In this OUP blog post from March 2017, we briefly described 5 key stages that we could usefully take when carrying out action research into what happens in our own classrooms.
- Finding the focus
- Identifying the tools
- Carrying out the research
- Analysing the information
- Taking action
Sara is a teacher in a secondary school and is concerned that her Year 9 group (13-14 year olds) are not meeting the requirements of the speaking exam that they are studying for.
Finding the focus
There are 3 key things to bear in mind here.
- Is it reasonable? In our example, it would be unreasonable for Sara to explore how she could change the requirements of the exam. It is out of her control. But it would certainly be reasonable to explore what happens during speaking activities in the classroom.
- Is it focused appropriately? If Sara were to ask ‘what motivates my students?’, then the possible answers would be very general and too complex to be useful immediately. But if she were to ask, ‘when do students actually speak in English?’ then this is a more manageable focus with clear outcomes.
- Is it bias-free? If Sara asks, ‘Why do my students hate speaking?’ she will end up looking for data that confirms her preconceptions. Research should hopefully help us explore our own perceptions as well as the realities of our classrooms. So, a question such as, ‘how do my students feel about specific speaking activities?’ might be more useful.
How can we get to these questions? Working on our own, applying the tests above might help. Writing a question down, editing, leaving it for a while, and then coming back for review and re-editing is a useful process. If we have colleagues, then asking them for feedback on this process is always helpful.
Identifying the tools
There are so many:
- Field notes
- Audio recordings
- Student journals
- Teacher journals
- Group interaction maps
- Observations (by colleagues or students)
As we pointed out earlier, it all depends on the information you want to get. For Sara, a questionnaire or an interview might help her discover what her students feel about different speaking activities. If she wants to understand what students actually do during speaking activities, she should try video recordings, field notes, or even colleague observation.
Carrying out the research
A potential problem with research is that it might interfere with the lessons themselves. It’s important to minimise this either by being as discrete as possible with your research tools or, as we mentioned above, carrying out the research in a way that combines the exploration with language learning itself. In Sara’s project, she might do the questionnaires and interviews herself, or have the students write and administer them as part of a class project – combining research with language learning.
Analysing the information
So, we’ve identified the focus, chosen our tools, and collected our information. What do we do with it? This stage of analysis needs frameworks of categorisation, synthesis, evaluation, and many other cognitive processes found in the higher order thinking skills of Bloom’s taxonomy (or lots of HOTS, if you like a nerdy joke).
Sara might ask the following questions:
- What categories of speaking activities do the students tend to enjoy more?
- Are there any particular themes that they enjoy more than others?
- Is there any information on the impact my behaviour has on their attitude to speaking?
- How does the behaviour of their peers affect their engagement with speaking activities?
- Have we collected any unexpected date? Do I need to change my mind on anything?
The first point to make is that there doesn’t actually have to be any action in the actual teaching we do. 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 how you see things as a teacher. Sara might discover that her students are actually better at speaking than she thought.
It’s also possible that 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. Sara might find that her students are demotivated by her correction techniques, and so needs to read up on ways of responding to spoken contributions in the lesson.
But it’s possible, however, that we decide to try something new as a result. Sara might decide to increase her use of pair-work as students find this less threatening than speaking in groups or in front of the class. She might decide to trial using their phones to record these interactions for later review.
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 development into learning about our teaching. Does that sound like a good idea?
Martyn Clarke has been an ELT professional for 30 years. As a consultant teacher-trainer, he has experience in education development projects in more than 15 countries around the world. He has designed and taught on under- and post-graduate teacher and trainer development programmes for universities in the UK across Europe and the Middle East. He’s also a trainer development course writer for the British Council.