Developing a SoTL project

I have just begun attending a year-long faculty certificate program on the scholarship of teaching and learning here at UBC. One of the main things this program is designed to do is to support faculty who wish to start engaging in the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL).

Just for quick reference, “scholarly teaching” refers generally to a practice where educators base their pedagogical practices on as much evidence as they can from relevant research, studies devoted to showing what is most effective for what sorts of desired outcomes, etc. SoTL, then, is doing this plus engaging in research oneself, and disseminating that somehow to colleagues (e.g., through conferences, publications, etc.).

Yesterday we were asked to talk with a partner about what project we aim to develop this year. I hadn’t finalized anything, and still haven’t. Here are three ideas I have. Often such things begin with a problem one encounters in teaching.

1. One problem I have encountered is in the way I teach writing in Philosophy courses, especially first and second-year courses. I am coming to see just how complex and difficult it is for students to write a good philosophy paper, and assigning readings and websites that give advice on how to write in Philosophy, as well as giving them extensive tips of my own, isn’t enough. Assigning a whole paper right off the bat to students who are new to philosophy just too often doesn’t work. I think that working up to a full paper through successive steps may work better. I just don’t know what sort of steps would work best. So I may look into doing a research project focused on that somehow.

2. In a related vein, I am curious as to why some students in my Arts One class improve their writing so much more by the end of the year than others. Arts One is a year-long, team-taught, interdisciplinary program in which students write a 1500 word essay every two weeks and go through intensive peer review of each paper. Some students are writing much better by the end of the year than others. I’m curious as to why some students improve and others don’t. Not sure how to go about studying this, though, without some possible invasions of privacy (e.g., how much time do you spend actually looking at the comments from previous papers before starting new ones?).

3. Finally, as Chair of the Arts One program, I am very much interested in discovering whether the program (which has been in place since 1967), actually produces the results many of us claim anecdotally that it does. We often believe that our students are much better writers by the end of it, that they go on to be some of the best students in other courses, that they succeed academically better than those who don’t take the program. There are some data in existence that show Arts One students’ grades are higher in second year and beyond than those of the students in the Faculty of Arts who don’t take Arts One, but it would help to have further evidence of success than that. In addition, we have a certain grade entry requirement that other first-year courses do not, so the higher grades later may be a phenomenon explained in large part by the higher grades of our students coming in.

4. Our department has recently begun to take seriously the issue of the gender imbalance in our undergrad courses. In our first year courses, the percentage of males and females is fairly similar, but the number of females drops dramatically by the fourth year. We really aren’t sure why. We did a survey last year to try to find out, but the results were inconclusive. This is a phenomenon that is not limited to the UBC Philosophy department–it is a problem throughout N. America, at least, and it extends all the way through grad school and into the professorial ranks. There are fewer and fewer women in philosophy by the time we look at the full professor rank. Why? I am not the only one looking at this…there are a number of studies out there to consult, and maybe there is more that could be done at least at our University to deal with the problem.

So I’m a little torn as to what I should work on right now. I am applying for sabbatical for 2012-2013, so I can plan and develop another while I’m gone. But which to start with?