Can All Faculty Really Conduct Research Related to Their Teaching?

Although I will focus on faculty and SoTL in this post, I think the same arguments could be applied in many different contexts where people are asked to perform rigorous social science research that is generalizable beyond their specific context. I will also be vague about the background events that have informed my thinking to avoid embarrassing any of the wonderful faculty with whom I have worked.

One of the ideas central to the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) is that faculty members are all capable of conducting research related to their teaching.  I’ve had some experiences in the past couple of years as I’ve consulted with university individual faculty members and groups of faculty members that have convinced me that this idea is misleadingly simplistic and wrong in some instances.   I haven’t yet convinced my colleagues and I’m not even sure these are original thoughts but I’ve begun to think of SoTL research as having three distinct levels with different outcomes and required skills.

I believe that all faculty are capable of performing research that is intended to enhance their own teaching.  When the research is focused solely on the work of an individual faculty member, he or she is the sole judge of the quality of that research. It may even be debatable if research not intended to be generalized is SoTL work or even research; I’m not very interested in that debate because this work is still incredibly valuable and important.

When faculty are interested in engaging in research related to their teaching with the hope that the research can be easily used by other faculty members, the situation becomes more complicated.  If the research is intended to be generalized primarily to courses taught by faculty in the same discipline, the standards that will likely be applied to the research are those inherent in the discipline and familiar to the faculty researcher.

But if the research is intended to be generalized beyond the faculty researcher’s discipline then the standards that will be used to judge it are much higher and are likely to come from outside his or her discipline.  Since learning is a social endeavor, the standards that should be applied are those from social science such as educational assessment and measurement.

Focus Evaluation standards
Individual faculty teaching Individual faculty researcher’s standards
Courses within the discipline Disciplinary standards
Courses across disciplines Social science standards

This is not a purely theoretical idea.  Nor is this a craven attempt to justify my education and experiences and ensure that faculty developers, assessment experts, and measurement researchers will continue to have jobs.    This has helped me understand why some of the faculty with whom I have worked have struggled to conduct research related to their teaching: they have tried to work on a level above their expertise, experience, and even vocabulary.  Since we were still operating under the belief that all faculty are capable of conducting all kinds of research related to their teaching, we were not providing them with all of the right kinds of support.

As a social scientist and an educational researcher, I believe that although all faculty can perform some research related to their teaching, only some faculty can perform research related to everyone’s teaching.  Although all faculty are capable of figuring out for themselves what is acceptable evidence, it takes more experience to understand discipline-wide standards and particular skills to understand standards that are acceptable across many (or all) disciplines.  So when we work with faculty – graduate teaching assistants, adjuncts, instructors, or tenure-track faculty – who want (or are being required) to conduct SoTL research, we must ensure that they have the skills and experience appropriate for the kind of research they are trying to conduct.  Otherwise they can become frustrated, overwhelmed, and distrusting of SoTL work altogether.