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Action research: how it can help your EFL classroom

cathryn-lavery-67852Martyn Clarke has worked in ELT classrooms as a teacher and trainer for over twenty years and in more than fifteen countries. He has taught English at all levels and in many contexts from one-to-one in financial institutions to rural schools with classes of eighty students.

A classic model of teacher development involves learning about the latest ideas on our practice, and applying them to our classrooms.

Action Research takes the opposite approach. In this process we find out what happens in our own classrooms so that we can understand them better and so make better-informed teaching decisions.  In other words, the teacher carries out the research, and if necessary as a result of what they find out, identifies possible strategies to engage with the reality.

It is different from scientific research. It doesn’t try to come to universally applicable conclusions or models of action. If you conduct an action research project, you know from the outset that you’re only looking at your own specific classroom. Any actions you take as a result are appropriate only to that classroom. Of course, it’s useful to share your experiences with your colleagues but this is more to give them ideas to explore their own classes rather than recommending particular courses of action.

Here is a five-stage model for a simple action research project.

  1. Finding the focus

First you need to identify the question you want to answer.

  • Try not to be too general. For example, the question ‘how can I improve my students motivation?’ could have many different answers. But don’t be too narrow in your focus.  If your question is ‘which students like reading activities?’ then the research will be quite short, and what you’ll be able to do with the information will be very limited.
  • Try to make your question as factual as possible. If you ask ‘why are my students so lazy in groupwork?’  Your research will be just be confirming what you already think.  If you change that to ‘what do my students do during groupwork activities?’  Then you will be not only finding out more about reality but also testing your own opinions.
  1. Identifying the tools
  • You need to do decide what information you’re looking for. This will then give you an idea of where to find it and how to find it. If you look at the question about students in groupwork activities (see above), the information we are looking for is factual, and will probably be best obtained through observing the students during the lesson. So you could use a video camera, you could ask a colleague to come in and observe, or you could do it yourself. All of these have advantages and disadvantages. If you use a camera or colleague, then you will probably need more than one lesson as students needs to become accustomed to the activity in order not to be affected by it too much.  If you do it yourself you’ll need to set it up to give yourself sufficient space and time to do so.
  • Ideally you will get information from more than one source to give you a full picture. So here in addition to the observation, you could also interview your students, or even set this up as a language learning activity during a lesson. In addition to observations, videos, and interviews, other tools include questionnaires (which are useful for larger groups), focus groups (for discovering opinions), or personal journals (which are useful for tracking changes over time).
  1. Carrying out the research
  • Try to carry out the research in away that minimizes any negative impact on the learning itself. For this reason involving colleagues to come and record data is so useful. Obviously it’s important that they do this in away that does not interfere in the lesson.
  • It’s a good idea to carry out the research in ways that will offer you as much information as possible. If you are focusing on one particular class, then consider obtaining data during different lessons rather than just one.  If you are focusing on a particular activity, then consider researching the activity with different groups.
  • It’s a good idea to record any factors that may influence the information you gain, such as the proximity of an exam or a holiday, for example, as this will help you in the next stage when you analyse the data.
  1. Analysing the information
  • In the analysis stage you try to make sense of the information you have obtained. There are a number of thinking processes you can use to help you do this.
  • What categories of data can you find?
  • What themes or patterns can you spot? What does this tell you about the relationships within the data? Are there any causes and responses?
  • Are there any pieces of information which are very different to the rest? How do you account for this?
  • Is there anything that is unexpected? Does this alter any opinions you may have had?
  • It’s extremely useful to involve a colleague in the analysis stage. Thinking critically like this is often easier when discussing ideas with someone else. Make sure, however, that you avoid just sharing your opinions. Try to focus on asking questions and using the data to find your answers.
  1. Taking action

Having gained a better understanding of what is going on in the class, it’s common to take some form of action in response. This section is usually one of three kinds:

  • Further research: Your research has led you to more questions and you decide that it is important to find the answers to these in order to identify a strategy to address the situation.
  • Change your attitude: It’s possible that your research suggests what you thought was an issue isn’t, in fact, such a problem. In this situation the change will come not so much in your classroom practice but in the way you see things as a teacher.
  • Implement a new strategy: Often, however, when we research classrooms, we decide to try something new as a result. Perhaps we decide our students need more support for group work activities. Perhaps we need to make them easier, or more difficult. We might decide to alter seating patterns so that different students work with each other.  Whatever strategy we try, it’s useful to then continue the research and obtain data on what happens as a result. In other words, action research can become a cycle of constant investigation into what’s going on in our classrooms.