The Science of Learning

The Science of Learning

SOLER uses a scientific lens to understand and improve the experiences of students and instructors through Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Research, Learning Analytics, and Applied Learning Sciences while building the Science of Learning community.

3 branches of the science of learning

Building the Science of Learning community: Centralized in the Office of the Provost, SOLER is positioned to foster collaborations, advocate for and boost the visibility of our affiliates, promote literacy through journal clubs and colloquia, train the next generation of scholars by recruiting graduate student assistants, and connect our work to the broader academic world. 

Read more about SOLER’s three branches below (and about community building here):

What is SoTL Research?

The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) is an evidence-based, academic community-facing enterprise in which faculty and colleagues use a scholarly lens to examine how learning happens in higher education. The overarching goal of SoTL is to improve one's own teaching practice through innovations in pedagogy and curriculum and to serve as a model for others within and across disciplines. Columbia’s Center for Teaching and Learning, a counterpart of SOLER within the Provost’s Office, offers many types of SoTL-related support for faculty and graduate students such as workshops, teaching observations, and development of new pedagogical strategies, media, and digital tools. 

A major part of SOLER’s mission is to facilitate SoTL Research – SoTL that uses formal scientific approaches (i.e., theoretical frameworks, hypothesis-driven investigations, experimental designs, and data analysis) to examine teaching and learning – in Columbia’s academic contexts. In other words, SoTL Research leverages scientific methods to formulate and address questions about the ways students gain knowledge, develop skills, and otherwise think, feel, and behave in higher ed.

SoTL Research is an umbrella term that can encompasses several related fields, including Design-Based Research and Discipline-Based Education Research. For the purpose of a general introduction, it is helpful to understand that projects often address the impact of instructional strategies – and the mechanisms underlying such impacts – on student learning, engagement, and confidence. See our Resources pages for a primer on subfields, topics, designs, tools, and publishing.

The roots of SoTL Research lie largely in the physical sciences. However, the perspective is valuable in any disciplinary context; today, faculty and administrative structures at many institutions affirm the universality of SoTL Research. Indeed, SOLER was founded on the principle that Columbia should be a leader in elucidating best practices in teaching and the learning processes of all its students. SOLER’s therefore supports projects in the humanities and interdisciplinary fields in addition to STEM contexts.   

Why is SoTL Research important?

Faculty in recent years have often found themselves in uncertain, uncharted territory. Many have pondered this question: how do we teach effectively and inclusively in an online format? However, this is just a variation on a question that faculty might have asked themselves at any previous point: how should we teach in general? Indeed, a particularly tumultuous time has merely amplified the motivation that instructors have always had to figure out what works best for our students’ learning.

To begin to answer our question, first consider how one could determine “what works best.” The scientific method is a powerful tool for making sense of the world. SoTL Research is simply the use of the scientific method to gain insight into teaching and learning in higher ed. One classic SoTL Research approach is an experiment: compare two pedagogical methods. Which one leads to better student learning or attitude outcomes? If we structure the experiment properly (see SoTL Research Basics), we can make a causal inference: the difference in method caused the difference in outcomes. A proper scientific investigation enables confident conclusions about best practices in teaching.

Let’s say our data indicate that students learned more with one method than the other. Have we discovered a fundamental principle of human cognition that tells us the optimal way to teach in all disciplines and contexts? It would be unrealistic and imprudent to think so. Rather, it’s the other way around: a principle (or theory) about learning – the rationale for comparing the methods – helped us rigorously characterize and quantify a phenomenon in the context of our course, with our students. Perhaps it is not as lofty a conclusion to reach as a new universal insight, but it is the practical outcome we were seeking. A carefully designed classroom experiment informs how to structure our course in the next iteration. Furthermore, because the experiment is grounded in theory, it can contribute a valuable piece to a larger puzzle that collectively tells a powerful story about learning in higher ed.

How does SOLER support SoTL Research? 

Provost’s SOLER Seed Grants (PSSGs) empower faculty by providing funding and support. Services include refining research objectives and study designs, identifying or developing assessments, navigating the IRB approval process, analyzing data, and composing external grant proposals, manuscripts, and presentations.

Learning Analytics

What is Learning Analytics?

Learning Analytics is an enterprise at the intersection of pedagogy, information technology, data science, and university administration. Principles from business intelligence are often incorporated. 

Why is Learning Analytics important?

Learning Analytics insights contribute to two major objectives:

  1. Elucidating the relationship between curricular and demographic elements and student behaviors and outcomes in courses, majors, and degree programs 
  2. Informing academic technology policy issues and guidelines for faculty and administrators working with student data

How does SOLER support Learning Analytics? 

Collaborating with faculty and staff throughout the University, SOLER supports Learning Analytics efforts by helping to develop, manage, and extract insights from academic and institutional data, applying methods such as predictive analytics and user behavior analytics. Through technical knowledge and understanding of pedagogical principles, SOLER also contributes to broader conversations about student data and privacy. Additionally, SOLER will spearhead structural projects that integrate institutional and academic information streams (for example, the development of a student-facing analytics dashboard).    

What is Applied Learning Sciences?

This element of SOLER’s mission concerns Columbia’s faculty, postdocs, and graduate students whose departmental research (i.e., their primary scholarly work) directly addresses the learning process in some way; the relevant disciplines are collectively called the Learning Sciences. Key departments and schools include Teachers College, Psychology, Marketing (GSB), Statistics, Sociology, and many more. Connecting this research – which is often laboratory-based – to “real-world”  teaching and learning contexts (i.e., courses) is a form of application

Why is Applied Learning Sciences important?

Applied Learning Sciences help translate theory into practice in a way that centers the experiences of teachers and learners at Columbia and beyond. 

How does SOLER support Applied Learning Sciences?

SOLER aims to connect the research conducted by these groups to Columbia’s academic contexts and, in doing so, uncover broader insights about teaching and learning in higher ed. For example, SOLER can help a social psychologist who studies interactions between students and instructors recruit participants of both types from a large Columbia course and then adapt the experimental paradigm to match the course learning objectives or other elements of the curriculum. SOLER plays a logistical and conceptual role that helps bridge the divide between the laboratory and the classroom.