Finding a “Commons” Space in SoTL

by Mattea A. Garcia (Assistant Professor of Communication, Rollins College) & Patti McCall (Assistant Professor-Science Librarian, Rollins College)

This past January a group of colleagues from all over campus traveled to Savannah and, for some, the unknown territory of SoTL (Scholarship of Teaching and Learning). We had folks from Math, Library Science, Communication, English, and Business. We met people from Engineering, Philosophy, Chemistry, and so on. All these disciplines under one roof, with a common interest: to better understand the ways we engage in the practice of teaching and examining the process of learning.

For us, the conference was not just about learning about SoTL. It was also an opportunity to learn about and from our colleagues across the college. Several presenters used the idea of creating a “Learning Commons” or a space (physically, digitally, intellectually) to build a community of learners around common interests (in this case SoTL). We wanted to adopt this idea and share some of our takeaways in this digital space and hope this sparks more conversations in more spaces.

Patti:  Do you know what “SoTL” is?  Well, I really didn’t before attending this conference. In fact, it turns out there is a discussion taking place within the SoTL community about the nature of what counts as scholarship in the field. This conference, though, was a great introduction because the who’s who of SoTL were present and accounted for, including our very own Nancy Chick who offered her insights to us as well as presented research. What I especially appreciated is that with all the disciplines represented and the nature of the research in those fields, often times completely different from one another, people were open minded, welcoming, and not only willing to listen to very different ideas but were, in fact, very interested. SoTL is an area that is welcoming to anyone new who wants to learn, contribute, and make an impact.  

Like Mattea, one of my go to sources is James Lang’s Small Teaching, and Jeffrey Karpicke’s presentation expanded much deeper into cognitive learning (see here for more). He points out that retrieval is under-utilized despite being free and no gadgets required. With Lang and Karpicke’s teachings in mind, as well as the great discussions I had in the car with Rollins’ colleagues, I have been thinking about opportunities for collaboration and ways in which I can incorporate these strategies in my teaching.

Mattea: One of my favorite books on teaching is James Lang’s Small Teaching. Grounded in cognitive theory, Lang argues that we can make small changes to our teaching to improve student’s learning. So imagine my excitement when cognitive psychologist Jeffrey Karpicke was a keynote speaker. His talk focused on the importance of retrieval activities (see also Jana Mathew’s post here) for helping students retain information. Inspired, I returned to campus ready to integrate writing prompts and mindmapping and other retrieval activities into my lessons. I’ve even started conversations with my students about their study habits. For example, the research shows that teaching the material to someone else or using flashcards can be helpful tools for retention. When using flashcards, it is better to attempt to remember, and move on when you can’t, rather than flipping immediately to the answer. The research also tells us that cramming doesn’t work (surprise!). Instead, spacing out studying into short sessions is more beneficial for future recall and use of material. Hearing the passion of SoTL scholars as they shared really interesting research inspired me to take a SoTL mindset (see Anne Stone’s post here) and start imagining the kinds of research projects that could stem from and inform my teaching. Oh, and my other takeaway: Having a librarian with you at a conference is awesome. During the conference, Patti searched and shared any of the major articles our presenters cited and is now a resource as we embark on learning a new literature and undertake new projects.

Rollins is a place that values collaboration and innovation. We often talk about interdisciplinary learning for our students and our own research. But it can be hard to find your community, find common ground, and find time. Attending this conference helped us realize that SoTL can be a common ground. Teaching and learning are at the core of our endeavors here at Rollins. We even host a Summit on Transforming Learning! SoTL can serve as a place to explore, understand, and even transform our teaching and learning. Each of us took away new knowledge to use in our classrooms or develop our research and we came away inspired to connect and learn with each other.

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