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Recent events prompted many faculty to rethink aspects of their course design and delivery. The compressed timeline in which this occurred may have been new, but approaching teaching as an iterative process is not. Faculty try new approaches to get past the sticking points they have seen students encounter regularly. They rework the syllabus or assignments in light of feedback they have received. They continually look for fresh content or another way to present their subject matter to foster engagement, collaboration, and connections. They evaluate new technologies and teaching practices to see what might be useful in their work. Given the effort it takes to make changes and try new approaches, assessing their effectiveness is critical.

Fortunately, there are vast bodies of research that can provide valuable insights. In addition to Educational Psychology and Cognitive Science, the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) and Discipline-Based Educational Research (DBER) are instrumental. These fields overlap while being distinct and complementary in practice. The National Association of Geoscience Teachers places the two approaches on a continuum.

In Discipline-Based Education Research: Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering, the authors note, “DBER is distinguished by an empirical approach to investigating learning and teaching that is informed by an expert understanding of disciplinary knowledge and practice.”

In describing SoTL, the University of Central Florida points out that “SoTL goes beyond teaching based on evidence to produce evidence for specific teaching and learning practices. These findings are peer-reviewed and publicly disseminated in an ongoing cycle of systematic inquiry into classroom practices.” UCF summarizes the distinction between the two fields by noting, “Discipline-based educational research (DBER) is typically more generalizable to other courses or instructional contexts than SoTL research. Rather than classroom-level studies that are characteristic of SoTL, DBER studies address broader goals such as understanding how people learn certain concepts in a discipline and how this knowledge can be translated into classroom practice.”

Given the valuable knowledge to be gained from either field, you should be sure to spend some time getting to know how you can benefit from and contribute to this interdisciplinary and innovative research. Our friends in the Center for Teaching Excellence are a great place to start. As always, feel free to reach out to us as well.