Guest Contributor: Christine Harrington PhD, Middlesex County College.

As an educator dedicated to teaching others, you’re likely interested in continual pursuit of education yourself. But taking part in many continuing-education opportunities can prove costly, and not every person, department, or school has as much of a budget for these opportunities as they’d like. So how can a group of instructors with a desire to learn continue to do so… without exceeding their budget or stipend? Today, Christine Harrington shares her suggestions for a shared learning experience that can cost you nothing but the time you’re willing to invest in it. 

Do you have any cost-effective solutions for those seeking professional development? Share your ideas in the comments section below, or send them to thinktank@cengage.com.

SOTL Discussion Groups

SOTL, the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, is a relatively new but exciting field that focuses on the practical applications of research in education. In essence, SOTL researchers explore what works best in terms of educational practices at the college level. Last year, we started a SOTL Discussion Group for Faculty. It runs very similar to a book club but the focus is on a particular study that investigated pedagogical practices. Because the research is focused on general teaching practices, it is a wonderful way for faculty from different disciplines to gather and discuss ways to implement scholarly strategies into their classrooms.

Our first SOTL Discussion Group was entitled To Quiz or Not To Quiz and was a discussion on the following article:

Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). The power of testing memory: Basic research and implications for educational practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1(3), 181-210.

Participants were encouraged to read the article prior to the one-hour session. During the SOTL Discussion Group, participants were asked to identify the key findings from the study and identify research-based suggestions that would then be shared with others who were not able to attend the session. The key finding from this article was that retrieval practice improved memory so it should be viewed as a learning tool and not simply an action required for exams. For this session, here’s the list of suggested applications:

Incorporate retrieval processes into the classroom

  • Start each class with a short answer question. Students can write the answer to the question or talk with another classmate about the answer. Review the answer as a large group.
  • Begin each class with students talking to a classmate about what they remember from the prior class or reading for this week (books and notebooks closed). After a couple of minutes, students can look at notes to see if any concepts were missed.
  • Stop at least once or twice a class to have students recall and retrieve information they just learned. For example, tell a classmate what you just learned. This can be a very brief two-minute activity (one minute per person in each pair). Or have students write down key points they learned.
  • Stop at least once or twice and ask students to answer a quiz question. This can be done in large group (show of hands for each multiple choice answer option), individually (writing answer down), or in small groups (discussing the answer).

Incorporate quizzing into the syllabus

  • Give a quiz or test very early on — maybe even in the first week.
  • Give frequent quizzes (use online systems if you don’t want to use class time) and allow students to see the correct response (after testing session is closed).
  • Use publisher-supplied student support sites to assign regular “homework” that focuses on retrieval process

Another example was our SOTL Discussion Group on Making the Most of Group Work. Since the topic was effective group work, a cooperative learning strategy, the Jigsaw Classroom approach, was used to address the following article:

Shimazoe, J., & Aldrich, H. (2010). Group work can be gratifying: Understanding and overcoming resistance to cooperative learning. College Teaching, 58(2), 52-57. doi:10.1080/8756755090341859

If you are not familiar with the Jigsaw Classroom exercise, you can visit www.jigsaw.org for information on this approach to group work. Briefly, it involves forming initial “home base” groups of approximately three to six participants. Each member then takes on an “expert” role from a pre-determined list of options. In this case, the research article had three main sections so faculty participants were assigned to groups of three and each member was assigned a section. Groups are now re-configured so that all the experts form groups. In our SOTL conversation, this meant we now had three groups of experts for each section of the article. The expert groups then had approximately thirty minutes to discuss the key findings from their section. They were informed that they would have to be able to summarize the key points for their “home base” group members. All participants returned to their “home base” groups and shared their expertise with their other members. The beauty of this type of group work is that everyone has an active role and they must work together in order for the entire group to grasp all of the material. As usual, the focus was on identifying actions that could be taken to make the most of group work in their classrooms.

Because we are limited to one-hour sessions during the semester, we choose brief articles, but you could of course choose to discuss one article over two sessions if needed. Participants can take turns selecting the articles. Librarians are great resources if you need assistance finding articles. There are general teaching and learning journals as well as discipline-specific journals that focus on teaching and learning.

If you have questions or would like to hear more about our SOTL groups, feel free to reach out to me at charrington@middlesexcc.edu.


Dr. Christine Harrington is a Professor of Psychology and Student Success and Director of the Center for the Enrichment of Learning and Teaching at Middlesex County College in NJ. She is also the author of a new research-based freshman seminar textbook, Student Success in College: Doing What Works! Prior to teaching full time, she worked in the Counseling and Career Services Department, providing disability services and career, academic, and personal counseling. You can also visit Dr. Christine Harrington’s website.