What to know about SoTL at MRU
Teaching and learning research benefits students and professors
Mount Royal’s Institute for Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISoTL) is playing an important role in national and international academic realms. It is helping move the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning community, commonly referred to as SoTL, into a new era. MRU recently co-hosted the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISSOTL) Conference, which was attended by more than 600 delegates from 24 countries around the world who converged in Calgary to listen to keynotes, presentations and new research in the SoTL field.
What is SoTL?
Simply put, SoTL is research about teaching and learning in the post-secondary context. Michelle Yeo, the director of ISoTL at MRU, says that while some people may find SoTL a bit abstract, it’s highly practical and relates directly to the classrooms at Mount Royal and the type of work MRU professors care about.
“SoTL draws in folks that are teaching subjects like history, science and business and have their own research background, but become interested in teaching and learning problems and practice. They want to conduct inquiry into their classrooms about the best way to teach the discipline, how students understand or struggle with materials and how to transform teaching and learning in higher education.”
I think we're ready! Excited to co-host #ISSOTL17 next week! (See! I'm tweeting!)— Michelle Yeo (@michelleryeo) October 8, 2017
Jeff Owen, who is currently a medical education student at the University of Calgary and is a SoTL research assistant at MRU, says that what stands out to him about SoTL is the attention to the student perspective and the care that faculty take to see if educational interventions can benefit students.
“I think it’s easy when you get to the university setting for faculty to say, ‘This is our understanding of it and this is how we do it,’ but to actually take the time to reflect and look for new perspectives and ways to improve ― that’s a big strength of SoTL.”
What does MRU’s SoTL Institute do?
ISoTL was established at MRU in 2008, growing from a director who consulted on a part-time basis to having a full-time director and a brand-new dedicated space on the third floor of the Riddell Library and Learning Centre. Yeo says that having their own physical space will further assist the Institute in building capacity. Full-time staff members consist of Yeo and a coordinator, and there are usually two or three faculty members engaged annually as associates, who assist and conduct workshops. The role of the Institute is to support researchers who are conducting SoTL research, to promote the work they do, to provide funding and grants and to support the development of new scholars.
Student SoTL involvement
While most MRU faculty know about the Institute, Yeo said it would be great if students were more aware. As ISoTL projects focus on student teaching and learning and are meant to improve their experience, it is a perfect fit for students who want to get involved as research assistants. Yeo says that once students have an opportunity to learn more about ISoTL or attend a teaching and learning conference, they are often really surprised and engaged.
Sarah Webb is a third-year education student at MRU who is currently a research assistant with Yeo. They are studying concept mapping in nursing as a way to visualize ideas. Webb is in Mount Royal’s Bachelor of Education ― Education program, and is interested in becoming a professor. She reached out to MRU to see if there were any research opportunities and was connected to Yeo. They began their research in the winter of 2016 and continue to conduct interviews with nursing students and investigate learning styles. The concept maps utilize material students learn in one course and transfer it to the next.
“We know that making connections makes learning meaningful, relevant and easier to remember,” says Webb. “In the past, their learning would be recorded in a more linear fashion, as opposed to being more interconnected.”
Webb says that being involved in the research and having the opportunity to attend the ISSOTL conference and even present a poster, has helped her as a student and also as an emerging teacher. “I enjoy seeing how things work in an entirely different discipline and why it works for that discipline and I relate it back to my own learning.”
What was ISSOTL?
The 2017 ISSOTL Conference took place from Oct. 11 to 14 in Calgary, and was co-hosted by MRU and the U of C. The international conference is held annually in different countries around the world, and previous ISoTL directors put in a bid to have it in Calgary. Yeo said it was high stakes due to the level of commitment required and the fact that key players in the worldwide SoTL movement were attending. The event comes after several years of behind-the-scenes planning and Yeo says that organizers were really pleased with how it turned out.
“There was a great energy at the conference. To some degree, it was our partnership with the U of C, but it was also reflective of the energy in the SoTL field right now. SoTL is moving into a new phase and finding its feet in a lot of ways, and that was reflected in the quality of presentations and keynotes.”
Some of the lively conversation and learnings can be seen on Twitter using the hashtag #ISSOTL17, where participants shared thoughts and ideas and also photos they took while exploring the Rockies. The next ISSOTL Conference will be held in Bergen, Norway in October 2018 and the organizers were at the Calgary conference, observing and taking notes. Owen also attended the conference and said what stood out was how people from different disciplines could come together and contribute different ideas, yet all be so receptive to understanding new perspectives in order to improve their own research.
“That’s kind of the theme of SoTL ― this common understanding across disciplines and the willingness to listen and learn.”
The future of ISoTL at MRU Yeo says her goal for MRU’s ISoTL is to become the leading institute of its kind in Canada and that they are well on their way. “I think we are known for our work in this area. Because of our mandate as a teaching-focused institution, this fits so well with our core mission and it’s very fertile ground for people involved in SoTL.
“People work here because they care so much about their classrooms and their students. It’s also unusual to have a stand-alone SoTL institute, which we have at MRU, and it’s been really well supported with lots of opportunities.”
Dec. 1, 2017 ― Felicia Zuniga