What is SoTL? for explorer

SoTL is a growing movement in post-secondary education that uses systematic, deliberate and methodological inquiry into student learning in order to improve teaching. Its methodology disseminates findings beyond a single course and mobilizes knowledge.

The field of SoTL aims to take teaching beyond a well-rehearsed practice into a scholarly activity, one that engages the instructor in careful planning, evaluation and dissemination. SoTL uses a range of methodologies and builds on disciplinary practices and epistemologies.

One of the defining features of SoTL is the systematic study of teaching practices and learning experiences. Hubball and colleagues (2013) suggested this systematic study requires an approach that “internalizes theory and practice” through “rigorous and cyclical process of inquiry.”

SoTL involves

  • asking meaningful questions about student learning, and about the teaching activities designed to facilitate student learning,
  • answering those questions by making relevant student learning visible to gather evidence of thinking and learning, and then systematically analyzing this evidence, and
  • sharing the results of that analysis publicly to invite peer review, and to contribute to broader bodies of knowledge on student learning , and
  • aiming to improve student learning by strengthening the practice of teaching (one’s own and others’).

We say that SoTL brings a scholarly approach because it begins with intellectual curiosity, is conducted deliberately and systematically, is grounded in an analysis of relevant evidence, and results in findings shared with peers to be reviewed and to expand a knowledge base.

You may wonder how SoTL is different from other forms of scholarly teaching. For example, discipline based educational research (DBER), or education research (ER) is often confused with SoTL. And while there are similarities, there are also key differences in how, why, and where such inquiries are conducted. For instance, unlike educational research (ER) and discipline based education research (DBER), SoTL seeks to advance teaching and learning practice. It is also highly contextual, starting with the instructor’s own unique classroom experience. Theoretically, SoTL is informed by what is often referred to as the “big tent”, meaning that various theories and approaches are often utilized, unlike in ER and DBER where theories specific to education or STEM are employed.

As you navigate through the Guide, you will learn more about the key pieces of what makes a SoTL inquiry and how you can design and implement your own inquiry based on your teaching practice. If you have more questions regarding the differences between SoTL and other forms of educational inquiry, make sure to look out for our SoTL 101 workshop, which is usually offered twice a year.

Resources to get you started 

  • 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.
  • Chick, N. L. (2014). Methodologically sound’ under the ‘big tent’: An ongoing conversation. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 8(2), 1-15.
  • Dewar, J., & Perkins, K. (2021). Facilitating Faculty Getting Started in SoTL: Reflections by Two Carnegie Scholars. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 21(2), 107-120.
  • Faulconer, E., Bauer, C. F., Chan, J. Y., Koleci, C., Kowalski, E., McDonald, K.,& Gallant, D. (2021). Getting Started in SoTL Research. Journal of College Science Teaching, 50(6).
  • Francis, R. (2007). Getting Started with SoTL in Your Classroom. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 1(2), n2.
  • Felten, P. (2013). Principles of good practice in SoTL. Teaching and Learning Inquiry, 1(1), 121-125.
  • Kennedy, D. R., Beckett, R. D., & O’Donnell, L. A. (2019). Strategies, Ideas, And Lessons Learned While Getting Started in SoTL Without Formal Training. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education.
  • Kelly, N., Nesbit, S., Oliver, C. (2012). A difficult journey: Transitioning from STEM to SoTL. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 6(1), Article 18.
  • Miller-Young, J., & Yeo, M. (2015). Conceptualizing and communicating SoTL: A framework for the field. Teaching and Learning Inquiry, 3(2), 37-53.
  • O’Brien, M. (2008). Navigating the SoTL landscape: A compass, map and some tools for getting started. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching & Learning, 2(2).


Key characteristics of SoTL

The role of ethics in SoTL Research 

At ISoTL, we believe that ethics is at the heart of good SoTL projects. While not all SoTL projects require BREB approval (see video) being ethical is key to all projects – from start to finish. As you navigate our SoTL Guide, you will notice that ethics is weaved in through all the various stages. We encourage you to take time to read these suggestions carefully, as they will help to ensure that your project is being conducted in ways that cause no harm to your students. 

Resources on ethics:

Fedoruk, L. (2017). Ethics in the scholarship of teaching and learning: Key principles and strategies for ethical practice. Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning Guide Series. Calgary, AB: Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning at the University of Calgary. www.ucalgary.ca/taylorinstitute/guides

Healey, R. L., Bass, T., Caulfield, J., Hoffman, A., McGinn, M. K., Miller-Young, J., & Haigh, M. (2013). Being ethically minded: Practising the scholarship of teaching and learning in an ethical manner. Teaching & Learning Inquiry: The ISSOTL Journal, 1(2), 23-33.

Hutchings, P. (2002). Ethics of inquiry: Issues in the scholarship of teaching and learning. Menlo Park: CA. Carnegie Publications. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

MacLean, M., & Poole, G. (2010). An introduction to ethical considerations for novices to research in teaching and in Canada. Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 1(2), 1-10.