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Big Picture Pedagogy: Finding Interdisciplinary Solutions to Common Learning Problems

Regan A. R. Gurung
David J. Voelker

Number 151 • Fall 2017


San Francisco

From the Series Editor

About This Publication

Since 1980, New Directions for Teaching and Learning (NDTL) has brought a unique blend of theory, research, and practice to leaders in postsecondary education. NDTL sourcebooks strive not only for solid substance but also for timeliness, compactness, and accessibility.

The series has four goals: to inform readers about current and future directions in teaching and learning in postsecondary education, to illuminate the context that shapes these new directions, to illustrate these new directions through examples from real settings, and to propose ways in which these new directions can be incorporated into still other settings.

This publication reflects the view that teaching deserves respect as a high form of scholarship. We believe that significant scholarship is conducted not only by researchers who report results of empirical investigations but also by practitioners who share disciplinary reflections about teaching. Contributors to NDTL approach questions of teaching and learning as seriously as they approach substantive questions in their own disciplines, and they deal not only with pedagogical issues but also with the intellectual and social context in which these issues arise. Authors deal on the one hand with theory and research and on the other with practice, and they translate from research and theory to practice and back again.

About This Volume

This volume focuses on the ways in which the scholarship of teaching and learning can better think about the “big picture” of teaching and learning. Authors within this volume were part of the Wisconsin Teaching Fellows and Scholars program that is coordinated by the University of Wisconsin System's Office of Professional and Instructional Development. This gathering of different institutional and disciplinary insights into the “big picture” provides a unique perspective on the scholarly work that often occurs across institutions.

Catherine Wehlburg


“Boy, it's cold today! How cold do you think it is?” asks the English professor.

“Well, it's only 5 below but with the wind they say it's the same as 40 below,” replies the French professor.

“How do you think they figure that anyway?”

“I think they just put five people in an exposed parking lot, ask them how cold they feel, then add up the numbers and divide by five.”

“There's got to be more science to it, don't you think?”

So they find a materials engineer…

“Glad you asked that question. See, every material releases heat (in this case) at a measurable rate, depending on the ambient temperature. Assuming no turbulence around the object, this rate remains constant. Turbulence, wind in this case, serves to remove the heat around the object faster, based on an equation that takes into account the properties of that object. Hence, the object cools, or in the case of humans, feels colder, faster. Wind chill measures that faster decrease.”

“So there's an equation that involves wind speed and the release of heat from the human body, just like from any other object?”

“Not quite. See, it depends on how well the body is covered, its size and shape, how fit you are, your metabolism…”

“So some people actually feel colder than others under the same conditions?”

“Of course. The number reported on the weather is just an average.”

“Sounds like we're back to the five people in the parking lot.”

“Yes, but at least now you know how cold you should feel.”

What does it mean to measure the effectiveness of a group of pedagogical strategies (e.g., active learning), a particular methodology (e.g., problem-based learning, Universal design) or an instructional format (e.g., online courses, “flipped” classrooms)? How can we know when and how well students have learned disciplinary content (e.g., the formula for wind chill), the skills or habits of mind crucial to all disciplines (e.g., critical thinking), or even the habits of mind and heart that transcend disciplinary learning (e.g., global thinking, empathy)? How meaningful, significant, or replicable—not to mention convincing—are the results?

The scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) has encouraged everyone who has ever used a strategy, applied a methodology, taught in an unfamiliar format, or articulated learning outcomes for content, skills, and habits of mind and heart to investigate systematically his or her practices in terms of their effect on student learning. As Regan Gurung and David Voelker point out here, this broader vision of what it means to take teaching and learning seriously, and who is allowed to do it, has led to a new universe of questions, information and evidence, methods, and recommendations that is almost impossible to get one's arms around. Twenty-five years after Ernest L. Boyer's Scholarship Reconsidered, it's clearly time to try.

An interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary approach to common teaching and learning problems, as this volume proposes, would be a useful place to start and a significant addition to important recent work on SoTL in the disciplines. If we asked a team of teacher–scholars from different disciplines (or subdisciplines) to reflect on what we've learned about these problems and how we've come to this knowledge, we'd advance higher education in a number of ways.

First, we'd come to understand better the value and limits of certain pedagogies and instructional formats. Examining the results of studies obtained in a variety of disciplines, over a variety of formats and in the service of a variety of learning goals honors the importance of instructional context while increasing the reasonableness of any proposed general recommendations for practice derived from the results. It's not simply a question of finding out “what works best” but rather “what works best when and for whom.” Inter- and multidisciplinary inquiry returns the complexity of teaching and learning to what can seem to be oversimplified hypotheses and overgeneralized results that often fail to answer the “so what” question many SoTL researchers value.

Second, inter- or multidisciplinary inquiry significantly influences the nature of the questions asked, especially when teacher–scholars pose them. There is, for example, an important difference between “What are the most effective ways to teach in a ‘flipped’ classroom?” and “How do you foster deeper disciplinary learning within the ‘flipped’ classroom?” The former may show us how to do things better but it seems to enlist the teacher in the service of the pedagogy; the latter encourages us to ask a prior question about learning—what does deep disciplinary learning look like? This shift in focus broadens the audience for the work; not everyone is interested in flipping the classroom, but most of us are interested in fostering deeper disciplinary learning. Posing a learning question of interest to each of us as teachers is more likely to help us find better things to do in pursuit of a larger shared goal.

Third, inter- or multidisciplinary SoTL inquiry is both additive and transformative. Obviously, results from different disciplines—the more and the more different the better—“add up” to more convincing results and subsequent recommendations. But this isn't simply about putting more and different people in the parking lot. Of course, inter- or multidisciplinary SoTL inquiry will find a wider audience of teacher–scholars willing to listen further once they have heard language that is familiar to them. But we don't read the results of multidisciplinary SoTL work just to find echoes of our own disciplines. Multidisciplinary SoTL work can and should create Mary Huber's interdisciplinary “trading zone” of results and methods that makes it clear “we're all in this learning thing together.” At the end of the day, each of the blind men fails to identify the elephant correctly. Multidisciplinary SoTL opens our eyes to the big picture.

What is that big picture? Left to our own disciplinary devices, each of us would probably continue to ask familiar questions about familiar strategies using familiar methodologies. By encouraging a “trading zone” of methods, results, and values, as each of these chapters does, multidisciplinary SoTL work challenges us to articulate and question the limits of what our particular set of disciplinary tools (and the epistemology behind them) can produce. In that way, not only does the SoTL work reported in this volume problematize teaching and learning, it problematizes what we can ultimately know about them. What does it mean when we say we “know” something about student learning? Only inter- and multidisciplinary SoTL work can produce the rich descriptions and reasonable correlations that can inform our practice while reminding us of how much more we need to ask, learn about, and learn from our students. Big picture pedagogy and big picture epistemology require more of us in the parking lot—asking more and better questions of each other as well as our students. This volume adds significantly to that conversation.

Anthony A. Ciccone
University of Wisconsin‐Milwaukee

Preface: How Do You Find Interdisciplinary Solutions to Common Learning Problems?

One of the basic assumptions of the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) is that disciplinary experts have unique insights into what learning can and should look like in their disciplines and should therefore be empowered to conduct pedagogical research in their disciplines using primarily disciplinary methods. As a result of this approach, SoTL literature includes a breadth of work that ranges from quantitative to qualitative in its methodologies and from generalizable to context specific in its conclusions. Given the complex nature of learning, especially at the level of higher education, this broad spectrum is desirable, necessary, and useful. Unfortunately, as in the proverbial story of the blind men and the elephant, this approach does not always provide a full picture. More often than not, scholars work primarily within their own disciplines, cite journals relating to their disciplines, and write for disciplinary audiences. Furthermore, key pedagogical problems are rarely addressed from different angles and using different methodologies.

Some faculty are skilled in qualitative approaches to research design, whereas others excel at quantitative approaches. Although both approaches to knowledge creation are useful (Gurung 2014), most SoTL studies apply only one or the other. There are very few mixed-methods research designs and fewer multidisciplinary approaches to common higher education challenges. In order to understand learning in all its complexity, higher educators need perspectives from other disciplines. Most instructors and SoTL researchers across disciplines attempt to solve similar problems but often do so wearing the blinkers of their own home disciplines. All faculty want to increase student engagement and critical thinking and improve student writing. Most faculty want to design effective assignments and assessments, use technology well, and foster good student discussion. Most faculty agree that addressing Inclusive Excellence is important. But faculty rarely collaborate with peers outside their disciplines to address these issues.

The broad SoTL literature has shown that disciplines from every corner of the university have something to offer to help improve teaching and learning. In fact, SoTL naturally lends itself to interdisciplinary borrowing and collaboration. This book explores the potential of SoTL as a collaborative, interdisciplinary effort to improve higher learning. We build on existing pedagogical research and efforts to showcase SoTL across the disciplines (Chick, Haynie, and Gurung 2012; Gurung, Chick, and Haynie 2009) but take this important work in a new direction. In each chapter, interdisciplinary teams of authors address a single pedagogical question bringing each of their home discipline's specific literature and methodologies to the table. The result is a fresh examination of evidence-based practices for teaching and learning in higher education that is intentionally inclusive of faculty from different disciplines.

Faculty development programs nationwide have already been holding workshops to support SoTL, and more and faculty are interested in this area. Journals such as the International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Teaching & Learning Inquiry, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, and others publishing the results of these investigations have originated in almost every discipline, and many junior faculty are learning of the importance of SoTL for tenure and promotion. As faculty read the works of Ernest Boyer, Mary Huber, Pat Hutchings, Lee Shulman, Peter Felton, and Kathleen McKinney (to name a few of the most visible names in SoTL), they think about the classroom, whether face to face or online, as a potential site of scholarship. As a result, an increasing number of faculty are gathering, analyzing, and sharing evidence of student learning, in order both to benefit their own students and to contribute to pedagogical knowledge.

We hope that this book will be useful to faculty members who are interested in improving their own teaching and their students’ learning. By taking a closer, more systematic look at the pedagogies used within the disciplines and their impacts on student learning, the authors herein move away from more generic teaching tips and generic classroom activities and toward values, knowledge, and manner of thinking within SoTL itself. The projects discussed in each chapter, furthermore, will provide models for further research via interdisciplinary collaboration.

Our call for proposals targeted former Wisconsin Teaching Fellows & Scholars (WTF&S), participants in a yearlong, cross-disciplinary program coordinated by the University of Wisconsin System's Office of Professional and Instructional Development (OPID). OPID is a nationally recognized faculty development program with a rich history and a successful record of contributions to fostering SoTL (Chick 2012; Voelker and Martin 2013). In doing so, we hoped to capitalize on the fact that this program allows college-level instructors from across Wisconsin to carry out SoTL projects in an interdisciplinary spirit. Along the way, many fellows and scholars build collaborative relationships with colleagues from other disciplines. The program thus supplied us with a group of scholarly teachers and pedagogical researchers who already had experience with collaboration, whether formal or informal. Each of the teams includes at least one former Wisconsin Teaching Fellow or Scholar, and all of the authors at one time held faculty or staff positions within the UW System, though some have moved on.

Each of the author teams developed its own collaborative strategies. Although some met regularly face to face, others communicated mainly via telephone and email. The outcome was as varied as the teams themselves. The thirty-four authors represent over a dozen institutions and twenty fields of study, including the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and various professional programs.

This form of collaboration across academic lines posed significant challenges. Each of the disciplines has its own priorities and its own conventions for research and writing; each team had to negotiate those sorts of differences. Each team also had to engage in a deliberative process to decide what aspects and themes of the voluminous literature to emphasize and how to provide concrete examples of proven practices. In many cases, our authors found that they needed to learn more about each other's disciplines. The resulting essays, we hope, provide a useful combination of guiding theories and frameworks, on the one hand, and practical examples of application, on the other. By having such a diverse set of disciplines represented, both across chapters and within chapters, readers automatically received an interdisciplinary perspective.

In Chapter 1, “How Do You Listen to Your Students to Help Them Learn about Race and Racism?” Cyndi Kernahan and Nancy L. Chick wrestle with the difficult subject of teaching students about race and racism. One of the many challenges that students face as they learn about race and racism is that they often have a tendency, reinforced by the larger culture, to focus on racism as the personal prejudice of an individual, rather than as an institutional or systemic problem. Furthermore, overcoming racism does not mean becoming “color blind,” as many (especially outside of the academy) might assume. Kernahan and Chick show how teaching students about race and racism is an ongoing process, and they provide examples of how listening to students reflect on these subjects can help instructors guide students to deeper understandings.

In Chapter 2, Angela Bauer and Aeron Haynie address the question, “How Do You Foster Deeper Disciplinary Learning with the ‘Flipped’ Classroom?” In a flipped class, the instructor uses online technologies, such as audio and video recordings posted on a course management site, to do the bulk of the information delivery for a course, leaving valuable class time available for students to engage primarily in active learning. Considering examples from both biology and the humanities, Bauer and Haynie explore proven practices for using class time to cultivate students’ abilities to think in the discipline at hand.

Chapter 3, by Gaurav Bansal, Joanne Dolan, Kevin Kain, and Janet Reilly, is titled, “How Do You Build Community and Foster Engagement in Online Courses?” The authors consider how constructivist theories of learning emphasize the importance of community to students’ learning processes. Although virtual interaction might at first seem less conducive to fostering a community of learning, this chapter makes the case that well-designed online courses can build a sense of the instructor being fully “present” as well as both social and cognitive presence on the part of students—all features of engaged online learning across the disciplines.

In Chapter 4, “How Do You Effectively Teach Empathy to Students?” Maria Stalzer Wyant Cuzzo, Mimi Rappley Larson, Lisa Miller Mattsson, and Terry D. McGlasson challenge the modernist strategy of teaching about empathy and instead explore strategies for teaching empathy itself to students, not simply as a skill but as a process or relationship. The authors provide myriad suggestions for how to build this approach to empathy education into a course.

In Chapter 5, Peggy James and Christopher Hudspeth discuss “How Do You Take Learning Beyond the Classroom in an Interdisciplinary First-Year Seminar?” In doing so, they challenge the conventional notion of the first-year seminar as a discrete course, proposing instead the possibility that barriers between the course, the university, and the community might dissolve. More specifically, they borrow the metaphor of a rhizome from botany and deploy it to describe their experience with such a course at their institution.

In Chapter 6, “How Do You Use Experiential Learning to Bridge the Classroom and the Real World?” Victoria Simpson Beck, Stephanie K. Boys, Hannah J. Haas, and Karen N. King explore strategies for using applied learning from the professional areas of public administration, social work, and criminal justice. In doing so, they make a compelling case that applied learning could be used more frequently to support learning in the liberal arts classroom.

In Chapter 7, “How Do You Use Problem-Based Learning to Improve Interdisciplinary Thinking?” Christine Vandenhouten, Joan Groessl, and Katia Levintova investigate why using real-world problems in the classroom is an effective strategy to enhance interdisciplinary and interprofessional thinking. They argue that problem-based learning (PBL) can help develop students’ intellectual independence and give examples of how to use and assess PBL in the classroom.

In Chapter 8, “How Do You Increase Students’ Global Learning in the Classroom?” Hilary N. Fezzey, Eri Fujieda, Lynn Amerman Goerdt, Heather Kahler, and Ephraim Nikoi share discipline-specific reviews of published global pedagogies, discuss pedagogical commonalities and differences across the disciplines, and examine effective pedagogies for global learning in the curriculum. The authors nicely map the recent increase in attention paid to global studies and highlight some of the novel attempts to increase global learning.

In Chapter 9, “How Do You Intentionally Design to Maximize Success in the Academically Diverse Classroom?” Renee L. Chandler, Julie A. Zaloudek, and Kitrina Carlson explore what effective teaching looks like for an increasingly heterogeneous group of students. They highlight the importance of reflecting on course design, showing how universal design for learning (UDL) provides a framework that is an alternative to the typical “one-size-fits-all” approach to course design. Universal design principles, they argue, can be applied to both face-to-face and online courses in order to improve learning outcomes for all students, not just those with documented disabilities.

Finally, in Chapter 10, “How Do You Achieve Inclusive Excellence in the Classroom?” Jennifer R. Considine, Jennifer E. Mihalick, Yoko R. Mogi-Hein, Marguerite W. Penick-Parks, and Paul M. Van Auken examine SoTL research and practices to identify strategies promoting equity for all students. They trace the historical roots of Inclusive Excellence (IE) initiatives, theories surrounding IE, and ways the curriculum can be desegregated.

We are thankful to a number of different individuals and institutions for helping us with this endeavor. The idea for this collection grew over tea and coffee at the Attic, an independently owned bookstore and café in Green Bay, Wisconsin. La Vonne Cornell-Swanson, former director of the UW System Office of Professional and Instructional Development, had just charged us to develop a new workshop for the system's annual Faculty College, a three-day summer workshop for University of Wisconsin faculty. As the historian and the psychologist conversed, it became clear that our two disciplines had a lot to contribute to pedagogy and often tackled the same issues and challenges. How nice it would be to get more faculty from different disciplines to talk. That conversation jumpstarted this book, and we are grateful for the opportunity to develop the idea. We salute our authors who worked hard to live up to the promise of this interdisciplinary challenge. We would like to thank Mary Huber for her strong support and enthusiasm for our idea and Lendol Calder for his insightful comments on early versions of our chapters, and we are grateful to series editor Catherine Wehlburg for the opportunity to share this work with the larger world.

Regan A. R. Gurung
David J. Voelker


  1. Chick, N. 2012. “Difference, Privilege and Power in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: The Value of the Humanities in SoTL.” In The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in and across the Disciplines, edited by K. McKinney, 15–33. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
  2. Chick, N., A. Haynie, and R. A. R. Gurung, eds. 2012. Exploring More Signature Pedagogies. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
  3. Gurung, R. A. R. 2014. “Getting Foxy: Invoking Different Magesteria in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.” Teaching and Learning Inquiry 2: 109–114.
  4. Gurung, R. A. R., N. Chick, and A. Haynie, eds. 2009. Exploring Signature Pedagogies: Approaches to Teaching Disciplinary Habits of Mind. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
  5. Voelker, D., and R. Martin. 2013. Wisconsin Teaching Fellows & Scholars Program Assessment Project: Final Report.