As you begin to explore research in the field of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), the variety of topics from multiple disciplines can be daunting. To orient your introductory research, or to inspire further thought, consider the following keywords:
Assessment of learning
Case study research
Conceptions of teaching and learning
Construction of knowledge
Students as partners
Kolb’s learning cycle
Massive open online course (MOOC)
Scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL)
How to identify a topic?
There are many reasons why you might want to conduct research on teaching and learning. Often questions come from a problem or topic of interest identified in the classroom. SoTL research often looks into different topics such as teaching strategies, curriculum revision, integrating new technology into teaching, student outcomes, and more. When trying to decide on a research topic, there may be many directions you are considering. Picking a specific line of inquiry is important for meaningful innovation in teaching and learning. To narrow down your topic, you can start by asking yourself the following questions (Fenton & Szala-Meneok, 2010):
- Does something feel difficult?
- Is there a lack of change or innovation?
- Does something seem other than what it should be?
- Is there something new that could shape the methodology?
- Are there successes you want to understand more deeply?
- Is there a ‘failure’ you want to look into?
- Do you want to bring attention to something seemingly tacit?
Taxonomy of research questions (Hutchings)
Developing a research question in the SoTL field can be difficult, especially for those without experience in this specific type of inquiry. Hutchings Taxonomy is a much-cited tool in teaching and learning, which proposes four categories of pedagogical research questions. Try applying the following four question types to your field, classroom, or idea to help generate a research question.
- “What Works?” – These are questions that seek “evidence about the relative effectiveness of different [teaching] approaches.
- “What is?” – These are questions that seek to describe, but not evaluate the effectiveness of, different teaching approaches. These are also questions that seek to describe how students learn.
- “Visions of the possible” – These are questions related to goals for teaching and learning that have yet to be met or are new to the faculty member asking the questions.
- “Theory building” – These are questions designed to build theoretical frameworks for SoTL similar to frameworks used in other disciplines.
For more help generating a good SoTL research question, you might want to try the 20 Questions Exercise (Appendix A, pg 35) found in our Research on Teaching and Learning Guidebook.
General types of SoTL research projects
N.B. this is not an exhaustive list of all possible types of SoTL projects, but a curated list of examples the MacPherson Institute has supported in the past.
Evaluating the impact of integrating different technologies for the purpose of improving teaching and learning
Examples: online learning, gaming, virtual reality, social media in the classroom, simulation-based learning, web-based tutorials, Echo360, FlipGrid etc.
Evaluating the impact of integrating various teaching strategies in the classroom (on student engagement, motivation, retention and other success metrics)
Examples: flipped classrooms, problem-based learning, peer mentoring, design thinking, team-based learning, simulation-based learning, active learning, experiential learning, community engaged-education, etc.
Evaluating the impact of different formative and/or summative methods of assessment on overall student success (engagement, motivation and retention)
Examples: peer feedback, two-stage testing, free writing, learning portfolios, reflective practices
Evaluating the outcomes of leading or implementing change focused on curriculum and/or enhancing an academic program
Examples: diversity and inclusion, accessibility, student retention, mentorship programs, experiential learning, horizontal curriculum integration, assessing the impact of learning objective format on knowledge retention
This section is a repository of several presentations that you may find helpful as you move through different phases of your research project.
MREB vs. HiREB
- If you are in the faculty of Health Sciences or affiliated with Hamilton Health Sciences, you need Hamilton Integrated Research Ethics Board (HIREB) ethics approval. HiREB also covers applications for research involving applicants’ patients, faculty, students, or resources from affiliated hospitals. Otherwise, proposals should go through MREB.
- MREB does not review research involving administering drugs, blood draws, DNA, invasive physical procedures, or clinical trials.
- The two ethics boards use different application systems and have different requirements and considerations.
- If the applicant is a McMaster university faculty member, regardless of which system the applicant submits their research to, appeals are processed through the Standing Appeal Board established by McMaster.
- Both ethics boards require annual renewal and amendments to be submitted through the online application portal using the Amendment form.
When is research ethics necessary (research or quality assurance/program evaluation)?
- Ethics review is required for research with living human participants or their data (TCPS 2, Chapter 2, Article 2.1)
- TCPS2 defines research as ‘an undertaking intended to extend knowledge through a disciplined inquiry and/or systematic investigation. The term “disciplined inquiry” refers to an inquiry that is conducted with the expectation that the method, results, and conclusions will be able to withstand the scrutiny of the relevant research community.’
- QA/QI, program evaluation, and performance reviews are not considered “research” for the purposes of the TCPS2 and do not fall within the scope of REB review (Chapter 2, Article 2.5).
- There are some course or project evaluation activities you may take up on your own without requiring REB review.
- This Interactive Decision Tree may help you determine where or not REB review is required for your particular project. (Click to see full size)
Key Ethical Issues in Pedagogical Research
In pedagogical research, and all research involving human participants, care should be taken to minimize risk.
Recruitment of students for research
In pedagogical research, recruitment of students poses risks around consent and coercion. For example, a common concern is when researchers try to recruit from a course they are currently teaching. This dual role makes it difficult to ensure students participation is not influenced by the teaching role. Concerns could be about marks, unfair treatment in class, or social repercussions in response to their choice to participate or not participate. TCPS 2 Article 3.1 discusses concerns about undue influence (when participants are recruited by individuals in a position of authority. “Consent shall be given voluntarily and can be withdrawn at any time.”
Email Recruitment Policy
Currently, student emails cannot be used in research recruitment according to McMaster’s Privacy Office and under FIPPA regulations. However, emails may be used at a course level. Using the database of an entire department or faculty is not permitted without administrator permission.
For pedagogical research in the classroom, incentives are sometimes used to encourage participation in a study. These could be bonus marks, gift cards, or a draw for a larger prize. If bonus marks are used, there must be an alternative activity for students that do not wish to participate in the study to also get the mark. The alternative must be equal in workload and time commitment. If a student withdraws during the study, they should still receive an incentive, unless there is little significant risk (i.e. an anonymous survey).
It is important to ensure confidentiality in all research. There are certain unique considerations in pedagogical research. Some things to keep in mind include:
- If bonus marks are being given, how will participant identities be kept confidential?
- The instructor should only be able to access de-identified data after the marks have been designed to mitigate undue influence or other risks
- Consider using a third-party during the data collection phase to mitigate risk
- How will you communicate confidentiality clearly to the student participants?
For additional information, refer to Chapter 5, section B in the TCPS 2.
Secondary Use of Data
In SoTL research, this most often refers to using grades, assignments, or other student materials (from previous courses) not intended for research. Is ethics review required for this data? It depends on the level and whether or not the data is identifiable. For example, using class averages for research does not hold as much risk as using an individual student’s assignment. It is best to consult with the ethics board about the requirements for using secondary data, but you can take steps to minimize risk such as anonymizing the data, using class level data, and getting consent. Review the Secondary Use of Data section on the MREB application and TCPS2 Chapter 5, Section D.
Steps to Minimize Risk
There are many ethical considerations necessary in research. While we have highlighted some of the main concerns for pedagogical research, there may be more that are applicable to your study. Early in the planning stages, review the Tri-Council Policy and its interpretations.
|Areas of Concern||Key Principles for Ethical Practice||Questions to Consider|
|Conflicts of Interest and Power Relationships||Mitigate undue influence, coercion, or power imbalance by..
|Consent Process||Ensure that students’ decisions to participate in the research (or not) is informed and voluntary by..
|Fairness and Equity||Within the goals of the research project, be inclusive, fair, and equitable when selecting participants by..
|Privacy and Confidentiality||Protect the participants’ information and the integrity of the research project by..
Involving Students in Research
“Working with [faculty partner] for the last three years has been an incredible opportunity. She truly values the opinions and ideas of the students she works with and encourages us to pursue our own ideas for the project and gave us the opportunity to explore and learn new skills.” (Student, 2018 Case Studies)
“I felt in our meetings there was a sense of mutual learning and inquiry amongst all those involved – as a student, I felt my insights and perspectives were strongly valued and that decisions were made collectively, rather than a top-down delegation of tasks from professor to student” (Student, 2018 Case Studies)
Students will have a variety of motivations for getting involved in SoTL research. Sometimes students are looking for research experience, to gain knowledge, a CV booster, interest in the topic, and beyond. MacPherson promotes involving students not just as assistants or in subordinate roles, but rather as partners. Involving students as partners allows staff/faculty and student partnership on projects to establish meaningful cooperation and enhance the quality of teaching and learning at McMaster and to contribute to the SoTL field. Involving students as partners in SoTL projects can bring in new perspectives while also putting into practice concepts in the field throughout the entire research project.
To ensure the student’s partnership experience is meaningful, consider the following:
- How can the partnership be one of true collaboration?
- What are your expectations of the student? What are the student’s expectations of you?
- Is there mutual learning? Is there space for perspectives outside of your point of view?
- Is there room for student autonomy?
- Is the project co-owned? What tangible outcomes is the student getting?
- How are you creating a space where the student feels comfortable providing feedback and new ideas?
For more information consult: https://devmi.mcmaster.ca/app/uploads/2019/05/SPP_Final-2018.pdf
Selected SoTL Journals:
There are a multitude of journals that you may wish to consult to: a) familiarize yourself with the scholarship of teaching and learning; and b) conduct background research on your topic of study. Below is a selected list of multidisciplinary SoTL Journals – some of the more important ones in this field. Feel free to ask us for a list of discipline-specific teaching and learning journals that may be applicable to you. If you would like further resources or have questions about SoTL literature and journals, please ask us!
Multidisciplinary SoTL Journals
- Canadian Journal of Higher Education
Publication of the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education that focuses on Canadian higher education contexts
- International Journal for Students as Partners (IJSaP)
MacPherson-based journal focused on student-faculty/staff partnership.
- Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (CJSoTL)
Broad-ranging research journal by STLHE interested in the scholarly inquiry of understanding and enhancing learning in higher education
- International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (IJ-SoTL)
International electronic journal intended for articles, essays, and discussions about the scholarship of teaching and learning and its applications in higher/tertiary education.
- Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (JoSoTL)
Publishes SoTL investigations that are theory-based and supported by evidence in order to promote effective practices in teaching and learning and add to the knowledge base.
- Studies in Higher Education
Published by Routledge and covers empirically based, reflective and synoptic articles pertaining to any aspect of higher education
- Teaching & Learning Inquiry (TLI)
ISSoTL journal that publishes insightful research, theory, commentary, and other scholarly works that document or facilitate investigations of teaching and learning in higher education.
For a more comprehensive list of SoTL-specific journals, please click here.
For a more comprehensive list of discipline-specific journals, please click here.
Teaching & Learning Organizations & Conferences:
There are a few major teaching and learning academic organizations and conferences that you may wish to put on your radar!
Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education
- Promotes scholarship relevant to Canadian postsecondary education with attention to its structures, processes, and diverse communities
- Annual conference associated with Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences
- Website: https://csshe-scees.ca/
- Affiliated Journal: Canadian Journal of Higher Education
International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching & Learning (ISSoTL)
- One of the leading international academic societies for SoTL
- Annual conference held in October
- Website: http://www.issotl.com/
- Affiliated Journal: Teaching & Learning Inquiry
Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE)
- Largest teaching and learning society in Canada with a focus on promoting and advancing the scholarship of teaching and learning in Canadian higher education
- Annual conference held in June
- Website: https://www.stlhe.ca/
- Affiliated Journal: Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning
The Centennial Symposium on Scholarship of Teaching and Learning
- Annual event held in November and organized by the Institute for Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at Mount Royal University.
- Website: https://isotlsymposium.mtroyal.ca/contact.html
Conference on Postsecondary Learning and Teaching
- Annual conference held in April and hosted at the University of Calgary by the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning.
- Website: https://taylorinstitute.ucalgary.ca/conference2019
Nick Caric, Senior Ethics Advisor
email@example.com ext. 26117
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org (x23142) with any ethics-related inquiries
MacPherson Institute Contacts
Nancy Fenton, Associate Director, Research
Melec Zeadin, Educational Developer
email@example.com ext. 20797
Contact a MacPherson Leadership in Teaching and Learning Fellow
Frances Tuer, Assistant Professor, DeGroote School of Business
Fellowship Project Title: Building Classroom Community Through Social Medial and Other Modalities
Areas of Expertise: social media, blended/online learning, Flipgrid, classroom community, community of inquiry, adaptive learning cycle, academic integrity, PechaKucha/Ignite presentations, Student Partners; PebblePad; peer review
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; ext 24903, cell: 905-708-4472
Deborah DiLiberto, Assistant Professor, Global Health Faculty of Health Sciences
Fellowship Project Title: Evaluating strategies for building trans-disiciplinary global health research competencies
Areas of Expertise: qualitative research; mixed methods research; health science courses; HiREB submissions; interdisciplinary learning competencies; global health
Contact: email@example.com; 905-525-9140, ext. 22385
Rashid Abu-Ghazalah, Assistant Professor, W Booth School of Engineering Practice and Technology
Fellowship Project Title: Using instructional Videos and a Flipped Classroom for Enhancing Student Learning
Areas of Expertise: Instructional videos; flipped classrooms; course redesign and alignment
Rosa daSilva, Assistant Professor and Associate Chair (Undergraduate), Department of Biology
Fellowship Project Titles: Assessing the Outcomes of Blended Learning in a Level I Biology Course (2016) and Horizontal Curriculum Integration within a Biology Program (2018)
Areas of Expertise: blended learning, evidence-based pedagogical research, integrated curriculum design, project-based learning
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org, ext. 26314
Annotated Bibliography of Select Resources:
Dalhousie University. (n.d.). Research Ethics Board User Guide on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Research [webpage]. Retrieved from https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/e/2PACX-1vQ3e-G-M7QxR9awSBaGJGWCfFyDG4-iviiPTVLnQdeksm2cvXAjja9g-G0pt7wJ0Vn7Xl_ojKOxwEdh/pub?start=false&loop=true&delayms=60000&slide=id.g1f92c1374a_0_49
The guide is an informative introduction to SoTL research. It is well-organized in an interactive open access google booklet. Key ethical issues are highlighted, along with logistics, data collection, and more helpful considerations for structuring and conducting research in the field.
Elgie, S. (2014). Researching Teaching & Student Outcomes in Postsecondary Education: An Introduction. Second edition. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Control Council of Ontario. Retrieved from http://www.heqco.ca/SiteCollectionDocuments/Research%20Guide%20II%202014.pdf
This is a helpful resource with high level SoTL research considerations. It is most helpful when read after establishing a base understanding of teaching and learning research. This extensive resource covers research with human participants (Tri-Council policies) more generally, vulnerability and risk, and includes helpful fictionalized anecdotes that contextualize key ethical issues in SoTL.
Fedoruk, L. (2017). Ethics in the scholarship of teaching and learning: Key principles and strategies for ethical practice. Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning Guide Series. Calgary, AB: Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning at the University of Calgary. www.ucalgary.ca/taylorinstitute/guides
The Taylor Institute-developed booklet is a comprehensive guide to research in SoTL in Canada. It is an introduction to conducting ethical SoTL research, and includes important considerations for informing students, conducting focus groups, involving third parties, etc. It also discusses possible benefits for students engaging in SoTL research as participants.
Fenton, N., Szala-Meneok, K. (2010) Research on Teaching and Learning Guidebook. Eds.
Marquis, B. McMaster University Centre for Leadership in Learning.
Developed by the MacPherson institute (formerly Centre for Leadership in Learning), this guide is comprehensive and McMaster specific. Of particular interest, suggestions for translating research for the classroom and beyond are included. This guide would be most helpful for those less familiar with SoTL research and ethics but would be beneficial for researchers of any level looking to conduct SoTL research at McMaster.
Martin, R. (2013) Navigating the IRB: THe Ethics of SoTL. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 136, https://doi.org/10.1002/tl.20076
This excerpted chapter discusses Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) as they apply to SoTL. It describes when SoTL projects must receive IRB approval and why, the review process, and special issues of concern. It also discusses some current issues relating to ethical SoTL research and the challenges of working in such a new field of research.
MacLean, M., & Poole, G. (2010). An Introduction to Ethical Considerations for Novices to Research in Teaching and Learning in Canada. The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 1 (2). http://dx.doi.org/10.5206/cjsotl-rcacea.2010.2.7
This article addresses the complex relationships in teaching and learning research and proposes principles for ethical SoTL research. The value of SoTL research is discussed along with the potential risks unique the unique situation this field occupies. Maclean and Poole’s article would be most helpful for those familiar with SoTL research who want to explore ethical implications of their work and the field more deeply.
McGinn, M.K. (2018). Teaching and Researching Ethics: Guidance for Instructors-Researchers, Educational Developers, and Research Ethics Personnel. The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 9 (1). https://doi.org/10.5206/cjsotl-rcacea.2018.1.2
Surveys ethical considerations for SoTL research, particularly for faculty conducting research with their own students or through their own teaching practices. Topics include use of third-parties, risk, undue influence, and copyright infringement. Logistical ideas like crediting participants for their contributions, working within close-knit programs, and evaluation methods. Consider reading this as supplementary material.