Developing Research Questions

Starting with the end in mind

Teaching and learning are such exciting and complex processes that can be investigated from many inquiry perspectives using a multitude of methods.  Developing and finding the “right” SoTL research questions for you to investigate starts with self-reflection.

Step 1: Reflect on your goals and motivations for engaging in SoTL

Sharing your findings with other people (with varying degrees of peer review or feedback) is one of the defining components of SoTL, distinguishing it from reflective teaching and evidence-based teaching practices.  

Key questions to ask yourself as you start SoTL work:

  1. Why do you want to investigate your teaching practices and/or student learning?
  2. What is it that you want to know or be able to say about your teaching practices and/or student learning?
  3. With whom do you want to share your findings?
  4. How do you anticipate your work being useful to other people?
  5. What venues do you want to be able to share it?

For deeper reflection, see our SoTL Project Starter Self-Reflection Worksheet [link coming soon].

Step 2: Formulating and articulating research questions

Once you can answer these broad questions, then you can start breaking down Self-Reflection responses to develop identify the “type” of SoTL inquiry you want to engage in (and your audience) and then further describe specific research questions.  It can be helpful to think about common SoTL project goals.

Some common goals of different lines of SoTL inquiry include:

  • documenting your instructional design strategies (i.e., alignment of learning outcomes, learning support activities and assessment) or pedagogical approaches in a specific student learning experience (e.g., activity, course, or program)
  • characterizing the student learning experience in an activity, course, or program
  • characterizing your general approach to teaching or instructional design/curriculum development as expressed through your course artifacts, student work, or self-reflection
  • documenting learning gain or affective (e.g., engagement, interest, attitudes) outcomes associated with a specific activity, course or program to determine value or collect evidence of effectiveness level
  • comparing learning gain or affective outcomes across “old” approach/version and “new” approach/version to determine value or collect evidence of effectiveness level
  • test a learning model or theory in a specific discipline context (e.g., exploratory case study, hypothesis testing)

Step 3: Identifying the data to collect with your question options

It’s easy to leave Step 2 with lots of great research question ideas, but how are you going to answer them?  Some questions are centered on your experience as an instructor and need only your self-study reflections.  Some questions about student learning can be answered through existing performance items that are already embedded in course curriculum (e.g., exam questions, homework assignments).  Other questions about student learning or student learning experiences may call for asking student volunteers to complete additional activities (e.g., survey instruments, reflection questions, interviews).  How will student data and students as human subjects be protected?

Note: Any SoTL project plans need to be reviewed by the IRB associated with your institution before you can begin collecting data (even if it is to provide you with a letter stating that your project has been determined to be “Not Research” by the IRB evaluation criteria).  See the information on our IRB page.

Step 4: Determining which questions are most reasonable to successfully investigate

There are so many wonderful questions you could ask and investigate, but its important to consider your primary goals and the constraints of your situation. Take a moment to revisit your priorities from Step 1.  You may want to focus on one small question or start with documenting/characterizing what you are doing now to start with before getting into a larger project collecting pre/post data.