Writing up your action research

I’ve been doing a lot of reviewing of action research project reports recently, and it strikes me that there is so much action research work taking place across the Higher Education sector, particularly in learning and teaching related postgraduate certificates, yet much of this work is not shared. Lessons learned by practitioners in one institution can often resonate and inspire others. We should be sharing this work in a way that is digestible and accessible.

This work also reminded me of some of the common difficulties for presenting action research. I’ve pulled together 8 tips for anyone considering how to present their work: 

1. Write in the first person. Don’t use third person to make the research appear to be separate from your own practice, because it shouldn’t be. Ultimately action research is about you and your practice, so don’t shy away from this. This is not a weakness. When your research is placed in the context of other research and literature, your own position is framed and can still be scrutinised.

2. Be clear what practice based problem you are trying to solve. This will provide a thread to help structure your research story. If the problem is not well defined, it is likely that the account that follows will also be fuzzy. Having a clear statement of the problem can provide an anchor for the research which can focus the literature, guide methodological choices, and frame the conclusion.

3. Set out why the issue being researched actually matters. Why does it matter to you, to colleagues, to students, and to the wider sector. Being clear why your research matters evokes interest amongst stake holders, after all if it doesn’t matter to you, why would others be interested?

4. Know the difference between action research and thoughtful action. Action research must use research methods (though any are permitted) and must involve the collection of data. Having an idea about improving your practice, making that improvement and then making general observations about its success doesn’t constitute data. Data should seek more than a simple endorsement to a change in practice, it should dig deeper.

5. Action research is a cyclical process by definition. Define your cycles. Every piece of action research should be a part, full or multiple cycle story. Often the clarity of the cycles gets lost amongst findings and reflections. Take time out during the research process and the research write up (or presentation process) to articulate the cycle(s) and steps in your particular research. I encourage my students to draw the research as a cycle. This ensures the research remains true to the approach and it can help the researcher manage the messiness of action research by seeing how steps fit together.

6. Time goes by quickly. In my mind 2004 was two minutes ago. But much has happened in Higher Education since the early 2000’s, with marketisation, technological advances, diversification of entrance requirements, the growth of metrics and so so much more. It is therefore very important to use up to date literature. It’s easy to rely solely on classic texts, but the world moves on. It may seem to be an obvious point, but failure to attend to recent evidence weakens research.

7. Action research demands a level of reflection on process and findings. Nevertheless it is critical to show your findings and analysis. Reflection is not a substitute for research, so be transparent about what your findings were before you reflect on them. It is almost impossible for others to read research critically if there is no transparency of findings.

8. The collaborative aspects of action research are widely written about, but sometimes literature makes collaboration sound and feel grander than it need be in reality. Collaboration can take many forms including working with students to understand an issue or to sense check the possible ways forward, it might mean working with colleagues to scrutinise your research design or findings, or as co-researchers. Collaboration generates a multiplier effect as it is a vehicle for spreading and sharing ideas. Engagement with others can help moderate and challenge deeply held assumptions which would otherwise limit the possible ways forward through the challenges and problems which are at the heart of the research issue. So the 8th tip, is be open to others and draw the learning from collaboration in to both the process and the reporting of the research.

Conference Reflections: Harper Adams University Learning & Teaching Conference 2017

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Last week was the third Harper Adams Learning and Teaching Conference. This annual event brings together colleagues from across the institution, alongside colleagues from partner organisations in, and beyond, the UK. The conference was jam-packed with awesomeness! Although I couldn’t get to everything, the sessions that I did attend were informative and motivating.

Professor Tansy Jessop started off by inspiring a ‘nuclear climb down’ on assessment, where together teaching staff agree to summatively assess less. The shift away from too much summative assessment, Tansy reminded us, only succeeds if we collectively mean it. If some tutors are stealthily continuing to over-assess, then inevitably students will direct their attention to these activities at the expense of others. She talked about relinquishing assessment driven pedagogies of control, to a curriculum driven more by learning.
The keynote also brought some pragmatic suggestions of what staff can do by way of formative feedback strategies. I sensed a quiet wave of ‘Oh yeh’ moments around the room as the ideas were really workable. Suggestions included:

  • A policy approach of less assessments (the coordinated climb down)
  • Use of public spaces, like blogs, to collate ongoing learning and reading (the audience drives meaningful engagement)
  • Asking students to design multi choice questions
  • Asking students to bring along sources to class and then through group discussion arriving at the ‘best’ sources
  • Working with journal papers to write abstracts or deduce ideas in papers based on abstracts.

My own ‘aha’ moment was to rename every formative assessment, simply as activities that drive learning. I think I knew this already, but it’s easy to drown in terminology and metrics that cloud definitions and purpose. The keynote also highlighted how we might make the most of formative feedback. Humorously critiquing some well used feedback structures (like the feedback sandwich), Tansy suggested that, essentially, we need to become more dialogic around feedback. We need to find ways to have conversations, find out what feedback is useful, encourage students to solicit the right types of feedback and to take control of their learning.

In one of the workshop sessions the brilliantly enthusiastic Professor Kay Sambell encouraged us to consider how we use exemplars. Some sharing around the room threw up some different practical approaches, including using exemplars to: demonstrate the underpinning features of academic writing (e.g. What is involved in making an argument); take the stress out of understanding a task to free up headspace for more detailed and creative aspects of the task, essentially this is about demystifying the task; provide a process of socialisation in to the academic requirements of assessment; and, to provide a starting point. We also discussed some of the limitations of using exemplars, which included: Triggering worry in students who may believe standards set to be unachievable; stifling creativity as students might only see one way to complete the task; and, risking students believing the exemplar to be the finished article rather than a finished article. Moving on from our evaluation, we identified different things to do with exemplars. We were united in agreeing that just giving examples would do little in itself to help students. Active use of exemplars was shown to include such things as:

  • Peer marking to familiarise with task requirements
  • Discussion of different exemplars
  • Rank ordering exemplars
  • Analysing ‘fail’ grade work to help understand what should be avoided

Decisions about how to use exemplars included whether to annotate, whether to provide full or partial exemplars, and whether to use student work only or to consider tutor generated work too. By the end of this session my ‘note to self’ was that looking at weaker work in depth was a valuable step in working with exemplars. It provides a window in to the assessment process for students, it can help them avoid common pitfalls and it can massively raise awareness of issues of academic practice.

Rebekah Gerard’s poster was a great complement to Kay’s session. Bex shows how we can really use live exemplars in a workshop session to improve exam technique. She used a technique called ‘pass the problem’ and her PgC action research showed how students experienced this strategy.  Her poster shows the technique she used for ease of replicability:

Dr. Jaqueline Potter, from Keele University, shared her analysis of teaching excellence award nominations which had led to a better understanding of what qualities students value in staff. The overwhelming message was about kindliness. Whilst students want constructive, joined up and useful feedback, they really want it as a personal, kindly interaction. How to be kind is quite a different matter, but presumably remembering what it was to be a student would go a good way to help to keep an empathetic mindset. After completing our in-house PgC in Teaching and `supporting Learning many colleagues report that their best learning is in the process of being a student again and gaining an understanding of the stresses, strains and liminality of this process. Perhaps to embody the kindness that Jackie’s research has highlighted, we should all be eternal students. My note to self here is to follow Jackie’s lead and analyse the scheme data I hold on teaching excellence – or ask what do students value?

Jane Headley and Rebecca Payne’s session on exemplars was a great lot of fun! By offering a task to us (the task was – getting your team through a piece of A5 paper) and giving each group a different experience with an exemplar, we were able to feel and experience the use of exemplars. Our team had an exemplar in full, but as a team who wanted to be original (I was just happy to pass, but others wanted to excel) we decided to ditch knowledge of the exemplar and add our own twist. The result was redefining team (after all it didn’t say a human version of your team) and to create a stop motion video. This first hand experience showed me that exemplars can show students that a task is possible and that it can then free up the creative mind to do the task differently. Working in a team, and with an enjoyable task, simply added to the creativity. This point too is something we would do well to remember!

For posterity I have retained a conference programme.

LT_Conference_2017 programme

The only bad thing about the day is not being able to get to all of the sessions. Luckily I have previously heard the other speakers and they are all awesome!

Making digital exemplars

In addition to my usual classroom use of exemplars as a means of familiarising students with the assessment requirements of a specific module, this year I have created a video walk through of an exemplar. Initially this was to enable those who missed the relevant class to catch up on the session, but the approach was welcomed by students who attended the exemplars activity session, as well as those who did not. 

How to create a digital exemplar walk through: 

• Bring up the exemplar on screen after selecting a ‘good’ piece of work

• Read through and use comments in word to annotate the work with points which would be surfaced in feedback, particularly comments related to the assessment criteria (of course!). Comments include things done well, things done less well which could be avoided and opportunities for further detail and development. This tagging process acts only as an aide memoire so that as I create  feedback video I am aware of what I wanted to include. 

• Open Screencast-o-Matic to very easily screen record the work as a video as I re-read it through and talk to each of the tags. ‘This work includes this … which is useful because…’ ‘this work used literature in this way …. It might be better to …. Because ….’. None of this is rehearsed; that would be too time consuming. The resultant video is a commentary on performance.

• The video is uploaded and made available to students.

After using the resource there was some consensus amongst my students that the value was ONLY in listening to the assessment commentary and not specifically in looking at the work. One student described how they listened but did not watch. They then recorded notes about what they should include, remember and avoid. They avoided looking at the work for fear of having their own ideas reshaped. If assessment judgments are ‘socially situated interpretive act[s]’ then the digitised marking commentary may be a useful way of making that process more transparent for students, and indeed for other staff.

I will definitely be including this in future modules.

Handley, K., den Outer, B. & Price, B. (2013) Learning to mark: exemplars, dialogue and participation in assessment communities. Higher Education Research & Development Vol. 32 , Iss. 6.

Action research and its link to UK PSF

How does action research link to UK PSF?

Action research can be a useful strand within a learning and teaching staff development strategy.

How specifically though does this type of practitioner research link to UK PSF?

This is useful to articulate so that

i) Staff developers can be conscious of how to advise colleagues
ii) Those undertaking action research can link their work to the national recognition framework
iii) Colleagues undertaking action research may use the links with UK PSF to further enhance their reflections.

The ways in which I think action research and UK PSF are linked are as follows:
1. A self-review using the Dimensions of Practice can help to inspire topics for focus in an action research project. Effectively the framework can help identify areas of practice or understanding that could be usefully progressed. While self-development is a potential motivator for action research, care must be taken that this aim does not trump the needs of students.
2. Areas of Activity (A1-A4) can be directly enhanced through action research (and with direct benefit to students) e.g. a project to develop inclusive online learning spaces (A4)
3. The act of action research can be a way of contributing to professional development (A5) – although this does require a degree of openness in the outlook of the researcher. Without this open mindedness the project simply becomes a problem solving exercise, rather than something that really impacts individuals and their development.
4. Knowledge ‘about’ practice can be developed through reconnaissance phase of the action research project. This stage is the initial scoping research that helps determine an effective course of action once an issue is identified. It may involve a literature review, collegial discussion and student engagement.
5. If action research is collaborative, as ideally it should be, then the process can facilitate a better understanding of the needs of individual students (V1); this can ultimately challenge personal beliefs about what we think our students like or need.
6. Action research is a direct contributor to ‘V3’ which relates to pedagogic research and scholarship.
7. Sharing action research can start to contribute to the process of influencing others, as is a requirement of Senior Fellowship. This might be through internal institutional events, papers, or other forums (although if you do this, don’t forget to gather evidence of impact as you go … what effect did your research have on others?).
8. Given the link between theory and practice in action research, this form of scholarship is one way to demonstrate point V on Descriptor 2 (Fellowship) and Descriptor 3 (Senior Fellowship).
9. The exploration of ethical dilemmas related to action research can relate the research to the wider context (V4). For example questions about data usage and data protection have origins and implications beyond a practitioner research project.
10. Action research can assist with progression in UK PSF. Themes and issues that might be considered in a small project can be built up in to a bigger body of work with more impact and influence. A small project can sow seeds for something greater.

Bitter sweet TEF reflection

Yesterday I avoided comment on social media about TEF, because I had such mixed feelings about the exercise. We should celebrate great teaching and if TEF helps with this then that’s a good thing, but we need to take care that TEF does not divide a community which is rich in collaboration, mutual encouragement and shared mission. Despite the well reported limitations of the TEF data, universities and individuals have been excited with some outcomes. Being a party pooper I’d question whether we should be so celebratory when good colleagues, in good institutions, doing important work, and in many cases providing excellent teaching on the ground, are now labelled as ‘third tier’. I struggle with that. It seems the institutions who faired less well have been left alone to point out the limitations of TEF, which in the aftermath of the results, makes those speaking out like sore losers. I don’t believe that is fair when we are all aware of the limitations of the measure. In our immediate celebratory reactions we are potentially signaling uncritical acceptance and alienating colleagues in the process. Some collective sensitivity may be part of the answer.

Another thought as the results came in was about what TEF does to existing alumni. I have a degree from bronze, silver and gold rated institutions. By far the most impactful, rewarding and engaging of these was my ‘bronze rated degree’ (from Liverpool, by the way). Does TEF devalue the sense of worth for existing qualifications? I fear it might. As a ‘bronze alumni’ I feel outraged at this label and am clear that it absolutely does not reflect my experience. As we start to categorise universities in this way, we need to think about the consequences for past as well a future students.

Unfortunately the celebration of TEF results is bitter sweet.

From BTEC to HE – reflections on student conversations

Recently I have been reflecting on the experience of students from vocational backgrounds who come to university. We know that, in some universities, success rates amongst BTEC students are lower than those from A’Level backgrounds, but I am not sure that we really understand why this is the case and what it is really like to be a student from a vocational background in higher education. I am presently trying to understand a little more about the VQ in HE (Vocational Qualifications in Higher Education) student experience. From my recent purposeful conversations with students, some observations on this topic are shared.

  • The academic world can be confusing and stressful after a BTEC. The courses and expectations in HE are very different than those experienced previously, but on the upside, with assistance of the right type, students can be well prepared to thrive. Assessment is an area where key differences are felt. It is not just the profile of assessment types that may differ, but the culture of ‘submit-feedback-improve-resubmit’ that seems prevelent at level three, but often lacking at level 4 and beyond.
  • The types of support that can be useful include academic skills development particularly focusing on:
    • Equipping students to understand the requirements of an assessment
    • Teaching students how to break down a task to minimise feelings of being overwhelmed;
    • Developing time management skills;
    • Developing organisation skills.
    • Building confidence to rid the imposter syndrome (simple reminders that ‘you’re doing fine’ mean so, so much).
    • Revisiting class content – going over lecture notes
    • Getting started with writing (e.g. providing structure for students to frame their own writing)
    • Locating reading and sources
    • Referencing (supporting these skills, and not being pedantry when students are getting to grips with sourcing information)
  • Skills development and reduction of stress were often talked about together. Academic support and counselling skills sit side by side.
  • While VQ students may face challenges with specific aspects of their course, there may be many other aspects of the course where students feel confident and have a good degree of mastery from their vocational qualification. This raises the question, whether more can be done by way of skills exchanges or peer mentorship between A’Level and BTEC students. While we should be concerned about the achievement and experience of specific groups, we need to be very careful not to create a deficit and fix-it culture. More might be done to simply recognise the specific and valuable strengths brought to the mix by students from vocational backgrounds.
  • The idea that students from a BTEC background prefer coursework because it is ‘what they are used to’ does not tally all of the discussions that I’ve had. Students tell me that they can quickly learn to thrive with exam format. While the first one or two are nerve wracking, again with support, and revision strategies, many students can start to feel relatively comfortable with this type of assessment. The re-introduction of exam format assessments, is, at least according to those I have spoken with, less stressful when the content of the exams aligns with coverage of their vocational prior qualification, rather than presenting entirely unfamiliar content and demand. While this insight in to exam perception challenges my own assumptions that BTEC students may not be comfortable with this type of assessment, it’s important to remember that perception/preference and actual learning gain are different things.
  • Through my student conversations I have been reminded of tutor actions that can be particularly useful for VQ students (and indeed all students) in preparing for exams:
    • Provision of past papers and signposting to these
    • Revision classes
    • Providing checklists of what topics should be revised
    • Highlighting key topics in class to guide revision focus
    • Providing model answers
    • Providing a booklet of practice questions
    • Providing a menu of revision techniques to encourage active revision
    • Comprehensive session resources shared in a format that can easily be revisited
  • Overwhelmingly the students that I have spoken with said the most important point about support is that they need it to be accessible, welcoming and friendly. The tone in which support is offered absolutely matters.
  • Handing in those early pieces of work is a really big step within the university experience. Having some kind of facility to have work reviewed before submission is seen as a really valuable to remove fear and anxiety. There are of course many ways that such a step can be built in to the formative feedback journey of provision.

Undoubtedly all of these points could be addressed through a universal design approach to learning, whereby the curriculum, the classroom, the learning relationships and the online environment are intended to allow as many students as possible to reach their potential.

A UK PSF compatible framework for professional reflection

One ongoing challenge I have is around how to increase the depth of reflection on teaching practice (or indeed other professional practices) within the context of formal development programmes. Sometimes we use models of reflection to assist, including Gibbs, Johns and Greenaway’s models. However existing models, and even free flow writing, have not always yielded in-depth reflections. Based on my own experience of supporting reflection across different professional groups I have summarised three limitations of existing models of reflection.

1) A tendency to focus on iterative improvement with less emphasis on validation of practice

Models tend to steer the reflector to assess any issues that require a change in approach (plan-do-review and variations thereof); change is king. Based on experience, sometimes colleagues find that they don’t need to change but instead they can take value from affirming their practice and recognising what they do as effective or good. Affirmation and confidence in practice are as important as identifying points for change and development.

2) A limited engagement with the idea of governing variables

Reflection models can tend to encourage single loop learning as critical incidents are located and considered. I always encourage anyone reflecting to consider what is within their remit and control, and to focus their attention accordingly rather than locating issues within the practice of others, particularly when this leads to a sense of blame or the shifting of responsibility for personal practice. Nevertheless, it can be very useful for some attention to be given to the constructive consideration of challenging the status quo and the operational norm. New(-ish) practitioners can often assess the context in perceptive ways as they have not necessarily been acculturated and institutionalised. To encourage a focus on the constraints and context of practice is very different than shifting the focus of a micro reflection to others because it may be easier than examining one’s own practice. It means standing back and asking what are the things around me that I need to challenge? (challenge is key here, and the answers may not be to hand, challenge – not change). Possible areas to challenge include policy and established ways of working. Whilst senior staff may be able to act on these realisations, new lecturers (or practitioners in other fields) may be less empowered or confident to take action. However, if institutional staff development is joined up, then the issues raised through these reflections can filter through course leaders and assessors for discussion elsewhere.

3) A tendency to focus on incidents rather than wider periods of personal transformation and growth.

A third issue with existing models of reflection is that they tend to focus on an incident by incident basis i.e. take a critical incident and consider it in depth, resulting in a learning or a change. This approach can be simplistic and fail to make connections between a range of events and practice. The resulting reflection therefore tends to be overly descriptive and sometimes forced. Instead I am now encouraging a ‘compound reflection’ – to look back over a series of events or a time period and consider the resultant personal and professional growth. This is especially powerful for identifying personal learning about practice, and the recognition of evolving beliefs and values. It should also provide a chance to review meta-learning, asking what happened across this period to assist my learning? I am not convinced that this depth occurs on an incident by incident basis.

I am proposing an alternative reflection model to capture some of the points above. Essentially this encourages the focus on either an event/incident or a period of time identified by the reflector (e.g. across one term, or after a CPD programme). In the model focus is drawn to three areas, which align to the UK Professional Standards Framework Dimensions of Practice. Individuals should separately  attend to their activities/practice, knowledge and values/beliefs. The actual dimensions of practice can be used to further frame thinking. For EACH of those three areas stimulating questions can be asked to encourage external or internal conversation. Affirmation, challenge and meta-reflection are all evident.

reflection model

Of course this is an early attempt at shaping up a framework to assist reflection, so any thoughts by reply are very welcome.

 

Download the model reflection modelhere.