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Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

By Steve Draper,   Department of Psychology,   University of Glasgow.

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This is a note of ideas I had prompted by the TLS symposium on the scholarship of T&L on 22 Sept 2005. My point here is to sketch the space of what might count as "scholarship" of L&T (learning and teaching), since I think a number of different things can clearly be described as this, yet it is unlikely that a single person would exhibit them all. I make some comments on how this could relate both to decisions about applications for promotion, and to improving teaching in unversities. However I do not relate it to the existing literature on the concept.

Useful entry points to that literature might be:

My dimensions

Talk on requirements for a teaching promotion path in HE (Higher Education) revolves around a concept of "scholarship" rather than "research" in L&T (learning and teaching). I think there are multiple concepts here, that can be distinguished along (at least) 3 dimensions. I say "dimensions" because I think a person's work or achievements can vary independently in three ways, in all combinations of points along each of the three.

  1. One's own teaching vs. knowledge/scholarship of L&T. We could call this the private vs. public dimension, or personal practice vs. abstract understanding of it, or simply practice vs. theory. You can know about teaching, or you can do it, or both; but as with any skill, understanding it is not necessarily connected with good performance, and good performance may not be underwritten by any articulate or even conscious understanding as in singing, carpentry, amusing a child. The aim of one is to do effective, perhaps excellent, teaching as measured primarily by its effect on learners, while the aim of the other is to develop communicable understanding, primarily for other teachers, of how successful teaching works.

    Similarly evidence (e.g. in applications for promotion) may be about success in one's own teaching (e.g. student feedback, attendance records, exam performance of the students, dropout rates) or about contributions to the scholarship of L&T (e.g. papers published in education journals, collecting data on other people's teaching, ...).
    Combining these would be nice, but is still rare.

    It could be argued that inarticulate skill at teaching is not scholarship, but scholarship should include the skill it attempts to explicate or else it becomes disconnected from its subject matter. This is unsatisfactory, just as the education literature is full of the failure of science teaching that leads many pupils to be able to pass exam questions on (say) Newton's laws yet fail to recognise their connection to their own physical experience. Scholarship of teaching would immediately fail by the standards of its own content if it became in any way divorced from a strong connection to the practice of teaching.

  2. Discipline-specific vs. generic or general. The content of the "scholarship" can be anywhere on a spectrum from completely generic to narrowly discipline-specific, including:

    Again, combinations of these are nice, but rare e.g. how would a general method like PBL apply in your discipline, what are the difficulties there and how do they differ from the difficulties in other disciplines, ...

  3. Pure vs. applied. Just as, at least in the public's imagination, an advance in physics might proceed from a new concept, through lab. evidence, to a new applied device, through to mass manufacture and consumer sale (e.g. from the theory of stimulated emission of radiation through building lasers in the lab, to the little gadget I bought to point at projection screens with a red dot), so in education there are many steps from a general theory (e.g. constructivism) to particular recipes for organising teaching and learning (e.g. PBL) to demonstrating these worked for a convenient topic presented by a particular person, to teaching a whole curriculum fixed by others but using this method, to being able to train almost any staff to use this method successfully. Contributions to scholarship may be at any stage in this succession, which however require quite different skills and resources that are not very likely to be found in the same person.


By taking two extreme points for each of three dimensions, we get 8 points. If these dimensions are independent, it should be possible to generate one (or more) examples for each of these 8 corners of the conceptual space.

Summarising the dimensions as pure vs. applied, theory (public) vs. practice (private), discipline specific vs. generic, then the eight are:

  1. [applied, theory, specific]. A book of practical advice for medical school PBL delivery.
  2. [applied, theory, generic]. The material offering practical support for rolling out EVS (electronic voting systems for lecture theatres) to many real courses across the university, together with a website to help other teachers .
  3. [applied, practice, specific]. Measures of a particular course's success. Or at a higher level: redesigning a whole level 1 course and leading the team that delivers it.
  4. [applied, practice, generic]. One's personal skill at group facilitation; or at giving a talk.
  5. [pure, theory, specific]. A book on what is required for professional medical education, including ethics, managing a team, communication with patients, etc. It discusses what is needed and why, not details of how to do it and whether it worked when tried.
  6. [pure, theory, generic]. Methods of teaching like PBL, Just in time teaching, constructivism.
  7. [pure, practice, specific]. Work that is pure (i.e. an abstract idea not yet developed and applied), yet to do with personal practice not theory, is essentially the private first inspiration of a new idea about one's one teaching practice: development will come next. A discipline-specific example might be: Quintin Cutt's "courselet" of remedial exercises for low-grade entrants to computing science level 2. He had a basic idea about the need for it and how he might do it drawing on his personal skills and experience; but the many details and the articulated justification came later.
  8. [pure, practice, generic]. A generic example might be: Juggling in lectures: Iain Allison's idea before he published it, and before he tried it out at length on real classes. (Allison,I. (1990) "Juggling for results" Journal of Geological Education vol.38 pp.314-315) My idea for having staff give (extra) courses that would be valuable and valued by students: not what the overall degree programme requires, not what fills standardised numbers of credits, but actually the very most valuable and interesting things you could think of.

Comments on teaching staff promotion and scholarship

Work in any part of the above space would not only qualify as meeting a reasonable definition of "scholarship in L&T" but is all necessary to the health and progress of the academic world and of HE teaching as a whole. Still, what would we particularly want to see in university teachers, and how might it be evidenced?

Here there are probably two major divisions, corresponding to interaction with two different literatures: that of the subject content and the L&T literature.

  1. Keeping current with disciplinary content. Researchers do this for at least one (often small) area as a side-effect of their research: they do not need additional time or resources for this. Teaching staff do. Evidence for this would be publishing reviews, and publishing textbooks: traditional academic activities, but often not counted in research assessment exercises. Corresponding to citation counts would be uptake of a textbook by other institutions, being referenced on reading lists on their courses, or bought by university libraries. Other evidence might be generating (not only delivering) course content that was seriously scrutinised and validated by other subject experts.

  2. Independently of that, studying the literature of teaching and learning particularly in their area and relating it to their own teaching. Evidence of that: introducing a method from the literature into the local context, and demonstrating its degree of success; writing critical rationales of their own teaching methods that relate these to those described in the literature. Published papers (in education related journals) sometimes do this, but such course design rationales are perhaps a kind of document that should be developed much more widely along with a process of peer review/validation. At the moment hardly any HE courses are justified. The point is that they should be, and such justification is essentially about showing awareness of the published alternatives and how one's own design relates to these: the essence of scholarship.

    Further evidence: use of their ideas and materials by others i.e. peer uptake (cf. citation counts).

    Another important thing to note is implied by dimension A: do you want to promote a university teacher because their teaching is effective, or because they write in a scholarly manner about it? These can be independent qualities: you can have a scholar of L&T who is poor at actual teaching, and the most effective teacher in the university who cannot talk or write about it to other teachers. We might say that the former could be promoted as an educational researcher, but not as a university teacher. If we won't promote the latter, we are back being unable to promote our best teachers, which would be like giving drama awards only to critics and not to actors and directors.

  3. Contributions to other areas, e.g. new theories of L&T, empirical evaluations of others' teaching, are certainly scholarship of L&T (and could be evidenced by publication etc.); but it is a bit less certain if this is what most directly benefits a university if carried out by its teachers.

Basically the point here is that if we take publications as the main evidence, then we reward only public theory not private practice of teaching: but it is only the latter that directly benefits students.

Comments on spreading better teaching

If we ask ourselves what would best promote the spread of better teaching within an HEI (higher education institution), then a central issue is that at present there is no structural driver whatsoever to either disseminate one's own contributions or to seek out and read others' contributions. In the research world, journal editors and referees effectively require each would-be author to read the prior literature and refer to it appropriately, and this discipline is enforced on essentially every author and every paper, regardless of whether or not the author wishes to read it or allowed that reading to influence their own work. There is no such requirement on teaching to have any awareness of others' discoveries or practice, but only the weaker diffusion pressures of external examiners, course team meetings (that may however operate to arrive at uniform, not best, practice), and memories of how the teacher was themself taught.

A major force for improvement would be to require course designs to have a written rationale that included a discussion of the relevant L&T literature, and self-comparison with colleagues' methods. This would create demand which at present is lacking, unlike in the research community.

A second major step would be to create supply, by rewarding writing up one's teaching i.e. the "push" half of the dissemination. Promotion criteria that call for this would be the obvious lever.

A third approach however is to consider not how to create a new demand for such material, but to think of teachers as users: what do they need, not to write a rationale, but to adopt and deliver a new method or new material? The considerations here are somewhat different, and journal papers are only a small part of it. Teachers looking for, and seriously considering adopting, something new want all of:

Reflection scepticism

When I last looked, I failed to find any published evidence whatever that reflection improved teaching. (If anyone knows better, please send me the references.) The unanimity with which reflection as a professional practice is embraced, and is now a more or less compulsory government requirement on the training of school teachers, does not appear to be evidence-based.

This is understandable (although should it be forgivable?): it has extremely deep roots in our intellectual culture, at least from Socrates's "an unexamined life is not worth living" (according to Plato's The Apology), and strikes a personal chord with many academics: certainly with me. I chose academic life exactly because I like to have time to think and pursue the feeling of understanding, as contrasted with having to rush on to the next practical action without reflecting on what just happened. Furthermore there are areas where something like reflection clearly works: certainly in Human Computer Interaction, testing designs on users and modifying the design in the light of the observed failures is central.

Nevertheless if we actually reflect on (or rather, think critically about) reflection, -- that is, if we try to recall areas of experience and knowledge that might contradict the consensus -- it is easy to think of cases where reflection is completely and permanently ineffective. No amount of reflection will get someone with a damaged knee to run faster. No amount of reflection improves our visual perception: this is permanently beyond the reach of our introspection, as are some other areas of cognition. Furthermore even when reflection provides both clear evidence of something wrong (the students are revolting) and an analysis of what the problem is (I'm failing to relate the topic to their experience) that provides no help in itself about what to do about it: for that, I need knowledge of alternative teaching methods, and reflection cannot ever provide that unless I happen already to have seen a remedy in my own experience. Thus it is an empirical, not a rhetorical, question whether reflection improves teaching.

Thus I would not regard evidence of reflection on one's teaching as all that valuable. It is not scholarship; and we do not in fact know whether it is likely to improve that person's teaching. All we know is that we feel it should.

Heuristic tests of our ideas in this area

Would we promote our best teachers?

In considering whether we understand good teaching, and how we should promote people, a good question is: would any proposed conceptual framework and/or procedures allow us to promote the best teachers in our own departments?

When I think of the best ones I know, the answer is "no" for several different reasons.

Firstly, we might say that if their promotion had depended on scholarship of teaching (instead of other things like research) they would have learned to produce the evidence of scholarship. This is probably true: if motivated, many academics can learn stuff, however silly, quickly. However this is not a good counter-argument. It amounts to admitting that scholarship of teaching is of no use in how good teaching is done at present, but just an extra paperwork task.

Secondly, if asked orally, I think these people can often give a good, articulate justification of their teaching and course designs; they are just not asked to do so. And again, this suggests that at present, good teaching is produced without any use of the scholarship of teaching: there are clearly other ways to do it. If the aim is good teaching and learning, then this should be rewarded.

Thirdly, some of the skill is not scholarly: it is about showmanship applied to raising attention and enjoyment; about interpersonal skills; about facilitating groups; about not blurting out the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth but being able to hold back to allow learners to "construct" it for themselves.

A fuller treatment of this point would require a fuller analysis of where the current best HE teaching originates. Suffice it to say that few would say that "scholarship" was the foundation for most improvements up to now.

Teaching in art schools

A second good heuristic question to test our ideas against is to ask if they would apply to teaching in Art schools. Art schools give HE degrees, but have a completely different tradition of teaching from universities, in which students are continually pressured to do something "original" i.e. different from each other, and with "integrity" meaning connected to some personal feeling or experience that will make their piece of work different in meaning as well as appearance. Students have to talk about their work to their peers and tutors, but this is secondary to producing a material output.

This reference point is useful firstly to test whether our ideas are disciplinarily general, or unconsciously limited to fields we are familiar with; and also as a reminder that if "scholarship" means anything, it cannot in all areas mean consensus, conformity, or a single truth. But the third reason this is a good mental reference point here, is that teaching is a craft that is highly individual, and producing teaching, at least good teaching as opposed to kitsch, imitative, third rate teaching, may require us all to operate more like art students than like other kinds of learner. Producing good teaching may require play, experiment, and bringing stuff out of oneself, and NOT imitating something you read in the scholarly literature about teaching.

Do promotion policies serve teaching or committee members?

Basing promotion on publication counts makes the job of promotion committees easier, but is it measuring what we want, or only measuring what is easy (like the drunk looking under the street light rather than where he dropped his keys)?

Scholarship and the 3 components of teaching

Unless we consider where quality in teaching comes from, and what it consists of, we cannot even begin the discussion of what we should measure except on the basis of measuring what is convenient and agreeable to our implicit prejudices. To think systematically about rewarding teaching, we should consider that it is not a single thing. I would propose that (in HE) it has three major subcomponents:
  1. Selection of material Course content has to be selected. The degree to which this is an original choice in a given HE course varies enormously. The main statistics concepts every psychology student must learn are about 80 years old; Newton's laws which are taught to every engineering and physics students are over 300 years old; in some disciplines, accrediting professional bodies strongly constrain the curriculum. On the other hand, a final year undergraduate option in a rapidly evolving field such as immunology in biology, the nature of individual identity in a digital world in philosophy, or the scholarship of HE teaching are going to contain new material perhaps never taught before. This is, on one view, the defining function of a university: to teach new knowledge, to take the first steps in moving it from the research/scholarly literature, to a form for student learning. This may consist only of selection e.g. expressed in a reading list and in learning aims and objectives. But anyone who has changed discipline may remember what an enormously important service it is for a newcomer, simply to be given some idea about what it is most important to learn in a new area. And someone who is equipped for lifelong learning -- as our graduating students should be -- needs only this, and not the next two components at all.

  2. Selection /design of learning methods The next kind of thing that may be added by teachers to facilitate learning is some kind of learning design: perhaps the adoption of PBL, labs with demonstrator assistance, exercises to do, or essay tasks with some feedback, etc. This design, this choice, is the subject of boards of study etc.: it is distinct both from the subject content and from actual delivery and the personal skills that involves.

  3. Teacher delivery skills The third addition is the personal skills of the teacher e.g. giving a talk that holds the attention, being able to run a discussion group in a way that involves all the participants, shy and over-loud alike, etc.

Once we ennumerate these three broad subdivisions we can see three things: that they require different skills; that someone may contribute to one and not to the others, or be excellent at one and not the others; and that each is different in what they draw on.

  1. Selection (curriculum design) comes from knowledge of the field, usually from researchers. It requires no "teaching" knowledge or scholarship. It is all about what it would be good for a learner to end up knowing. Scholarship of teaching has little contribution here. What is needed is knowledge, both theoretical and practical, of the topic. A researcher in the topic will be well equipped: this is the central justification for "research-led" universities, because researchers have to keep current in the literature, because their own experience of learning the material is personal and fresh, and because of the argument that contributing members of the research community have in practice much better access to the knowledge than others (and to its informal, unpublished aspects as well as the formalised, written ones). However research publications are only a measure of the latter informal aspect, since an avid reader or reviewer of the literature would be at least as good as a researcher.

  2. Learning design is the most likely to be assisted by the scholarship of teaching. On the other hand, it is also the one most bound by habits and traditions in a given institution, since they often do things like define a job by the number of hours of lectures given, or insist on a uniform number of labs regardless of learning objectives.

  3. Communication skills are the most variable between people, suggesting that training has relatively little effect in evening out differences in skill, and that good practitioners are not effective in communicating that skill, at least at present. (Observing colleagues teaching may address this a little: but will not disseminate the other aspects of teaching. Reading their course documentation and following up the reading might do that for (1), while working through the course as a student may be best way of grasping (2).)

Promoting on the basis of scholarship of teaching is therefore likely to reward only one of the three main elements of teaching.


I've laid out a space of three dimensions to describe the varieties of knowledge, and so of scholarship, involved in teaching a subject. To promote the scholarship of teaching and learning, we need to promote both the supply of and the demand for its (published) products. Rewarding publication or other dissemination in this area, and requiring rationales for course designs that refer to this literature would do this. This fits with our general academic belief that greater knowledge leads to better actions, but while that is true in some cases, we do not know (do not have evidence) that it is true in this area of HE teaching for all aspects represented by the 8 corners of the space.

One issue is that we are asking our teachers to engage with not one but two different literatures: of their subject and of teaching itself.

Another is, that relying on writing (publication) as a measure of knowledge in effect ignores half the space of knowledge by measuring theory but not practice and skill. This not only embodies a poor theory of knowledge, which is itself the subject of criticism in the education literature, but is particularly inappropriate in an area like teaching whose value must ultimately be defined in terms of its practical effect. It would also probably mean we couldn't promote our best current teachers on these measures, and ignores the origin of much of the innovation and excellence in HE teaching to date.


I wouldn't have thought about this apart from the TLS symposium; and probably not without Carolin Kreber's talk to kick it off. But most of all, thanks to the breakout group where I first tried the ideas out: Mona Al-Sawaf, Sheena Bell, Joanne Burke, Christine Macpherson, Jill Morrison, Sue Tickner.

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