Key to Teacher Inquiry: Framing the Question, Planning the Research

Teacher inquiry groups that take a hypothesis-testing approach to action research often have difficulty framing a good research question. John Newlin, who coaches the IITIC groups connected with Maine’s regional CES Center, the Southern Maine Partnership, worked with Kate Graham and Kathy Simon in CES’s national office to come up with this framework to organize such work:

  • What would you like students to do differently; what are the results or outcomes you want?
  • What might you try to do differently in your teaching practice (including changes in any aspects of curriculum, instruction, assessment, classroom expectations, etc.)?
  • What indicators might you look for to see if what you’re doing differently is helping create the desired results?

Several additional steps help clarify the process of posing and testing a hypothesis. After they identify a particular goal for students, for example, teachers might identify current obstacles to reaching it, and then ask questions about how to address those obstacles. By continually narrowing the question, they will emerge with something about which they can better collect evidence. For example, a teacher’s thinking might go through the following steps:

What I Would Like to Have Happen: I would like students to be able to write a cohesive biographical sketch.

An Obstacle to Reaching this Goal: Some students don’t seem to know how to structure or correct their writing.

A Big Question I Have About This: What teaching strategies will help my students recognize the gaps and mistakes in their writing?

A Narrower Question I Have About This: How can I help my students write better transitions?

A Teaching Strategy I Want to Try Out: I will have my students do peer editing with a guide sheet that helps them locate transitions and missing transitions.

Sources of Data: Early and final drafts; peer editors’ comments.

In developing questions, Newlin notes, many teachers find it helpful to fill in the blanks of this question: “What is the impact of _________ on _________?” The first blank should describe the “practice” that might make a difference (the cause); the second blank names the desired effect.

Determining what to put in the second blank can get complicated, Newlin cautions. “Ultimately, the purpose of the project is to improve student achievement, so teachers could write ‘student achievement, ‘” he says. “That’s fine, as long as they also spell out the specific indicators of student achievement on which they will collect information–for example, performance on quizzes, or the quality of oral discourse as scored on a rubric.” As an alternative, one of these more specific items could go in the second blank. The second blank may also contain brief descriptions of student behaviors the teacher assumes will precede or correlate with student achievement, such as enthusiasm, time on task, eye contact, seeking extra help, or other examples of engagement.

Many teacher researchers prefer not to force a strict linear cause-and-effect relationship, but rather to systematically observe what goes on in the classroom among and between teachers and students–including the experiences and attitudes they all bring with them into the classroom. Thoughtful reflection on what those observations might mean is at the heart of all action research, whatever its approach.

No perfect formula exists for framing action research questions. But after recording an idea, teachers often need to revise certain kinds of questions in the same way that they do when devising “essential questions” in the classroom. For example, these questions don’t work well:

  • Those that can be answered yes or no
  • Those that begin with “why”
  • Those that could be too easily misinterpreted
  • Those that are too narrow or too broad
  • Those for which they already know the answer

In order to answer a good action research question, teachers must often change their practice in ways that closely relate to the question, at the same time gathering information that expands their understanding of it. What they find out may lead to an even deeper question, and so the cycle continues.