What happens when you fail at SoTL?

By: Dr. Jill Marie McSweeney, PhD  –  Educational Developer (Graduate Studies), Dalhousie University

Feb 2017 Blog Post ImageI began my journey into SoTL with an image of myself, a budding scholar in my new discipline of education, approaching my first lone expedition into the scholarship of my teaching. I wasn’t too nervous, after all I was traveling with my well-informed disciplinary research backpack and I worked at a teaching center where I engaged with SoTL literature regularly. On paper, I had everything prepared for a successful project.

Throughout the course of 2015-2016 I pulled out all my “Best Practices” to complete a pre-post evaluation of our new Teaching Assistant Enrichment Program. Leaning on my social science research experience, I decided to plan my project in a way that should allow me to ‘optimize’ recruitment numbers, decrease bias, and not jeopardize students’ learning. Not only would I step away from the project once the year began – to ensure students didn’t feel their responses would bias their standings in our program – but I would rely on other ‘tricks’ I had learned throughout my research career:

  • A short online survey would make it accessible and easy to complete for students;
  • Jazzy research invitations that explained to students that their voices would be heard by engaging in the research was surely going to empower them and encourage participation; and
  • Warm and welcoming reminder emails at appropriately spaced out times would mean that even the busiest of students would participate.

At the end of the term I sat down to observe my bounty. ‘Letters of Completion’ were signed, sealed, and delivered, and now it was my turn to collect my ‘reward’. That was when my worst research fear came true – my sample size was not a size at all! How was I ever going to be able to talk about my SoTL success? In fact, did I even ‘do SoTL’? How could any of this work inform what I did the following year?

I slumped back in my chair and immediately coined my experience as a flop. I began doubting my ability to provide appropriate SoTL feedback and guidance to the students and faculty I engaged with through my work- ‘I mean, Jill, if you can’t do it how can you help others?’ I went through hours of “What if” internal dialogue, telling myself not what I ‘could’ have done, but what I ‘should’ have done. I don’t imagine that my experience is abnormal. In fact, in attending conferences such as EDC, STLHE, or our local Association of Atlantic Universities Teaching Showcase, I often listen to the stories or engage in discussions with fellow SoTL’ers about the ups and downs of conducting research on our teaching and students’ learning. But the more I’ve thought about my experience with this project, the more I realized that my idea of effective SoTL is grounded in my own idea of what’s success in my disciplinary research, and that perhaps this experience wasn’t a dud.

We discuss the outcomes of SoTL often in terms of significant values, sample sizes, or the representation of our participants and generalizability of our results. But that means that in our worst-case scenarios, when a bump happens and these aren’t present in our work, we are left with little to gauge our success on. Just because I didn’t have enough data, did my work not produce outcomes that were beneficial to my own growth as a scholar, teacher, and learner? Why should I force myself to disregard the intrinsic value of my experience just because my written outcomes were not achieved? (And let us all admit that we rarely write out our own personal learning outcomes when we do research.)

In 2014, SoTL Canada posted a blog by Carolyn Hoessler and Wenona Partridge, in which they ask those that engage in SoTL what we experience1. While I don’t want to diminish the importance of good SoTL, I do want to promote the idea that “SoTL flops” are still valuable- not just to the researcher, but also to your students and colleagues. Our experience of SoTL should not be limited to the research outcomes and results, our experience and goals should include what we’ve learned from not being successful. We should encourage discourse around these unfortunate events so that new and experienced SoTL’ers can gain comfort and confidence in their work – regardless of if it met the intended outcomes.

Standing back and reflecting on my project, I realize now that I can take this experience into my work – both helping others succeed, plan, and gain confidence in their SoTL, but also in developing, conducting, and experiencing my own SoTL work. I can look back and say that while I had checked all the appropriate research planning boxes, I couldn’t account for all the realities of doing research. And that’s okay because I’m going to get back up and continue with both my teaching and my SoTL work. While on paper my project might not have been a success, looking deeper I see that I experienced the realities of SoTL and truths about conducting research in my own classroom, and that makes this anything but a ‘flop’ in my mind. So, I continue my SoTL expedition, my backpack weathered from the results of my recent SoTL project, but my map showing a new (and exciting) route on my adventure.

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