SoTL Research in Higher Education: Q&A with Dr. John Canning and Dr. Rachel Masika


In this Q&A post, Dr. John Canning (The University of Brighton, UK) and Dr. Rachel Masika (Rachel Masika Consulting) respond to our questions which were formed based on the reading of their paper, “The scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL): The thorn in the flesh of educational research”, published by Studies in Higher Education. In brief, their paper contends that SoTL, through its integration into higher education quality frameworks in the UK, has lost its distinct purpose by being too inclusive. This has resulted in existing higher education research being sidelined and created ambiguity as to what constitutes valuable teaching and learning research in the higher education context.

SoTL as a Research Approach?

  1. In what way is higher education research different or distinct from SoTL? Does not the latter contribute to the former?

Research into higher education has a longstanding heritage which pre-dates the idea of SoTL. In our  reading of Boyer, Scholarship of Teaching (‘and Learning’ came later) seemed to be something you did if you lack the time and resources to do the ‘higher status’ scholarships of discovery, integration and application.  The study of higher education, specifically the field of teaching and learning in higher education, is a discipline/ field/ area of study in its own right and the idea that teaching and learning should be a separate ‘category’ of scholarship is highly problematic in our view.

Many great educational researchers identify their work as SoTL and identify strongly with the ‘SoTL movement’. Researchers like Mick Healey in the UK have had a tremendous positive influence and impact on the practice of learning and teaching in higher education and we wouldn’t want anyone to think we were suggesting otherwise. Boyer’s report was seized upon as an opportunity by those who were doing higher education research at the time. It seemed to legitimise and draw attention to a field of study that was marginalised and one can’t  blame anyone for seeking to take advantage of the opportunity. In fact we’re not sure the early conceptualisation of SoTL outlined by Shulman (2000) and others was distinct from ‘higher education research’.

The problem lies in what we called ‘SoTL 2.0’ in our recent paper. ‘The movement’ has perhaps become to too inclusive to be helpful, but in the UK at least there is evidence that SoTL has become part of the institutional management in many universities, but no-one can identify what exactly it is. SoTL is often seen as staying up to date with teaching ideas, discussing teaching with colleagues, cogitating over your teaching practice  and a casual exchange of ideas but this is clearly not what Shulman (2000) and others had in mind.

  1. Can SoTL not act as a stepping stone to more intensive and rigorous research in higher education?

SoTL 1.0 was always intended to be intensive and rigourous inquiry in higher education, but SoTL 2.0 can also be a stepping stone towards that. For many teachers in higher education the beginnings of becoming an educational researcher start as these sorts of SoTL 2.0 activities expose the complexity of higher education pedagogy.

  1. Can SoTL write-ups /publications be substantiated if they have a theoretical underpinning or make reference to existing scholarship?

The quality of scholarship is what matters here – We don’t think it matters whether a researcher believes they are doing SoTL, higher education teaching and learning research or something else. Theoretical underpinning and being embedded in the existing literature are necessary pre-requisites to good quality scholarship.

SOTL: Possibility as a Community of Practice?

  1. Can SoTL not be seen as a collegial effort to share one’s teaching experience in the hope that one’s improved strategies may be successfully applied by others in the general or discipline-specific community?

Conceived in terms of collegial efforts to share and disseminate SoTL can enable communities of practice. However, sharing and dissemination does also typically happen outside the auspices of SoTL. Institution-focused pedagogic research conferences, teaching and learning related team meetings, groups and seminars, networks, mentoring and online/social media groups are a case in point.

  1. A mitigating factor that supports the continuation of SoTL is that it compels subject-based practitioners to take on a more scholarly approach to teaching. Does that not warrant continued support for SoTL?

SoTL can provide a platform for subject practitioners to develop more scholarly approaches to teaching, depending on which of the activities in which they engage. However, by providing such a wide range of activities definitionally that may be considered what subject-based practitioners should be doing routinely anyway, renders it problematic when conceived as research. The challenge is that the definitions and activities which constitute scholarly activity are subject to debate. SoTL has such a wide definition that combines both research and a philosophical understanding of what it means to be a teacher (Tierney et al., 2020).

  1. One can argue that there is a need for academics and teaching staff to engage in reflexive evaluation. How can this be encouraged or shared outside the ambit of SoTL?

Examining one’s self and teaching practice as an evaluator to stimulate reflexivity occurs in a number of ways notwithstanding SoTL. Continued professional development provides academics and teaching staff an opportunity for reflexive evaluation. Deeply engaging with course evaluations presents another opportunity for examining and acknowledging assumptions and preconceptions one brings to their teaching practice in light of student feedback.

Sharing Beyond the Immediate Community

  1. Is there not a possibility that SoTL in other countries or regions is being encouraged and practised in the way that ISSOTL has envisioned it to be?

ISSOTL as an organisation envisions SoTL as recognising and encouraging scholarly work on teaching and learning, promoting cross-disciplinary conversations, facilitating collaborations of scholars in different countries, the integration of discovery, learning and public engagement and leadership in HE to support recognise, review and appropriate uses of SoTL (ISSOTL, 2021). There is no reason to suggest that this is not happening in the UK and other countries or regions. Our study (Canning & Masika, 2020), looking at SoTL in the UK illustrated that there was range of understandings and practices of what SoTL actually is though. Globally, definitions of SoTL differ with differences in how SoTL is perceived, undertaken and recognised leading to differing approaches and pressures (Tierney et al., 2020). National, cultural and institutional contexts shape SoTL understandings and practice.

  1. Can SoTL be revised or refined to become SoTL 3.0, one that merges the key elements of both 1.0 and 2.0?

A merger of the two would largely depend on what aspects of 1.0 and 2.0 were being merged as some are in contention and highly dependent on the context. 1.0 more closely reflects Boyer’s framing of SoTL. 2.0 responds to contemporary institutional pressures and dynamics, assurance processes such as the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the UK and reflects broader marketisation and managerial concerns. Thus, there are tensions, and competing visions of what higher education entails, and what SoTL is in practice.



Boyer, E. (1990). Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the Prrofessoriate. Princeton NJ. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Canning, J., & Masika, R. (2020). The scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL): the thorn in the flesh of educational research. Studies in Higher Education, 1-13.

ISSOTL. (2021). Strategic Plan. URL

Shulman, L. S. (2000). From Minsk to Pinsk: Why a scholarship of teaching and learning. Journal of scholarship of teaching and learning1(1), 48-53.

Tierney, A. M., Aidulis, D., Park, J., & Clark, K. (2020). Supporting SoTL Development through Communities of Practice. Teaching & Learning Inquiry8(2), 32-52.

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