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Scholarship of Teaching and Learning guide

Designing your research approach

"There is a high, hard ground where practitioners can make effective use of research-based theory and technique. And there is a swampy lowland where situations are confusing ‘messes’ incapable of technique solution... In the swamp are the problems of greatest human concern."

Donald Schön (1983)

The swampy lowland of SoTL

Schön reflected on how some problems lend themselves to technical analysis (quantitative research methods) but tend to be less interesting to individuals and wider society. Other ’messy in the swamp’ problems resist technical analysis, but in many instances, are the problems of most interest. Qualitative research methods address these messy problems. Quite a contentious view! But a great place to start thinking about the purposes of research methods.

SoTL research design: a holistic approach

A research design for SoTL researchers involves planning and organising investigations into teaching and learning theories and practices, and considering the various layers and components that shape the research process. It involves making thoughtful decisions about your overall research design, considering the best methodology that matches your research question, selecting appropriate methods for data collection and establishing a framework for analysing and interpreting the collected data.


A research design is the blueprint or plan that a researcher creates to guide their investigation.

It outlines the steps to be taken to answer specific questions or test hypotheses in a systematic and organized manner. A good research design helps ensure that the study's results are reliable, valid, and relevant to the research objectives.  

However!  First you need to establish your research question/enquiry. This will guide you to making holistic decisions and process decisions. Importantly, this decision-making might not take a linear path. It does help, though, if we explain what the research ‘language’ means.

The language of research

Study design is a specific implementation of the research design. It’s the choice around whether your research inquiry is best matched by a qualitative, quantitative or mixed methods approach. The study design is tailored to the unique characteristics of the research question and directly influences the quality and accuracy of the study's findings.

Methodology is the specific research ‘types’ that underpin the systems of research undertaken. At times it establishes the researcher’s beliefs and values as part of the context for the research. For example, narrative enquiry is a qualitative methodology and experimental is a quantitative methodology.

In the interests of unpacking research terms in accessible ways, we want you to imagine a set of Russian dolls.

  1. The largest doll is the research design
  2. The second doll is study design (qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods are in this doll).  
  3. The third doll holds methodologies
  4. The fourth doll is the methods for collecting data
  5. The smallest doll is data analysis techniques.

Image adapted from Matryoshka doll icons by istar_design_bureau

Illustrative example of research design

Research question: Would pairing sessional staff to teach seminars help their T&L development?

Study Design: Mixed methods. Surveys with qualitative and quantitative data

Methodology: Case Study. Single instance of a group (n=9) of paired sessional staff in one unit in one trimester. Interpretive and constructivist (because our concern was to make the voices of the sessional staff of primary importance to the study where there are ‘entangled power relationships’ between participants and researchers. (Denzin and Lincoln 2018). We used a survey design that reduced issues of power to facilitate agency of sessional staff.

Method for data collection: Surveys. One sessional staff survey based on Nyquist/Wulff framework; one trimester instance of eVALUate student survey quantitative data on student satisfaction, and qualitative comments relating to pairing of sessional staff.

Data Analysis:

  1. Report on survey outcomes of sessional staff’s own evaluation/comments in relation to Nyquist and Wulff framework stages of development and report on survey outcomes of the Nyquist and Wulff Likert scale of sessional staff’s self-perceived T&L expertise in relation to key teaching skills.
  2. Report on students’ evaluation of quality of teaching for the unit plus any commentary relating to pairing of sessional staff.
  3. Discussion and synthesis of the relationship between data

Example based on Wevill, T., & Savage, J. (2020). Peer-pairing sessional staff in a large first year Science unit as a form of supportive academic development. Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 17(1).