Publishing with Students – Student Voices in SoTL

This is the second post from a series I wrote in 2012 about writing and publishing with undergraduate students. I’ll be publishing this series every other Thursday over the summer. For more recent research and resources, visit the new International Journal for Students as Partners and a special issue of Teaching and Learning Inquiry that I co-edited on students as co-inquirers.

What exactly does it mean to include student voices in Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) research? Where does the concept come from, and how can student voices be included in our SoTL work? Does it mean we just use students as research subjects who we quote, or is there more to it than that?

When I noted at the end of my first post on publishing with students that we would discuss the idea of student voices, Peter Felten responded and helpfully raised an interesting point – there is a rather contentious debate among scholars as to which term is more appropriate for this work – “student voice” or “student voices.” According to Peter, “voices” plural is the preferred term of scholars in the US like Carmen Werder, but the term originated in the UK as “voice” singular, not implying a unified voice but instead a tradition in the research. For the sake of this post, I’ll align with the US scholars and use “student voices.”

Why Student Voices?
So, how do student voices play into SoTL? Well, the better questions is “how can we study teaching and learning in higher education without student voices?” After mining at least 15 different definitions of SoTL, Potter and Kustra compiled the following definition: “the systematic study of teaching and learning to understand how teaching (beliefs, behaviours, attitudes, and values) can maximize learning, and/or develop a more accurate understanding of learning, resulting in products that are publicly shared for critique and used by an appropriate community” (p. 2). Students are noticeably absent from this meta-definition, putting the emphasis on the teacher-researcher and only obliquely implying students are present as someone who must be “learning” in this equation.

While the omission may have be unintentional, it is still telling. As scholars work to legitimize SoTL in the eyes of the academy, we have had to be sure to emphasize that the work is empirical, intentional, and peer reviewed as well as ethical. Adding students as co-authors rather than simply research subjects just might make that argument a little more difficult to make to traditional P&T committees.

But as the undergraduate research movement has grown in the last 20 years along with SoTL, it only makes sense to include the perspectives of the learners in the design, execution, and sharing of research on teaching and learning. This work is not necessarily new but is only now really gaining traction, perhaps because SoTL is maturing as a legitimate research area. One of the early clusters in the Carnegie Academy for Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching focused on student voices. This online resource shows the results of this work at the University of Maryland. Illinois State University (here as well) and Elon University also engaged faculty and students in supported efforts to include student voices in SoTL research.

How is Including Student Voices Different than Studying Student Learning?
Traditional educational research has always studied student learning with methods consistent with the goals of that field. SoTL is different in that the research is conducted by scholars in their own fields rather than by experts in educational research (which is also contentious). After all, we are experts in the ways teaching and learning work in our fields. When we study teaching and learning, we naturally must study instructors and students. But including student voices goes far beyond simply including student quotes in our research articles.

In a special issue on student voices in SoTL in Teaching and Learning Together in Higher Education, guest editor Marilyn Cohn noted, “the study of classroom pedagogy through the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning and action research leads to increased awareness of the value and power of learner inclusion and empowerment. The closer … faculty look at their classrooms, the clearer it becomes that meaningful and lasting learning requires dialogue, collaboration, and partnership with students.” Students can be involved in SoTL research as equal partners with scholars in developing research questions, determining appropriate research methods, collecting and analyzing data, and publishing and/or presenting this work at appropriate scholarly venues.

One of the leading voices (no pun intended) in this work is Carmen Werder at Western Washington University, co-editor of Engaging Student Voices in the Study of Teaching and Learning. In the video below, Carmen and her co-editor Megan Otis discuss the merits of including students as SoTL researchers:

As Carmen notes, “it only makes good sense if you are doing research on teaching and learning that you bring students into it…it’s not a luxury anymore, it’s a necessity.”

Building on this foundation for the rest of the blog series, we’ll move forward with the practicalities of adding the voices of student researchers drawing on my experience and those of others in the field. I’ll try to include student voices in this process as well. In the next post, we’ll explore how to identify SoTL research questions and students co-researchers for a project.

Until then, what are your thoughts on including student voices in your teaching and learning research? If you have worked with student researchers, what did their voices add to the research and writing processes? What are some reasons you have or might consider adding student voices to a SoTL project?

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