Teaching and Learning in Sociology Research Paper

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This research paper offers an overview of the state of teaching and learning in sociology and, given space limitations, focuses on this topic in the United States—that is, we look at the “passing on” (Goldsmid and Wilson 1980) of the discipline, including content knowledge, skills, and values. The paper also synthesizes knowledge about a domain of scholarship—the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) in sociology. The emergence of the SoTL label and specialty sprang from the work of Carnegie Foundation President Ernest Boyer and his book Scholarship Reconsidered (Boyer 1990). SoTL in our discipline is reflection and research on teaching and learning, conducted by sociologists about their classes and students, and made public. SoTL is an international movement both within and outside sociology and is linked to our teaching and learning practices. As we will document, the discipline of sociology is highly congruent with SoTL because much of our basic research can inform research on teaching and learning.

In this research paper, then, we summarize the following: (1) the recent history of teaching, learning, and SoTL in the discipline, (2) the current position of, knowledge about, and research on teaching and learning in sociology, and (3) ideas about paths for the future of teaching, learning, and SoTL in our field.

Outline

I. The Past

A. The ASA Projects on Teaching Undergraduate Sociology and Teaching as a Social Movement

B. Using Sociology to Explain Teaching Sociology

C. Institutionalizing ASA’s Commitment to Teaching and Learning

II. The Present

A. Sample Findings on the Practice of Teaching and Learning in Our Discipline

B. Types and Topics of Scholarly Work on Teaching and Learning

C. The Current Status of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Sociology

D. Best Practices in Teaching and Learning in Sociology

E. The Status of the Area of Teaching and Learning in the Discipline

III. Prospects for the Future

I. The Past

The history of the American Sociological Association (ASA) and its attention to teaching show intertwined, evolving patterns. Around 1970, the association was undergoing a transformation to a larger, less-elite organization. Most disciplinary associations traditionally function as societies of knowledge producers; the well-being of the discipline generally takes precedence over its application. In the 1970s, the Executive Office functioned like a secretariat—collecting dues, offering an annual meeting, publishing several journals, and maintaining the governance system to support this work. There was little programmatic work, including sparse attention to teaching and sociological practice. Elected leaders were primarily from Ph.D.-granting institutions.

Shifts in ASA to become more programmatic and to have initiatives centered on teaching did not always meet with enthusiasm. As with any change in function and power, some parties push back, advocating the merits of the status quo. In their article “The Transformation of the American Sociological Association,” Simpson and Simpson (1994) describe the evolution of that association from a learned society to a professional association:

Since the 1950s, the American Sociological Association (ASA) has expanded its activities beyond its original disciplinary focus. It has taken more interest in non-disciplinary activities and has expended effort and resources on them. It has become not just a body of scholar/researchers, but increasingly a professional association. (P. 259)

In describing new emphases on applied or nonacademic positions and on formal ways to improve teaching and political activities, they conclude by saying the following:

These actions embody cherished democratic values, but as organizational goals and actions they have blurred the disciplinary focus of the ASA. They have structurally differentiated ASA’s disciplinary functions from its professional and adaptive activities, and the different functions now compete for resources. The changes have diluted the control of the association by disciplinary elites and have channeled ASA resources into activities that do not advance the discipline. (P. 259)

The authors document the shift via an analysis of budget expenditures and election results. They also argue that the evolution is problematic, as the last sentence of the above quotation makes clear.

A. The ASA Projects on Teaching Undergraduate Sociology and Teaching as a Social Movement

Hans O. Mauksch was a distinguished medical sociologist who spent much of his career at the University of Missouri and served as ASA’ s Executive Officer during 1975 to 1977. Drawing on his experience in the initial and ongoing training of physicians, Mauksch became fascinated that Ph.D.s in liberal arts disciplines had no training in “the practice” of their discipline—that is, serving as a college faculty member. He used the concepts and insights of sociology to frame the problem. College faculty members were professionally isolated and relatively invisible to the profession. Teaching was seen as a mysterious set of skills or traits. Faculty either “had it” or not, and there was not much to do to help teachers analyze strengths and weaknesses and improve. In short, Mauksch posited that teaching was seen as an “ascribed” characteristic, where research talent was seen as “achieved.”

In the mid-1970s, the formal initiative on teaching— called the ASA Projects on Teaching Undergraduate Sociology—was launched with funding from the Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE) and the Lilly Foundation. The projects were directed at undergraduate education and the faculty (and future faculty) who taught undergraduate students, and set forth three substantive foci: the content we teach, the training we need to teach effectively, and the contexts in which we teach. A task group for each focus worked mightily to produce materials and offer workshops. The projects, which were absorbed into the ASA Executive Office after the funding ended, catalyzed teachers as an interest group within the ASA and laid the foundation for scholarly work on teaching.

Mauksch intended to create a social movement (Mauksch and Howery 1986) that would elevate the professional legitimacy of teaching and reduce the isolation of teachers. He understood the leverage that the national disciplinary association could bring to this agenda, and he pushed ASA to develop and distribute teaching resources, to offer professional development and, by doing so, to provide legitimacy for teaching-related work (Mauksch 1986):

In the teaching/research/service triumvirate, teaching has the least opportunity to harness cosmopolitan symbols as support systems or as power bases. Except for the rare instances when teaching is linked to a funded project, neither economic nor professional national systems can be mobilized to support the teacher, whose activities are essentially limited to the confines of the institution and whose actual productivity is witnessed only by those clients who have neither permanence nor power—i.e., the students. (P. 41)

In a classic article, Paul Baker (1986:55) lays out the contrast between the cultures of research and teaching. He notes that all the Mertonian (Merton 1973) virtues of science, including universalism, communism, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism, reside on the research side, in contrast to the mysterious, unexamined personalism of teaching. Therefore, teaching and contributions to teaching remain less visible and largely “local.” This professional work is less subject to rigorous peer review and thus less subject to acclaim. As a result, teaching accomplishments remain private and are hardly portable credentials.

Only when teaching became visible could its faculty practitioners and their products be subject to peer review, professional assessment, and appropriate professional acclaim. The “social movement” paradigm included conscious efforts to influence institutional and disciplinary reward systems. Again, this work preceded Boyer’s (1990) Scholarship Reconsidered and that call for a broadened definition of scholarly work to include the scholarship of teaching. The “movement” also had a goal to reduce the isolation and increase the professional visibility of undergraduate faculty, particularly those who were in small departments and had few opportunities to attend professional meetings. In short, Mauksch was prescient about the argument Carnegie Foundation President Lee Shulman (1993) would invoke: “making teaching community property.”

B. Using Sociology to Explain Teaching Sociology

Mauksch felt that sociology had a special opportunity to examine and improve its teaching practice because the subject itself held so much promise in understanding teaching. As early as 1980, Baker also called on sociology colleagues to use the theory and methods of our discipline to study teaching and learning practices. For example, theory about small groups is used to improve teaching and learning in the classroom (Billson and Mancini 1986). Our knowledge of the professions and professional socialization can help us better prepare graduate students (Keith and Moore 1995). The seminal work on locals and cosmopolitans (Gouldner 1957) shed light on why small-college faculty careers take shapes different from those of their colleagues at research universities, as discussed by Baker and Zey-Ferrell (1984) and Howery (1998). Coser’s (1974) work on greedy institutions could be readily applied to small-college environments and the expectations they place on faculty members.

In 1980, Charles Goldsmid and Everett Wilson wrote a book called Passing on Sociology, a book that shared insights and techniques for effective teaching using the concepts and insights of sociology. While the instructional challenges of any field are not unique, each discipline has issues that are more pronounced. In sociology, for example, we wrestle with teaching about controversial subjects or using quantitative information about human subjects. In what Shulman (1989) later would call “pedagogy of substance,” sociology began to develop materials of the field and for the field.

Over time, sociologists began to do research on teaching and to share their research on teaching. Many developed areas of expertise in specific types of teaching and learning practice. This foundational work led to the formation of the Department Resources Group, a network of ASA consultants on teaching, and, more generally, a cadre of people contributing to SoTL. Thus, for about four decades, and long before the label of SoTL, sociologists have been authors on topics related to teaching sociology. Examples include discussions about teaching sociologists to teach (e.g., Dorn 1975), faculty orientations toward teaching and the implications of holding those perspectives (Baker and Zey-Ferrell 1984), analyses of barriers to and solutions for excellence in sociology undergraduate education (Campbell, Blalock, and McGee 1985), and the role of instructor characteristics in teaching sociology (e.g., Gerschick 1999; Williams et al. 1999).

In Teaching Sociology, sociologists have offered numerous articles and notes on specific teaching tips and discussions of a variety of teaching issues. Past work in sociology has also included program assessment strategies, discussions of curricular issues or of important learning outcomes, and studies of the “impact” of a specific assignment or teaching strategy in a specific course. In 2000, ASA partnered with the American Association of Higher Education and the Carnegie Foundation to bring together about 40 sociologists from around the nation to discuss and develop position papers on the status of knowledge and research on teaching and learning in the discipline. It was an occasion where it was evident that SoTL was an active, engaging scholarly specialty within the field of sociology.

C. Institutionalizing ASA’s Commitment to Teaching and Learning

The impact of the ASA’s work on teaching increased with collaborative projects with higher-education disciplinary associations, particularly the American Association of Colleges and Universities, the American Association for Higher Education, and the Council of Graduate Schools. Projects on service learning, the content of the major, contributions of sociology to general education, assessment, and preparing future faculty all drew on collaborative work with other fields.

ASA also applied for and received grants to improve teaching. The Minority Opportunities through School Transformation project, funded by the Ford Foundation, worked with 18 departments to improve climate, curriculum, research training, mentoring, and pipeline issues for minority and majority students. The Integrating Data Analysis Project, funded by the National Science Foundation, also worked with 12 departments to infuse research training in the lower-division curriculum. The department-focus of both projects showed the sociological understanding of what collective effort is required to make real change in curricula. Both projects serve as models for other disciplines.

All social movements seek to have their goals institutionalized in the formal organization they set about to establish or change. Simpson and Simpson (1994) correctly noted the changes within the ASA toward a more professional association and away from a learned society alone. The ASA has had an active teaching movement for about three decades that is now anchored within the association’s structure and budget. Numerous teaching and learning initiatives have become permanent features of the association.

II. The Present

There are a variety of ways—and sources of information on which to draw—to assess and summarize the current state of teaching, learning, and SoTL in sociology. We draw on a listing of topics, discussions, or research in both the last few Hans Mauksch Contributions to Undergraduate Education award recipient presentations and the seven SoTL research projects by Carnegie Scholars studying sociology, recent content of Teaching Sociology (TS), other published work, the 2004 ASA task force report on the undergraduate major, programs from regional meetings, and our observations and reflections as two sociologists long active in the area of teaching and learning in our discipline.

Our discussion includes examples or summaries of findings on the practice of teaching and learning in our discipline, types of work and topics related to scholarly teaching in sociology, the status of SoTL work in sociology, recommended policies or best practices for teaching and learning in sociology, and the current place of teaching and learning in institutions and disciplinary organizations.

A. Sample Findings on the Practice of Teaching and Learning in Our Discipline

Little systematic, empirical research exists on the actual teaching practices of sociologists with sociology students other than many reports by individual faculty members on their use of a specific assignment or technique. Information on pedagogical methods in “Introduction to Sociology” classes comes from Howard and Zoeller (2003), who gathered data from students in 15 sections on two campuses. The following percentages of students reported these techniques were used by their instructor often or very often: lectures (99 percent); class discussions (79 percent); films/videos (52 percent); writing assignments (44 percent); small-group activities (41 percent); student presentations (12 percent); and online discussions (11 percent). More directly relevant, Grauerholz (2005a) reports that the following types of pedagogies are used in sociology courses, based on a content analysis of 401 syllabi: readings (99 percent of syllabi), writing (94 percent), discussions/presentations (80 percent), exams (72 percent), and active learning (55 percent). Much less often indicated in these syllabi are Web-based pedagogies (10 percent), cooperative learning (3 percent), and service learning (3 percent).

Sweet (1998), in an effort to study the teaching practices of sociology instructors writing about radical pedagogy or curriculum in TS, concludes that “in examining pedagogical approaches advocated in Teaching Sociology, it appears that professors are comfortable in cultivating dialogue, but only a minority surrender power to students, abandon traditional grading practices, and couple classroom activities with social activism” (p. 109). Wagenaar (1993a) compared sociology majors with those in other majors on 14 items tapping learning experiences related to study in depth. He summarizes that

sociology majors experience less study in depth than do other majors. Sociology majors do, however, perceive greater intellectual connections than do other majors, and sociology majors experience greater connections with personally significant questions and more exploration of values and ethics. (P. 352)

Similarly, there are data from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) that allow some comparisons by disciplinary groupings in the frequency with which students engage in deep-learning behaviors (Laird, Shoup, and Kuh 2005). Deep learning consists of higher-order thinking, integrative learning, and reflective learning, each of which is made up of several NSSE behavioral items. These authors found that seniors majoring in the social sciences have the highest average score of nine disciplinary groups on the deep-learning scale even after controlling for student characteristics and institutional factors.

Disciplinary differences have also been studied in terms of faculty teaching goals. For example, Cross (1993) reports on a study of 2,800 instructors using the Teaching Goals Inventory (TGI). Teachers in the social sciences, English, and the humanities were most likely, compared with other disciplinary groups, to perceive their role as helping students develop higher-order thinking skills. Of course, such studies of goals do not tell us about actual teaching practices or practices specifically with sociology students.

Another method employed to answer the question of what we know about the practice of teaching and learning in sociology now is to ask students how they best learn the discipline. McKinney (2005) asked 114 sociology seniors at a medium-sized, public institution for “one specific strategy you use that best helps you learn sociology” and “In trying to learn the sociological imagination or sociological perspectives during your career as a sociology student, what most helped you to learn these ideas?” The most common responses were the following: (1) using real-life examples and/or applying concepts, (2) using read-write-review-repeat types of study strategies, (3) always reading materials and doing assignments, (4) having a good class or professor, and (5) having the ideas repeated, integrated, or reinforced in a course or in multiple courses.

This quantitative work is complemented by qualitative work with several groups of sociology majors, indicating that students report the need for five types of connections to plug them into learning sociology (McKinney, forthcoming): (1) to the discipline via student engagement and interest in sociology; (2) to others via collaboration, forming relationships, and having various relevant interactions especially with faculty and peers; (3) among related ideas or skills via strategies of review, repetition, and rewriting; (4) to student lives and the real world via active tasks and experiences in and out of class involving application, relevance, and reflection; and (5) across courses via integration of courses, retention of learned skills and materials, and reflection.

Research on the correlates of or perceptions of success or achievement on one or more assignments in particular sociology course/courses can also be noted. These qualitative and quantitative studies most often use student reaction data, but some involve the use of direct measures of learning. In the following, we offer a few diverse, current examples.

Althauser and Darnall (2001) investigated the impact of Web-based peer review of student work in an upper-division course on work. They found that the quality of the peer reviews did significantly relate to the quality of the revised essays and that the students who participated in group work wrote better peer reviews. The use of cognitive mapping is discussed in a research note by Trepagnier (2002). She uses a qualitative method called sense making that relies on the students’ views of the value of cognitive mapping. She found that almost all the students indicate that cognitive mapping helped them understand the concepts and almost half felt strongly that the mapping assignment was useful. In an article on incorporating service learning into a research methods course, Potter, Caffrey, and Plante (2003) argue that, based on informal assessments, students had better attendance and participation in this course than others in the department and gained in their knowledge of specific substantive topics related to the service learning research project. Persell (2004) reports on a study of Web-based discussions in a senior seminar on race and education. She found that use of the Web for structured discussions with peers is correlated with greater interdependency, engagement, and complex thinking. Finally, Johnson (2005) looks at student reactions to a fivestep process used in teaching about social problems that attempts to empower students to help solve the problems. He indicates that students felt the course did motivate and encourage social action and responsibility and that two of the five teaching steps were especially useful.

A handful of studies over the last two decades look at learning or achievement overall in lower-division sociology classes, usually “Introduction to Sociology.” Szafran (1986) and Neuman (1989) studied factors influencing the final grade in the introductory course. They found that grade point average (GPA) and pretest score significantly relate to the course grade. Neuman (1989) also reports that “students learn more if they enter the course knowing less, have a higher GPA, and studied a foreign language” (p. 25). Dietz (2002) defined success in the large introductory sociology course as total points earned. Factors significantly and positively related to total points included attendance and reading the required materials. More recently, Howard (2005) studied seven semesters of students in “Introduction to Sociology” and assessed correlates of course grade. He found class attendance, working fewer hours for pay, reading the assignments, and taking the practice exams to be significantly related to course grade. Thus, these studies in lower-level sociology classes support basic tips for learning that appear intuitive and have been suggested for learning in higher education in general.

Finally, McKinney’s (2005) study of two cohorts of senior sociology majors at one institution measured success in multiple ways, including sociology GPA, expected senior thesis grade, engagement in the discipline, score on a question about the sociological imagination, and a combined measure. Preliminary analyses indicate that the self-reported frequencies of the following seven study or academic behaviors were each positively correlated with three or more of these success measures: assisting a faculty member on research, discussing course materials with others outside class, participating in a campus organization, tutoring another student, completing all required homework on time, serving as an undergraduate teaching assistant, and participating in sociology club—all connections via others, involvement, and time on task. In addition, the attitudinal factors of greater confidence for learning sociology and making more internal attributions for success in sociology were each positively related to three or more measures of success in the discipline.

Sociologists should also be curious about the role of background or status factors in learning sociology. Although there are many articles in TS on teaching about race, class, gender, inequality, and stratification as well as several articles in the October 2003 issue on teaching at historically black colleges and universities, it appears there is very limited empirical evidence on the relationships between such factors and general learning or success in sociology. At least two reasons can be identified for this lack of evidence: (1) SoTL work is often qualitative and/or classroom based, frequently with small Ns or lack of variance on these factors and (2) work in the sociology of education is often at the K–12 level and/or on macro, institutional issues.

Eckstein, Schoenike, and Delaney (1995), in a study at a small Catholic college, found that students from families in the lower social classes and with lower incomes were more successful at understanding the sociological imagination. And while Szafran (1986) reports students from higher social classes scored higher on a sociology pretest, Neuman (1989) found that family education and income have only an indirect effect on learning through their relationship to studying a foreign language, vocabulary, and mathematical ability. In addition, McKinney (2005) found age to be negatively related to both expected senior thesis grade and self-reported level of engagement in sociology. Minority students also were less successful than Caucasian students as measured by sociology GPA, level of engagement, and a multi-item measure of success in the major, but race was not a significant factor in multivariate analyses.

Finally, discipline curriculum or program assessment has been an area of recent, published work related to the practice of teaching and learning (e.g., Hartmann 1992; Moore 2002; Wagenaar 2002, 2004; Weiss et al. 2002). Such work focuses on learning and other outcomes at the aggregate level of the major or program. Although most of these publications on assessment discuss only strategies for conducting program assessment, one exception is that of Cappell and Kamens (2002), who used a quasi-experiment to assess the value of a particular curriculum with primarily sociology majors. They report that, after controlling for GPA, students who have “completed a spiral curriculum culminating in a capstone course . . . outperformed other students who have not yet completed the sociology curriculum” (p. 486). Furthermore, because the students are very close in age and number of semesters in school, they argue this is likely not a maturation effect.

In summary, some indications exist that encouraging deep learning and critical thinking are especially important to sociology instructors. In addition, limited work on teaching-learning practices, or variables associated with learning or success in a course or in the major highlight the importance of several factors. These include learner-centered approaches, active learning, the value of relevance and involvement, and the importance of basic good study behaviors such as attending class and course preparation. Very limited evidence exists relating to the possible role demographic factors such as age, race, and socioeconomic status and attitudinal factors such as attributions and confidence play in learning or success in the discipline.

B. Types and Topics of Scholarly Work on Teaching and Learning

Most papers presented by recipients of the Hans O. Mauksch award for contributions to undergraduate education have been literature reviews and/or theoretical, synthesis pieces. Recent topics include teaching practices based on syllabi (Grauerholz 2005a); the nature of coherence and integration in the sociology undergraduate curriculum and strategies to gain coherence (Berheide 2005); the concept of higher-level thinking in general and in sociology and how we help students achieve this thinking (Geertsen 2003); deep structure learning objectives and the challenges for sociology teachers attempting to reach these objectives with students via teaching strategies (Roberts 2002); and ethical challenges faced by sociology departments and instructors due to changes in the higher-education landscape (Van Valey 2001). Thus, these recent papers all focus on “big-picture” ideas in teaching and learning that are relevant both to sociology and to higher education more broadly.

Of the 10 sociologists selected as Carnegie Scholars, 8 focused their SoTL work on sociology students, courses, or SoTL. Their projects include assessment of learning in the sociology major capstone (Catherine Berheide); SoTL in sociology as represented in TS (Jeffrey Chin); practices of self-reflection in courses on disciplinary teaching preparation (Vaneeta D’Andrea); integrating service-learning into a “Principles of Sociology” course (John Eby); how sociology senior majors believe they learn the discipline and correlates of success in the major (Kathleen McKinney); the use of Web-based discussions to enhance student engagement and deep understanding (Caroline Persell); “stylized” assignments to improve performance (Deirdre Royster); and study in-depth across the sociology curriculum and the sociology core (Ted Wagenaar). These projects, then, reflect a wide range of research methodologies, both qualitative and quantitative, and topics at micro and macro levels ranging from a focus on one pedagogical tool in one course to the status of SoTL in our discipline.

Chin (2002) replicated Baker’s (1985) early analysis of papers published in TS. Chin’s sample was all papers published in TS between 1984 and 1999. Of the 185 papers classified as case studies or partial case studies of teaching experiences, 36 percent were about a total course design, for 19 percent the topic was a classroom device or tool, in 18 percent the topic was an out-of-class activity, for 10 percent it was a department program, another 8 percent discussed modules, and 8 percent were coded as “other.” Most of the papers in this time period were articles (40 percent) or notes (36 percent). Thirty-seven percent of the papers were descriptive case studies of the author’s teaching experiences, 24 percent were commentaries, 8 percent were surveys, 30 percent were a combination of these categories, and 2 percent were “other.”

An informal analysis of papers in the last five years of TS also helps provide a sense of the type of current work on teaching and learning. Of the 180 articles, notes, and conversations, about 62 percent present teaching ideas and teaching tips, with little if any systematic empirical component. Another 18 percent are empirical studies of learning, assignments, courses, teaching techniques, and so on, and another 7 percent are content analyses of texts or other materials. About 7 percent are conceptual, theoretical, or review papers. A variety of other categories make up the remainder. Thus, most often shared publicly about teaching and learning in sociology via the ASA’s official pedagogical journal are individual teaching experiences, ideas, tips, and strategies—suggestions for “how to.”

In these five years, papers that deal with general issues of teaching, learning, curriculum, and so on, across subfields are most common (26 percent). An additional 12 percent are about teaching and learning in race, diversity, racial discrimination, and related areas. Seven percent focus on teaching about disabilities. Six percent deal with technology use and 5 percent address stratification. Of course, special issues or special sections in an issue can skew these results.

Similarly, current TS editor Grauerholz (2005b) writes,

Several themes emerged among the manuscripts published in 2004. These included the use of technology in the classroom, service and community-based learning, and strategies for teaching about social inequality, race, and gender. No intentional effort was made to solicit or publish manuscripts on these topics, rather the topics reflect some of the current concerns within the discipline and address the challenges we face in our teaching. (P. 15).

The titles of paper and panel sessions and workshops related to teaching at the seven major regional sociological society annual meetings for 2005 reveal that 26 percent of these 81 sessions/workshops were on meta or macro topics in teaching and learning such as “Issues and Concepts in Teaching and Learning” or “New Approaches to Teaching.” Another 19 percent focused on teaching a certain course or topical area such as “teaching crime” or “teaching stratification.” Service learning, civic engagement, and related topics were discussed in 15 percent of the sessions, while undergraduate research training or projects were the topic of 12 percent. The remaining 3 percent were on a variety of other specific issues such as the use of discussion. Fourteen percent discussed the use of technology for teaching and another 11 percent were on assessment or SoTL.

A few conclusions can be drawn about the type and topics of recent work on and interest in teaching and learning in sociology. The work focuses on undergraduates and teaching, in contrast to graduate students and learning. There is interest in both big-picture topics such as the curriculum or critical and deep thinking as well as in very narrow and focused local and specific assignment-based issues or research. Many subfields in the discipline have been topics of this work, but papers on inequality, stratification, race, class, and gender appear particularly prevalent. Much of what is written or presented could be considered a case study ranging from the “I tried it, I liked it” genre to, less often, more systematic attempts to reflect on and analyze a given assignment or course or curriculum.

C. The Current Status of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Sociology

In this section, we discuss the status of SoTL work in sociology today. Baker concluded that, between 1973 and 1983, there was little in the journal that indicated cumulative scholarship on teaching and learning. Although much of the more recent work published in TS is considered to be scholarship as it builds on past work, is public, and is critically reviewed (Shulman 1999), Chin (2002) reports that 51 percent of the papers offer only “casual” informal data. Nineteen percent include no evaluation data at all, 18 percent offer a single type of evaluation data such as end of term attitude survey or an exam score, and 12 percent involve a systematic comparison using pre-post tests or an experiment with a control group.

Howery (2002) discusses the culture of teaching in our discipline, including the status of SoTL. She writes,

Politically, the scholarship of teaching and learning must become part of each discipline and engage a reasonable proportion of respected experts and scholars. While this strand of scholarship can enfranchise and tap the talents of sociologists at teaching-oriented institutions, the work will suffer if it is “interest-group scholarship,” that is, located primarily with faculty at teaching-oriented institutions. (P. 155)

Chin’s (2002) study indicates that there is a sizable and diverse group involved in SoTL in sociology, at least as measured by those publishing in TS in recent years. Looking at the authors of all the papers between 1984 and 1999, he found quite a bit of variability in both rank and type of institution represented. In addition, most of the authors (80 percent) had published only that one piece in TS during those years; thus, there were many different authors.

Grauerholz (2005b) writes that “judging from the number and quality of manuscripts submitted to Teaching Sociology [in 2004], the scholarship of teaching and learning within the discipline is flourishing” (p. 15). Based on our review and findings, we conclude that SoTL has increased and developed as a scholarly specialty within sociology. Yet challenges remain (McKinney 2006). These challenges are the need to focus more on learning in addition to teaching, focus on graduate student teaching-learning in addition to undergraduates, focus on levels beyond the classroom level in addition to classroom research, continuing to spread interest in the work beyond the “choir,” increasing our involvement of students in this work as core-searchers not merely as research participants, and increasing replication of this work within the discipline but across institutions as well as across disciplines and international borders.

Perhaps the most important challenge is to increase the extent and nature of explicit application of this work. Reviewing empirical articles and notes in two recent volumes of TS, McKinney (2004), for example, reports on the frequency and nature of any discussion of the application of their SoTL results. Most frequently, the authors only summarize the strategy and their findings. They often include their perceptions of advantages and disadvantages of the teaching strategy or change. About half of the articles and notes included a brief discussion of how the authors have or will make changes in their own practice based on what they learned from the study. Less than a fourth of these papers incorporated a discussion of application beyond that individual faculty member and classroom—that is, there was infrequent discussion of topics such as the implications of the findings for other teachers or students, the curriculum, the department, the discipline, or the institution. Virtually no discussion is found of strategies for using SoTL results, for example, in developing a new course, in program review, or in budget requests that might be used as processes for application.

To help meet this challenge, in 2006, a new feature of TS involves authors of recent American Sociological Review (ASR) articles of interest to students in writing TS articles that detail ways their sociological research can be brought into the classroom through, for example, learner-centered strategies (Grauerholz 2005b). This is one first step toward creating new quality SoTL work that is appropriately applied.

D. Best Practices in Teaching and Learning in Sociology

To obtain a sense of current “policy” recommendations for teaching and learning in our discipline, we look at recommendations for best practice and, in particular, those in the recent ASA task force report on the sociology major (McKinney et al. 2004). We also review evidence of the impact of policy and best practices.

The task force made 16 recommendations, aimed toward departments granting undergraduate degrees in sociology. Some of these include knowing and responding to the needs and interests of students and the mission of the institution; integrating research and theoretical analysis and experiences throughout the major; structuring the major with at least four levels and including substantive sequences cutting across levels; increasing student learning related to multicultural, cross-cultural, and cross-national content; integrating sociology content and skills with that in other disciplines; encouraging the use of diverse and active pedagogies; offering and encouraging co- and extracurricular learning activities; and promoting and rewarding faculty development and involvement in scholarly teaching and SoTL.

Other ASA task forces are working to synthesize knowledge on the place of sociology in general education—how sociological thinking and content contributes to the liberal arts, the professional M.A. degree and what skills and outcomes it should engender, and assessment, looking at learning outcomes for sociology majors.

A related area for policy recommendations focuses on teaching sociology at the high school level. Issues here include best practices for teaching and learning sociology in high school, design of an “Advanced Placement” sociology course, concerns about adequate preparation and support for high school sociology teachers, and an appropriate fit between high school and college sociology courses. Interest in high school sociology has increased in recent years. Papers on teaching high school sociology appear more frequently than in the past (e.g., DeCesare 2004, 2005; Lashbrook 2001). An ASA task force worked on the equivalent of an AP course in sociology (Persell 2001). In addition, members of this task force and others are currently organizing and offering teaching workshops in several large cities for high school sociology instructors, and ASA collaborates with the National Council for the Social Studies to offer materials and training for high school teachers. Finally, the ASA Council has passed a guideline that high school sociology teachers have at least nine hours of course work in sociology.

Have best practice and policy recommendations affected teaching and learning in the discipline? There have been a number of papers published in response to the first “Liberal Learning and the Sociology Major” task force report (Eberts et al. 1990). These articles, in special sections or issues of TS, have discussed the meaning of the core in sociology (e.g., Grauerholz 2004) or how one or more departments have worked to redesign curricula or make other changes in line with the report such as developing a capstone course (e.g., Powers 2000; Sherohman 1997; Wagenaar 1993a, 1993b) or integrating research experiences (Kain 1999).

There appears to be little systematic, published research, however, on the impact of SoTL studies or reports of best practices on teaching, learning, and curriculum in the discipline. Kain (2002) conducted a content analysis of college catalogs from a sample of the top 10 schools in each of 10 categories ranked in the U.S. News and World Report survey of colleges. He reaches 14 conclusions related to departmental implementation of recommendations from the original ASA Liberal Learning in the Sociology Major report. For example, he states,

There appears to be significant progress in increasing sequencing in the major. This is particularly true in terms of the implementation of some sort of capstone experience. Nearly half of the sample requires both introductory and a capstone, and have additional sequencing beyond those requirements. (P. 22)

On the other hand, he found “Few institutions have implemented the recommendation to have multiple options for the required introductory course” (p. 23).

Thus, there are few and mixed results on the impact of best practices for teaching and learning in the discipline. Similarly, there is limited application of SoTL work beyond the classroom of the individual faculty member doing that work or beyond trying one specific teaching strategy offered by another. Clearly, this is an area for expansion and improvement in the future.

E. The Status of the Area of Teaching and Learning in the Discipline

Sociology exists, as do all disciplines, in a variety of social contexts or worlds (Pescosolido and Aminzade 1999). Department and institutional contexts play important roles in the nature and value of teaching and learning in higher education (Mauksch 1985). Wright et al. (2004) summarize some of the general literature in this area. They briefly discuss factors, including institutional size, mission, and research culture as well as department demographic profiles and mission. Contexts that enhance teaching and learning include those with strong instructional development support and departments with teaching- and learning-oriented cultures.

One way of assessing the current status of teaching and learning in the organizations and institutions of the discipline is to look at the value of teaching in the faculty-hiring process. Mahay and Caffrey (2002), in conducting a content analysis of the faculty job advertisements in ASA Employment Bulletin in 1999, report that “the majority of departments prefer applicants with teaching experience, but few request specific evidence of teaching effectiveness in their job advertisements. Moreover, we find that research-oriented institutions are less likely to request teaching credentials” (p. 203). More recent job ads in the Bulletin, however, increasingly ask for evidence of teacher preparation and skills such as student evaluations or a teaching portfolio.

There is also evidence of greater emphasis on teaching and learning in the training of our future faculty. A comparison of the 1995 Guide to Graduate Departments with the 2005 Guide (ASA 1995, 2005) suggests there was an increase in the amount or type of formal teacher training. In 1995, 41.5 percent of the departments indicated “a lot” and 26.4 percent reported “a little” preparation. Thirty-two percent of the departments had none. A decade later, 51.1 percent of departments offered “a lot” of preparation and 25.8 percent offered “a little,” with only 23.1 percent offering “none.” Most significantly, the ASA has led a project called Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) to explicitly prepare the next generation of sociology faculty with basic skills in and knowledge about teaching as well as give encouragement to consider SoTL as a specialty area.

A study of the types of sociology departments that produce the most scholarship on teaching in our discipline also provides information on the role of department and institutional characteristics. Marx and Eckberg (2005) studied the publications in TS from 1990 to 1999, looking at the authors’ institutional affiliations. They provide a list of the top 30 departments (out of over 1,100) in terms of teaching scholarship productivity and citation impact. They report that the top schools are quite diverse in terms of institutional characteristics, yet they are disproportionately public and larger compared with other schools. In addition, the five schools with the greatest TS productivity by graduate students all offered department-level teacher-training programs.

Finally, in the 30 years since the ASA Projects on Teaching began, there has been considerable institutionalization of teaching-related programs in the association. Each initiative or program provides a venue for SoTL work. The ASA Section on Teaching and Learning in Sociology (STLS) just reached its highest membership count ever, surpassing 600 members. A few examples of the many other continuing programs connected with ASA include TS, the Department Resources Group, Teaching Enhancement Funds, the Teaching Resources Center, teaching workshops at the annual meetings, teaching awards, and special projects such as that on creating a curriculum to teach research ethics to students at all degree levels. Similar types of teaching-related programs also exist to varying degrees in regional sociological associations.

III. Prospects for the Future

In 2004, then ASA President and past recipient of the ASA Distinguished Contributions to Teaching Award, Michael Burawoy, stimulated thinking about the importance of public sociologies. He argued that the first public is our students, and thus made the case for effective teaching. In this area, it appears that the current state of teaching and learning in sociology matches the state of teaching and learning in higher education more broadly. Specifically, we note both in sociology and higher education in general the move from a teacher-centered to a learner-centered paradigm (e.g., Barr and Tagg 1995) and related emphases on active and authentic pedagogies, community/civic engagement, recognizing diversity of students and learning styles, appropriate use of technology, assessment, and SoTL (e.g., Svinicki 2004).

There is also a great deal of scholarly work on teaching and learning in the field, primarily case studies of individual classes or assignments. However, minimal empirical evidence on factors such as social status, attitudes such as confidence, or behaviors such as time on task and involvement that are related to learning or success in our major exists. There has been an effort to understand and share best practices related to teaching and curriculum in sociology, but the frequency of use of such practices as well as the impact of sharing and using these practices is largely unknown. The status of teaching and learning, and SoTL in the discipline has improved, but traditional research is still privileged.

Our crystal ball is a bit fuzzy, but we offer some thoughts both in terms of what we expect for the future and our hopes for the future. We expect some additional progress in terms of increased positive status and value of teaching and learning, and SoTL in the discipline. Yet without significant changes in the value system, socialization of future faculty, and a reward structure in higher education generally and sociology specifically, teaching and learning as well as SoTL will remain less visible and less valued than other areas. Over 20 years ago, Mauksch (1985) wrote about the “structural and symbolic barriers to improved teaching in sociology,” which included conditions of employment, practice, and worth of college teachers—many of these remain today. We hope that a shift in values, training, and rewards to further improve the practice of teaching and learning will occur, and it will be such that SoTL will become an important integral domain of scholarship and expertise in sociology.

We expect that SoTL in sociology will continue to improve as the SoTL international initiative grows and as we meet some of the challenges mentioned earlier. More research on how sociology instructors actually do teach is critical. Similarly, more work on graduate level and high school sociology education and more emphasis on learning at all levels, not just teaching, will enhance our understanding. More studies on the role of social demographics, the physical environment, and group membership in learning also are needed. We hope to see more research on the general questions of how students best learn, how to introduce sociology to novices, and the correlates of learning and processes of learning sociology over time. Given the growing use of instructional technology in our discipline, we expect a surge in SoTL work in this area. SoTL in sociology in the future will probably involve greater efforts to replicate work at multiple institutions and settings such that local work will become more generalizable. More of this work will likely be longitudinal or experimental. Furthermore, greater interdisciplinary and international SoTL work in sociology is likely as these changes occur more generally. Most important, faculty will probably become better producers, consumers, and adapters of SoTL work, resulting in a systematic effort to improve teaching and to enhance student learning.

See also:

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