Research is defined in the Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary as a careful study of a subject, especially in order to discover new facts or information about it.

Author: 
Lizzie Pinard

It is commonly subdivided into “primary research” where the researcher carries out a study, using quantitative methods (e.g. use questionnaires, collect numerical data, do statistical analysis of the data), qualitative methods (e.g. do case studies, carry out interviews) or a mixture of the two, and “secondary research”, where the researcher reviews a number of studies done by other researchers in their field and draws conclusions based on those. As teachers, we can tap into a number of different research fields – education, applied linguistics and psychology spring to mind as examples and I am sure you can think of more. Of course there is also a wealth research specifically into the field of English Language Teaching itself. The question is, how can we connect research, whether primary or secondary or a combination of the two, with what we do in the classroom and the aim of this blog post is to put forward a suggestion for achieving this.

Have you ever come across the term “Scholarship Circle” before? I hadn’t prior to working in my current institution. Rather than being either individually motivated projects or management-organised top-down projects, scholarship circles are teacher-led and collaborative initiatives whose goal is to explore and develop an aspect of practice. But what has this got to do with research? Rather than continue to attempt an abstract explanation, I am going to describe the scholarship circle that I am currently participating in and highlight how it does exactly this, highlighting what I feel to be the key aspects that make it successful so that you might feel equipped to start one in your place of work.

Setting up the circle

Our scholarship circle is called “Giving formative feedback on student writing”. Before I go any further, I want to draw attention to the specificity of that name. I strongly believe that a specific focus is key. This is because it helps to give a scholarship circle clear direction. How did we decide on that name and focus? One of our number had done a piece of Masters research on this subject, using students in our institution as participants. The findings were very interesting and following a session where she shared them with us, there was enough interest in following up on those results for a scholarship circle to be formed. So, obviously enough, a scholarship circle requires its participants to share an interest in a particular aspect sufficiently strong to motivate them to meet regularly and build on that base. If none of your colleagues have done any primary research, that doesn’t matter: you could base your circle on a piece of research done by somebody else on students at an institution similar to yours or done in a different context but which makes you wonder how it would apply to your place of work.

Chat to your colleagues in the staffroom or send out a group email to find out if anyone would be interested in setting up a circle. If you have a particular focus in mind, share that. If not, you could decide it amongst yourselves in the initial meeting.

The initial meeting

The first hurdle, of course, is to find a time when you can all get together. Our first meeting actually only lasted for about 20 minutes. We started with these questions:

  • What are we all here for?
  • What do we want to learn?
  • What shall we do with this scholarship circle?

Answering the first was fairly straightforward: We all had the desire to be able to give students better feedback and avoid finding ourselves in the situation where we put a lot of effort into producing feedback and students don’t engage with it. As an academic institution, preparing students for university study, our students have to write two coursework assignments – (i) an essay outline and (ii) an essay either based on the essay outline (foundation) or a synoptic assignment research proposal (pre-masters) so that is our specific focus.

In answer to the second question, we generated…a list of questions!

  • How much feedback can students cope with? What is the right amount to give them?
  • What language should be used? (H’obviously this doesn’t translate as should we give feedback in English or Mandarin…)
  • How can we help students to access/use feedback more effectively? This includes Quick Marks (i.e. error correction code, on Turnitin), in-text comments and general comments, as well as helping students use them in combination. We also have some evidence from research done on our students suggesting that students prefer specific in-text comments as they are more memorable long-term than Quick Marks, which is something to keep in mind.
  • How can we help teachers use Quick Marks more effectively and consistently?
  • How and when do we praise students’ work? How do we do this most effectively, without seeming insincere?

This is an important step as along with the specificity of the name, this step generates a solid focus for the circle. As you can see, the questions are closely related to our professional practice so we have a vested interested in answering them, in the course of the circle meetings, which provides motivation for attending the circle.

In the initial meeting, we also decided on the length future meetings would be 1hr and that they would take place once a week. You, as a circle, need to decide what will work best for you – once a week, once a fortnight… my feeling is that once a month might be a bit too spread out but it might work! If your institution has predictably busy periods (e.g. ours are when there is formative or summative assessment to mark) you can always suspend the circle for a week at that time. Base your decisions for when and how often on your regular timetable rather than your busiest times. You can adapt what you to do to accommodate busy times.

From the questions, we settled on a short list of things to do. This was not to be an exhaustive list but something tangible to get us started.

  • Read “Sugaring the Pill: Praise and criticism in written feedback” by Fiona Hyland and Ken Hyland in Journal of Second Language Writing, so that we can discuss it next week. (Dana Ferris was also recommended as a good author for sources about feedback.)
  • Discuss and standardise our use of Quick Marks in a future Scholarship Circle meeting.
  • Discuss designing/creating learner training materials/classes to help our students develop independent use of formative feedback to correct their errors.

Beyond the initial meeting

So far we have done the first, comparing the study in Hyland and Hyland with the findings of the M.A. research my colleague did, and discussing how what we learnt might influence our feedback styles in future. We also read a a book chapter by Ferris about treatable and untreatable error types and the kind of correct best suited to them. We have done 4 sessions so far, and in our latest session we started on the standardising Quick Marks task mentioned in the list above. In our hour, we only got as far as C in our list of quick marks (we use Turnitin software for marking coursework assignments and the quick marks are geared towards this), as for each we were discussing the language used in the accompanying notes that students see when they hover their mouse over the symbol. Our editing was influenced by our discussions in previous meetings and we are going to be using our updated Quick Marks for future marking, so this is a clear example of using research to influence practice. Admittedly we don’t actually do our marking in the classroom (unless we are using Google Docs with the students!) but hopefully you can see how the Scholarship Circle process could be used in a similar way for aspects of in-classroom practice, if that is your aim.

One suggestion I would make is that at the end of a meeting, you leave time to discuss and decide, what, if anything you want to do by the next time you meet. This could be to read something in preparation for a discussion, try something out and report back, or, going back to “busy times” and accommodating them, you might decide that the next week is a “busy “week and therefore there will be no “homework” but in the next session you will do x (where x is something tangible). In our case, the week preceding the QuickMark editing week we were all busy marking formative test paragraphs so we opted for a no homework week where in previous weeks we set ourselves an article or book chapter to read. The key thing is that you make a conscious decision to do something or, indeed, not to do something and commit to that, rather than drifting aimlessly from week to week.

Conclusion

To conclude, scholarship circles are an effective way of bringing together research and professional practice. I would argue that the collaborative element makes it more effect than attempting something similar in isolation might be: everybody brings different knowledge and experience to the table and all can benefit from this. Professional development does not have to take place in isolation if you are not at a conference or connecting with people online or attending a compulsory session at work, and doing it together can be a very enriching process. If you want to read more about scholarship circles, have a look at the posts on my blog where I’ve written about various circles in some detail: https://reflectiveteachingreflectivelearning.com/?s=scholarship+circles&submit=Search If you have any questions, feel free to get in touch and I will do my best to answer them. Good luck with any circle you embark on!

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