Can biology learning process be improved through language

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This action research aimed to improve the learning and teaching of biology at Form III level by improving the language literacy of the students. The study was both qualitative and quantitative as both approaches were related to each other for breath and depth of analysis, which helped in the collation of information. In this chapter on methodology I explain why action research was the best choice according to me, what were the analysis processes, ethical considerations, validity, reliability and reflexivity. The definition of an Action Research and the framework of the Action Research study, consisting of planning, acting, observing and reflecting are also discussed.

3.1 Research paradigms

The purpose of this research is to improve Biology teaching and learning through language literacy. In order to decide which research methods to use it is important to have a look at different research models. Researchers have various views about the world and therefore, use different logics and techniques to investigate it. Consequently there have been two main competing models which have evolved: the positivist also called quantitative paradigm and the interpretative also known as the qualitative paradigm (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1997; Bassey, 1995). A paradigm can be defined as "a basic belief system or world view that guides the investigation" ( Guba & Lincoln, 1994, p.105 in Denzin & Lincoln, 2000). The following attempts to shed some light on the positivist and interpretive paradigms.

3.1.1 The positivist paradigm

The positivist is linked with a reality 'out there' in the world that exists whether or not, irrespective of who observes. According to Cohen et al. (2000), "The ontological and epistemological basis of positivism is a belief in a single independently existing reality that can be accessed by researchers adopting an objectivist approach to the acquisition of knowledge." The researcher and the object of research are assumed to be independent entities. The positivist can study the object without influencing it or being influenced by it. Whenever any influence is recognized, strategies are adopted to control it.

The methodology of the positivist paradigm is based on the model of the social sciences. The observer is separate from the entities that are subject to observation ( Bassey, 1999; Silverman, 2000). Furthermore, according to Opie (2004), "taking a positivist approach to educational research will almost certainly lead to procedures, which result in the collection of quantitative data and testing hypotheses, such as data from questionnaires and hard facts from experimental work." The positivists do not take into account their values. They carefully manipulate variables to prevent outcomes from being improperly influenced.

3.1.2 The interpretive paradigm

Reality is seen as a construct of a human mind in the interpretive paradigm. People perceive and so construe the world in ways, which are often similar, but not necessarily the same. The interpretive paradigm is qualitative. This paradigm is concerned with meanings and the way people understand things and patterns of behaviors (Denscome, 1998). As Blaikie (2000) states in Mason, J. (2002, pp 56)

Interpretivists are concerned with understanding the social world people have produced and which they reproduce through their continuing activities. This everyday reality consists of the meanings and interpretations given by the social actors to their actions, other people's actions, social situations and natural and humanly created objects." (2000: 115).

Furthermore, according to Mason, J. (2002, pp 56), "interpretive approaches, however, is that they see people, and their interpretations, perceptions, meanings and understandings, as the primary data sources. Interpretivism does not have to rely on "total immersion in a setting' therefore, and can happily support a study which uses interview."

The interpretive researcher has a detailed, rich and empathic description , written directly and somewhat informally (Bassey, 1995).

3.1.3 Research paradigm for my research

According to Grim et al (2006) the divide between quantitative and qualitative social methodologies is so dramatic. A semi quanti-qualitative research I believe suited me best. For the purposes of this study, first of all the qualitative approach was adopted because it is in line with the thinking of Creswell who states that the goal of qualitative research "is to rely as much as possible on the participants' views of the situation being studied" (Creswell 2003, p. 8). . Moreover, this method was chosen because the researcher's role will be that of a non-participant observer. Interviews , group discussions, observation and reflection field notes, research diary, and analysis of documents were done. The quantitative procedures on the other hand were also used for example through questionnaires in my methodology.

3.2 Action research

Action research is a process in which participants examine their own educational practice systematically and carefully, using the techniques of research. It is based on the following assumptions:

• Teachers work best on problems they have identified for themselves

• Teachers become more effective when encouraged to examine and assess their own work and then consider ways of working differently

• Working with colleagues helps teachers in their professional development (Watts, 1985, p. 118).

Implicit in the term action research is the idea that it begins with a cycle of posing questions, gathering data, reflection, and deciding on a course of action. Typically, action research is undertaken in a school setting. It is a reflective process that allows for inquiry and discussion as components of the "research."

Often, action research is a collaborative activity searching for solutions to problems experienced in schools, or looking for ways to improve instruction and increase student achievement. Rather than dealing with the theoretical, action research allows practitioners to address those concerns that are closest to them, ones over which they can exhibit some influence and make change. Furthermore, the process of action research assists educators in assessing needs, documenting the steps of inquiry, analyzing data, and making informed decisions that can lead to desired outcomes.

Action research involves a self-reflective spiral of planning, acting, observing, reflecting and re-planning. It provides flexibility well-suited to changing situations due to its cyclic or spiral process. Within each cycle there is action followed by critical reflection.

Steps in Action Research

Within all the definitions of action research, there are four basic themes: empowerment of participants, collaboration through participation, acquisition of knowledge, and social change. In conducting action research, we structure routines for continuous confrontation with data on the health of a school community. These routines are loosely guided by movement through five phases of inquiry:

1. Identification of problem area

2. Collection and organization of data

3. Interpretation of data

4. Action based on data

5. Reflection (Ferrance, E. 2000, p.6)

I have chosen to do action research because it is a reflective investigation of a problem. The process will begin with the development of questions, which will be answered by the collection of data. I will collect data, analyze, and interpret all the results. Furthermore, I adopted the action research model because it is simple, systematic, and relatively easy to use in the classroom, but most of all, appropriate for my research title. This model also provides me with the opportunity to analyse and reflect on my teaching strategies and styles in an attempt to increase language literacy among my form 3 students in the learning of biology as well as improving my own practice and therefore, contributing to my own continuous professional development.

There are several qualities of action research which allow it to pursue rigorous understanding:

The involvement of all interested parties provides more information about the situation

  

Critical reflection in each cycle provides many chances to correct errors. This is especially so when there are cycles within cycles within cycles, and where the critical reflection is characterised by a vigorous search for disconfirming evidence

  

Within each cycle the assumptions underlying the plans are tested in action.

3.3 Research cycles

A commonly known cycle is that of the influential model of Kemmis and McTaggart (1988) who believe in - plan, act, observe, reflect; and then, in the light of this, plan for the next cycle. It is the cyclic nature of action research, which allows responsiveness.  To my mind, a cyclic process is important because it gives more chances to learn from experience if there is real reflection on the process and on the outcomes, intended and unintended. Moreover, Action research allows us the opportunity to shape and refine our own teaching and to build on our own successes. The procedure for this research will be mainly learner centered, where the students will learn by doing.

3.4 Research Instruments

This section contains description on how I conducted my research, with particular emphasis on research instruments. These are crucial in the process of collecting information to answer the research questions and/or confirm or reject assumptions. There are different types of data collection instruments, each with its own specific attributes, thereby acquiring specific uses. In this particular research, the observation schedule, research diary, peer observations, artefacts, and focus groups were used as instruments to collect data, in an attempt to describe fully and as richly as possible, whether the learning and teaching of biology improved through language literacy.

3.4.1Observation schedule

A very common method of research instrument is called observation schedule. In this case the researcher has the role of non-participant observer. Non-participant observation involves the researcher getting into situations where behavior, interactions, and so on can be observed at first hand (Harvey & Mc Donald, 1993). I undertook this method and walked around, casually, at the location to be researched, at a good time to conduct research. The rationale for using observation as a tool for data collection was to assess the students' performance and how they reacted to various strategies. Moreover, this research instrument was used because it usually collects very reliable, high-quality data, and is regarded as being a cost effective method of conducting research. A large amount of information could also be gathered in a short time.

As Cohen et al (2000, pp 305) says, 'Observation enables researchers to understand the context of programmes, to be open-ended and inductive, to see things that might otherwise be unconsciously missed, to discover things that participants might not freely talk about in interview situations, to move beyond perception-based data and to access personal-knowledge.' Furthermore, as Cohen et al (2000, pp 315) states, "Observation methods are powerful tools for gaining insight into situations. As with other data collection techniques, they are beset by issues of validity and reliability. Even low inference observation, is itself highly selective, just as perception is selective."

Moreover, the covert participation observation was used (that is where the researcher does not reveal the reasons of her observation) during normal biology classes to reduce the element of bias to produce more reliable and valid data. This was done to diminish the incidence of the presence of the researcher to affect the behavior of the students under study. I wanted all the participants to behave normally although they were expected to communicate only in English language as far as possible. In terms of validity also, observational research findings are considered strong. Trochim (2000) states that validity is the best available approximation to the truth of a given proposition, inference, or conclusion. According to him, observational research findings are considered strong in validity because the researcher is able to collect in depth information about a particular behaviour and the use of multiple sources of information helps increase validity.

3.4.1.1Structured observation

Structured observations using checklists coupled with a rating scale was used during the study. The checklists allowed me to confirm if a pre-specified behavior was present. The use of a checklist also allows to focus on the precise aspects of behaviour to be analysed and circumvents a superficial overview of the classroom dynamics (Macintyre, 2000).

3.4.1.2 Informal observation

Informal observations were planned when carrying out the various lessons so as to record data in a methodical way in the research diary. This allows for reflection on the difficulties encountered and the behavior of students.

3.4.2 Interviews

According to Freebody, P. (2003, p 137), "Interviewing is best understood as an interactional event in which members of a culture draw on and rebuild their shared cultural knowledge, including their knowledge about how members-of-their-certain-kinds routinely speak in such settings."

Informal interviews were carried out with the focus group students. The feedback obtained from the interview was most constructive because the students were critical and had a different perception of the teaching and learning processes from that of the teacher. They were a very enriching source of information because it was the students' voice could be heard. The informal interviews were also very valuable because they provided instant feedbacks on the research process, and helpful suggestions for improvement.

3.4.3 Questionnaires

Students questionnaires (See Appendix ****) were designed to help the teacher researcher on her practice and to inform her on future work.

3.4.3.1Justification of questionnaire

3.4.3.2Questionnaire design

3.4.3.3Pre-test of questionnaire

3.4.4 Research diary

The instrument I used to record observations was a research diary. For each observation, the date, time, duration, and description of data observed were written. I jotted down notes in a diary that served as memory aid and afterwards as soon as possible full field notes were constructed. (Hoepfl, 1997).

3.4.5 Peer observations

A colleague from the Biology department was asked to attend some of the sessions and to note down his observation in a checklist that was provided to him. He was asked to look for management of resources, management of time, whether the objectives of the lesson was met, classroom management, and class participation (Refer to peer checklist in appendix ****). This instrument was used to triangulate data and to validate the action research.

3.4.6 Artefacts

Student's scripts and work were collected for evaluation. For this purpose, I designed a marking scheme, basing on which I have judged the quality of work of the students. The marking scheme consisted of different criteria. Each criterion was allocated 4 marks, giving a total of 20 marks. These scores were then compared to gauge any improvement or progress in students' performance. (Refer to appendix ****** for a sample of the marking scheme)

3.4.7 Focus Groups

A focus group is another excellent type of data collection instrument, which has specific characteristics, attributes, and uses. Focus groups are meetings involving groups of individuals who have been selected by the researcher, who are particularly observed for the specific research topic. In this respect, frequent meetings were organised involving the nine students who were observed for the research. Through these meetings, I tried to find out from students if the strategies that were employed in the lessons were reaching all the students. It was after meeting the students that I could get a better insight on the activities to carry out to improve the writing of students.

3.4.8 Critical friends

3.5 Sampling

Sampling is crucial for analysis. For the purpose of this dissertation, I carried out purposive sampling. Hence, I chose a purposive sample of 30% of 27 students in a form 3 class where I work. This sampling is representative of the target population. The students are of low ability but among them, there are some students who tend to do better than the others. Hence, for sampling, 30% of the population was chosen representing a number of 9 students. I sampled them as follows; three high achievers, three average and three low achievers. However, I would like to point out here that when I refer to high achiever and low achiever, it is not in its literal sense because all the students are of low ability. Here, high achiever refers to those students who always come out first, second and third in the exams and low achiever refers to those who tend to be ranked among the last in the class.

3.6 Student's Profile

The population of interest for this study consist of 27 students (aged 14-15) in a form III class of a girl's urban secondary school. The students joined the college with very poor C.P.E. results. The educators have to work hard with these students to make them come out with flying colours in the S.C. exams. The majority of them belong to below middle-class families. This particular class was selected because it is the only form three class where I work.

3.7 Triangulation

According to Silverman (2008) triangulation is a research strategy whose major assumption is that sociological research is a discovery process designed to get an objective truth that may be systematized as a formal theory of social structure and process. It assumes that looking at an object fro more than one standpoint provides researchers and theorists with more comprehensive knowledge about the object. Furthermore, according to Freeman, D (1998, pg 96), "triangulation is about what makes something sturdy, able to support its won weight, and therefore dependable. Triangulation data sources are a matter of where you get your information; triangulation collection methods are matter of varying the ways in which you gather that information." Therefore, to minimize shortcomings for the action research, I made use of cross- examination as an important way of checking that the evidence collected is as accurate as possible. The various research instruments used helped in triangulating data and render the project strong in terms of validity and reliability.

The triangulation method used as data collection (Figure ………) provided a measure of validity involving the gathering of data from three different points of views, namely, that of the teacher, the students and a participant observer.

Direct Teacher Observation Using a Checklist

DATA COLLECTING TOOLS

Participant Observation/Peer Validation

Student Questionnaires

Informal Interviews

Figure…….: The plan for Triangulation Data Collection during the study.

Validity and reliability

As Silverman (1998) in Freebody, P. (2003, p 168), "qualitative researchers in education need to take seriously the demands for reliability and validity."

Denscombe, M. (1998, pg 85), "Seeing things from different perspective and the opportunity to corroborate findings can enhance the validity of the data. They do not prove that the researcher has 'got it right', but they do give some confidence that the meaning of the data has some consistency across methods."

As Silverman (1998) in Freebody, P. (2003, p. 168), reveals qualitative researchers in education need to take seriously the demands for reliability and validity. And according to Bassey (1999, p. 75), reliability is the extent to which a research fact or finding can be repeated, given the same circumstances, and validity is the extent to which a research fact or finding is what it is claimed to be. Moreover, Kirk and Miller (1986 pp 20) define reliability as 'the degree to which the finding is independent of accidental circumstances of the research'. Furthermore, Silverman (2001, pp207-208) points out that checking the reliability is closely related to assuring the quality of field notes.

My research study involved both qualitative and quantitative data. The qualitative and quantitative researches seek for both reliability and validity to provide a means of gathering data. Denscombe (1998, p. 85), points out seeing things from different perspective and the opportunity to corroborate findings can enhance the validity of the data. The author also reveals that they do not prove that the researcher has 'got it right', but they do give some confidence that the meaning of the data has some consistency across methods. This was done by the use of the triangulation to support the accuracy of the information gathered during my study. The triangulation method used as data collection provided a measure of validity involving the gathering of data from different points of views, namely the educators, pupils and colleagues.

3.9 Reflexivity

Carr and Kemmis (1986) commented reflexivity as being:

"Social life is reflexive; that is, it has the capacity to change as our knowledge and thinking changes, thus creating new forms of social life which can, in their turn, be reconstructed. Social and educational theories must cope with this reflexivity; the 'truths' they tell must be seen as answers to particular questions asked in the intellectual context of a particular time."

Carr and Kemmis (1986, p. 43)

In connection to my research project, I applied reflexivity by associating my research with all those concern namely the school where I am working, my colleagues and the students involved in the study. It was very important for me to obtain data, whether quantitative or qualitative, which are authentic to the research I am undergoing. I made it very clear to all those concerned that the research I am doing will be beneficial to the school, to the students and others educators in this field of study and last but not least to help me in my professional development in being an educator.

3.10 Delimitations and Limitations

3.11. Ethical considerations

As Watt (1995, p. 1) mentioned, meeting ethical criteria leads not only to a relatively clear research conscience but to better research. Indeed Bassey (1999, p. 73) further refer research ethics under three headings: respect for democracy, respect for truth and respect for persons. I conducted my study following the rules of educational ethics. In order to maintain strict ethical standards to carry out the research, it was important that I follow an established ethical guideline. So, at the very outset of the research, the name of the school where the study was carried out was not mentioned for the sake of confidentiality. Before starting my research, I seeked the permission and acceptance of the Rector of my school (Refer to appendix….). The rector was informed about my research, its aim, the means of collecting the data and the implications of the study for the schools, my department and the pupils. A letter was addressed to the parents through the selected pupils to confirm participation in the study. I wanted the participants to be in a position to give informed consent (Cohen et al., 2000) regarding their participation in the research. The students were informed about the purpose and aim of the study and that they will be chosen as a sample to carry out a study.

The identity of all participants was protected and pseudonyms were used in the dissertation for confidentiality. The target group was made aware that their work was being observed for the purpose of research. The students were told that their work would be taken as artefacts and whatever observation would be made, would remain confidential, and in no way be used against them. No parent and student had any objection.

3.12 Conclusion

An action research is the best-organized process of finding solutions to problems through a planned and systematic collection, analysis, and interpretation of data. Thus, through this action research, I want to share my knowledge and experience about the improvement of teaching and learning of biology through language literacy, to fellow colleagues involved in the educational field.

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