Three questions on student learning:

SoTL in a professional services role

I’ve enjoyed carrying out a number of SoTL projects while working in a professional services role at the University of Glasgow. So how do you get involved in SoTL if you’re not a lecturer or tutor? And what can this perspective bring to SoTL projects?

SoTL isn’t just ‘something that lecturers do’ – learning and teaching are supported in a wide range of ways, by staff in both academic and professional services roles. Professional services staff often don’t have the word ‘scholarship’ written explicitly into job descriptions or yearly objectives – but supporting student learning is at the centre of many roles. Exploring how our practices can enhance student learning can frequently demonstrate scholarship.

Professional services often focus on supporting the student experience – in academic literacies, graduate attributes, wellbeing or other areas. Learning doesn’t happen in isolation from any of these and there’s increasing recognition that they are a core part of, or have significant impact on, learning experiences.

This means that SoTL isn’t restricted to situations where you are ‘the teacher’, carrying out investigations within your classes. A lot of the SoTL I’ve done has been on broader issues that mostly take place outside my own classes.

I work with PGT students in Social Sciences on the academic writing practices involved in their assessments – assessments that I don’t set or mark, on courses that I don’t teach. There are some SoTL projects that start from my own teaching practice – such as introducing short, formative writing tasks and asking students to evaluate whether this is effective in delivering individual feedback in large classes (it is!) But I’m interested in how students experience academic writing across their degree programmes and trying things out in my own class isn’t always the best starting point for investigating this.

So I’ve tried to start not with my teaching practice but from the principle of enhancing student learning. This involves asking myself three questions. Firstly:

‘What is it that I currently do to support student learning?’

For example, I spend a lot of time working with Masters students on dissertation writing.

Then:

‘What do I need to know so I can better support student learning?’

I advise students in class and see the writing that students produce – but what happens in between? I realised there was a lot more I could learn about what students actually do when they work independently on their dissertations. So I’ve carried out studies on student experiences of the early stages of dissertation writing and, more recently, I’ve started exploring how students discuss potential dissertation topics, not only with lecturers and peers, but also with family and friends outside the University.

It can be harder to identify and recruit participants for research when they’re not students in your class. I’ve learned to address this by, for example finding topics that are likely to be of interest to students (not just to me!) and working with colleagues to identify times that would suit students’ schedules. I’ve never worked in a research-focused role, but the courses, sessions and schemes from UofG Academic and Digital Development are open to professional services staff and have been very helpful. The skills I’ve learned, particularly in collecting and analysing data, have also proved useful in other, non-SoTL aspects of my role.

So, once I’ve worked out what I need to know and how to find it out, I ask my third question:

How can I use my findings to enhance students’ learning experiences?

SoTL projects have helped me to improve my own practices. I’ve added more practice activities on using academic literature to identify research topics in response to points raised by students, and revised the timing and pace of my classes to better fit with what students were doing.

I’ve also shared what I’ve learned with others. This ranges from more informal conversations with colleagues, to conference presentations and my first steps into publication.

All of which probably looks quite familiar to anyone involved in SoTL. Reading back what I’ve written, I’m struck by how little of this is specific to or different for professional services staff. I think that’s because of what’s at the centre of SoTL and also so many different roles across the University: that focus on enhancing students’ learning experiences.

Gayle Pringle Barnes

College of Social Sciences

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