What is the difference between action research, Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), and Discipline-Based Education Research (DBER)?

While acknowledging that Action Research, the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), and Discipline-Based Education Research (DBER) may be applied to any discipline in any country and that each of these concepts have evolved over time and continue to evolve, the following is written to make general distinctions between these three concepts as they appeared on the whole within the last ~15 years and as they relate to STEM education in the United States.  The following is intended as a general introduction and references are provided for those interested in pursuing more details.

Action Research,
the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), and Discipline-Based Education Research (DBER) all involve studying teaching and/or learning in some capacity.  As such they are also similar in that they may draw upon the same set of quantitative and qualitative methods to answer questions of an educational nature.   Although similarities and areas of overlap do exist, they nevertheless are distinctly unique entities. 

The unique nature of each can be succinctly summed up in terms of (i) the subject of research, (ii) who the researcher is, (iii) the scope of research findings, (iv) the intended audience with which the findings will be shared, (v) the governing research questions, and (vi) the driving motivation behind the research.  Table 1 summarizes the course-grained distinctions between action research, scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL), and discipline-based education research (DBER).


 Table 1. Distinctions between action research, scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL), and discipline-based education research (DBER)

Action research, the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL), and discipline-based education research (DBER) are three concepts for which there exists a general lack of understanding in the wider academic community.  This lack of understanding is likely due, at least in part, to their association with education and their relative newness.  What are they and how are they different from one another?   This piece answers this question in order to provide a brief and basic introduction to these three concepts.  For those seeking to learn more about the history of each, the intellectual arguments they encompass, and their nuanced dis/similarities, a number of references are provided at the end of the article and you are encouraged to read them.  In the meantime, a brief and basic introduction follows.

Action research is aimed at K-12 classes; whereas the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) is aimed at college courses.  Action research and SoTL both encompass the notion that the teacher/instructor is in the best position to improve their teaching practices and student learning outcomes when the teacher/instructor engages in systematic inquiry or “research” dealing with a question(s) specific to their class/course.  According to Ferrance (2000):

"Action research is not what usually comes to mind when we hear the word 'research.' Action research is not a library project where we learn more about a topic that interests us.  It is not problem-solving in the sense of trying to find out what is wrong, but rather a quest for knowledge about how to improve.  Action research is not about doing research on or about people, or finding all available information on a topic looking for the correct answers.  It involves people working to improve their skills, techniques, and strategies.  Action research is not about learning why we do certain things, but rather how we can do things better.  It is about how we can change our instruction to impact students."

The scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) shares these same qualities with action research.  A key distinction between SoTL and action research, however, is that SoTL also involves “public sharing and review of such work through presentations or publications” (McKinney, no year; Boshier, 2009).  Furthermore, SoTL carries the expectation that college instructors bring the same level of rigor to their teaching and the study of their teaching that they bring to their scholarly research (Boshier, 2009).  More recently, there have been attempts to frame SoTL as a social reform movement in education that has an impact beyond the class level and impacts the institutional level and educational system (McKinney, 2012).

Discipline-based education research (DBER), is generally neither conducted at the level of a single course nor is it necessarily conducted by the instructor for that course.  Instead, DBER is conducted both at the disciplinary level and post-secondary level by scholarly researchers who are trained in both the discipline and educational research methods and who have the intention of publishing findings that are generalizable to other learning settings within the discipline.  DBER in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines is markedly distinct from traditional education research because the researchers are not only versed in education and education research methods, they also typically are experts within their STEM discipline.  To learn more about DBER, read the National Research Council’s report titled “Discipline-Based Education Research: Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering.”

 

REFERENCES:

Action Research

Eileen Ferrance, 2000, Action Research, Brown University; http://www.lab.brown.edu/pubs/themes_ed/act_research.pdf

Action Research in Education; http://www.edu.plymouth.ac.uk/resined/actionresearch/arhome.htm

Action Research Network; http://actionresearch.altec.org/

Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL)

Kathleen McKinney, no year, What is the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) in Higher Education?; http://sotl.illinoisstate.edu/downloads/pdf/definesotl.pdf

Roger Boshier, 2009, Why is the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning such a hard sell?; Higher Education Research & Development, Vol. 28, No. 1, pp. 1–15.

Kathleen McKinney, 2012, Making a difference: Application of SoTL to enhance learning; Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Vol. 12, No. 1, pp. 1 – 7.

Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s SoTL Publications Archive; http://www.carnegiefoundation.org/publications/sotl-publications

Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning; http://josotl.indiana.edu/

Discipline-Based Education Research (DBER)

Susan R. Singer, Natalie R. Nielsen, and Heidi A. Schweingruber, Editors; Committee on the Status, Contributions, and Future Directions of Discipline-Based Education Research; Board on Science Education; Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education; National Research Council, 2012, Discipline-Based Education Research: Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering; http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13362

Status Contributions and Future Directions of Discipline-Based Education Research; http://sites.nationalacademies.org/DBASSE/BOSE/DBASSE_072106#.UfA8bKw0yO4

Science Education Resource Center’s On the Cutting Edge NAGT Workshop; http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/DBER.html

S.D. Bush, N.J. Pelaez, J.A. Rudd, M.T. Stevens, K.S. Williams, D.E. Allen, and K.D. Tanner, 2006, On Hiring Science Faculty with Education Specialties for Your Science (Not Education) Department; CBE Life Sciences Education, vol. 5, p. 297-305

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