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Researching the classroom | Martyn Clarke

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.

  1. Finding the focus
  2. Identifying the tools
  3. Carrying out the research
  4. Analysing the information
  5. Taking action

In this webinar we will be exploring the options we have at each stage and how they might be suited to different kinds of investigations. Let’s look at an example.

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.

In the webinar… we’ll evaluate some questions for their usefulness and suggest possible changes.

Identifying the tools

There are so many:

  • Field notes
  • Audio recordings
  • Student journals
  • Questionnaires
  • Photographs
  • Teacher journals
  • Videos
  • Interviews
  • 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.

In the webinar… we’ll look at a reading activity that Sara gives to her students to explore their feelings towards speaking, and we’ll look at some examples of other tools in action.

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.

In the webinarwe’ll look at some examples of Potentially Exploitable Pedagogic Activities (PEPAs) which combine language learning with research activities.

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?

In the webinarwe’ll look at a variety of analysis questions that we can use to gain insights into the data we discover, and also examine the possible pitfalls of leaping to conclusions without checking our biases.

Taking action

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.

In the webinarwe’ll evaluate actions for their appropriateness to different data analysis outcomes.

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?

I look forward to seeing you at the webinar in November.


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.


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How to reflect on how we teach

Young woman using laptop on park benchJulietta Schoenmann, a language teacher and teacher trainer with over twenty years’ experience, considers ways in which teachers can reflect on how they teach.

As professionals who care about our students and the quality of the lessons we prepare and deliver, we do from time to time want to explore certain aspects of our practice in more depth. One way of doing this is by carrying out an action research project. ‘Project’ makes it sound rather grand and formal but it doesn’t have to be as inaccessible as it sounds. Classroom-based research is simply a method for finding out more about teaching and learning which then, in theory, makes you a better teacher and also helps your students become better learners. So how do you go about doing it?

On your own

There are loads of things you can do by yourself which reveal plenty about you as a teacher – your attitude to your work and your students, your role in the classroom, your management techniques, your lesson planning abilities, etc. The first thing you need to do is think about which aspect of your lessons you want to research. Looking through any pages of the New English File Teacher’s Book can get you thinking about areas that deserve attention:

  • How effectively do you present new grammar structures?
  • How helpful are your techniques for explaining new vocabulary?
  • Do you provide adequate feedback on students’ performance?
  • Do you set up and conclude activities in a logical and engaging way?

It’s helpful to write down some questions to get you started so that you have a focus to work with. Let me give you an example from my own teaching.

A little while ago I wanted to find out how effective my instructions were with pre-intermediate group and decided to record my lesson. The digital recording device I used was nice and discreet so it wasn’t distracting for students in class. I was able to stop and start it whenever I wanted (rather than waste time on footage that wasn’t that helpful to me, such as groups doing a writing task). I set aside time a few days later to listen to what I’d captured.

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