A Long Day’s Journey Into the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

By Angus Woodward, Our Lady of the Lake College

I suppose there are teachers who begin their careers as scholars of teaching and learning, whose graduate programs focus not just on mastery of a discipline but also on the art and science of guiding others into mastery of that discipline. But don’t most of evolve, over the years, into scholars of teaching and learning?

It begins when we first look out into the sea of faces and think, “I wonder if they got that. Did it work?” Or we realize that our students look bored, and then realize that we would be bored, too. We might have these thoughts during the first month of the very first class we teach, or years later. Others might never have such thoughts.

And then we stop griping about our students, stop rolling our eyes when they ask questions we thought we had already answered, stop gritting our teeth when they misunderstand instructions that seemed perfectly clear to us. We abandon all complaints, public and private, about the differences between our generation and theirs. We come to understand that when we were students, we were atypical, that few (if any) of our classmates would become college faculty, and so we let go of the idea that all of our students should act just as we acted. Instead we become willing to take some responsibility for our students’ questions and misunderstandings, acknowledging that there may be better ways to get through to them.

And so we make adjustments to our syllabi, our handouts, our assignments, our quizzes or tests. We cast a more skeptical eye toward our textbooks, wishing they had more X or less Y, and if we have the power and/or freedom to do so, we look for better textbooks. Maybe we stop just tweaking things and start changing them. Maybe we create new assignments or use a different kind of test question.

What is happening to us? We may not be able to put our fingers on it just yet, but it could be that not only are we evolving, but our institution is also in transition. There may even be a paradigm shift afoot, and it may even extend throughout higher education. Lead is turning into gold, and we are among the atoms transforming.

John Tagg, in The Learning Paradigm College (2003), described the transformation that he thought should happen (and perhaps is happening) in higher education as a shift from an instruction paradigm to a learning paradigm. He encouraged us to abandon the instruction paradigm, which “substitutes a means for an end. It raises formal organizational processes (courses, transcripts) to the level of institutional mission” (18). Instruction-paradigm institutions also have a tendency to foster shallow approaches to learning, emphasizing extrinsic performance goals and nurturing isolated silos of practice. The learning paradigm, on the other hand, strives to foster deep approaches to learning, emphasizing intrinsic learning goals and nurturing active communities of practice. You can probably guess which paradigm emphasizes evaluation via test scores, course grades, and GPA and which emphasizes feedback via critiques and comments on student performances. In the instruction paradigm, students experience “intermittent engagement with random subjects” rather than being “engaged in a continuous project of learning” (225).

And so as our journey continues, we consider the changes we have made in our courses and wonder, “Is it working? Are these changes making a difference?”; we and our institutions and higher education itself are starting to value learning primarily and instruction secondarily. We probably feel like our adjustments have made a difference, but we also understand that we cannot just rely on our impressions and hunches. And so we decide to ask our students. We don’t want to wait for official course evaluations, with their broad questions not specific to our disciplines. In the middle or toward the end of a course, once or twice or more, we ask the students to write comments about our courses. We might remember a colleague a few years back who gave his business students a piece of paper with two incomplete sentences on it: “I like this class the most when __________” and “I like this class the least when __________,” and we might do the same thing. Or we have more specific questions, like “How helpful and productive has group work been?” Depending on our discipline and/or natural inclinations, we might be more data oriented: Indicate your agreement with the following statement: “Working in small groups with classmates has been productive and helpful.” Strongly agree / agree / neutral / disagree /strongly disagree. And if only 42% strongly agree or disagree, then we add a brief introduction to group work to our courses, giving ourselves a chance to explain the goals and ideal behaviors of collaboration. And if at the same point in the following semester 65% agree or strongly agree, we feel like we have made some progress. Maybe our other questions are about the handouts, the grading, the textbook, the exams, the homework, the projects, the emphasis on X or Y.

We do not have too many questions, but we have some questions, and we have begun to evaluate our own teaching. John Tagg subscribes to John Biggs’ three levels of “thinking about teaching” (Tagg 19). “In the first, the focus is on what the student is” (Tagg 19), which Biggs characterizes as a “blame-the-student theory of teaching, based on student deficit. When students don’t learn…it is due to something the students are lacking” (as quoted in Tagg 20). But at this point in our journey from one paradigm to another, we have abandoned Level One and reached Level Two, “where the focus is on what the teacher does” (Tagg 19). Level Two has its drawbacks; Biggs points out that it “is also a deficit model, the blame this time being on the teacher” (as quoted in Tagg 20). Nevertheless, we are on our way to Level Three, where we’ll turn our attention to “what the student does” (Biggs, as quoted in Tagg 31).

We are influenced by our surroundings. If we are lucky, our administrators encourage us to learn more about teaching and learning. They do so by rewarding not just evidence of scholarship but also evidence of teaching effectiveness, such rewards coming in the form of points toward advancement in rank and/or toward tenure, technological support for innovative teaching strategies, funding for projects related to teaching and learning, and so on. Tagg distinguishes between two kinds of leaders in academia: structural and functional. He characterizes a structural leader as “someone who has a leadership role because of her position in the organizational structure,” whereas “a functional leader is someone who assumes a leadership role because he wants to accomplish something, to achieve a purpose, and must elicit the participation of others in order to do so” (338). We may have the good fortune of working in an institution whose structural leaders—deans, provosts, vice presidents, etc.—are also functional leaders. Perhaps we are also surrounded by functional leaders without leadership titles; Tagg offers the example of “the faculty member who suggests starting a roundtable on teaching topics and talks it up with colleagues” (338).

And so maybe (for example) we work at a small private college that receives state funding dedicated to faculty members’ “research, teaching, and/or public service” (Endowed, 2008). Our college might use the funds to offer modest grants to faculty who apply for support of academic projects, including those related to teaching and learning. Perhaps one of us proposes to do some reading in the scholarship of teaching and learning and write monthly blog posts for our college community about what we are learning and how we are applying it in our classes. Maybe the funding is granted, and we use it for a course release so that we will have the time to read and blog. Waiting outside of our dean’s office one day the year before, we may have noticed a book on the end-table: Engaging Ideas, The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom by John C. Bean. We flipped through it for a few minutes and made a mental note to get it from the college library, knowing that the college library had a growing collection of books such as this. And so Bean’s book is the first we turn to when we begin preparing for the blog. It might provide the impetus for reducing our reliance on lecture: “There are many ways to make lecturing more effective for a wider range of learners….The most successful lecturers change the pace several times during a class session by breaking the lecture into parts punctuated by student-centered activities in which the instructor gives students a problem to solve at their seats, switches to discussion for a few moments, assigns an in-class freewrite, and so forth” (170). A book like Bean’s might also deepen our understanding of what is really meant by “critical thinking,” which we, like everyone else, have claimed to emphasize in our courses. Bean summarizes J.G. Kurfiss, who provides eight principles for emphasizing critical thinking:

  1. Critical thinking is a learnable skill; the instructor and peers are resources in developing critical thinking skills.
  2.  Problems, questions, or issues are the point of entry into the subject and a source of motivation for sustained inquiry.
  3. Successful courses balance challenges to think critically with support tailored to students’ developmental needs.
  4. Courses are assignment centered rather than text and lecture centered. Goals, methods, and evaluation emphasize using content rather than simply acquiring it.
  5. Students are required to formulate and justify their ideas in writing or other appropriate modes.
  6. Students collaborate to learn and to stretch their thinking, for example, in pair problem solving and small group work.
  7. Several courses, particularly those that teach problem-solving skills, nurture students’ metacognitive abilities.
  8. The developmental needs of students are acknowledged and used as information in the design of the course. Teachers in these courses make standards explicit and then help students learn how to achieve them (4).

We might not only blog about these stipulations, but also photocopy the page and pin it to the wall above our desks. We are moving to John Biggs’ Level Three, where our focus is on what students do in a learning environment that we create for them. And in John Tagg’s view, one of the keys to leaving “the atomized world of the Instruction Paradigm” (89) is creating a “hot cognitive economy” throughout an institution. Tagg borrows the term “cognitive economy” from David Perkins’ 1992 monograph Smart Schools: Better Thinking and Learning for Every Child. Perkins characterized the typical elementary-school classroom as having a “cool” cognitive economy, “…one that does not motivate the energy needed for complex cognition of students but runs at an altogether lower level of cognitive demand” (as quoted in Tagg 94).

Table 8.1: The Cognitive Economy of Colleges

Hot Cool
Emphasizes intrinsic goals Emphasizes extrinsic goals
High level of cognitive activity; highest reward for high cost activities: deep approaches, complex cognition Low level of cognitive activity; high reward for low-cost activities: surface approaches, retention
High ratio of feedback to evaluation Low ratio of feedback to evaluation
Time Horizon of Learning
Long time horizon; decisions bear consequences in the long term Short time horizon; decisions bear consequences in the short term
Strong support community Weak support community
Institutional behavior consistent, aligned with learning mission Institutional behavior aligned with instruction mission or misaligned

Perkins chose economy as an analogy in order to analyze “the gains and costs students encounter” (as quoted in Tagg 94). A demanding task, for example, has costs for students in terms of “time and effort” (Tagg 94), but it also has benefits. Tagg extends this borrowed metaphor, applying it to entire institutions as learning environments. As we reduce our reliance on lecture and increase our emphasis on authentic critical thinking, evolving from mere cogs in Instruction Paradigm machines into scholars of teaching and learning, we help to warm up the cognitive economy around us. Put another way, we push our institutions from right to left in Tagg’s concise comparison of hot and cool cognitive economies:

Only one of us has that particular experience at that particular college, most likely. The rest of us have other particular experiences, with one thing in common: we begin to read scholarly work outside of our own disciplines. Whether we teach mathematics, genetics, finance, or drawing, we discover that people are writing about teaching and learning in ways that apply to all of us. If not Bean’s book, perhaps we discover the work of L. Dee Fink, whose research and writing focus on significant learning. We have all had students who were transformed by our classes, who blossomed in our presence or experienced epiphanies sometime between Labor Day and Thanksgiving (or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and Easter). But for most of us, those students have been the memorable exceptions, not the rule. Reading Fink’s book, Creating Significant Learning Experiences, might make us think that all students in all courses could be so transformed by what and how they learn. In Fink’s words, “…all significant learning offers one or more of the following values:

  • Enhancing an individual life: developing an ability to enjoy good art and music, developing a thoughtful philosophy of life, and so on.
  • Enabling us to contribute to the many communities of which we will be a part: family, local community, nation state, religion, special interest groups, the world.
  • Preparing us for the world of work: developing the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary for being effective in one or more professional fields” (7).

Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning, made up of six equally important domains (foundational knowledge, application, integration, learning how to learn, caring, and the human dimension) that combine in significant learning, might appeal to us more than Bloom’s famous hierarchical taxonomy.

At some point—perhaps sooner, perhaps later—we find colleagues on campus, in our own disciplines or others, who are on the same path. At large universities, we may only encounter colleagues from other disciplines on committees; at small colleges, we may share buildings or even offices with them. One way or another, we find ourselves talking to a colleague, close or distant, about our classes—not about how big they are or about ways to control our students’ bothersome behavior, but about how we teach them and how they learn. We find out that they too poll their students about the effectiveness of their teaching strategies, or they are about to start doing so, or they used to. At certain kinds of institutions, large or small, we may attend formal or informal presentations made by such colleagues, and that may be how we meet them and others like them.

Somewhere along the line, someone says something that sticks in our minds, simmering there for days before boiling over. Maybe it is, “It’s time to stop asking ourselves what we are doing in class tomorrow and time to start asking ourselves what our students are doing in class tomorrow” (and we might learn later that our colleague, the illustrious Glenn Blalock, was paraphrasing what John Tagg said about John Biggs’ three levels of “thinking about teaching” [Tagg 31]). Or it could be the old chestnut about the sage on the stage becoming the guide on the side. Whatever it is, it inspires action—more and/or better polling/surveying of our students, deeper and/or broader changes to our courses, wider and/or narrower reading in the scholarship of teaching and learning. Additional galvanizing ideas might come from our reading in SOTL (an acronym whose meaning we learn somewhere along the way). L. Dee Fink, in Creating Significant Learning Experiences, identifies certain teaching strategies that enhance significant learning, among them service learning, problem-based learning, and team-based learning. We might read about these strategies and others in Fink’s book or elsewhere and realize that one or more of the courses we teach would be well-suited to a certain strategy. We may, for example, realize that the course in which we frequently (but not very systematically) have students work in groups during class (which first 42% and then 65% of our students found productive, according to our informal surveys) could be improved if we adopted team-based learning. And so we might turn to work that focuses on a specific method, such as Team-Based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Groups in College Teaching by Larry K. Michaelsen, Arletta Bauman Knight, and L. Dee Fink.

We might learn that team-based learning (TBL) goes well beyond the casual, occasional use of small student groups or even the more systematic use of groups in cooperative learning, that TBL “…calls for procedures that support the transformation of newly formed ‘groups’ into ‘high-performance learning teams’” (8). Maybe we like the way it holds students accountable for reading assignments, for learning the basics from them on their own, and the way it uses collaborative tasks to extend and deepen learning. We might appreciate the relegation of lecture to a subordinate role, if not outright elimination. And we will realize that TBL could give our students added motivation: rather than just owing it to themselves and the instructor to succeed, they also owe it to their teammates. When we look at that photocopy on the
wall of John C. Bean’s summary of J. G. Kurfiss’ principles of critical thinking, we realize that TBL fits the bill rather nicely. Later, when we read Tagg’s book, we will see that TBL raises the temperature of the cognitive economy in our classrooms.

At a certain point, we may make a decision: not to use TBL at all or to take a plunge—either a large one—“converting” an entire course to TBL—or a small one: adapting just one instructional unit in the course to TBL.

Let’s say that in our particular situation we decide to take the big plunge. We spend a couple of months rethinking our whole approach to achieving course learning outcomes. During the first week of the new semester, we tell our students about the principles of TBL, how it works, and why we are using it. As the semester progresses, we listen to our students and make reasonable adjustments in response to any difficulties or unforeseen problems. We also make notes about how to better apply TBL the next semester.

We assess. Not because our institution forces us to do so (because their accrediting agency forces them to do so), but because we have the sense that assessment, in John Tagg’s words, “may or may not be useful for public relations or compliance with external requirements. But it is essential to build a hot cognitive economy” (328). Although we now understand that the informal survey we began using a few semesters prior is not an ideal assessment tool (because it was not designed with formal assessment in mind), it does provide a baseline, and we continue to administer it so that we can compare responses by students in non-TBL (pre-plunge) classes to those by students in TBL (post-plunge) classes.

We might know as little about presenting data as we do about collecting it, but we like the results we get over the next four semesters, and we like the way area graphs allow us to quickly grasp the results—the more blue (strongly agree) and red (agree) we see, the better. And so we present our results to our colleagues at a poster session sponsored by our college, pointing out to them that the “agree” and “strongly agree” are particularly salient in looking for trends and significant numbers. About our methods, we write this: Since the fall 2010 semester, I have surveyed my students regarding five pedagogical concerns: use of readings, emphasis on ideas, grading, engagement, and group activities. Surveys, administered at the ends of semesters, were anonymous and completed when I was out of the room. The number of survey respondents has varied from 16 to 49, with an average of 29. For each question, students indicated their level of agreement with statements about the course on a five-point scale, with choices ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.” Students also had the opportunity to write comments after each question.

And this is what our results look like:

Figure 1
Figure 1
Question 1: Readings: Indicate your agreement with the following statement: “Mr. Woodward’s use of reading assignments contributed to my development of writing skills.”
Term/Year Strongly Agree Agree Neutral Disagree Strongly Disagree
Fall 10 (non-TBL) (n=16) 5 (31%) 6 (38%) 2 (12%) 1 (6%) 2 (12%)
Spr 11 (TBL) (n=31) 10 (32%) 13 (42%) 5 (16%) 3 (10%) 0
Fall 11 (TBL) (n=21) 6 (29%) 13 (62%) 2 (10%) 0 0
Spring 12 (TBL) (n=49) 18 (37%) 20 (41%) 8 (16%) 3 (6%) 0
Fall 12 (TBL) (n=30) 17 (57%) 9 (30%) 2 (7%) 2 (7%) 0
Figure 2
Figure 2
Question 2: Ideas: Indicate your agreement with the following statement: “Mr. Woodward’s emphasis on ideas (thesis and reasons) as the building blocks of essays contributed to my development of writing skills.”
Term/Year Strongly Agree Agree Neutral Disagree Strongly Disagree
Fall 10 (non-TBL) (n=16) 7 (44%) 7 (44%) 1 (6%) 1 (6%) 0
Spr 11 (TBL) (n=31) 16 (52%) 9 (29%) 5 (16%) 1 (3%) 0
Fall 11 (TBL) (n=21) 10 (48%) 10 (48%) 1 (5%) 0 0
Spring 12 (TBL) (n=49) 27 (55%) 19 (39%) 2 (4%) 1 (2%) 0
Fall 12 (TBL) (n=30) 14 (47%) 11 (37%) 3 (10%) 2 (7%) 0
Figure 3
Figure 3


Question 3: Grading: Indicate your agreement with the following statement: “The basis for Mr. Woodward’s grading of my papers is clear to me before and after I turn them in.”
Term/Year Strongly Agree Agree Neutral Disagree Strongly Disagree
Fall 10 (non-TBL) (n=16) 4 (25%) 6 (38%) 2 (12%) 2 (12%) 2 (12%)
Spr 11 (TBL) (n=31) 9 (29%) 16 (52%) 4 (13%) 1 (3%) 1 (3%)
Fall 11 (TBL) (n=21) 11 (52%) 6 (29%) 4 (19%) 0 0
Spring 12 (TBL) (n=49) 29 (59%) 8 (16%) 10 (20%) 1 (2%) 1 (2%)
Fall 12 (TBL) (n=30) 14 (47%) 11 (37%) 3 (10%) 2 (7%) 0
Figure 4
Figure 4
Question 4: Engagement: Indicate your agreement with the following statement: “The class is engaging (i.e., it requires my involvement and is stimulating).”
Term/Year Strongly Agree Agree Neutral Disagree Strongly Disagree
Fall 10 (non-TBL) (n=16) 3 (19%) 5 (31%) 5 (31%) 3 (19%) 0
Spr 11 (TBL) (n=31) 9 (29%) 11 (35%) 10 (32%) 1 (3%) 0
Fall 11 (TBL) (n=21) 7 (33%) 11 (52%) 2 (10%) 1 (5%) 0
Spring 12 (TBL)  (n=49) 27 (55%) 13 (27%) 8 (16%) 1 (2%) 0
Fall 12 (TBL) (n=30) 20 (67%) 7 (23%) 3 (10%) 0 0
Figure 5
Figure 5
Question 5: Group Activities: Indicate your agreement with the following statement: “Working in small groups with classmates has been productive and helpful.”
Term/Year Strongly Agree Agree Neutral Disagree Strongly Disagree
Fall 10 (non-TBL) (n=16) 3 (19%) 7 (44%) 3 (19%) 2 (12%) 1 (6%)
Spr 11 (TBL) (n=30) 12 (40%) 7 (23%) 9 (30%) 2 (7%) 0
Fall 11 (TBL) (n=20) 3 (15%) 8 (40%) 6 (30%) 3 (15%) 0
Spring 12 (TBL)  (n=49) 22 (47%) 16 (34%) 7 (15%) 1 (2%) 1 (2%)
Fall 12 (TBL) (n=29) 15 (52%) 9 (31%) 2 (7%) 2 (7%) 1 (3%)

We appreciate the way our colleagues in the sciences know how to grasp the significance of graphs and tables almost at a glance, and we come to agree with those among them who venture to say that Question 4 (Engagement) is the most important one. In one corner of the poster we do our best to distill the experience into one (three-part) grand Conclusion: In a first-year writing course such as WRIT 1311, team-based learning can:

  • Help instructors work toward pedagogical goals (such as integrating reading or emphasizing ideas).
  • Help students understand how they are evaluated.
  • Make the course significantly more engaging.

Eventually we learn–from Tagg, Fink, Michaelsen, Knight, and others—that assessing our students’ learning is at least as important as evaluating our teaching (and that assessing learning is a way of evaluating teaching). If we have the power and/or freedom to do so, we revise learning outcomes for our courses so that they are not just lists of content topics to be “mastered.” We reach a new or better understanding of those learning outcomes’ connections to program and/or general education learning outcomes. We come to see what John Tagg has seen, that “Institutional assessment has been mixed up with issues of accountability, program assessment, and accreditation,” and that we should “…ask ourselves, with the utmost seriousness, these questions: What do we want our students to know about their own learning, about the state of their knowledge? What are the goals of knowledge and ability that we hold for them? And what do they need to know in order to achieve those goals?” (328). And so, depending on our level of responsibility, we may devise methods of assessing students’ learning across multiple sections of a course or at a certain stage in their academic careers. We may even get involved, with like-minded colleagues, in revising the core curriculum and its assessment.

At some point we attend a conference attended by faculty from all over the geographic and academic map. It might be a conference on service learning, information literacy, or writing across the curriculum. We might present research results like those above, or we might just absorb ideas from multiple perspectives (of course we can do both). We may notice how refreshingly cooperative and collaborative everyone seems to feel, in stark contrast to the competitive atmosphere of some discipline-specific conferences. In any case, we will probably find that we have a lot in common with scholars and teachers in other disciplines, all of us perhaps at different stages but on the same journey from one paradigm to another.

Whatever path we take into the scholarship of teaching and learning, out of the petrified forest of the instruction paradigm and toward the fertile jungle of the learning paradigm, at some point we must understand that the journey never ends. First of all, “The Learning Paradigm college needs to be a learning organization in the double sense that it is an organization that produces learning and an organization that learns” (34). And for Tagg, a functioning learning-paradigm institution is truly a community of practice in which “We must test our ideas and beliefs together….revise and correct our vision, test it in practice, and negotiate the solutions our vision has created….It is an iterative process, involving much back-and-forth. Once you have a vision of the whole, you must continuously be willing to revise it, to renegotiate it” (287).

Somewhere along the way, we come to understand the importance of reflection in learning—why some say we learn very little if we do not reflect periodically. It could be that settling in behind the computer to begin an academic article presenting the results of our research causes us to reflect upon how we have gotten to that moment. And maybe we change our minds, and so instead of displaying our data in a conventional manner, we decide to write a reflective essay about SOTL, in which we can incidentally embed our data. Or maybe we don’t change our minds. Either way, we have taken another step by writing not for a narrow discipline but for this boundless, welcoming field. It is not the last step we will take, but it is an important one.


Bean, J.C. (1996). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Endowed professorship program policy. (2008) Retrieved from Louisiana Board of Regents website: http://web.laregents.org/documents/apchair.pdf

Fink, L.D. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Michaelsen,L.K., Knight, A.B., & Fink, L. D. (2004) Team-based learning: A transformative use of small groups in college teaching. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Tagg, J. (2003). The learning paradigm college. San Francisco: Anker.