Getting started with your SoTL inquiry

Defining your focus

At ISoTL, we believe that SoTL practitioners are motivated by their desire to create rich learning experiences for their students. As Bass (1999) suggested, the movement of SoTL should be focused on the “ongoing investigation” of teaching practices and that the “problematization of teaching” should be seen as an invitation to engage in important questions about student learning. Bass (1999) asks: “How might we make the problematization of teaching a matter of regular communal discourse? How might we think of teaching practice, and the evidence of student learning, as problems to be investigated, analyzed, represented, and debated?”

At ISoTL, we work with faculty who see opportunities in engaging with questions that provoke deeper reflection into their teaching and learning practice. For example, the motivations for many SoTL projects often arise when instructors face an interesting problem or trend in their classrooms such as students who are not retaining particular concepts, experiencing low motivation, or simply because they’d like to investigate a novel pedagogy, technology or approach to their teaching. So how does one begin to define their focus of inquiry?

A helpful framework is Hutchings’ (2000) Taxonomy of Questions for SoTL. Her three areas of questions include:

  • What works?
  • What is?
  • What might be?

For example, in thinking about “what works?” you may be asking questions like: Do students retain content knowledge when they are engaged in experiential learning activities? Do i-clickers in the classroom improve student motivation to attend class? “What is?” questions might lead you to ask: What prior knowledge do students bring to education courses? What makes biology classes unique in how they engage students in labs? Finally, “what might be” questions may prompt you to consider the possibilities of engaging in a new pedagogy or framework in your teaching. For example: How might a module on student well-being improve the student experience in a nursing course? How might reflective writing in a pharmacy course invite students to empathize with patients?

Thinking about practice, impact and context 

At ISoTL, we also encourage instructors to consider the “bigger picture” of an inquiry. The focus of your inquiry may be specific to your area of research and discipline but also may be something new you’d like to explore in a course you are teaching. This bigger picture includes areas of practice, impact and context.

Practice: questions about practice prompt you to consider what you are doing in your classroom that you’d like to evaluate. Examples may include:

  • A type of group activity
  • Homework assignments
  • Community engagement
  • Student as producers of knowledge
  • Undergraduate research projects

Impact: questions about impact prompt you to consider what you are targeting in your inquiry. Examples may include:

  • Achievement
  • Motivation, attitudes
  • Attrition
  • General learning skills, meta-cognition

Context: questions about impact prompt you to consider where you would like to implement your project. For example, you may want to do your project inside the classroom, or decide to go outside of the university into community based settings. You may also want to consider:

  • Course level / program
  • # of students
  • Modality
  • Student background

Designing your inquiry/research question(s): 

Asking meaningful questions about your teaching practice(s) is an important step in getting started. Ask yourself: what is working well and what challenges have you faced in your classroom? Have you noticed a student behaviour you’d like to understand better? Are there any pedagogies or technologies that might further inform how you approach your teaching? How could they be brought into your particular teaching context? What could you learn from working with other instructors?

Remember to narrow down any big questions you may be interested in. This is because big questions and issues are hard to tackle and discern. They also tend to require more resources (i.e. time, funds). Try to break down big questions into smaller components by starting with the pieces you most care to find out. Remember that the focus should be the understanding of a teaching/learning experience. Aim for questions for which it is possible to find responses through collectable data within a reasonable timeline. Finally, ask yourself: Is it SMART? (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time bound?).

Other things to consider when designing your SoTL inquiry questions:

  • Is there any literature that explores a similar problem/question? What does this literature say about it, and how might it support you in designing your inquiry?
  • Seek out some feedback on your question(s) from peers and other colleagues. They may have some insight as to how to narrow your focus, or perhaps to include other areas of investigation to your inquiry. It is common practice to rework your inquiry questions many times before you get them right!


When planning your project, it is important to consider questions such as: How are you going to frame your question(s) in a way that will make your inquiry inclusive? Who might be potentially excluded from participating in your inquiry? Are there good reasons for including/excluding particular students? Is there a way to make this inquiry accessible to all students/participants? How might your presence as an instructor impact students’ decision(s) to participate?


Asking Inquiry Questions 

Additional Resources: 

  • Bishop-Clark, C., & Dietz-Uhler, B. (2012). Engaging in the scholarship of teaching and learning: A guide to the process, and how to develop a project from start to finish. Stylus Publishing, LLC..
  • Hutchings, Pat. (2000). Introduction: Approaching the scholarship of teaching and learning. In Pat Hutchings (Ed.), Opening lines: Approaches to the scholarship of teaching and learning (pp. 1-10).
  • SoTL: Generating your research question
  • SoTL planning worksheet