In the third post of this series about research in the classroom, David Dodgson explains how he engages in cycles of action research to investigate and experiment with new ideas, understand learners better, and develop professionally.
So far in this series of posts on research, we have looked at accessing research and examples of how to put research into action. In this post, it is time to think about turning that process around – using our classroom as a starting point to generate our own cycle of action research. After all, nobody knows our own context and the challenges we face better than us, the teachers, and the students we interact with on a daily basis. Action research offers the opportunity for us to engage in targeted and personalised professional development and this post will explore how to go about it.
As action research begins in the classroom, it is by definition specific to our learning environment and there are several variations of ‘action research cycles’ utilised by educators around the world. I will now present my version of such a cycle – please share your own variations in the comments below.
Any research project requires a focus and action research is no different. You may have a puzzle to solve or a difficulty to address in your day-to-day teaching and learning. You may have an idea that you want to test or an activity you want to experiment with. This will most likely arise from your in-class experiences, but it may come from a discussion with a colleague, an observation, an article, or a conference talk. The key to moving forward is to relate this issue or idea to your teaching context.
Narrowing the focus is also important. A general question like ‘how could I improve my students’ writing?’ is too broad. We would need to define key words before moving on. What age and level of learners? Which genre of writing? Do we want to improve accuracy, content, length, punctuation, or something else? Without addressing these points, the answers will be wide-ranging or inconclusive. ‘How do self-assessment strategies impact the story writing of my intermediate secondary students?’ will lead to more focused and clear outcomes.
It is also vital to avoid assumptions or bias in our questions. ‘Why don’t my students like writing?’ is a leading question with an assumption already made about the learners’ attitude to writing. ‘What are my student’s attitudes to writing?’ is a question that will allow for a more open-ended approach and results that may challenge your expectations.
Before addressing these issues in class, I like to explore more about the topic. This can lead to new insights about activities or research methods you might try. Reading around the topic is a good place to start (see the first post in this series for suggestions about where to find articles) – perhaps a piece from the Modern English Teacher archives can help. We can also speak to colleagues, who will know our context better than anybody else, or conduct some preliminary peer observations to see how other classes compare to our own.
At this stage, I may revise my research questions based on my early findings (bearing in mind the importance of adapting ideas to our own classrooms). I will also come up with a plan of how I will address the focus identified earlier and how I will collect data.
- Take action
Now we reach the most important stage – taking our ideas to class and collecting data to answer our research question. How we do this depends very much on what we are researching and how we are collecting data. If we are researching student attitudes, a survey may offer the most direct way to gauge their opinions. If we are focusing on writing (as in the examples above), we might look at our students’ output and compare it to earlier written work. Inviting a peer into the class to observe will allow us to focus on running a lesson as normal while data is collected. This is especially useful if we have designed an observation sheet relevant to the issue we are addressing.
Other options include making video and audio recordings of parts of our lesson, notes we take while students are on task, or journal entries written after the lesson focused on the action taken and the results.
We also need to think about timing and scale. If experimenting with a new activity, it may be enough to collect data from one lesson. However, we may want to try the activity in different classes, so we can compare outcomes. In certain cases, such as observing changes in students’ attitudes or quality of their written work, collecting data over an extended period of several lessons or capturing before and after snapshots may be required.
Whichever methods we choose, we should ensure they allow for the collection of raw data relevant to the issue identified and the ideas put into action.
- Analyse and reflect
Once we have put our ideas into action and gathered out data, we need to engage in analysis. Again, this will depend on our research question and our methods of data collection. If we have tried out a new idea, we should look for evidence of whether or not it was successful. The next step is to think about why the solution was effective or otherwise.
When analysing more complex data such as survey responses or observation data, we should look for patterns and think about what they tell us. If, for example, several student responses tell us they do not like writing because they do not find the topics engaging, we should consider why that is and how this could be addressed. We should also look out for any data that does not match the general patterns and think about why this is the case. Finally, we should also have an open mind to any surprising results. Our data may tell us that our students actually enjoy writing or prefer certain written task types to others. Again, reflection on why this is the case and how it changes our initial assumptions will be necessary.
It is also important to think about what we have learned from the process and how it will impact us moving forward, both in our teaching in general and any future iterations of the research.
- Adapt and recycle
Reaching the analysis and reflection stage does not necessarily mean the end of the research process. There are a number of questions we ask and further actions we may take. One pertinent question to investigate is the long-term effects of our research. If we have tried to improve an aspect of our students’ learning, will it have a lasting effect, or will they revert to previous habits? If we reproduce the research at a later date or with another group, how will the results compare?
We may decide to revise our research questions or new issues may have been identified through the research which we now wish to act on. If the ideas experimented with proved to be unsuccessful, we can make changes based on our analysis and reflections and engage with the cycle of action, data collection, and analysis again.
Going through the earlier stages again helps develop our research skills and helps both us and our students develop further. It is called an action research ‘cycle’ after all.
Once we have gathered our data and drawn our conclusions, it is always a good idea to get other perspectives. Discussing our findings with peers can help us reflect further and gain different insights (indeed, asking colleagues to assist with the earlier data collection and analysis stages can provide similar benefits). Organising a workshop or presentation to share what we have learned will allow the benefits of the process to be shared and may encourage colleagues to embark on their own investigations.
Looking at the bigger picture, why not make a presentation at an external conference or write your findings up as an article? Taking findings from our local context and thinking about how we can make them relevant to a wider audience encourages us to consider different perspectives and may reveal new insights. If you are considering writing up findings and reflections from your own research, take a look at our writing guidelines and get it touch with our editor – he will be more than happy to hear from you!
Have you engaged in research with your classes? How did you go about it and what were the outcomes? In next month’s post, I will share an example of a small-scale action research project I have conducted recently. In the meantime, please share your experiences in the comments section.