To those who take the time and energy to care about teaching and student learning

Optimizing Teaching and Learning

Practicing Pedagogical Research

Regan A. R. Gurung and Beth M. Schwartz



Where do you start when you think about teaching and learning? Conventional storytelling would suggest the beginning. But this is about telling a different kind of story. Research and advice on how to optimize student learning and teachers’ teaching suggests that the best place to start is at the end. If you know what you want your students to leave your class with, you are in a better position to design your course content and delivery to get them there. You are also well positioned to assess your students’ journey to learning and study the detours, pitfalls, or shortcuts along the way. Commonly referred to as “backward design” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005, and discussed in more detail later), this approach provides a helpful framework for examining teaching and learning and makes clear the need for the two main goals of this book: 1) collecting, summarizing, and prioritizing for you, what is known about teaching and learning; and 2) providing you with easy ways to catalyze your own scholarly investigations into teaching and learning.

Research on teaching and learning (pedagogical research or the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, SoTL) is one of the most energizing areas of research in the field of higher education today, in which faculty continuously evaluate the quality of their teaching and its effect on student learning. Galvanized by the efforts of the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (CASTL; in particular individuals such as Lee Shulman, Pat Hutchings, and Mary Huber), the Lilly Foundation (especially Laurie Richlin, and the Preparing Future Faculty program), the Visible Knowledge Project, and the Peer Review of Teaching Project, the banner of SoTL has been taken up by academics from diverse fields. Educators are beginning to notice the fruits of SoTL labors, and a growing number of publications and directives within the academy are drawing attention to the importance of taking a close look at how we teach and how students learn.

As emphasized by both Seldin (2004) and Hatch (2006) faculty are being held accountable for the effectiveness of their teaching and in turn they are starting to engage in intellectual exchanges, not only on their research agendas but also on the ways in which they teach their students in the classroom. Huber and Hutchings (2005) called this type of intellectual exchange a “teaching common.” At the heart of this new movement, there is a simple idea: take a close look at how you teach and how your students learn, use the same methodology that you would use for formal investigations (be it in the humanities or science), and hold your research to the same standards, most notably peer review.

What exactly are methodologies of pedagogical research? What do we already know about how students learn and optimal teaching? What are the best practices for optimizing teaching? This book will answer all these questions and provide practical ways to bridge the gap between research on teaching and learning and the practice of teaching. As well as summarizing the vast literature on teaching and learning and providing a source of information on topics such as what the master teachers do and what is known about how students learn, we also provide tools to facilitate pedagogical research. This book takes the reader beyond intellectual discourse on SoTL: The case for SoTL has been and continues to be made by vocal and noted leaders in the field. This book will provide specific techniques to put these findings into action together with a clear guide on how to assess the fruits of your labor.

Why should academics care, given all else we have to care about? One of the most critical deterrents to doing this sort of methodological inquiry into teaching and learning has been the lack of a clear reward structure for such work and a corresponding lack of motivation on the part of those interested. As Fink (2003) notes throughout his work, research on teaching and learning takes a great deal of time and effort. Without an institutional culture in which this type of scholarship is recognized and valued, faculty will spend that time and effort elsewhere. Now universities, colleges, and high schools nationwide are not only beginning to recognize and value educators who are interested in SoTL, but are also starting to require that teaching and learning be studied (O’Meara and Rice, 2005). Researchers in the field of education and psychology have been particularly active in taking basic research from each of their fields and applying it to the classroom, and their theories and methods are inspiring faculty in many other diverse areas. All SoTL must incorporate the qualities of any good science, which includes an objective assessment based on data that is verifiable and that holds up to peer review (Richlin, 2006; Weimer, 2006). Unfortunately, there is currently no adequate resource that serves as a guide both to demonstrate how to conduct pedagogical research within any field of study and to provide best practices based on the existing pedagogical research findings. This book will do just this, providing a resource for anyone who is interested in improving their teaching, the learning of their students, and, correspondingly, contributing to the scholarship of teaching and learning. In short, this book will bridge the gap between the research on pedagogy and the practice of pedagogy, with explicit instructions on how to design, conduct, analyze, and write up pedagogical research. It will also explore the advantages and disadvantages of various pedagogical practices and present applications of SoTL using case studies from a variety of disciplines. To this end we review and summarize the current writing on pedagogical research and provide examples of questionnaires or explicit research protocols to help guide the design of investigations into teaching or learning. The surveys or questions can be directly taken and used to catalyze personal investigations into one’s teaching and one’s students’ learning.

Although the rigor of the scientific method or the varieties of ways of knowing in the humanities are valid and necessary parts of how teaching and learning should be viewed, many faculty are trained to apply these methods to their research endeavors and not to student learning or to their teaching. Furthermore, although one’s discipline can be applied to investigate the problems of teaching and learning, the resistance of these same problems to the discipline’s familiar modes of inquiry can limit the motivation to conduct SoTL and even contaminate its efforts (Huber & Morreale, 2002). In essence, as more and more faculty are being encouraged to assess the effectiveness of their teaching, they will in turn need the tools necessary for that type of assessment. Only when those tools are made available will faculty be more comfortable stepping outside their research comfort zone and into the forum of SoTL. When instructors learn the importance of going beyond the content and better understanding the process of teaching and learning, students in their classroom in turn learn more material and learn that material more effectively. Unfortunately a large number of teachers enter the classroom without a background in the very essence of what makes good teaching and learning. However, as Bain (2004) illustrates, the best teachers continually collect evidence to assess the effectiveness of their teaching. Similarly, SoTL scholars such as Davis and Buskist (2006) illustrate that when one understands and believes that assessing teaching effectiveness is essential, one can then become a more effective teacher. This book will serve as a resource for all faculty to conduct this type of continuous assessment – both seasoned faculty and new faculty who are just beginning to assess their teaching methods and learn how to think beyond the content.

This book is designed to be a resource for faculty who are engaged in SoTL projects and for faculty developers who promote SoTL. It should also be useful to any faculty member who is interested in examining their own teaching and their students’ learning as part of becoming a more effective teacher. A number of books on the market provide readers with how to present or organize one’s teaching accomplishments through use of a teaching portfolio (e.g., Bernstein et al., 2006, Seldin, 2004) or are driven to strengthening the case for SoTL work (e.g., Huber & Hutchings, 2005). This book builds upon these existing books by providing faculty with methodologies for conducting SoTL in order to strengthen the supporting data used in one’s teaching portfolio. This book can be a part of graduate courses on teaching and learning in higher education and can be especially useful reading for new and midlevel faculty. Given that higher education is being called on to demonstrate the effectiveness of what it is doing, the pressure for more scholarship on teaching and learning is going to increase. Faculty development programs nationwide have already been holding training sessions to increase SoTL, and more and faculty are interested in this area. Journals such as MountainRise, and Inventio 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.

Each section will first summarize years of work in pertinent areas to provide a foundation for scholarly investigation. In chapter 1, we clarify the nature of pedagogical research and distinguish between the different labels currently in use (e.g., Scholarly Teaching, SoTL, Action Research) and review the history of the field. In the two consequent chapters we focus on teaching (chapter 2) and learning (chapter 3), first reviewing and summarizing the relevant literature and then providing guidelines on how to conduct scholarly research on the questions we raise. Once you have caught the excitement of conducting research on your teaching and student learning, been convinced it is a good idea, or even if you are strong-armed into doing it, you will probably be faced with one of two big problems. You have no idea what to look at? You have too much to look at? The first is an illusion: You will almost certainly discover there is a lot you want to examine once you know how to look. The second problem is a blessing not even in disguise. Having a plethora of research questions ensures you will not get bored. No matter which of these two problems may be yours, chapters 2 and 3 will provide you with a roadmap to getting starting, offering reviews of the literature that will serve to bring you up to date with some of the best prescriptions for conducting research on teaching and learning while providing you with options for further reading. Once you have collected your data- measured student learning or assessed whether your changes have worked- you need to be able to analyze what you have and establish if you have significant findings. Chapter 4 describes the basic statistical methods for evaluating your findings. We walk you through the main considerations in designing studies and provide explicit instructions on how to analyze your data using a commonly used statistical package (with clear examples and screen shots of commands and results).

In chapter 4 we provide what, as far as we can tell, is the only explicit and straightforward guide to the statistical analysis of pedagogical research on teaching and learning. Finally, we provide the reader with a wealth of information related to setting up pedagogical research centers and connection with colleagues also interested in examining their own teaching. Chapter 5 will be especially useful for those who are setting up a teaching and learning center on their campus. In the end, we hope you find that you have found the answers to many of the teaching and learning questions you have always wondered about and gained the knowledge to create your own pedagogical research program. Doing your own pedagogical research will help you answer even more questions and allow you to share your findings to others in the field. We also hope we will help you ask the right questions about your teaching and your students’ learning, to find the tools needed to analyze your data and interpret your findings in relation to existing knowledge in the field. Importantly, we hope that this guide will provide the tools needed to be more effective in the classroom.


Neil Lutsky and the other wonderful faculty at Carleton College (MN) showed me what it means to be a passionate teacher. Neil took the time to make sure that I realized that it is worth it to care about teaching and introduced me to a world of wonderful passionate teachers within the Society for the Teaching of Psychology, Jane Halonen, Bill Buskist, and Bill Hill, amongst others. I thrive on my friendships with them and am a better teacher because of it. Colleagues both in the University of Wisconsin System and on my own campus and department (especially the Teaching Scholars and Fellows, members of OPID, and my faculty friends and collaborators) catalyzed my interests in pedagogical research, and I am grateful to them for putting up with my constant search for the empirical answers to any and every classroom quandary. Denise Scheberle and Fergus Hughes, Founding Co-Directors of the UWGB Teaching Scholars Program, were particularly instrumental in fostering my growth as a pedagogical scholar. I also owe a debt of gratitude to my teaching and research assistants with whom I had many a stimulating pedagogical conversation especially Amanda Jeske, Angie Roethel, and Janet Weidert.

R. A. R. G.

As a student in class at Colby College, with faculty who were dedicated to teaching and learning, I was inspired to continue my education and to learn how to create the same stimulating learning environment for my own students. Since the day I first set foot on campus, my colleagues at Randolph College (founded as Randolph-Macon Woman’s College) exemplified the joy of teaching. I am particularly grateful to my colleagues in the psychology department over the years, Dennis Goff, Rory McElwee, Rick Barnes, and Holly Tatum, who all have provided mentoring, friendship, and discussions about their own teaching experiences and ideas, which to this day continue to make me strive to be a better teacher and scholar every time I step into the classroom. I also thank my many students, who continue to bring to the classroom their energy and interest, which inspire me to be the best that I can be as a teacher, providing for them an optimal learning environment. These are the people who lead me to continually rethink, refine, and improve as an educator.

B. M. S.

We both would like to thank Chris Cardone at Wiley-Blackwell and her editorial staff for cultivating the ideas for this book and helping to make it a reality.