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.

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.

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.