action research

There’s been a lot of discussion in English Language Teaching (ELT) whether academic research can help teachers improve their practice. Two questions often arise:

  1. Is academic research relevant to the classroom?
  2. How easy is it for teachers to understand academic jargon and complicated statistics?

One solution to these problems is action research, which involves teachers designing their own studies that are both relevant to their work in the classroom and are written in such a way that it can be understood and used by other practicing teachers.

In this post we’ll look at action research in more detail and examine what it is, why it’s beneficial, and how you can start doing action research in your own classroom.

What is action research?

Action research is not unique to ELT, or indeed, teaching. In fact it’s used as a development tool by professionals in many industries, and as such, there are many definitions for action research.

However, within an ELT context, it can be characterised as research that is done by teachers to bring about a transformation in their current teaching practices. To explain further, it’s a systematic and teacher-led approach to ‘real-life’ problem solving in the classroom, questioning and critically analysing areas of teaching in their particular context.

Action research is not like ‘traditional’ academic research, though, as results are not intended to be generalized. It’s more rigorous than exploratory practice and encourages teachers to act on their initial reflections. By insisting upon reflection, it encourages teachers to take action to change particular aspects of their teaching.

Why is it beneficial for teachers?

There has been a growing argument that teachers find themselves presented with fewer opportunities to engage in their own continued professional development (CPD), and any CPD that they are involved in is irrelevant to their particular teaching contexts. Therefore, teachers need to be able to move away from a top-down, ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach towards teacher development, and this needs to be replaced with a bottom-up approach to CPD that is not just meaningful and sustainable, but also evidence-based and relevant to teachers.

Action research is able to provide these opportunities for teachers, and as long as teachers stick to the process, they should be able to witness a transformation in their teaching.

It’ll also make them more critical in their assessment of various aspects of their lessons, less vulnerable to myths and fads that end up in the classroom, and most importantly, provide them with a huge degree of personal satisfaction after having completed a process that is challenging.

Seven steps to get started with action research

1) Identify the problem area you’d like to focus on

It could be how a particular student behaves or simply an area of your teaching you’d like to be better at, such as error correction or teaching pronunciation. To start your reflection, ask yourself:

What one area of your teaching practice would you like to improve the most?

2) Create your research question

Once you’ve identified this problem, you should reformulate it into a concise research question. Remember, the action research project is going to be based around this question, so make sure that it’s both relevant and meaningful enough to generate more than just a ‘yes/no’ answer.

An example research question might be:  

To what extent do teenage students respond differently to delayed and immediate error correction feedback on spoken production activities?

3) Read up on your topic of interest

After having designed your research question, you’ll want to read around the topic you’ve chosen. What have other teachers, teacher trainers, researchers discovered regarding this issue? A quick search online should help provide you with some more background information on the topic and provide you with some more ideas about how to carry out your research.

4) Collect your baseline data

Now you know more about the topic, it’s time to think about how to best design your action research project. How are you going to collect data that can be used to answer your research question? Before you do this, though, you’ll need to have a better idea of what the current situation is like in your classroom. To do this, you’ll need to collect some baseline data from your participants.

For example, if you’re investigating error correction techniques, try recording your lesson to see whether you mostly use delayed or immediate feedback when error correcting students during spoken production tasks. You may also want to have students complete a questionnaire, or interview them – on their attitudes towards certain types of error correction.

Note: video recording will require permission from your students (or their parents if teaching young learners). If this is not possible just record the audio of your class (using a mobile phone or dictaphone) and assure your students it will be deleted once you’ve finished your research.

5) Design your action research project

Using this baseline data, you can develop a more concrete plan of action for your research project. When designing your study, think about the aspect of teaching that you’re focusing on, and how you can change it. E.g. If you discover from your baseline data that you predominantly use immediate error correction feedback techniques, your action research project may look at replacing this with delayed error correction feedback.

Remember, in an action research project, the aim is to measure how your changed approach differs to the baseline data collected at the beginning.

6) Collect your data

Now you have a more detailed plan, you can start collecting actual data. This could be done with a questionnaire or a test, but could also involve recording your lessons or interviewing your students.

Once this has been collected, evaluate the results carefully. What do they show? What can you transform about your teaching? Once you’ve had time to reflect on this, it’s time to collect new data!

Perhaps, for example, this particular cycle of action research showed that students prefer delayed error correction when speaking because it makes them less nervous. However, interviews suggest that students aren’t sure if delayed error correction helps them to speak more accurately. Therefore, the next cycle might involve recording some students during speaking tasks, and analysing the accuracy of their language.

7) Share what you’ve learned

It’s great to do action research and improve different areas of your teaching but make sure you share the results too. Seeing other teachers benefit from your hard work can be really satisfying and motivate you to carry out more research.

Why not run a short workshop at your school? Or write a blog post about your findings. You could even submit a proposal to present your results at a conference. Whatever you do – tell someone about it!

Action research is an empowering way to focus on aspects of your own teaching and areas in your classroom that you feel are overlooked. It may sound difficult, but with time and dedication, you are sure to see a transformation in aspects of your teaching. Good luck!

Have you done action research in your classes? How successful were you and what did you end up changing? Let us know in the comments!

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