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ISSoTL and Student Engagement

By Roselynn Verwoord

There is a growing movement within higher education that recognizes the importance of involving students as contributors to all aspects of teaching and learning including research and activities within the scholarship of teaching and learning. Many scholars (Healey et al., 2010; Bovill et al., 2011; Cook-Sather, Bovill, & Felten, 2011) have provided theoretical arguments for the role of students as co-inquirers while others (Werder & Otis, 2009) have modeled engaging students as co-inquirers through including students in all aspects of the research process. These scholars have helped pave the way for conversations about the vital role that students at all levels of post-secondary institutions can play in advancing the scholarship of teaching and learning.

As educators working in post-secondary institutions, we exist in our roles primarily because of the learners that we serve through our teaching. More and more educational organizations including the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISSOTL), which was formed in 2004 to foster inquiry and disseminate findings about what improves and articulates post-secondary learning and teaching, are engaging in conversations about the importance of involving students as co-inquirers and co-contributors to research on teaching and learning. For example, at the ISSoTL conference each year there is an emphasis on including conference sessions that highlight the essential role that students have in the scholarship of teaching and learning. There are also two ISSoTL special interest groups including one focused on students as co-inquirers and one focused on student engagement, that meet to engage in discussions about students as co-inquirers. Both of these groups have members that are students and one has a student in the role of co-chair.

Although organizations that support teaching and learning are making progress in engaging in conversations about the roles that students can and should have in both conversations and research on teaching and learning, like all good teaching, there is still room for improvement. Barriers to student participation in conversations about their experiences in classrooms and their engagement in teaching and learning still exist at all levels. For example, in the current climate of fiscal austerity, funding to support students to engage in research on teaching and learning is limited. Funding for students to contribute their perspectives, ideas, and in some cases, research on teaching and learning, is also limited. Often, organizations simply do not have additional funding in their budgets to help students to travel to conferences. As a result, faculty members miss out on the valuable contributions that students can make in: “talking back” to faculty members’ research about students’ experiences; articulating their own perspectives on teaching and learning; and in disseminating their own research on teaching and learning. Students also miss out on these valuable opportunities.

There are also issues of access that are often inextricably linked to power and privilege. Who are the students that contribute to conversations and research about teaching and learning? Often, privileged students who have the financial and cultural capital to engage in SoTL activities, which are often deemed “extra-curricular” or additional activities, are the ones whose voices are heard. How can this be changed? There are also issues of representation. Although some teaching and learning organizations are providing opportunities for students to contribute to activities at various levels within their organizations, questions about whether or not students’ contributions are perceived as valuable, still remain unanswered. What are students’ perceptions of their contributions within teaching and learning organizations? In addition, within some organizations, the types of roles that are available to students can be limited, with more influential positions often limited to faculty members. What message does this send to students about teaching and learning? Where students are included, they may be “tokenized” as the only student included within a group or committee engaged in conversations about teaching and learning. This raises questions about representation. Can one student truly represent the perspectives of many students?

As a doctoral student in education who cares deeply about involving students at all levels of post-secondary education in conversations and research about teaching and learning, my reflections are grounded in my experience. I have been privileged to both conduct SoTL research and to collaborate with faculty engaging in SoTL research. I have also had opportunities to contribute to conversations about teaching and learning through volunteer positions with several organizations including ISSOTL and the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE) in Canada. These opportunities have been immensely beneficial both for my personal and professional development; however, they have not been without challenges. My reflections are based on these experiences, which serve as my motivation for continuing to raise awareness of the opportunities and challenges inherent in engaging students in all aspects of teaching and learning.

In recognition of the important contributions that students can and do make to conversations about teaching and learning, ISSOTL, like other teaching and learning organizations, has an immense opportunity to model a commitment to valuing students’ contributions to teaching and learning. Encouraging and supporting student representation and involvement across all areas of ISSOTL’s activities is a first step. Thoughtful consideration of student accessibility for these positions is another important aspect of valuing students’ contributions. Lastly, conversations about issues of representation and tokenization are also important in the context of supporting opportunities for students to meaningfully contribute to advancing teaching and learning. Within all of these activities, initiatives, and discussions, it is important to remember that students are the foundation of everything we do as educators!

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