Reflections on CAA’s 2018 SoTL Bootcamp

In February, CAA’s Education Committee organized a one-day Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) Bootcamp in conjunction with its 2018 Annual Conference. Supported by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, the University of Southern California, AHSC (Art Historians of Southern California), and CAA, this free workshop attracted about 30 participants interested in learning more about SoTL. (What’s SoTL? Click here)  Modeled on the THATcamps at CAA from 2013 to 2015 that introduced more members to digital art history, this year’s SoTL Bootcamp similarly aimed to increase awareness of SoTL and to encourage artists and art historians to pursue this emerging area of research.


Why do SoTL?  The Bigger Picture

The SoTL Bootcamp took place on USC’s campus on Saturday in an effort to allow faculty with heavier teaching loads to attend. As participants arrived, a shared commitment to arts education quickly became obvious. In light of threats to institutional art programs and government funding, many instructors spoke about a need to “bring something back” that could convince their administration that study of the arts and humanities is a worthy pursuit. This shared concern offered the foundation for rich discussions on topics such as equitable assessment practices, no-cost textbook options, direct learning experiences, and ideas to help artists and art historians engage with SoTL on their home campuses. (Notes, comments, and programming details of the SoTL Bootcamp are archived on the CAA Commons and Twitter #CAASoTL.

Important to this conversation is the position that SoTL not only improves teaching and learning in higher education, but that it can effectively advocate for the value of the arts and a liberal education. However, for SoTL to have significant impact, faculty in art and art history must be open to learning more about a field where we are currently novices. These kinds of big picture issues were addressed in lightning talks throughout the day by experts in art history, SoTL, and educational research.


How do we begin?  Expanding Our Skill Sets To Engage with SoTL

The Bootcamp’s break-out sessions provided an opportunity to exchange ideas on particular issues. These informal conversations revealed that while art and art history educators are very good at sharing ideas about teaching and learning with each other, we are less prepared to discuss them with others outside the field.  Despite the fact that we are experts in our subject and skillful in our teaching, our academic training and research methods differ from SoTL, which emphasizes generalizable evidence of effective teaching and learning. This difference was the focus of an interactive workshop for art and art history instructors who want to develop their own educational research projects.

Led by SoTL scholar Nancy Chick from the University of Calgary, the workshop highlighted types of SoTL inquiry that would better understand student learning in our classrooms and how it could be improved, and also studies that would examine teaching approaches and practices that affect student learning. Although Chick draws on methods from the field of educational research, she reframes them in a way to promote interdisciplinary understanding.


Workshop Takeaways


Read what other people are doing.

You wouldn’t write on a topic without reviewing the most recent publications, so first read about SoTL when you begin to develop a project. Take a look at AHTR’s SoTL Resources page and their 2015 literature review on SoTL-AH, and Chick’s  bibliography specifically for humanists interested in SoTL. Since SoTL in art and art history is still limited, you should consult educational research from other fields that address similar teaching methods or concepts, and explore theoretical frameworks in Learning Science, and Ed Psych that differ from your own creative or scholarly practice.

Collect evidence of student learning.

Teachers often collect artifacts that demonstrate student learning; in fact, looking to see if students achieve course objectives is one of the most important aspects of our jobs. But this type of assessment typically occurs after we teach the material.  When was the last time you looked for evidence of student knowledge before they begin a new topic or course? Or conducted a longitudinal follow-up by looking for retention of information a few months after the learning took place? It may not be as frequent. However, conducting pre and post-tests are a great way to see the real effects of an intentional change in one’s teaching practice. There are a lot of different types of evidence of student learning ranging from quantitative surveys and tests, to qualitative questionnaires or discussions (or both!). The best options are usually unique to each research project and beyond the scope of this reflection, but for those of us outside the social sciences, this article provides a useful overview.

Publish it!

If a teacher has a good idea that clearly worked in the classroom then they should consider sharing it in the spirit of promoting best practices in the field. Such publication should include the specific context of the study (Who? Where? When?), the literature that informed their approach, the details of what they did, and a summary of the data (which is just another word for evidence) they collected along with details of their analysis. In addition to Art History Pedagogy and Practice, here is a list of other SoTL publications to explore.  

Publish it (even if it doesn’t work)!

The field of SoTL can learn just as much from a study that was unsuccessful as one that was outstanding. Everyone wants to be the person who came up with an idea that works for everybody, but success every time is not a reasonable expectation for teachers in the classroom.

Overwhelmed, overworked? Collaborate.

The process of conducting SoTL demands additional time in the form of planning, collecting evidence of student learning, data analysis, and publishing. Collaborating with peer can be a great benefit, and allows you to build on one another’s different experiences and areas of expertise. According to some journal standards, having someone other than the teacher collect and analyze evidence of student learning makes that information stronger.

Leverage your strengths.

Although SoTL requires art educators to step out of their disciplinary expertise, Nancy Chick insists that our particular area of knowledge is an important asset to SoTL practice.  After all, who knows our classroom better than we do? Chick’s workshop was empowering because she pointed out that, in many ways, we all perform SoTL. If a teacher takes feedback from course evaluations they may make an adjustment to their practice. If a teacher notes that students did not grasp a particular concept when grading a test they may change the way that they teach or evaluate that concept next time. Both of these are examples of analyzing and utilizing evidence from the classroom.

The hurdle before us is how we share the context and details of our teaching experiments in a way that is usable and repeatable for others. Anecdotal evidence shared on blogs like the AHTR Weekly, social media, or during informal gatherings can be amazingly helpful (especially for new teachers!), but without guidelines to ensure academic rigor, these findings lack the scholarly credibility to have broad impact.


Conclusion:  Why should CAA promote and encourage SoTL?

In 2002 the National Research Council (NRC) published a treatise outlining what they considered to be the standards for Science-based research in education. It was an effort to encourage and promote better quality research that policy makers could use to inform their decisions. Despite initial and continued skepticism and dialogue among researchers in the field, the standards persist. Organizations that provide funding to research the arts look for these qualities:

  1. Pose Significant Questions That Can Be Investigated Empirically
  2. Link Research to Relevant Theory
  3. Use Methods That Permit Direct Investigation of the Question
  4. Provide a Coherent and Explicit Chain of Reasoning
  5. Replicate and Generalize Across Studies
  6. Disclose Research to Encourage Professional Scrutiny and Critique

CAA’s SoTL bootcamp was part of a larger movement to empower academics and teachers of the arts to advocate for the many benefits that an art education can provide to students. Such an empowerment will involve a shift in the way art academics have traditionally approached research. However, as the many participants who were present at the bootcamp know, art scholars are great at research. Such a movement will take energetic and passionate individuals, meaningful collaborations, and sustained discussion. As the arts face adversity in changing times, CAA and other arts organizations should promote more SoTL professional development as a strategic priority.


Alysha Meloche was one of four Kress SoTL Fellows participating in the Bootcamp.

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