Take a Scientific Approach to Your Teaching, Part 1

Take a Scientific Approach to Your Teaching, Part 1

Today we’ll look at why and how you might want to study your own teaching, and how to choose a topic to focus on. Part 1 of a two-part series.

SoTL Overview: Approach Teaching Like a Scientist

I am a teacher: a teacher who would like to be an even better teacher. I am also a behavioral scientist, and so I believe that science is one of our most powerful tools for gaining insight into how things work and, sometimes, how they might work even better. Yet for most of my journey as a teacher, I have failed to apply my scientific training to improving my teaching abilities.

I’m sure I am not alone: I’d bet that most of us who teach, even those of us who teach science, take an approach to teaching that is decidedly unscientific. We try techniques that are recommended by colleagues or in books, that we read on the internet, or dreamed up in the shower. And how do we know that these techniques work? Usually based on whether it felt “good” to use them. If students smiled or seemed energized, we might use them again. If students fell asleep or looked confused or disengaged, then we might not.

These aren’t necessarily bad methods for assessing new techniques, but the tools of science offer a more systematic and reliable way of knowing whether our teaching practices work. The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, often abbreviated SoTL, is essentially the science of classroom practices. Any part of classroom practices and student behavior can be a question for SoTL research. Why don’t students attend class? What is the best way to use powerpoint to boost learning? Does rapport with the professor matter? Do clickers actually help my students learn? Will putting my lectures online help or hurt my students’ performance?

We can look to research to help us teach better. Most disciplines have specialized journals that publish research on teaching and learning in that field, and there are books that summarize research on teaching and learning practices. But for SoTL to grow and be more useful, we need teachers to not only pay attention to and consume such research, we need them to be active producers of it.

Contributing to SoTL need not be difficult. Psychologist Janie Wilson offered some practical advice for how to do this at a recent talk at the Fourth Annual Stanford Psychology One Conference. This is a teaching conference dedicated to the teaching of introductory psychology and sponsored by Stanford’s Psychology One Program, Psychology Department, and the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning. Janie Wilson is a professor at Georgia Southern University and a long-time SoTL researcher, having written articles and edited many books on the topic. She is also the president-elect of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology.

Wilson’s full presentation is available to view at Stanford Talks: https://talks.stanford.edu/psychology/psych-one-annual-conference/, and her advice for how to get started doing SoTL is summarized in the sections that follow here and in my next post


What to Study?

Where does one even begin to do research in SoTL? There are many ways to get started.

  • Turn a frustration into an opportunity: What is the last thing you or a colleague complained about regarding teaching? A recent or ongoing frustration might be precisely the issue to read up on and tackle in designing your own research project.

  • Retest a published method: Take a technique that was shown to work in a published study and test it out in your own course. Often, the effectiveness of teaching methods can depend dramatically on context, so attempting to replicate others’ findings can provide valuable information.

  • Test out that “great” new idea: Do you have an idea for a technique you think would improve your classroom? Test whether it actually works.

Next up: we’ll look at ways to study your teaching and the ethical considerations of your research.


Bridgette Hard, Ph.D. headshot Bridgette Hard, Ph.D. is a cognitive psychologist and the Coordinator of the Psychology One Program at Stanford.



See Also

Garung, R.A.R. & Wilson, J.H. (2014). Doing the scholarship of teaching and learning: Measuring systematic changes to teaching and improvements in learning. New Directions in Teaching and Learning, No. 136. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


What is the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning? with Mary Huber

A three-part series by expert Mary Huber on SoTL and its life at Stanford.

Assessing learning in informal science programs

A survey of methods to assess learning when students are doing science outdoors.

Everyday Practice and Enduring Mystery

Coverage of a 2014 Stanford forum on teaching and learning as complex systems.