Research in the Program

Throughout these LPD modules, you have been introduced to various aspects of language program direction, including curriculum and materials development, language program evaluation, and the ongoing professional learning of instructors in the program. In this next section, you will revisit some of these topics as scholarship; that is as ways of generating new forms of knowledge and ideas for practice that can be applied beyond the immediate context of a particular classroom or program. This is only a partial account of the kinds of research conducted in second language teaching and learning, with an intentional focus on areas that most clearly complement other LPD activities, especially curriculum development and the professional development of (graduate student) instructors. The final subsection will then introduce you to ethical, legal, and institutional questions you will want to consider before you embark on human subjects research.

Program Evaluation as Research

In Module 3, you learned about how to implement systemic evaluation to improve the quality of your language program. When evaluation is used to generate findings and insights to be shared beyond your program, this serves as a form of research. For example, a study of a program’s success might consider how and whether learners are meeting learning objectives and which materials and methods are effective in supporting them; by connecting this to previous research and considering how aspects of this particular program are typical or generalizable, the evaluation study could inform other language programs. Many of the same forms of information and evidence can also function as research data. An important difference between program evaluation for internal assessment and improvement and evaluation as research is that both the questions that guide the inquiry and the findings will be contextualized within larger discussions in the field. For example, a concern in a specific language program about attrition after the second year could be contextualized by data from the Modern Language Association indicating that attrition rates drop in programs across the country at that level. A survey of both students who completed and those who chose not to continue in the program might yield some discoveries that are mostly locally relevant, for example that advisors in an engineering program actively discourage students from language study. At the same time, these same instruments and the data collection through them can also generate new questions and insights for the field at large, e.g., that the factors contributing to attrition must be understood within the larger ecology of the university and not by looking at language programs in isolation.

Reflective Questions:

Go to the 2014 volume of Issues in Language Program Direction (housed on the Second Language Research & Practice website) on Innovation and Accountability in Language Program Evaluation (edited by John Norris and Nicole Mills). Select an article of interest to you and reflect on the following questions:

  • What aspects(s) of the program is/are being evaluated in the article?  
  • How does/do the author(s) approach the evaluation? For example, which “stakeholders” are involved and how? Which kinds of evidence and information are being collected and how are they being analyzed? 
  • In what ways is this program similar to or different from yours? 
  • How does the article connect the research to other programs and larger trends in the field?
  • What do you notice about the relationship between program evaluation and research in the article? For example, how does/do the author(s) navigate between the particularities of their program and generalizable lessons for other scholars and practitioners?

Action Research and Exploratory Practice

Action research is a research methodology that deliberately aims to transform professional practice (see Banegas & Consoli, 2020). Within educational fields, including those related to language teaching and learning, action research typically involves interventions developed by teachers/practitioners to “deliberately change, modify and improve” their professional practices and teaching and learning processes (Burns, 2005, p. 60). The idea is to engage educators as active agents for change in the classroom and in the profession through critical self-reflection and systematic investigation. The action can be a new pedagogical practice, materials, resources, tasks, assessments, etc. By offering an empirical process, action research can empower teachers to systematically observe the effects of their own practice (Burns & Westmacott, 2018, p. 216). This also provides opportunities for collaborative work between instructors and LPDs, through which graduate student instructors can be apprenticed into research practice. Action research can also be coupled readily with other kinds of professional practices in language program direction. For example, a recent study by Blyth, Warner, & Luks (2021) found that the iterative process of developing open educational resources and conducting action research in relation to those materials can be an effective way to deepen teachers’ conceptual learning, by enabling them to examine the effects of literacy-based lessons, to refine materials and activities, and to reflect on the potential efficacy of these for other classrooms and programs as they prepare to publish resources for use by other educators. Following this line of thinking, one of the most important impacts of action research for LPDs who are attempting to balance language program direction with research is the opportunity for them and for teachers with whom they collaborate to develop a teacher-researcher identity in relation to their pedagogical work (see Banegas & Consoli, 2020). 

Exploratory practice is a means of supporting and diversifying teachers’ professional learning in relation to their classrooms and teaching practices. Hanks (2019a) has also shown how exploratory practice can facilitate a shift from what she described as practice-as-research to research-as-practice, that is from research as external work that ought to be applied by practitioners in the practice of teaching to the involvement of practitioners in theorizing their own teaching practices. Much of the research in this area, including the many studies summarized by Hanks in her review article, focuses on the development of teachers, and LPDs, as teacher educators, can benefit from engaging in collaborative inquiry with teachers in their programs.

LPDs can also engage in exploratory research related to other aspects of their professional practice, e.g., pedagogical and curricular designs and activities, ideally with teachers and learners as co-researchers. Exploratory practice also takes a more expansive scope than traditional action research, to include topics such as teacher identity, burnout, and emotional labor (e.g., Allwright & Miller, 2012; Hanks, 2019b), which are core dimensions of LPD work.

Classroom-based research begins by identifying a “problem of practice” within one’s own teaching. Problems of practice arise in the zone between what you or others think should be theoretically happening in your classroom and what actually happens in your work with students. You may instead think of this as a puzzle or challenge—something that isn’t exactly going wrong but could go differently or be improved upon.

Learning Activity:

Sketch out a potential problem or puzzle for a classroom-based research project you could imagine conducting. Your problem statement should include:

  1. a description of the area of inquiry,
  2. how this problem or puzzle relates to expectations for teaching and learning (e.g., standards or curriculum), and
  3. a statement of why this problem is important and why you want to study it.

The first row in the table below summarizes these components and the second row provides an example of a possible action research study.

Problem or Puzzle Statement In brief, what is the problem or puzzle? How does this problem or puzzle relate to expectations of teaching and learning?  Why is this problem or puzzle important? Why do you want to study it?
Model Students in beginning German are struggling with when to use formal and informal second person pronouns.  The current curriculum emphasizes language use and intercultural reflection. This includes developing an awareness of how pragmatic choices differ in various linguistic and sociocultural contexts.  The use of formal or informal second-person pronouns in  German conveys layers of pragmatic meaning and relationships between individuals. The nuances that go into the decision of what pronoun to use are a rich space for connecting linguistic form with social and contextual dimensions of language use. 
Your Turn

Feedback Notes

[Click for editable Google doc]

Now it is your turn. Use the third row to brainstorm a possible problem statement for an action research project. Once you are done, share your ideas with a peer and/or mentor. What additional suggestions do they have? Note those in the final row.

Conducting Human Subjects Research

If you are doing research involving the students or teachers in your program, you are likely conducting what is defined as human subjects research. This includes cases where you are interacting with these individuals for the purposes of research, for example through surveys or interviews, and situations where you are collecting personal, potentially identifiable information from them through observation, by collecting assignments or assessments, or otherwise. If you are using these kinds of information to draw general conclusions, inform policy, or generalize findings beyond an individual or an internal program, this is considered human subjects research and requires institutional approval. The Internal Review Board (IRB) at your institution will have particular procedures for this, which align with federal and state regulations. The IRB works to protect the rights and welfare of human research subjects recruited to participate in research activities conducted at or by individuals affiliated with its associated institution. Your campus will likely have a training in place to introduce you to the procedures there, so you can familiarize yourself before you start your research. 

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