Looking back, looking around, looking forward

by Margy MacMillan
Mount Royal University Library

Margy MacMillan


Part of my retirement preparation has been to dispose of mountains of paper – articles, reports, illegible notes, etc. Skimming the articles, most on research in information literacy, I noticed a trend. The reason I noticed this trend in the library literature was because of a trend in current SoTL (Scholarship of Teaching and Learning) work that has made me question a lot of my practices. A major theme in SoTL now is “students-as-partners”:




“Students as partners goes beyond the student voice and involves students as co-creators, co-researchers, co-teachers, co-producers and co-designers in learning and teaching.”

– McMaster Students as Partners Summer Institute  https://macblog.mcmaster.ca/summer-institute/about-students-as-partners/

The aspect of the trend I find most interesting is having the students involved in generating the questions. In other words – doing research with students, rather than to students. Interesting thought . . . and certainly easily transferable to other communities, public library settings, etc.

The trend I noticed in the library literature in my piles and files, as you’ve probably guessed, was an almost complete lack of research based on questions generated by library users as co-inquirers.  This may, of course, be more reflective of what I’ve been searching and reading than the actual state of library literature, so I want to be clear, I am more questioning my own work than the field in general.  So:

What kind of questions would the people who use our libraries like to ask?
What kinds of questions would the people who DON’T use our libraries like to ask?

Think about it. And then think about this:

What kind of agency would it grant members of our communities to ask them to develop questions?

Would it change how members of our communities feel about their library?

If I was at the start of my professional career instead of at the end, or if I could time travel back and do it all over, this is how I’d like to approach evidence-based practice.

There is growing evidence of the benefits of a students-as-partners approach for both the students and the other researchers (see below for starting points).  There are also strong parallels to these benefits, especially around diversifying research questions and creating agency, in the more established literatures of participatory research, community-engaged scholarship, and other approaches that are what Helen Kara (2015) describes as transformative methodological frameworks. In Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide, she includes many examples of projects using feminist, decolonized, emancipatory, and participatory methodologies that serve as a rich source of ideas for the kind of work we could be doing more of. A common feature of transformative practice is “a move from oppressive to egalitarian practices, thereby supporting a wider shift from oppressive to egalitarian societies” (p. 39). I highly recommend this book, especially for those of you engaged in the #critlib discussions, as I think it bridges critical library practice and research.

Applying some of the perspectives from critical theory to our research practices as well as to other aspects of our work may seem a daunting task. Researchers risk exposure, the often solitary rewards of spending time with the literature to answer your own questions may be lost in work with others. This may be even more the case in work with people outside of academia or the profession, who may not share the same language, research conventions, or agreed ‘standards’. But wouldn’t the resulting possibilities and perspectives be worth it for libraries? Wouldn’t the greater involvement be worth it for our communities?

sunset on the Cristalino River in Brazil

Some references and starting points….

Bell, A. (2016). Students as co-inquirers in Australian higher education: Opportunities and challenges. Teaching & Learning Inquiry, 4(2), 1-10. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.20343/teachlearninqu.4.2.8 This is part of a theme issue on students as co-inquirers in SoTL – http://tlijournal.com/tli/index.php/TLI/issue/view/15

Kara, H. (2015). Creative research methods in the social sciences: A practical guide. Bristol, UK: Policy Press.

Light, A., Egglestone, P., Wakeford, T., & Rogers, J. (2011). Participant-making: Bridging the gulf between community knowledge and academic research. The Journal Of Community Informatics, 7(3). Retrieved from http://ci-journal.net/index.php/ciej/article/view/804/808

Marquis, E., Puri, V., Wan, S., Ahmad, A., Goff, L., Knorr, K., Vassileva, I., & Woo, J. (2016). Navigating the threshold of student–staff partnerships: a case study from an Ontario teaching and learning institute. International Journal for Academic Development, 21(1), 4-15.

Matthews, K. (2017). University of Queensland Institute for Teaching and Learning Students as Partners site – http://itali.uq.edu.au/matthews-studentsaspartners


This article gives the views of the author and not necessarily the views the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

Making Room for Surprise in Research

by Margy MacMillan
Mount Royal University Library

Research results can often be like students – some do exactly what you want, and that’s great, but it’s the ones who surprise you that you remember the most. Staying open to surprise has been one of the most difficult aspects of research for me, and also one of the most rewarding. Think for a moment – when has your research surprised you?

Last year, I was interviewed as part of a study about the impact of conducting Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) research on the researcher. Among other things, we talked about how surprised I had been by the results of a recent project. It turns out, I was not the only subject who talked about this and my colleagues, Michelle Yeo, Karen Manarin, and Janice Miller-Young now have a paper in review on this as they found our surprise, well… surprising.

A bit about the project…I started a study of the connections students made while reading an academic article looking for patterns in what they connected to – personal, academic or professional knowledge. Digging deeper into the data, a much more interesting and entirely unexpected story emerged about what students were connecting from – surface or deep aspects of the text, and how that provided insight into how they were reading.

Since the interview my thoughts have returned to the idea of surprise many times, wondering what factors allowed me to see beyond the expected, and make the most of it. While I went into the project with a fairly open question, I definitely had an idea of the connections students might make and I saw those in the data. Research done and dusted, right? But there was a niggle, a suspicion I was missing something. As I spent more time with the data, reading beyond the answers to my questions, and really paying attention to what students wrote, different patterns emerged and their story was much more compelling. I had some uncertainty about whether what I was seeing was actually there because it was so totally unanticipated (this is where critical research buddies come in handy). I was excited by the new, deeper understanding in a way I hadn’t been by the original analysis – and I think it’s worth paying attention to that excitement too. Another factor in accepting the surprise may have been that I was writing outside my ‘home field’ of information literacy and so felt less bound by disciplinary discussions and my own ‘expertise’. That might have made it ok to be surprised by unanticipated directions and new insights, without a discouraging ‘well, I should have expected that’ voice in my head. So maybe I need to find a way to turn off that voice…

Coincidentally, I’m currently reading an older work by Marcia B. Baxter-Magolda, Knowing and Reasoning in College: Gender-related patterns in students’ intellectual development. In the opening chapter, she speaks eloquently and frankly about transformations in her way of knowing, her research process, and her questions, including the impact of not finding what she was expecting. The book raises intriguing ideas about students and the research process, and it is also as a terrific model of scholarly prose, with personality and wit that often seem edited out of much current academic writing (this might be why I prefer writing blogs now!).

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.


by Margy MacMillan
Mount Royal University Library

I practiced SoTL for at least 5 years in blissful ignorance of its existence. You too may be a SoTList or have SoTList leanings and not even know it; it may well be time to explore the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.

The research projects I’m currently involved in occur at the intersection of information literacy (IL) and SoTL, and like all intersections it’s an exciting, slightly unsettling place to be. There’s a lot of movement in many directions, a lot of choices on where to go next, and some things just have to wait until there’s a break in the traffic to get going. Standing at this intersection I`ve had some time to think about the links between SoTL and evidence based library and information practice (EBLIP)…
Hanoi, 2013. By D. MacMillan


SoTL might be described as evidence-based practice in teaching. It is focused, like EBLIP on gathering evidence to understand different situations and/or the impact of different interventions. It uses a range of methodologies and works both within and across discipline boundaries. While it is most obviously akin to evidence-based research in IL, branches of SoTL concerned with technology or institutional cultures may resonate with other library researchers. Much like EBLIP conferences where those who work with bioinformatics data discover common ground with public librarians working with citizen science initiatives, SoTL fosters conversations between people who might not otherwise meet. Academics working in SoTL don’t always get much support for their research at their own institutions (sound familiar?) or within their own disciplines and they value conferences both for finding kindred spirits and for the interdisciplinarity that brings fresh ideas and approaches. Since arriving in this welcoming SoTLsphere, I have enjoyed exploring further – attending conferences, getting involved in SoTL on my campus and currently supporting the SoTL work of colleagues through Mount Royal`s Institute for SoTL.

3 ways SoTL has helped me EBLIP

Methodologies – SoTL work rests on applying disciplinary research methods to understanding teaching and learning. I’ve encountered a really broad range of methods in SoTL work that also apply to EBLIP.

Understanding Threshold Concepts (TCs) – While I had first heard of TC’s at a library conference, this way of looking at learning is a major focus in SoTL and I have been able to bring knowledge from SoTL folks into discussions around the new TC-informed Framework for IL.

Focus on building a community – Some SoTLers are involved with building communities on campuses by expanding relationships, providing support, and developing policy. There are many useful insights here for library initiatives and I have benefited from becoming part of a very supportive, cross disciplinary group of scholars.

3 ways EBLIP has helped me SoTL

Better understanding of diverse literatures and how to search them – This has helped me enter a new field, but also allows me to contribute back to the SoTL community on campus as I am aware of resources and tools for searching outside their disciplines.

Longer experience with evaluating usefulness of small steps and interventions – IL is often assessed at micro levels: the use of a particular tool, or the effectiveness of a teaching strategy, often within a single class. We have developed a number of strategies to examine teaching and learning at this atomized level useful for instructors accustomed to thinking in course-sized chunks.

Understanding how dissemination works – Work like Cara Bradley`s is informing my work with SoTLers in identifying venues for publication, and my next project on studying dissemination patterns in SoTL.

Interest in SoTL among librarians is growing, as evidenced by increasing numbers at conferences and a colleague in the UK who is writing a book about SoTL and librarians (many thanks to Emma Coonan for a great conversation that clarified many of these thoughts and if you aren’t reading her The Mongoose Librarian blog on a regular basis … .well, you should be!). Explore a little, dip into their literature, maybe go to a conference or talk to the teaching and learning folks on your campus… they can use our help and we might be able to borrow a few things from them. Maybe we’re overdue for a change.

3 good reads about SoTL

Felten, P. (2013). Principles of good practice in SoTL. Teaching and Learning Inquiry: The ISSOTL Journal, 1(1), 121-125. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/teaching_and_learning_inquiry__the_issotl_journal/v001/1.1.felten.html

Huber, Mary Taylor and Sherwyn P. Morreale, eds. Disciplinary Styles in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Exploring Common Ground. Menlo Park, CA: Carnegie Foundation, 2002.

Hutchings, P. (2010). The scholarship of teaching and learning: From idea to integration. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2010(123), 63-72. http://fresnostate.edu/academics/csalt/documents/Hutchings2010.pdf

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.