Found Wisdom: Approaches to the scholarship of learning (and why it’s important for blended and online learning)

Elizabeth Smith, Faculty Development
Elizabeth Smith
Faculty Development

By Elizabeth Smith, M.S.
Associate Director, Faculty Development

In an invited essay for the International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Bill Cerbin, Director of the Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, writes about the importance of the "learning question" in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). He points out that although research on outcomes and “what works” is vital to our understanding of effective teaching methods, far less attention and SoTL research focuses on “making learning the object of inquiry.”

…when outcomes are the primary focus, learning is viewed mainly as a criterion for teaching effectiveness rather than as an object of inquiry in its own right. Attending to the endpoint of learning (outcomes) diverts attention away from exploring the paths that students take to get to the outcomes (how students learn). (Cerbin, 2013, p.2)

In his essay, Cerbin argues for an emphasis on a “learning studies” research approach for a deeper dive into the how and why of student learning:

  • How do students develop knowledge and skills from a particular instructional strategy?
  • Where and why do students have difficulty with important concepts?
  • Why students don’t achieve as well as expected?

This learning studies approach especially resonates with me after attending Dr. Sullivan’s October 7 brownbag discussion on online learning. Two areas of research mentioned at the brownbag, the NSD or “no significant difference” research and the US Department of Education Distance Education report Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, are primarily outcomes-based research. That is, they measure the end result of the learning process to test the effectiveness of the delivery method. The research has contributed to legitimizing (if you will), advocating for and promoting online, blended and technology-enhanced teaching because we have evidence of what works.

Research on the how and why of learning, particularly in the area of online learning and technology is less often a focus of SoTL research, although just as important.  As Cerbin comments in his essay, a refocused research emphasis on the why in learning is critical: “Understanding how students learn what we teach is an important ingredient or precursor for instructional design and decisions about how to better support learning.” (p.2).

Cerbin’s short, concise article is worth reading not only for faculty who are interested in advancing their SoTL research but also for those who are interested in gathering data for planning and decisions around moving toward the flipped, blended or online classroom. One “learning-oriented” approach highlighted in the essay focuses on why students have particular difficulty understanding “gateway” or “threshold” concepts and students’ misconceptions and prior beliefs about the subject matter. Cerbin advocates focusing research on why and how students struggle with the mastery of critical, discipline-specific material to inform faculty as they select instructional strategies and technologies. In terms of application, Angelo and Cross’ popular book Classroom Assessment Techniques has many simple, easy-to-use techniques such as “Background Knowledge Probe” and “Misconception/Preconception Check” that can be employed online or in the classroom to gather information on students’ conceptual understanding. 

“Decoding the disciplines” and “lesson study” are additional approaches discussed in the essay that get at the ways in which students understand disciplinary expertise: “…knowledge, skills and habits of mind that typify [the] discipline.” Cerbin highlights in his essay a recent study he conducted using the lesson study approach with introductory level students that underscores the importance of the “learning question” and research on both the “process of learning and on learning outcomes.”

For a deeper dive into the “learning studies” research approach download Bill Cerbin’s essay “Emphasizing learning in the scholarship of teaching and learning” from the International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning


Angelo, T., Cross, K.P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cerbin, B. (2013). Emphasizing learning in the scholarship of teaching and learning.  International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 7 (1). Retrieved from

No Significant Difference

“The "No Significant Difference" phenomenon refers to a body of literature consisting of a particular type of MCS [media comparison studies] - those comparing student outcomes between face to face and distance delivery courses. This body of literature was originally compiled by Thomas Russell in his book, "The No Significant Difference Phenomenon: A Comparative Research Annotated Bibliography on Technology for Distance Education" (IDECC) to answer the following question: Does taking a course via distance education lower a student's chances for success as compared to the same student taking the same course in a face-to-face format?” For more information and access to research visit the NSD website at:

Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies


A systematic search of the research literature from 1996 through July 2008 identified more than a thousand empirical studies of online learning. Analysts screened these studies to find those that (a) contrasted an online to a face-to-face condition, (b) measured student learning outcomes, (c) used a rigorous research design, and (d) provided adequate information to calculate an effect size. As a result of this screening, 50 independent effects were identified that could be subjected to meta-analysis. The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction. The difference between student outcomes for online and face-to-face classes—measured as the difference between treatment and control means, divided by the pooled standard deviation—was larger in those studies contrasting conditions that blended elements of online and face-to-face instruction with conditions taught entirely face-to-face. Analysts noted that these blended conditions often included additional learning time and instructional elements not received by students in control conditions. This finding suggests that the positive effects associated with blended learning should not be attributed to the media, per se. An unexpected finding was the small number of rigorous published studies contrasting online and face-to-face learning conditions for K–12 students. In light of this small corpus, caution is required in generalizing to the K–12 population because the results are derived for the most part from studies in other settings (e.g., medical training, higher education).

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, Washington, D.C., 2010.Retrieved from

Resources for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL)

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