by Sophia Abbot

When I first began working in higher education, I would ask students and faculty I worked with to reflect on transformative learning moments, how they felt about particular classroom experiences, or how they’d grown and changed over time. Both students and faculty did an amazing job observing the world around them and commenting on their observations, but when asked these more personal questions, they stumbled. They didn’t know how to reflect on themselves and their individual experience, and perhaps had never been asked to do so before. 

I don’t share this story to suggest “all students” or “all faculty” struggle to make personal reflections–many factors influence how comfortable someone is spending time thinking about themselves and sharing that thinking with others–but I do share this observation to suggest that reflection is an essential and often missing element of learning and that the structures of academia reinforce reflection’s absence.

In a recent article I co-wrote with Alison Cook-Sather and Peter Felten (2019), we explored the “dysfunctional illusions of rigor” (borrowing Craig Nelson’s 2010 term) that are held about SoTL. Nelson (2010) examines in his work the illusions we hold about rigor in teaching, such as assuming student failure is due to their unpreparedness or lack of effort, or that “traditional methods of instruction are unbiased and equally fair to a range of diverse students of good ability” (p. 187). On reflection, he realizes that such assumptions in fact “allowed for an abnegation of his responsibility as a teacher” (Cook-Sather, Abbot, and Felten 2019, 15). Rethinking these assumptions is a necessary step for inclusive and equitable teaching.

As Nelson does for teaching, we recommend examining the illusions that maintain traditional academic scholarship (often distanced and privileging of particular forms of data) as the premier form of writing about teaching. We write,

Academic customs have meant that writing in the field often has omitted the uncertain, the unfinished, the relational—in short, the human—aspects and processes of scholarship and the phenomena at the heart of learning and teaching. Not only does this falsely (but “rigorously”!) obscure the experiences of many who learn and teach, it also leads to the production of scholarship that is only accessible and interesting to disciplinary insiders. (p. 16)

In response, we make four arguments for expanding the legitimacy and acceptance of reflection as a valid form of SoTL:

  1. The process of reflection is an essential component of learning. 
  2. Reflective writing captures the complexity of learning
  3. Reflection is an accessible form of writing for both new and experienced SoTL authors
  4. Reflective writing is accessible to a wide range of readers.

Check out our article in Teaching & Learning Inquiry for our full explanation of the value of reflective writing in SoTL.


Sophia Abbot is the 2018-2020 Center for Engaged Learning Graduate Apprentice and a student in the Masters of Higher Education program at Elon University.

How to cite this post:

Abbot, Sophia Abbot. 2019, September 24. Legitimating Reflective Writing in SoTL. [Blog Post]. Retrieved from