What makes a quality scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL) publication?

This was the title of a recent guest panel session facilitated by Anna Rowe from the University of New South Wales. Attracting over 130 registrants from seven countries, the session demonstrated the high demand for information on publishing SOTL. The panel members were : Karsten Zegwaard (University of Waikato), Henk Huijser (Queensland University of Technology) and Agnes Bosanquet (Macquarie University).

We are scholars in higher education learning and teaching, and have experience as editors and reviewers for key journals in the field. Karsten is Editor-in-Chief for the International Journal of Work-Integrated Learning, Hank is Associate Editor for the International Journal for Academic Development, the Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, and the Journal of Peer Learning. I was an Associate Editor for Higher Education Research and Development for 8 years, and have reviewed articles for over 20 journals including Studies in Higher Education, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, Higher Education, Teaching in Higher Education and International Journal for Academic Development.

Top left: Anna Rowe, top right: Henk Huijser, bottom left: Agnes Bosanquet, bottom right: Karsten Zegwaard.

A recording of the one hour event is available at the end of this post.

What are the key features you look for as editors and reviewers in a quality SOTL publication?

Generally speaking, we look for an interesting story that adds something new to current understanding. We look closely at research methods, review the writing (is it scholarly?) and check the quality of the literature review. A quality SOTL publication joins a conversation (to repeat: knowledge of the literature is crucial) and makes an explicit contribution to the field, whether that contribution is theoretical, methodological or pedagogical.

For a slightly different perspective, this article from Peter Felten (2013) on principles of good practice in SOTL is worth reading and includes the following table:

What are some common mistakes that you see as editors and reviewers?

These are things to avoid: submissions that are small in scale or inward looking, with little awareness of the existing literature. Submissions that can be summed up as ‘we did this and it worked very well’ without theoretical framing or scholarly engagement with the literature or evaluation of the practice. Avoid blurring the results and the discussion in one section of the paper as this tends to be descriptive rather than analytical (and can signal a weaker paper).

The most common mistake is submitting manuscripts without reading the aims and scope of the journal. An editor has no choice but to reject an article, even if it is really good, if it falls outside the scope of the journal.

What tips do you have for those new to publishing SOTL?

As noted above, making a theoretical, methodological or pedagogical contribution to scholarship is important. Make sure you know something about these! Start by reading journal articles. Subscribe to table of contents alerts for higher education journals. You won’t be able to read all the articles, but you get to know what is being published and what interests you.

SOTL is not always recognised by institutions, and there can be a lot of pressure to publish in top journals. Collaborating with others can help! It takes time to become an expert and collaboration offers a shortcut. You can share knowledge around pedagogy and discipline expertise.

Start small, and remind yourself you don’t need to win a Nobel Prize for your first publication! You can start researching your own practice. Refereed conference proceedings or book chapters can offer a good way into SOTL publishing. Look for journals that are willing to publish practice-based pieces, such as Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice (JUTLP)  or journals that offer to support early career scholars and provide constructive feedback. Consider newer journals such as HERDSA’s Advancing Scholarship and Research in Higher Education Journal (ASRHE).

What are your tips for publishing a good practice paper?

Journal choice is important, as not all journals will publish papers on learning and teaching practice. Consider how your practice is adding to new knowledge, as some journals will consider making an exception if you make a good case. It is important that your research is informed by theory and literature. Include an evaluation and consider your evidence for the quality and impact of your practice. The International Journal for Academic Development publishes short (1500) word reflections on practice. The key question to consider is: how can this practice add value for people in different contexts?

If you are publishing in a little known area, what can help you be successful?

It could be a new discipline, but you might also be working with a theory or method that is not well known to reviewers. You need to teach the reader about your context. Avoid jargon and making assumptions about what readers already know. Be explicit that this is new and how it applies in different contexts. Offer a historical overview. Make connections with other theories or methods or disciplines. Pitch your work to an international and multi-disciplinary audience. Consider the acceptance rates of the journal you want to publish in and aim accordingly. Your time and energy are finite. Studies in Higher Education, for example, has an acceptance rate of 5%.

How different is publishing in SOTL than discipline-based research?

Possibly not that different. It may depend on your disciplinary background. You may be familiar with short papers with many co-authors, or longer single-authored publications. It depends which aspect of SOTL is a stretch for you. Perhaps you find applying a theoretical lens to your practice is tricky. (This learning theories map may help you locate your ideas). Think about your challenges in the transition from discipline-based research to SOTL. Collaborate with others to share expertise with theories, methods and pedagogies.

How do these ideas apply to independent researchers outside of a university context?

Research is research, but there are particular challenges for independent researchers. It may be tricky to access databases and repositories for scholarly literature. You may want to consider approaches to SOTL that do not require ethics approval or classroom practice, such as policy analysis or publicly available data sets. If possible, consider joining associations such as HERDSA or ISSOTL or ICED for access to resources and opportunities to connect with others. Volunteer to be a peer reviewer for journals, or consider writing book reviews by getting in touch with the book reviews editor for a particular journal.

Which journals should I check out? Where else to start?

High quality higher education research journals include Studies in Higher Education, Higher Education Research and Development, and Higher Education. SOTL journals include Teaching in Higher Education, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education and Teaching and Learning Inquiry. For theory, consider Philosophy and Theory in Higher Education, and for practice Journal for University Teaching and Learning Practice. For academic development, look at the International Journal of Academic Development. There are technology journals including Distance Education, Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, British Journal of Educational Technology, or Innovations in Education and Teaching International. For WIL, try the International Journal of Work-Integrated Learning.

Look at articles or authors who are well cited. Follow authors whose work you admire, and see who is citing their work. Dig through their Google Scholar account. Find a mentor – your institution may have a formal mentoring scheme. Look at databases in your institutional library, especially of you are interested in doing a systematic literature review. Make friends with your research librarian!

Watch the full recording here (1 hour):

Check out our resources for learning and teaching scholarship in higher education:

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Posted by Agnes Bosanquet

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