Introduction to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL)

A brief introduction to the scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL)

What is SoTL?

If you have ever reflected on your students' examination answers on your course – and let your reflection guide you to some changes – then you have engaged in SoTL.

  • The student exam scripts are evidence of learning
  • Your reflection is research
  • And your action is a research outcome


You might ask:

  • Are the examination scripts the best evidence for what teaching has achieved? Do they tell me what I need to know about the effectiveness of my teaching and the student experience?
  • Is my reflection informed by some knowledge of what works in teaching and learning (as it would be in my discipline research)?
  • Do I know enough about how students learn in order to respond effectively to the evidence I have - or am I tinkering with outdated approaches or folk-theories that are known to be ineffective?

You may at this point ask another question: do I have the time? The answer is yes: somewhere along the spectrum of SoTL you have the time to make a difference. The figure shows the SoTL spectrum:

A Venn Diagram showing the relationship between the University, Research, Teaching, Pedagogical Research, Pedagogical Development and SoTL

At one end of the SoTL spectrum are the teaching-focussed academics, part of whose job is to engage with pedagogical research (PedR) and disseminate the results to their Departments and the wider higher education community. At the other end the minimal engagement might be a sufficient interest in SoTL to understand how and why new approaches to teaching are pursued and to be prepared to go along with these.

For example, in Physics at Leicester the transition from traditional chalk and talk to student-centred learning in the core programme was developed by a small subset of staff but is delivered by all.

Doing SoTL

So you can think of the SoTL process something like this (from UNSW):

A cycle showing how the four processes: Plan, Implement, Evaluate and Reflect work together to support SoTL

Levels of SoTL

The idea of teaching and learning in higher education as a subject of scholarship was first proposed by Boyer in 1990 in Chapter 2 of a report for the Carnegie Institute. Boyer identified SoTL as the fourth branch in addition to Discovery of New Knowledge (usually called Research), Research of Existing Knowledge across disciplines (Boyer called it Integration), and Application to consequential problems (or, now more commonly, Engagement).

In the hands of academic scholars this has expanded to incorporate several levels. The use of "levels" in promotion criteria has given this an evaluative flavour (like stars in REF). This is unfortunate because it should be descriptive, allowing scholars to contribute excellent work at any level. We have amended the following table from The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (2006) (based on Glassick et al (1997)) to reflect this non-judgemental approach:

Small ScaleIntermediate ScopeWide-ranging
Goals Well-articulated and intentional Innovative Articulates new goals
Preparation Based upon prior scholarship Broad synthesis of prior work Scholar acquires new skills
Methods Follows standard conventions Full range of methods Generates new methods
Evidence of impact Evidence appropriate to the discipline and scope of the project Evidence supports broader implementation Evidence suggests significant impact in the field
Reflection Lessons learnt are articulated Lessons learnt are implemented Lessons learnt generate enhanced achievement
Dissemination Publicly accessible for use Cited by others Broad impact on work of others

Learning about SoTL

You now know enough to get started, but should you wish to learn more you may like to visit:

The Vanderbilt Center for Teaching's Guide to SoTL:

A Higher Education Academy study into SoTL:


Boyer, E. (1990). Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. [Stanford, Calif.]: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

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