Action research – reflect, collaborate, plan, act, and repeat: A reflection

EDUC 822
Simon Fraser University – Faculty of Education
Evaluation of Educational Programs
MEd Post-Secondary, VCC Cohort
Professor: Dr. Larry Johnson
Student: Kathryn Truant
June 19, 2020

Action research is a type of evaluation that focuses on improving practice, based on values and experiences from an inside perspective. Action research is also distinctly collaborative (Whitehead & McNiff, 2006). In What Works for You? A Group Discussion Approach to Programme Evaluation (2003), Dr. Richard Kiely (his PhD is in language program evaluation) introduces a collaborative approach to program evaluation where action research is directed by activities that advance improved understandings of a program:

Here the focus is not just on end point judgements on students by teachers, i.e. test results, or on teachers by students, i.e. questionnaire feedback, but on a range of information types and information gathering processes, drawn together to develop and improve the program (2003, p. 293).

Kiely explains that “this type of evaluation shares much conceptually with action research, and an active, inquiring role for teachers in the development of programmes and the learning experiences of students” (2003, p. 294).

I like this article because I am intrigued by action research and how I can apply this evaluative methodology to my own pedagogy. Student questionnaires are an excellent way to garner student feedback on a teacher’s performance, and in this article, Kiely presents the Nominal Group Technique (NGT). The NGT goes beyond a questionnaire: it generates formative data for the teacher, and it also provides students the opportunity to discuss the questions during class.

Kiely’s article gives an example of theory put into practice when he introduces ‘Anna.’ Anna teaches a one-semester English for Academic Purposes (EAP) course; her class is composed of individuals who share the commonality of speaking English as a second (or third) language. The questionnaire is distributed in Week Five of the course: I believe that this is enough time for the students to get a feel for the course, while also leaving time for the results to be manifested throughout the rest of the semester. I would like to employ a form of the NGT in my own classes at Okanagan College with my dental assisting students.

Kiely explains Anna’s motivation in using the NGT as a qualitative, formative, and collaborative evaluation strategy, and as a learning strategy because it is “a means of getting students to reflect on their language skills development, and identify what they still need to learn” (2003, p. 297). I have used end of semester feedback instruments to see if my students think there is anything that I need to improve in succeeding semesters, but this evaluative method does not change or improve my current teaching practices, nor does it give my students the opportunity to contribute to immediate and ongoing improvement. Mostly, an end of semester feedback survey does not give my students the opportunity to communicate amongst themselves to discuss their responses, i.e. use the occasion to practice their newly acquired language: the terms and phrases necessary to communicate with their future dental colleagues and patients.

The criteria that Anna uses is as follows: she assigns three questions that she believes will foster dialogue, and subsequent improvement. Her questions are discrete to her class. The questions that I would pose will promote understanding, and facilitate mastery of my student’s newly acquired dental terminology; I cannot expect my students to ‘walk the walk[1]’ in clinic . . .

if they cannot ‘talk the talk[2].’ Also, I believe that limiting the questions to three is sufficient for an action research questionnaire; I think any more than three questions would detract from collaborative discussion – key questions may lose importance, and too many questions may cause the activity to lose focus. Lastly, the report back to Anna has the potential to become convoluted.

Anna’s questions are ambiguous:

1. What has worked well for you?
2. What has not worked so well for you?
3. What would you like now for the rest of the module?” (2003, p. 298).

Whereas, my own data generating questions would be different because I would write more specific questions related to the content of my curriculum to yield the terminology dialogue, and understanding that needs honing. I can however, learn a lot from Anna’s process in implementing active evaluative research. She asks each student to answer the questions individually, then she breaks her students into small groups. She instructs the groups to work together to reach an agreement of how they want to answer each question.

The next step in this evaluation activity is the collection of data. Anna writes down each group’s collective answers without comment. For my students, this will be an excellent way for them to articulate and narrow down common muddy points (sense-making). The analysis phase will include a plan of action: in Anna’s class, and in mine, mirroring the responses and collectively creating a plan for improvement is crucial.

“Because the data collection, analysis, and prioritization for action stages of the evaluation are carried out in the classroom with the students, there is a ‘closing the loop’ on a way that is difficult to achieve with questionnaire based approaches” (2003, p. 309).

The boon in Anna’s adaptation of the NGT is that while it affords the participants the opportunity to be an integral part of enhancing their classroom experience, the students can also improve their individual communication skills, and hopefully develop a deeper understanding of course content. The NGT is a mission focused, active approach to a common goal that I believe I can adopt (and adapt) as one of my own pedagogical tools.


Footnotes:

[1] walk the walk: An informal phrase meaning, “suit one’s actions to one’s own words” (Lexico, 2020).

[2] talk the talk: A informal phrase meaning, “speak fluently or convincingly about something” (Lexico, 2020).

References:

Kiely. R. (2003). What works for you? A group discussion approach to programme evaluation. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 29, 293-314. doi: 10.1016/S0191-  491X(03)00045-2

Lexico. (2020). Talk the Talk. In Lexico Powered by Oxford. Retrieved from https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/talk_the_talk

Lexico. (2020). Walk the Walk. In Lexico Powered by Oxford. Retrieved from https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/walk_the_walk

Whitehead, J., McNiff, J. (2006). Action Research Living Theory [Handout]. Vancouver:  Simon Fraser University, EDUC 822, MEd Program.