Action Research at Soham Village College – a quick look

Post by: Krista Carson, Teacher Research Lead, Soham Village College.

Research at Soham Village College has come a long way over the past 5 or so years. I’ve been with the school throughout the entire journey, and it’s been such a pleasure to watch each year as staff become more comfortable and competent at engaging with, and in, research in the classroom.

Last year I was appointed the Teacher Research Lead at SVC. In previous years, the school had participated in Research Lesson Study. When I took over the role from my predecessor, I felt that some minor changes were needed; as a way to widen the role research played with all members of staff, I decided to move away from the strict structure of Lesson Study (although staff could still go down that route, should they choose to) and initiated a tiny tweak – that of encouraging staff to conduct their own small-scale action research projects. These could be done in groups or independently, within faculties/departments or across different curriculum groups. The idea was that all staff would be involved, regardless of where their interests lay. The key was that, no matter what they did, staff should all have the opportunity to engage with what educational research said or was saying about the issue.

To this end, last academic year I worked with two colleagues within the English department, looking into issues around resilience. Specifically, we focused on a group of Year 10 students in English Literature. Below, I will outline a summary of the project. It should be noted that this project was incredibly small-scale. The findings cannot be generalised in any way, but are still worth sharing and discussing.

The work below also appears in our in-house Action Research Community (ARC) annual summary of research, Illumination.

soham illumination cover

So what was the rationale behind our topic?

Through an initial discussion to determine a research focus, we realised that each of us had witnessed a drop in resilience and well-being among some of the more vulnerable students within our forms and/or teaching groups. As such, we decided to consider ways that we could foster better resilience within the students under our care.

What steps did we take to conduct our study?

To begin with, we conducted a short literature review into various intervention programmes targeted at raising the levels of resilience within students so that we could conduct some small-scale trials ourselves, in the hopes of improving the academic resilience of the students within our care.

One of the programmes we initially looked at included the MindMatters programme established by the Australian Government (you can find more information about MindMatters by visiting their website: https://www.mindmatters.edu.au/), which provides teachers with extensive resources for implementing resilience based programmes within schools. However, one problem which we discovered was that a lot of the programmes require schools to invest considerable time and money into training staff to deliver the material.  As such, we sought ways in which we could adapt some of the material we found within our literature study into short, easy to deliver sessions which built student resilience in relation to specific skills or lessons.

Initially, we started with a wider-reaching research question about building resilience and well-being in students across various year groups. For the first round of our project, both Luci and myself trialed a specific intervention programme – a daily ‘gratitude diary’ (Wilson, 2016; Diebel, Woodcock, Cooper and Brignell, 2016) – alongside a pre-and-post intervention questionnaire, to measure any potential changes. However, on analysing the data of these questionnaires, and looking at how students engaged with the ‘gratitude diary’ across the two forms, there was no noticeable change in levels of resilience.

As such, we decided to narrow our focus to a specific group of students. We settled on Year 10 students who we identified as having ‘low levels of resilience’ in English Literature.

Each teacher used their own personal observations of their classes, alongside current Go 4 Schools data, to determine which students to choose for the intervention. It was decided that a small, targeted intervention session would be most appropriate, so each member of the group selected 2 students from one of their Year 10 English classes. These students were all identified using the following characteristics:

  • Written class work showed evidence of good understanding
  • Questioning in class showed evidence of analysis skills
  • Previous mock Literature exams had shown students were unable to apply learning in a formal setting

Once the students had been identified, we worked together to plan an intervention session linked to an upcoming English Literature Lord of the Flies mock exam.

To start with, each teacher was asked to provide Julie (who taught the lesson) with three positive comments about each student. The first of these comments was about what they offered to the class (e.g. ‘he has a great sense of humour’ and ‘she’s not afraid to stand up for herself and her ideas’).

The next two comments were linked to skills required in English Literature, so that students would equate the positive comments with specific skills needed for the course (e.g. ‘she has been making a real effort to learn quotations’ and ‘he shows good understanding of plot and character’).

Students were personally invited to the intervention lesson and given the rationale for the invitation. They were told it was optional, but that they had been specially selected because of their potential; all students chose to attend.

At the start of the hour lesson they were told that their teachers had picked them because, while they had shown excellent understanding in the lesson, their teachers were concerned that their confidence in the exam setting was not allowing them to succeed. They were then given the positive affirmations written by their classroom teachers; these were given to them folded over, to ensure privacy. All students were pleased and surprised that their teachers knew them so well. They were given the option of keeping these affirmations or leaving them in the room; all students were quick to put them away in their bags/planners.

The rest of the lesson comprised of building confidence and skills at the same time. Using the PiXL Knowledge mats, students were given work that was below their target grade for the first ten minutes. They were constantly praised about how much they knew. This was designed to encourage them to participate in the session.

They were then given a mock question and asked to plan an answer. The group discussed: approaches to the question; which quotations they would use; what they would say about each quotation and what other parts of the novel they would use to answer the question.

Next, students were given a more challenging PiXL Knowledge mat. They had to RAG rate the questions. They asked each other the ‘orange’ questions and the group contributed different answers. At the end of the session they had ‘red’ questions that they knew they needed to focus on for revision. They were reminded not to try and revise everything for the exam and just focus on things they didn’t know. In addition, they were provided with a quotation document and a filled in knowledge organiser so that all their revision was in one place. Students then completed an exit-survey.

What were our findings?

As mentioned earlier, the results from the questionnaire completed by the two form groups did not provide us with evidence of a noticeable level of change in resilience levels. Most students admitted to understanding what resilience meant, and rated their own resilience in the school as ‘medium’ both before and after the ‘gratitude diary’ trial.

Within the form time sessions, I noticed a clear lack of engagement with the activity within my Year 9 tutor group. Some students were very willing to engage with the ‘gratitude diary’, and did not need much prompting to complete it each morning. However, these students could be classed as being more resilient in the first place, and therefore needed little motivation to complete the task. It was exactly the students who would benefit from completing the ‘gratitude diary’ who were disengaged with the task. They needed much prompting and cajoling to complete the task during the two week trial.

With her Year 7 tutor group, Luci observed a similar lack of engagement with the ‘gratitude diary’. Although all students completed the diary without much prompting, many appeared unenthusiastic and apathetic about completing it.

The results from our intervention with Year 10 were much more noticeable. When comparing Go 4 Schools data in English Literature residuals, the following changes were evident after students sat their Lord of the Flies mock exam.

These results show that the intervention lesson had a bigger impact on the boys (B1 and B2) than on the girls (G1, 2, 3 and 4). Within our own lessons, all of us also noticed that after the intervention lesson the effort made by the targeted students showed a positive increase; they were more engaged and less fearful to offer their own responses during group discussion. Overall, the relationships between teachers and students improved as a result of the intervention lesson. In our discussion of why this may have been, we all felt that students had really benefitted from hearing about their positive attributes from their teachers.

An analysis of the exit-survey shows that 100% (all 6) of the students who took part felt: confident in their understanding of Lord of the Flies; that they were capable of coping with any challenges that might appear on the mock; happy to have taken part in the intervention; believe that if they ‘try hard’ they will succeed and that they pushed themselves to achieve will in the session.

So what’s next?

As a result of this intervention it is clear to us that providing less-resilient students with positive feedback about their skills, with clear links to the curriculum, had beneficial results for the students. In future, we hope to run similar, bespoke intervention sessions for students with low levels of resilience in specific areas of the English Literature curriculum.

References

Wilson, J. T. (2016) ‘Brightening the Mind: The Impact of Practising Gratitude on Focus and Resilience in Learning’.  Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Vol. 16, No. 4, pp.1-13. doi: 10.14434/josotl.v16i4.19998

Tara Diebel, T.; Woodcock, C.; Cooper, C, and Brignell, C. (2016) ‘Establishing the effectiveness of a gratitude diary intervention on children’s sense of school belonging’. Educational & Child Psychology, 33(2), 105-117.

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