Getting Started with SoTL

What kinds of topics can I investigate when designing my own SoTL study? 


Like all good research, a SoTL study begins with an observation of a phenomenon. In this case, this phenomenon has been happening in your classroom(s). Perhaps you’re unsure why it’s happening, or maybe you’re pretty sure you can explain why – but have you systematically collected data to support your explanation? Are you relying on largely anecdotal evidence, perhaps without realizing it?

If you don't have an idea for a study yet, here are two questions you might ask yourself to begin the brainstorming process:

  1. In your teaching, describe a strategy, activity or learning sequence you feel strongly “works” or “doesn’t work.” What reason(s) do you have for reaching this conclusion? What evidence would you need to prove to your department chair once and for all that this strategy does or does not work so that it can be widely adopted or abandoned?
  2. Think about a moment or moments in your teaching where you were perplexed, confused, intrigued, or maybe even shocked about something related to your students’ thinking, learning and/or your teaching that made your curious to know more. Describe the moment and what you want to know more about and why.

These two questions speak to two simple categories into which SoTL scholar Pat Hutchings divides SoTL studies: 1) What works? and 2) What is happening? (Hutchings, 2000).  

'What works' studies are those that seek to collect evidence on the effectiveness of particular instructional strategies for particular instructional goals. Although Hutchings calls them, “What works,” I find it useful to ask “What works for what instructional goal?” to help clarify the intended goal of the strategy and better focus our research (Cohen, Raudenbush, & Ball, 2003). The instructional goal in these studies might be looking at student learning goals, but there might also be other outcomes of interest such as increase students’ self-regulatory skills, fostering a disciplinary way of thinking, or increasing students’ capabilities to ask good questions. Two examples of what works studies in psychology and physics are:

Bernstein, D., & Greenhoot, A. F. (2014). Team-Designed Improvement of Writing and Critical Thinking in Large Undergraduate Courses. Teaching & Learning Inquiry, 2(1), 39–61.

Gingerich, K. J., Bugg, J. M., Doe, S. R., Rowland, C. A., Richards, T. L., Tompkins, S. A., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Active Processing via Write-to-Learn Assignments: Learning and Retention Benefits in Introductory Psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 41(4), 303–308.

'What is happening' studies are driven by your desire to better understand something happening in your classroom or among your students. It seeks to make visible what was previously invisible or covered. It’s digging deeper into a problem of teaching. Teaching is rife with problems because of the nature of teaching (Lampert, 2003). Problems are nothing to be ashamed of; they are points of focus that are ripe for scholarly inquiry (Bass, 1999).  Two examples of “What is happening” studies in are:

Bowering, M., Leggett, B. M., Harvey, M., & Hui, L. (2007). Opening up Thinking: Reflections on Group Work in a Bilingual Postgraduate Program. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 19(2), 105–116.

Ciccone, A. A., Meyers, R. A., & Waldmann, S. (2008). What’s So Funny? Moving Students Toward Complex Thinking in a Course on Comedy and Laughter. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 7(3), 308–322.

Once you brainstormed and found a problem worth investigating, you are reading for the next step: searching the literature.



Bass, R. (1999). The Scholarship of Teaching: What’s the Problem? Inventio: Creative Thinking About Learning and Teaching, 1(1).

Cohen, D. K., Raudenbush, S. W., & Ball, D. L. (2003). Resources, Instruction, and Research. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 25(2).

Hutchings, P. (2000). Opening lines: Approaches to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. Menlo Park, CA: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Lampert, M. (2003). Teaching Problems and the Problems of Teaching. Yale University Press.