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The scholarship of teaching and learning, five years on

The concept is gaining traction in Canada but has not yet become “the kind of national movement that we’d hoped”.

BY LÉO CHARBONNEAU | AUG 16 2010

Five years ago this past spring, about 100 university and college administrators met at University of Toronto at Scarborough for the first national symposium in Canada on the scholarship of teaching and learning, or SOTL. One of the speakers that day was Richard Gale, then senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in Stanford, California. A highly regarded expert in the field, Dr. Gale explained to attendees what SOTL is, why it’s important to academe and what administrators can do to support it in their institutions.

Five years later, Mr. Gale now calls Canada home, having been appointed director this past January of Mount Royal University’s Institute for Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. One of his first priorities in his new position was to organize another national symposium to explore how SOTL has progressed in Canada since that first gathering.

Billed as the 2010 Canadian Leadership Forum on Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, the event attracted, again, about 100 senior faculty and administrators to the Mount Royal campus in May.  Opening the proceedings, Dr. Gale noted that most faculty members are interested in tips and techniques to improve their teaching. However, for these efforts to be properly considered as scholarship, they need to be investigated in a methodical way, analyzed, peer-reviewed, disseminated and built upon.

The SOTL concept was launched in 1990 in the seminal work by Carnegie Foundation president Ernest Boyer, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities for the Professoriate. In it, he challenged university administrators to embrace and promote this type of scholarship as an important component of faculty work. Dr. Boyer saw this as essential to improving the quality of faculty teaching and student learning.

Dr. Gale told the Calgary forum that while SOTL is far more widespread now in Canada than it was five years ago, it is still occurring mainly in “pockets” and has not yet become “the kind of national movement that we’d hoped.”

Teresa Dawson, who organized the original symposium at U of T Scarborough and is now director of the Learning and Teaching Centre at University of Victoria, agreed with Dr. Gale’s assessment: “We’re progressing, but not fast enough.” However, “I think it’s probably better on the ground than we think. There is a danger of being too negative when we don’t need to be,” she said. At some institutions, “the story is really, really good.”

At the national level, the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education has identified SOTL as one of its strategic directions, noted Joy Mighty, president of the society and director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning at Queen’s University.  The society just launched the Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning and recently published Taking Stock: Research on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.

The latter was based on presentations at a symposium in April 2008 sponsored by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. HEQCO is a major supporter of research on teaching and learning in Ontario – the only provincial body in Canada funding this type of work in a sustained way.

Yet, an image problem persists. Maureen Mancuso, vice-president, academic, at the University of Guelph, when asked if faculty members at her institution are aware of SOTL, responded, “Not so much.” Fred Evers, until recently director of Guelph’s Teaching Support Services Centre, added, “There is a small core of people who are really getting on the bandwagon, but it’s not widespread through faculty, no.”

In the current era of tight budgets, Dr. Gale said one way to support SOTL is to align it with other initiatives already occurring at one’s institution. This includes large-scale institutional assessment exercises like the National Survey of Student Engagement, or NSSE, that dozens of Canadian universities participate in annually.

NSSE director Alexander McCormick of Indiana University and colleague Thomas Laird were on hand to demonstrate how NSSE data can be used for SOTL projects. “Scholarship of teaching and learning and institutional assessment activities have a lot in common, but I think they are rarely in conversation,” said Dr. McCormick.

The lack of funding for SOTL activities was cited numerous times at the symposium as a barrier to moving forward. The funding issue “must become a priority in the next few years if we are to move this beyond a kind of minor guerilla operation,” commented Pierre Zundel, president of the University of Sudbury. He also said it’s important to integrate SOTL into an “overall culture that is supportive of high-quality teaching” and to recognize this type of scholarship in the tenure and promotion process – a view echoed by many in Calgary.

Dr. Dawson at UVic said that without funding from the three major federal granting agencies, “I don’t think it gets national traction.” She did note, however, that the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council has funded a number of projects that “look like SOTL, even if they’re not labeled that.”

The University of Victoria offers about a dozen grants each year of $7,500 apiece to fund SOTL activities, said Dr. Dawson. Of roughly 800 full-time faculty members, between 50 and 75 are actively engaged in this type of scholarship, she estimated. Dr. Gale said his goal at Mount Royal is to have 100 scholars of teaching and learning within the next five years in a faculty that, by then, should be around 250 to 300.

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