1.2 Distinguishing SoTL from discipline-based education research
Discipline-based education research (DBER) is an emergent, interdisciplinary field of scholarship in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) that is aimed at understanding and improving discipline-specific teaching and learning. DBER is an empirical approach that investigates learning and teaching in a discipline informed by an expert’s understanding of disciplinary knowledge and practice. DBER uses a range of methods with deep grounding in the discipline’s priorities, worldview, knowledge and practices. Although topics of DBER are disciplinary in nature and therefore familiar to STEM colleagues, the research questions and methods of DBER are often grounded in the social sciences. It is informed by and complementary to more general research on human learning and cognition.
High-quality DBER, therefore, combines expert knowledge of a science or engineering discipline, of the challenges of learning and teaching in that discipline and of the science of learning and teaching generally. This expertise can, but need not, reside in a single DBER scholar; it also can be strategically distributed across multidisciplinary, collaborative teams (National Research Council, 2012).
The long-term goals of DBER are to understand how people learn the concepts, practices and ways of thinking in STEM; how STEM expertise develops; and how STEM education can become broader and more inclusive (National Research Council, 2012).
An example of DBER is when an Earth Sciences educator investigates how students’ motivation, attitudes and feelings toward Earth Sciences and learning Earth Sciences be incorporated into the curriculum design.
Both DBER and SoTL aim to improve teaching and learning but are distinct.
SoTL is focused on improving and supporting student learning. It involves reflective practice and investigating teaching interventions that address student learning. Data collection and analyses in SoTL research are generally limited to an educator’s group of students, a module or a programme with the aim of making local improvements in learning and teaching. SoTL research is often across disciplinary boundaries, including the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. In contrast, DBER pursues research questions and hypotheses about teaching, learning and ways of thinking in a specific discipline that extend beyond single classrooms and programmes in order to yield original, generalisable and mechanistic insights into educational processes and their effects for that particular discipline.
The intended audience may be another way to differentiate SoTL from DBER. While DBER scholars gravitate to discipline-specific journals, SoTL researchers mostly publish in broad journals on teaching and learning. SoTL’s outcomes are aimed at educators in all fields of higher education, with the intent to improve teaching and learning and to provide a basis for others to build upon.
However, some educators who engage in SoTL have gone on to become deeply engaged in DBER. Thus, the boundaries between SoTL and DBER are blurred and some researchers belong to both the SoTL and DBER communities (Dewar et al., 2018).