Using a scholarly approach to improve teaching and learning in biochemistry higher education


My institution is in the heart of an urban neighborhood and spontaneous public artwork and philosophical statements are a common part of the landscape. Recently, I noticed a sticker plastered to a street sign that asked, “What would happen if we collaborated instead of avoiding?” I found this question especially thought-provoking given my recent rereading of Huber and Hutching's The Advancement of Learning: Building the Teaching Commons [1]. Although the biochemistry education community is far from avoiding conversations about improving teaching and learning, reexamining our individual and community teaching practices through the lens of the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) is critical for continued growth and improvement.

The contemporary vision of SoTL, which has been promoted tirelessly by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching [2], is generally thought to have its origin in Ernest Boyer's Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professorate [3]. Boyer proposed an expanded definition of professorial scholarship, which includes the scholarship of teaching. Soon after, Lee Shulman asserted that the way to legitimize the scholarly work of teaching is to make it “community property” [4]. Shulman suggested that contrary to our public work as disciplinary scholars, teaching has historically taken place in isolation. In order to make teaching a more valued part of the academy, he argued that our work in the classroom must be made visible, be connected to our disciplines, and be subject to peer-review.

Huber and Hutchings expanded on Schulman's vision and described the exchange of ideas among those committed to learning as taking place in the “teaching commons” [1]. SoTL, which is an integral part of the teaching commons, has four defining characteristics according to Huber and Hutchings: 1) questioning, 2) gathering and exploring evidence, 3) trying out and refining new insights, and 4) going public. These characteristics are considered in greater detail in the context of science education below.


Questions about students' learning experiences within a specific context are most often the starting point for SoTL projects [5]. Questions should be relevant to the individual faculty member, but should also be informed by previously published work. Grounding SoTL questions in the literature prevents individual teachers from reinventing the wheel and adds relevance to the project. Furthermore, identifying an appropriate theoretical framework provides the project with structure by helping to shape the research question and define a useful methodology. McKinney provides a wealth of practical suggestions for those interested in defining questions and designing high quality SoTL projects [6].


Carl Wieman, among others, has argued that the best way to improve science teaching and make it accessible to a more diverse student body is to apply the practices of scientific research to science teaching [7]. Central to this idea is the use of evidence instead of anecdote as the foundation for developing effective teaching approaches. Therefore, if SoTL is to mirror the process of science, questions that we ask about student learning and changes we make in our teaching practice must be based on prior work investigating how people learn and what teaching innovations have been previously successful in our discipline. Maryellen Weimer gives an extensive critical description of the types of data that can be generated and examined related to teaching [5]. This inventory makes clear that a diversity of evidence produced using a number of different theoretical approaches can help inform and improve teaching.


SoTL is often defined as action research because it is intended not only to generate new understanding but also to improve student learning. Therefore, the practical consequence of SoTL is modified teaching practice. Like experimentation in the laboratory, we should expect that making changes in our classrooms will be an iterative process. If a first attempt at trying something new does not work as expected, it is important to be reflective, return to the literature or consult with a colleague in order to improve the next attempt. When SoTL projects are based on prior scholarly work and when results are disseminated, change can move beyond individual classrooms and begin to result in system-wide improvements [8]. Although classroom innovations resulting from SoTL will be as varied as the projects themselves, many agree that improved use of technology is likely to be central to successful classroom innovation and dissemination of these best practices in the future [5, 7, 8].


All of the authors cited thus far emphasize the importance of presenting SoTL results in an appropriate scholarly forum. This final step legitimizes SoTL by holding it to the same standards as disciplinary research and it ensures that ideas are disseminated to the wider community. Fortunately, the biochemistry education community has a growing number of scholarly outlets including presentations at national and regional meetings and publications in a number of disciplinary education journals like BAMBED.

Where then do we stand as biochemistry educators in an era in which shifting demographics, technological innovations, and increasing pressure to make higher education worth the money make changes in college and university classrooms not just expected, but inevitable? SoTL can allow us to survive and thrive in these turbulent times, by giving us the tools to ask questions and make changes within a supportive community of scholars. Engaging in SoTL provides a path to improve teaching and learning in biochemistry and to enhance our own experiences as teachers and scholars.