Thursday, March 30, 2017

Exploring the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning with Janice Miller-Young

Exploring the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning with Janice Miller-Young
How do you know that your research is good, a theory holds up, or an idea is worth pursuing? In the world of academia, your peers will let you know. Academic work is constantly being reviewed and tested – after all, the academy is a place of learning and discovery.

Take, for example, an Engineering professor who wishes to enter into the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL). How might she start the deep educational dive if that particular area of inquiry is somewhat removed from her world of biomechanics? If you’re Janice Miller-Young, you find a new friend. “When I decided that I was interested in this as a line of research, I knew as an Engineer that I didn’t have the experience, or even the awareness of some of the research methods and approaches that I might use, so I made friends with somebody from Education” she explained as we chatted in her office.

As the new Director of the University of Alberta’s Centre for Teaching and Learning, Miller-Young’s office is open and welcoming, much like the centre and the area of scholarship that she is energized to champion. The mix of education developers, assessment specialists, blended learning producers, and educators who pass by, in, and out of Miller-Young’s office embody the interdisciplinary foundations of SOTL; they come from different academic backgrounds, but all hold a common desire to expand the average PSE instructor’s teaching toolkit.

For many lecturers, that toolkit has held the traditional mechanisms that you might expect: trusty lecture notes; well-timed power points; a couple of exams or assignments that have stood the test of time; maybe even a good pun that always produces a chuckle in the lecture hall. But, Miller-Young knows that the kit can hold more.

Student feedback is just one additional tool that could prove helpful. This should include the comments that you might find in an USRI, but it should also include the student to student conversations that take place in class as they work through problems and talk in class. As Miller-Young explains, it’s about “making their learning process visible.” Adding this tool allows instructors, Miller-Young included, to make real-time adjustments to their teaching methods, all with the goal of meeting the course’s learning objectives. This practice also allows those interested in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning to conduct their research, since the testing of content delivery methods, paired with the student feedback, can allow scholars to triangulate the best means for teaching their subjects. So while teaching their students, adherents of SOTL must also be willing learners themselves.

For SOTL to really take off then, the findings from each individual scholar’s classroom “research” must be shared with their colleagues. That’s why it’s imperative that champions of the learning environment be found across disciplinary lines, such as those on the CTL team, or Miller-Young’s friend from Mount Royal University’s Faculty of Education. But it’s even more important that these champions be located within each discipline. “If my discipline hadn’t already been doing education research, I don’t know if I would have had the gumption to start myself,” she admitted. “It comes back to that idea of our discipline and our peers being most convincing to us. That’s why the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning is important – because it has to happen in the disciplines. It has to happen in the context of the teaching and learning of [a given] topic to convince others who are teaching that topic” to try it out. It invites and thrives with peer review.

For her part, Miller-Young is looking forward to engaging with the University of Alberta community to find the SOTL champions across our campuses, while also encouraging our instructors at large to open up and expand their tool kits. Looking to the year ahead, she’ll be arranging a series of panel presentations and workshops, and is looking forward to May 4th, when she’ll be able to join the peer to peer conversations at this year’s Festival of Teaching and Learning.

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