Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Action Research - Turning a fail into a win

(Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes)

Action Research is a method used for improving practice. I have taught in several schools where there was an expectation that all teachers conduct at least one action research cycle per year. Some of the most important understandings I have gained about teaching have been gained by this powerful practice.

Action research is a method used for improving practice. It involves measuring or observing, action, evaluation, and critical reflection

In 2014 I had a year 12 class that snowballed into a massive challenge. I felt demoralised after marking the very first test, and even more deflated after the second. I graphed my 2010 class with my 2014 biology class to compare the two cohorts. Depressing!

I chose to make the class the focus of my action research, so I decided to trial exit cards. I used Pear Deck and Google Forms to determine how much the class knew or understood. I retaught anything that was flagged by the exit card, and in some instances I even re-re-taught concepts that students struggled with.

I held great hopes in turning the result around by the third test…

Instead of improvement it was a car crash. I could scarcely believe that the class test average was 50%, that all my increased effort resulted in a worse outcome. I felt like a complete failure. I discussed my results with my line manager, but sadly she was unsupportive. “What could YOU be doing differently?” the words echoed around in my mind. Had she not heard anything I said the hours I spent making the exit cards, researching the best way to teach a concept, reteaching in different ways, all to be confronted with plummeting grades.

Her words prompted me to question my approach which was: “I think I can fix this problem if I have a better understanding of what my students know and understand.”

In my despair I had an epiphany. My approach was all wrong - I think I can fix this problem if I have a better understanding of what my students know and understand. The word “I” featured three times - as if teaching and learning was all about me! Out with the flawed exit card strategy, which I replaced with a more student-focused strategy — self-marked mini tests. The students would complete a mini test (no more than one A4 sheet/20 minutes) and navigate online to the answers. Using a comprehensive marking scheme, they would mark their own work. If they had any questions, they could ask me (e.g. “Do you think my answer is worth one or two marks out of four?”) but I showed zero interest in their result - after all, it’s not about me! 

This approach transferred the responsibility of learning to them. I showed no interest in their performance - they needed to step up and assume that responsibility for themselves. These grades are 100% real. 

Why was this approach so successful? I believe the benefits were many:

  1. Students had instant feedback instead of delayed feedback.

  2. The self-marking increased the student’s germane cognitive load. (increased germane cognitive load = increased retention and understanding)

  3. The test answers were hand written as they would be in a regular test - simulating an actual test better than an electronic form such as Pear Deck or Google Forms.

  4. During the test there is 100% sustained on-task behaviour. 

  5. The word “test” is more anxiety inducing than the word “exit card”. Optimal performance comes from optimal levels of anxiety. 

  6. Students kept the mini-tests as a valued revision resource.

  7. There was a shift in the way students responded to formative assessment/participated in formative assessment. The students viewed the exit cards as feedback for the teacher. The students viewed the mini-tests as feedback for themselves.

Delighted, but curious, I asked students what THEY thought about the improvement and the responses were positive, really positive. What the students said about the mini-tests:

  • They felt the practice was valuable.

  • They felt it improved their understanding of actual test questions.

  • They were annoyed that I had not done it earlier.

Here is an example of a mini-test with answers/mark schemes. You can see the mini-test itself was quick to prepare - just some screen grabs from old exams. The answers took a bit more time. DNA Structure and Replication mini-test ANSWERS 

The time it took to design and implement the mini-tests were more than offset by the benefits gained. This is now an embedded part of my practice.

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