by Rebecca Pope-Ruark
For the last five years, I have been researching and adapting Agile management philosophies and one specific framework, Scrum, to (1) better teach students to collaborate and manage their project work and (2) visually manage my own research projects studying student collaboration.
Agile is an umbrella term for a set of principles and practices that promote planned incremental progress toward larger goals by highly reflective cross-functional teams who self-organize their work.  Agile frameworks are grounded in and call for respect for individuals, a team mentality, and accountability to each other and their collective goals.
Because Scrum values careful task articulation and visualization of work, it offers not only a way to improve student learning but also to collect data about that learning in action. In this post, I’ll quickly review the Scrum process and then provide specific strategies for using Scrum strategies to collect valuable data about student learning in dynamic, engaged learning environments.
What is Scrum exactly?
Agile coach trainer Lyssa Adkins does an excellent job of explaining the Scrum framework in this 10-minute video:
Here’s a quick summary of some of the highlights: Teams of people with different skills work together iteratively toward a common large goal (the release or product) by choosing the most important items (from a list of all the features that the business or customer wants the product to have called the backlog) that they can complete, start to finish, in a two-four week time-box (the sprint). The items are called stories, and each story is composed of specific tasks to be done by team members. Teams hold a meeting to decide what to work on for the sprint and how the team will organize their activities to complete their shorter term goals (sprint planning).
Before the sprint officially starts, the team visualizes the stories they will work by writing each story name and associated task on a card or sticky note and placing it on a large board with at least three columns – Backlog, In Progress, and Done. Throughout the sprint, they work toward achieving their commitments, using the board to visualize progress. As the team collaborates to move the work forward, they meet once a day for 15 minutes, often at the Scrum board, to check in on progress, hold each other accountable, and offer help where it is needed (the daily Scrum or stand-up meeting).
Once the sprint ends and the team has (hopefully) completed their sprint goals, they have two meetings: (1) the review or demo where the team demonstrates the work they have accomplished to stakeholders, and (2) the retrospective during which the team, and only the team, discuss their process during the last sprint – what went well, how could they have worked together or supported each other better, and what specific things will they do next sprint to improve their team?
And then they start planning the next sprint.
How can Scrum be used in Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) research?
The Scrum process can be easily adapted to facilitate incremental progress on any research project, personal or collaborative. Because the framework encourages careful articulation of process tasks and the visualization of that work over time, Scrum can be used to track students’ thinking and process as they work through activities and projects. To use aspects of Scrum to collect meaningful data in the classroom, consider having students

  1. Create and prioritize a learning or project backlog – when students create backlogs for projects, they must articulate and prioritize the steps they think they need to accomplish to complete the project successfully. As the project develops, students can add and remove tasks from the backlog to show how they are responding to change, opportunity, and learning. The decisions they make about prioritizing stories and tasks can also reveal their understanding of a process or what they value about the work. Capturing students’ backlogs throughout the process can clearly show their thought processes at any stage for valuable comparative data and developmental insight.
  2. Visualize their work – while a simple backlog might take the form of a To Do list, an Agile backlog is visualized on a Scrum board, allowing students to see their tasks, their progress, and their commitments. If space is an issue, the inside of a manila folder divided into three columns – Backlog, Work in Progress, and Done – along with some small sticky notes works effectively. Photos of the backlogs at different points in the project can be analyzed for data or used as starting points for interviews. If you teach online, software like Lean Kit is available free for higher education courses and can be used the same way as physical boards, with screen captures replacing photos to capture the data.
  3. Use the Scrum meetings – for group projects, sprint planning, daily Scrum, and retrospectives allow students to self-organize their work, regularly reinforce commitments, remain accountable, and improve their learning processes by active reflection. Observing meetings illuminates how student conceive of and approach their work. If multiple teams are involved, note takers can capture the content of the meetings in minutes which can be used later as data points to reveal student communication and collaboration strategies.

I integrate these strategies into my own courses as both effective learning strategies and as means to collect SoTL data. As with any SoTL work, it’s important not to implement strategies for the sake of data collection but those that can also improve student learning, as Scrum can. I usually take teaching notes about students’ process meetings and collect images of their Scrum boards throughout the semester, to be examined as ways to discuss their learning in class and as data only after the semester has ended. Another option is to have a co-researcher collect and analyze the data throughout the semester, perhaps holding interviews with the students during the semester.
Capturing learning in engaged classroom is a challenge, but implementing aspects of Scrum can improve both student learning and empirical data collection for SoTL research which is ultimately a win-win.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark is an Associate Professor of Professional Writing & Rhetoric at Elon University.

How to cite this post:

Pope-Ruark, Rebecca. 2013, August 20. Applying Scrum Project Management to SoTL Research. [Blog Post]. Retrieved from