Types of Research Questions

What types of research questions comprise a typical SoTL study?

by Colleen M. Kuusinen, Assistant Director for SoTL


SoTL scholar Pat Hutchings (2000) divides SoTL studies into four types*, the most common of which are What works? and What is happening? studies.

'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. https://doi.org/10.2979/teachlearninqu.2.1.39

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. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628314549701

'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, like student thinking. 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:

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. https://doi.org/10.1177/1474022208094414

Manarin, K. (2016). Interpreting Undergraduate Research Posters in the Literature Classroom. Teaching and Learning Inquiry, 41(1). https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.20343/teachlearninqu.4.1.8

Once you have 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). DOI: https://doi.org/10.3102/01623737025002119

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.


* The third and fourth types of studies Hutchings identified are "theory-building" and "visions of the possible." If you're a more advanced SoTL scholar and interested in these types of studies, please schedule an individual consultation by emailing our Assistant Director for SoTL