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Turn your teaching into scholarship
It is easier than you think!
By Kathleen T. Heinrich

If you want to turn your teaching into scholarship and you’re not sure how, you’re in good company. With more colleges and universities raising the scholarly bar, both clinical- and tenure-track faculty members are expected to present and publish. As more promotion and tenure committees accept the
Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) for advancement, more faculty members want to turn their teaching activities into SoTL projects and products. But when they try, they often get frustrated because they don’t know what to study, what is considered data, or what counts as a public product.
Kathleen HeinrichAs a scholarly consultant, I’ve found that teachers from novice to expert need help with getting SoTL projects off the ground. What they’re missing is a plan. So I developed a three-step process that has helped hundreds of nursing faculty members launch their projects.
The three-step SoTL approach
Nine years after Ernest Boyer (1990) encouraged the academy to endorse a broader definition of scholarship, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing embraced his definition of the scholarship of teaching. Around the same time, the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) was established to foster student learning and enhance teaching practices. The CASTL initiative added the word “learning” to the scholarship of teaching and coined the SoTL acronym.
According to Lee Schulman (1998), all teaching begins with a problem or a vision of the possible. Turning teaching problems or possibilities into SoTL projects involves three steps: 1) framing a researchable question; 2) designing a systematic inquiry; and 3) planning for public, peer-reviewed products.
After participating in a workshop I facilitated for a faculty group on turning teaching into scholarship, Gay Lynn Rowe, MSN, RN, an expert clinician but novice clinical instructor (in her second year of teaching), met with me to plan her SoTL project. After seeing how she operationalized each step of her project, using my three-step process, you will be able to do the same.
My Step 1: Lean into your “I don’t know” situation
The first step in planning a SoTL project is finding a researchable question. If you’ve ever tried, you know how hard it can be to pinpoint exactly what you want to study. So, instead of asking educators to immediately come up with their researchable question, I ask about their most vexing “I don’t know” situation. They often reply with comments such as these: “I don’t know if I’m teacher material”; “I don’t know how to improve my teaching evaluations”; “I don’t know how to get my students to come prepared so we can flip our classroom.” And the list goes on.
When I asked Rowe about her “I don’t know” situation, she said, “I just don’t get my students. When I was in nursing school, I didn’t want clinical instructors noticing me, but my students seem to crave recognition and reinforcement. If I’m going to stay in clinical teaching, I need to find out how to be a caring instructor for students from different generations.
Her researchable question was right there, contained in her “I don’t know” situation. After identifying her “I don’t know,” her researchable question became apparent: How can I be a more caring clinical instructor for students from different generations?
When you answer the question “What is my most pressing ‘I don’t know’ situation?,” it becomes easier to answer “What is my researchable question?” So, now it’s your turn. Import the language from your “I don’t know” situation and, chances are, you’ll discover your researchable question.

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If you nailed your researchable question, great! Still stuck without an “I don’t know” situation? Then stop. Your next step is to keep a teacher-scholar’s notebook. This is a catalog of problems or visions of the possible that come up during your teaching days. Jot them down on sticky notes, or record them on your phone. Allow enough time to collect a number of problems and/or visions; then read them over and list the “I don’t know” candidates. Choose the one that’s most inspiring, irritating, or immediate to construct your researchable question.
My Step 2: Engage your students in exploration
The second step in SoTL projects is designing a “systematic inquiry” that flows from the researchable question. If you think systematic inquiry means combing the nursing literature for a usable instrument—survey, test, questionnaire, etc.—think again. Not only is SoTL such a relative newcomer that few instruments exist, looking for one assumes you know what needs to be studied. Since researchable questions come from “I don’t know” situations, start by exploring your students’ lived experiences to gain a deeper understanding of what needs studying.
Case in point. Rowe’s systematic inquiry flowed from her question about how to be a caring instructor, and she came up with the following action items:
  • A couple of weeks into the semester, ask my BSN students to consider what I, as a clinical instructor, can do to make them feel cared for, and ask them to free-write their responses.
  • Read and re-read the student responses, looking for clues on how I can convey a caring attitude toward them during this clinical rotation.
  • At the end of the semester, assess the effectiveness of changes I’ve made by asking students to free-write their responses to these questions: 1) What have I done as your clinical instructor to make you feel cared for? 2) As your instructor, what can I do—or continue to do—to make the next clinical group feel cared for?
Now it’s your turn to come up with action items for your systematic—and exploratory—inquiry.
My Step 3: Make a wish list of public products
The third and final step in implementing your SoTL project is to list public, peer-reviewed products that it has the potential to generate. If product planning seems premature at this stage, you’re not yet thinking like a teacher-scholar. Rather than seeing product lists as binding commitments, teacher-scholars consider them as wish lists that evolve as projects evolve. Products may include proposals, posters, paper presentations, publications, etc.
Since Rowe had never presented at a professional conference before, her wish list started with a proposal for a conference poster presentation. Her proposal was accepted, and her first poster was shared with clinical preceptors (Rowe, 2015). Now, it’s your turn to make your wish list of public products.
Ready, set, go!
Now that you know my three steps for planning SoTL projects, you’re ready to come up with a plan for your own project.
Before you begin, here are three frequently asked questions you may have, together with my responses.
  • Where will I find the time? No worries! When you embed your SoTL project in your course design, you gather student responses while you teach.
  • Will I need institutional review board (IRB) approval? Always check! Since approval to use human subjects in research is so institution-specific, contact your IRB committee early on.
  • Should I get help? Absolutely! Ask a teacher-scholar for guidance. It may be a colleague. Or it may be a consultant like me, who mentors teacher-scholars.
With a SoTL project plan in place and your questions answered, your future as a teacher-scholar is off to a strong start! RNL
Kathleen T. Heinrich, PhD, RN, principal of K T H Consulting in Guilford, Connecticut, USA, is a scholarly faculty development consultant, speaker, and author of the book A Nurse’s Guide to Presenting and Publishing: Dare to Share.
Boyer, E. (1990). Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities for the professoriate. Princeton, NJ: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
Rowe, G.L. (2015, September 24-27). Are you a caring clinical preceptor? Paper presented at the meeting of Academy of Medical-Surgical Nursing, Las Vegas, Nevada.
Schulman, L.S. (1998). The course portfolio. Washington, DC: American Association of Higher Education.
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