Searching the Literature

What research already exists that is relevant to my SoTL study?

by Colleen M. Kuusinen, Assistant Director for SoTL


SoTL projects are always situated in what we know about teaching and learning as well as the discipline. Vanderbilt's Center for Teaching and Learning has a comprehensive SoTL-specific research guide that is a gold mine of information (also UGA library's own resource guide for searching the educational literature). Highlighted here a few of the most important things from theses guide as well as a few tips that have helped other SoTL researchers find their way: which educational databases to search, how to identify relevant search terms, and a brief orientation to higher education and SoTL journals

One tip: I recommend deciding now how and when you want to share your SoTL work. Two things get me to complete a study: 1) a deadline and 2) a collaborator. The deadline usually comes from a teaching and learning conference (see our selected list of teaching conferences and also Kennesaw's database of teaching conferences), and the collaborator usually comes from people I've met at conferences, too. So choose that conference now, and then backwards plan to create a realistic timeline.

Educational databases

As indicated on the Vanderbilt SoTL research guide, three good databases to start with are ERIC, Proquest (Education), and Web of Science. ERIC is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education and indexes from 1966-present; Proquest's Education database includes over 1,000 full-text journals and 18,000 dissertations; and Web of science has a broader, cross-disciplinary appeal and indexes from 1900-present.

ERIC is usually a good source for conference proceedings compared to other databases, yet it is still important to know what search terms to use when exploring these databases. 

Search terms

It's good practice to try many different search terms related to your area of inquiry, framework for teaching and learning, or methodology in order to find relevant literature. Moreover, trying search terms at different levels of specificity may be helpful. For example, the term "active learning" covers a broad range of simple, short teaching strategies (e.g., writing to learn, or think-pair-shares) to more complex teaching pedagogies (e.g., case-based learning, project-based learning). In July 2017, searching ERIC for the term "active learning" yielded 7,685 results with an incredible range of foci: faculty perceptions of active learning, the impact of active learning on student teachers' competence, how to get active in large lectures, whether peer interaction is necessary for active learning.... so, narrowing your focus can help you find more relevant literature. A few ways to narrow your focus are:

While narrowing your focus is helpful, avoid getting to narrow. There are many studies done in K-12 schools or in different disciplines that might be useful to your study.

 Of course, the best method to finding relevant literature is to pour over the reference lists from articles that you have found that are relevant to your area of inquiry, methodology, or framework for teaching and learning. 

Higher Education and SoTL journals

There are an incredible number of higher education journals: over 700 at last count. Here are a few of our favorites, as well as some extensive databases provided by other institutions. 

Once you've conducted a literature review, the next step is to design your study