Is Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) an interdisciplinary undertaking? – Tracy Zou

After writing down the above title, I realised the enormous complexity contained in the topic. Both Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) and interdisciplinarity are highly contested concepts, which makes it very challenging to discuss the relationship between them. However, I still see this challenging endeavour a meaningful task for this e-newsletter because such a discussion might provide some clues on how faculty members view and decide to approach SoTL (or not).

I guess that I started to work on SoTL before I even knew about it. It was back to the time when I worked with several engineering professors at another university in designing and evaluating a Common Core Course on Engineering Grand Challenges. We used a collaborative problem-solving pedagogy and my aim was to carry out an inquiry into whether the pedagogy enabled students to achieve the intended learning outcomes (e.g., the abilities to identify complex problems, propose and defend a solution, and work collaboratively). I was not an educational researcher, nor a trained SoTL practitioner but I followed some approaches published in the literature to collect evidence about student learning.

I collected data from a number of sources: students’ self-reported levels of competence at the beginning and the end of the course; their collaborative problem-solving processes measured by a rubric; the quality of their solutions presented in the report, and finally focus groups to understand how students worked in teams. I found that if students were able to follow the collaborative problem-solving approach and especially when they were able to critique and challenge one another during the process, they were as a team more able to produce a high quality solution but their satisfaction with the teamwork process might not be very high. The implication on our teaching was to develop students’ ability to engage in meaningful critiques and help them realise handling conflicts was part of the teamwork1.

A lot of interesting conversations took place during this inquiry process, for example, the questions to me from the engineering professors were like the following:

How can survey and focus groups be used to collect evidence? They are just opinions.

When we are building a bridge, we cannot say that it might work in sunny days and might not work in rainy days, right? So can you tell me if the approach worked or not in a more definite term?

The questions I had were more like the ones below:

Students’ opinions were important to inform how they learned and worked together. Why can’t we use them?

What does a definite conclusion mean?

I would say that the above was not yet interdisciplinary conversations but multidisciplinary ones. I and my colleagues seemed to have entered into a ‘soft’ science versus ‘hard’ science debate. However, later we indeed engaged in more interdisciplinary undertakings as we worked further in our SoTL journey (interestedly, we did not use the term SoTL at all). We were then interested in a topic called engineering identity and would like to make another inquiry into a civil engineering capstone course and how it might build students’ engineering identity2. We designed the survey together (though I forgot how I have convinced my colleague to use surveys), trying to understand what a civil engineer does and how that could be reasonably embedded in a survey. I also spent effort understanding the simulation design that enabled me to make some contributions to the design of the assessment and rubrics for the course. The interdisciplinary journey only started when we acquired an understanding of what the other side is doing and shared the responsibility to achieve our goals, including the design of a civil engineering capstone course and that of a scholarly inquiry to understand how it worked or not.

The above-mentioned experience may be seen as an interesting start of an interdisciplinary SoTL journey. Later my work in the Centre for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in HKU has subsequently exposed me to more dialogue and debates about SoTL. The recent two-week visit I undertook through HKU’s Teaching Exchange Fellowship Scheme to the Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning at the National University of Singapore stimulated many more thoughts about SoTL and its current trend. I have witnessed that the interdisciplinarity of SoTL is still being discussed.

One argument is that SoTL is specific to the discipline because the ways of thinking, the kind of questions one will ask, and the approaches to launch an inquiry vary considerably between disciplines. The other side of the argument is that SoTL is interdisciplinary in nature because it requires the crossing of disciplinary boundaries to launch a valid inquiry into student learning in a discipline (Poole, 2013). During the process, people approaching SoTL often cannot avoid thinking about some methods that are considered as outside of their discipline but meanwhile as valid and helpful in understanding students’ learning. This might be accomplished by people from different disciplines working together or by one group of people learning to use the approaches in other disciplines. My own experience leads me to support the latter argument in favour of interdisciplinarity in SoTL but I do realise very deeply the importance to address discipline-specific issues and speak in a language that people in the discipline will endorse. Without the discipline-specific focus, I would not have the opportunity to work with the engineering professors at all.

A related while more fundamental debate to the interdisicplinarity of SoTL is how similar and different SoTL and educational research are and would it be necessary to distinguish between the two. I hope I could continue sharing my thoughts on this matter in the next issue of the e-newsletter because it requires some more complex discussions on the nature of research that we are talking about as well as the nature of knowledge.


  • Poole, G. (2013). Square One: What is Research? In K. McKinney (Eds.), The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in and Across the Disciplines (pp. 135-151). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.


Publications generated from the SoTL inquiry:

  • 1 Zou, T.X.P. & Mickleborough, N.C. (2015). Promoting collaborative problem-solving skills in a course on engineering grand challenges. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 52(2), 148–159.
  • 2 Zou, T.X.P. & Chan, B.Y.B. (2016). Developing professional identity through simulated learning experiences in capstone courses. Proceedings of 39th Annual Conference of the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA) Conference, Fremantle, Australia, July 4-7, 2016.
Dr. Tracy Zou
Dr. Tracy Zou

Assistant Professor
Centre for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning
The University of Hong Kong

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