seems a reasonable proposition that a good test that someone is adopting a scholarly approach to their teaching is that they attempt to apply the principles of good teaching practice, such as are outlined in Chickering and Gamson (1991) and Ramsden (1992).' (page 174)

Questions for reflection:

  1. Do you agree with our working definition of SoTL (and even the use of our choice of term of SoTL, and not just scholarship of teaching)? 
  2. Why or why not? 
  3. What would you add to our definition, and why? 
  4. What would you omit from our definition, and why? 
  5. Would you argue that becoming a scholar is a hierarchical journey, or would you agree that instead SoTL should be viewed more from the point of view as an activity that teachers can engage in?

Boyer, E.L. (1990). Scholarship reconsidered: priorities of the professoriate. Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Available here.

Chickering, Z.F., & Gamson, A.W. (Eds.) (1991).  Applying the seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Healey, M. (2000). Developing the Scholarship of Teaching in Higher Education: a discipline-based approach, Higher Education Research & Development, 19:2, 169 — 189.

Healey, M. (2000). Developing the Scholarship of Teaching in Higher Education: a discipline-based approach, Higher Education Research & Development, 19:2, 169 — 189.

Hutchings, P., and Shulman, L. (1999). The scholarship of teaching: new elaborations, new developments, Change, 31(5), p. 10-15.

Kreber, C. (2002). Teaching Excellence, Teaching Expertise, and the Scholarship of Teaching. Innovative Higher Education, Vol. 27, No. 1, Fall 2002. 

Martin, E., Benjamin, J., Prosser, M. & Trigwell, K. (1999). Scholarship of teaching: a study of the approaches of academic staff. In: C. Rust (Ed.) Improving Student Learning: Improving Student Learning Outcomes, Proceedings of the 1998 6th International Symposium, pp. 326–331 Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, Oxford Brookes University.

Ramsden, P. (1992).  Learning to Teach in Higher Education. Routledge: London.

Trigwell, K. and Shale, S. (2004). Student learning and the scholarship of university teaching, Studies in Higher Education, 29:4, 523-536.

Trigwell, K., Martin, E., Benjamin, J., and Prosser, M. (2000). Scholarship of Teaching: a model, Higher Education Research and Development, 19:2, 155 — 168.

Wareing, S. (1999).  Comment on earlier draft of paper by Healey, M. (2000) (see above for full reference).  Available here.