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LibParlor Contributor Reflection

Finding a Research Agenda When Teaching and Learning is Your Passion

LibParlor contributor Lauren Hays discusses finding her research agenda and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL).

LibParlor is happy to introduce Lauren Hays (@Lib_Lauren). Lauren is the Instructional and Research Librarian at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, KS.  When she is not working, writing, or thinking about teaching she is most likely spending time with her dog Stan.

Recently, I found myself telling a colleague who is earlier in their career than I am to find what they professionally enjoy and write about it.  I gave this advice because I believe the best work is done by people who care about a topic with which they are working, but also because it makes the process of writing and publishing much more pleasurable.  

I spent the first couple of years of my career with no idea where I wanted to focus my professional scholarship.  In many ways, I fell unintentionally into the role of instruction librarian—an amazingly good stumble, but it meant I did not understand the professional landscape.  I just knew I enjoyed teaching, and I enjoyed being a librarian.  How those two things fit together was not clear to me until a few years into my career.  In the meantime, I found myself writing and speaking about topics in which I did not take much professional joy.  Instead, it felt like checking off a box.  I must complete scholarship because I have faculty status.  Check.

Before I continue, I want to say that I recognize not everyone is in a position where they have time for research, can change research agendas, or are free to pick almost any professional topic under the sun.  This is a privilege I do not take lightly.

Similarly to how I stumbled into academic library instruction, I found the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL).  SoTL is a movement in higher education to research what happens in the classroom.  More specifically, SoTL researchers study the teaching and learning that occurs in order to improve student learning.  Shulman (2006) wrote

“The scholarship of teaching and learning invites faculty…to view teaching as serious, intellectual work, ask good questions about their students’ learning, seek evidence in their classrooms that can be used to improve practice, and make this work public so that others can critique it, build on it, and contribute to the wider teaching commons” (p. ix).

Most of the credit for the introduction to SoTL needs to go to Margy MacMillan.  Her passion was and is contagious.  It was not, though, until I decided to pursue a PhD and needed a research topic for my doctoral studies that I really decided to dig into SoTL.  What I found was a field of scholarship that combined so many things I cared about—teaching, research, higher education culture, and student learning.  I still ask how I did not know this whole world of higher education professionals talking about teaching and learning existed. Why isn’t SoTl more embedded into library culture?  That is probably a topic for a different post.  

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What I like about SoTL is that it lets me study teaching and learning broadly.  I have SO many questions.  For the past year, my dissertation has consumed all my research time.  However, as I read SoTL literature and reflect on my own teaching, I keep coming up with ideas for research projects.  Many ideas are sparked from questions that develop as I collect dissertation data.  One research project has a way of leading to other questions.  

I have also been developing research questions from my teaching journal.  Early in my career, I started writing at least a few sentences about each instruction session I taught.  This expanded to include notes about for-credit classes I teach.  I try to review this journal at the beginning and end of each semester—the key word being try.  I have certainly not always met this goal.  When I do take time to review it, though, I try to look for patterns in things that went well and in things that did not.  From this reflection, I have ideas for research projects I want to undertake to gain a better understanding of why things happen.  

SoTL studies typically fall into four categories where each category answers a specific type of question:  

  • What works?  (e.g. what works to teach this concept?)
  • What is? (e.g. what is happening in the classroom?)
  • Visions of the Possible (e.g. what is possible in the classroom?)
  • New Conceptual Frameworks (e.g. a question that designs a new framework of understanding of a topic) (Hutchings, 2000, pp. 4-5).  

Currently, my interests center around what works and what is happening in the classroom, but I hope to grow in my scholarship, and in the future, ask other questions.  The more I read teaching and learning literature, the better sense I get of what research I can conduct.  

I believe in continual improvement.  I am never done becoming a teacher.  Due to this, I am hesitant to offer advice, but I do want to share a few suggestions from my experience.  If your passion is also teaching and learning perhaps these tips will be helpful.  

  • If you want to learn more about SoTL, check out the edition of Keeping Up With… on this topic.  
  • Ask yourself what questions you have about your teaching or your students’ learning.
  • Do read the teaching and learning literature.  I recommend Teaching and Learning Inquiry, College Teaching, and Journal on Excellence in College Teaching.
  • Focus on learning.  Learning is what matters.   
  • Do submit your research to your university’s Institutional Review Board (IRB).  Any research with human subjects should be reviewed by the IRB.  
  • Work with your institution’s Center for Teaching and Learning, Faculty Development Committee, or equivalent department/committee.
  • Find like-minded colleagues.  Discovering people who are curious and passionate about the same things is refreshing.  In fact, if you want someone to brainstorm with about teaching and learning questions, send me an e-mail.


Hutchings, P. (Ed.). (2000). Opening lines: Approaches to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. Menlo Park, CA: Carnegie Publications.

Shulman, L. (2006). Forward. In T. Hatch, Into the classroom: Developing the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (pp. vii-x). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Featured image [CC0], via Pexels. 

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8 comments on “Finding a Research Agenda When Teaching and Learning is Your Passion

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  4. Elizbeth DeZouche

    Thank you for this article! As an early career Librarian trying to find her niche in the library field, and earn her teaching stripes, hearing about your struggle helps a lot. Especially for those of us that are job hunting and may not have published yet, or even have a research strategy, SoTL seems to be a general research agenda that can be used at any academic institution regardless of the type of student. The “What Is?” SoTL category seems to be especially helpful for someone new to an institution to help them learn the teaching and learning culture already in place, how they fit in, and how they can help their learners with research.

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