Developing a Research Focus

Getting Started: Think Small

So, you want to investigate teaching and learning in your own classroom. Where do you begin? A key to successful classroom inquiry is finding an interesting and manageable research focus. If you have never done systematic classroom inquiry, try to resist the urge to attack BIG issues and problems. Given one's normal professional responsibilities, it is very difficult to take on the additional commitment of a large scale research project. Instead, think small, very small . But, small does not mean that the question or issue is trivial or inconsequential. Ultimately, the topic you pursue should have some significance for teaching in your field, and should be of some significance to you as well. Below are three avenues into a classroom inquiry project in a course you teach.

Beginning with Questions

Your questions about teaching and learning will motivate your classroom research project. There are three main avenues or types of questions:

  • Questions about student learning and development
  • Questions about a teaching and learning episode
  • Questions about new teaching practice

1. Questions about student learning and development

Classroom inquiry often starts with “problems of practice” arising from instructors' personal experiences. In the broadest sense problems of practice focus on what, how and why students learn or do not learn what they are taught. This distinguishes them from other types of teacher problems. For example, new teachers spend a large amount of time learning basic teaching skills—how to give a lecture that lasts the entire class period, how to write an examination, how to assign grades, how to get a discussion going and so on. Although these are urgent matters for new teachers, they are not problems of practice as they focus only on the teacher's acquisition of basic classroom skills, and not on how those practices affect student learning.

Problems of practice focus directly on student learning and development, such as

  • gaps between the instructor's expectations for student learning and their performance
  • specific concepts and ideas that are especially difficult for many students
  • some students who just don't “get it”
  • misconceptions and beliefs that prevent students from understanding the subject matter

In these cases, inquiry begins with a specific question about student learning. Some examples:

  • Why do so many students have difficulty with concept “X”?
  • Why are students unable to do “Y” even after considerable teaching and practice?
  • Why do students consistently misunderstand “Z”?
  • Why do some students fail this course?
  • What are the dominant misconceptions students have in this class and how can I get them to move beyond their person-on-the-street theories?

Example : Problems of Practice (in the Field of Psychology)

. . . the driving force behind inquiry into teaching and learning most often is found in what Hoshmand (1994) describes as “problems of practice.” She suggests that problems encountered during practice can form the basis for inquiry, and although her examples are based on clinical practices, they are easily translated into problems that can arise in the practice of teaching of psychology. One common type of problem is encountered “when an intervention based on a particular rationale does not work” (Hoshmand 1994: 184). Almost every teacher has experienced a failed attempt in the classroom, no matter how brilliantly planned. A fairly typical response is to chalk it up to a bad day and move on. But increasingly, psychologists are turning such experiences into opportunities to investigate why the teaching intervention was not effective.

Hoshmand's framework encourages us to interview students, reflect on what was observed in class during the unsuccessful intervention, solve the problem, attempt to correct it, and further reflect on what type of intervention would be more successful and why, leading to another attempt at the now revised intervention and repeating the cycle of reflective inquiry. This process of inquiry among psychologists is often informed by other work on teaching and learning by scholars in the field (e.g., Bransford, Brown, and Cocking 1999). In turn, the result of this type of inquiry may extend, modify, or even contradict prior understandings, leading to important new research questions. Building on and further developing existing understanding is, by its very nature, at the core of scholarly work (Shulman 1999b).

Excerpt from “Disciplinary Styles in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: A View from Psychology,” by Susan Nummedahl, Janette Benson & Stephen Chew in Huber, M. and Morreale, S. (2002). Disciplinary styles in the scholarship of teaching and learning: Exploring common ground . Washington, DC: American Association for Higher Education.

2. Questions about a teaching and learning episode

Alternatively, instructors might organize classroom inquiry around a single teaching and learning episode. A teaching episode may be thought of as the teaching and learning that takes place in a single class period or that takes place with respect to a single assignment or activity (in or out of class).

A single teaching episode is an appealing level of analysis for several reasons. First, teachers organize and plan lectures and class activities that can take place within single class periods. A single class period is a manageable unit of analysis; it is much easier to monitor students' learning carefully in a single class period than it is during several weeks or months of a class. It is also easier to analyze the structure of a single class period, and to observe the intended connections between teaching and learning than it is to do so in larger segments of a course.

A classroom inquiry project could investigate teaching and learning in a single class period, with respect to a single assignment or class activity. A classroom inquiry project could involve testing and revising an existing class assignment, exercise or teaching episode.

3. Questions about new teaching practice

An instructor's goal for student learning can be the focal point of classroom inquiry. A classroom inquiry project could be built around how to address the goal in one or two specific class periods. The instructor would design, test and revise a new (rather than existing) assignment, exercise or teaching episode to address the student learning goal.

Focusing on Understanding

What is understanding?

How do you know if students understand something? It is relatively easy to determine whether students remember something—you ask them a question and then compare their answers to the original information they were supposed to learn. But, evaluating someone's understanding is more complex.

On most matters, a person's understanding is somewhere between two extremes with abject ignorance on one end and well developed understanding on the other.

No Clue ----------|-----------|----------|--------- Developed Understanding

Toward the “no clue” end of the continuum we would say a person's understanding is incomplete, underdeveloped, fragmented, naïve, inchoate, half-baked, incipient, superficial, or trivial. Toward the “developed understanding” end of the continuum we would say a person's understanding is rich, elaborate, profound, thorough, expert, or well developed.

Moreover, misunderstanding and misconceptions can be part of the individual's grasp of a subject anywhere along this continuum. Even when understanding is well developed it may not be “perfect.” Partial understanding is the norm in most matters. As scholars note


In even the most mature person, understanding is a mixture of insight and misconception, knowledge and ignorance, skill and awkwardness .

(Grant Wiggins and Jay Mc Tighe in Understanding by Design)

Consequently, we should not ask “if students understand,” but “to what extent they understand,” or “in what ways do they understand.”

It is tempting to view understanding as a kind of static mental entity that students can call forward on demand just the way we expect them to recall information from memory. But understanding is not a static representation of knowledge in the students' mind so much as it is a capacity to do thought provoking things with knowledge one has developed or is developing. Understanding involves being able to “think with” new knowledge and not just “think about” it.

There are several important methodological issues related to evaluating students' understanding (and evaluating any type of learning).

What do you as a teacher mean by “understanding”? As long as “understanding” is an elusive concept in your class, it will be difficult to evaluate it effectively. In my experience, I was not able to evaluate understanding effectively until I could say things like, “On this assignment, understanding is the ability to . . .

  • use concepts X, Y and Z to solve novel problems
  • develop causal relationships to explain how X affects Y
  • use different theoretical perspectives to predict X, Y, and Z
  • use relevant evidence to develop a personal perspective
  • use relevant evidence to develop a compelling argument

These statements operationalize understanding, indicating what understanding “looks like,” and what students have to do in order to demonstrate their understanding. They also serve as a guiding principle for the design of assignments and class activities.

Performances of Understanding

Understanding is the ability to use knowledge in thought provoking ways to explain, interpret, analyze, compare, make analogies, and discern relevant connections among unrelated facts and ideas.

Performances of understanding are tasks, activities, assignments through which students demonstrate and develop their understanding of important knowledge and skills. Instructors have their own ideas about what constitutes understanding in their disciplines and what performances of understanding provide the most compelling evidence about students' understanding. Nonetheless, good performances of understanding

  • Relate directly to understanding goals
  • Develop and apply understanding through practice
  • Engage multiple learning styles and forms of expression
  • Promote reflective engagement in challenging, approachable tasks
  • Demonstrate understanding—means of monitoring, publicizing and learning from students' understanding.

Understanding develops. Sometimes it develops quickly, but development may be slow going and halting if concepts are particularly difficult. Instructors can use a sequence of understanding performances to support students' development and to make their thinking visible. Each performance serves a different function.

1. Messing about—initial inquiry not yet structured by disciplined-based methods or concepts; beginning of unit and draw the students into the domain of a generative topic; open-ended and approachable on multiple levels so students can engage them no matter what their prior level of understanding; help students see connections between topic and own interests/previous experiences

2. Guided inquiry (Getting the hang of it)—engages students in using ideas and modes of inquiry central to understanding the identified goals; teacher provides guidance/support as students applies disciplinary concepts/methods to integrate their growing body of knowledge and to perform complex understanding

3. Culminating performance—demonstrated mastery of designated understanding goals; synthesize other understanding.

For additional information, see

Stone-Wiske, Martha. Editor (1998). Teaching for understanding: Linking research with practice . San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

This book is the product of a six-year collaborative research project by school teachers and researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Although it focuses on pre-collegiate teaching, it is applicable to university-level teaching as well. According to the TfU model, there are four fundamental elements in teaching for understanding—generative topics that afford possibilities for deep understanding in a subject, goals that explicitly state what students are expected to understand, performances of understanding through which students develop and demonstrate understanding, and ongoing assessment. The book provides interesting examples of these elements from actual classrooms and examples of student performance. This volume should be valuable for any instructor who views better student understanding as a primary goal of the scholarship of teaching.

Blythe, Tina, & Associates (1998). The teaching for understanding guide . San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Sample Project Ideas

Below are some sketchy suggestions about possible projects that focus on student understanding:

•  How an idea develops. Track changes in students' understanding of a particular concept or topic during a term. This might take place over a week or the entire term.

•  Range of understanding. Do more in-depth analysis of how understanding develops in a few students at different ability levels. Examine differences in the range of understanding in your class.

•  Develop a “background knowledge probe” to determine students' knowledge of topics before you teach them. Compare their responses to their understanding at the end of the unit/instruction.

•  Misconceptions. Keep track of the kinds of misconceptions students bring to your class and develop in your class.

•  Understanding difficult ideas. Focus on how students develop understanding of particularly difficult concepts. Every field has topics and concepts that are especially difficult for students in introductory level classes or other classes.

•  Enduring understanding (“month-long learning”). Email students a month (or some other elapsed time) after the class, and ask them to answer questions about key questions and ideas from the course.

•  Transfer of learning. Ask instructors in the “next” class to administer a “post-test” to determine students' long-term understanding and ability to use concepts they learned in your class.

•  Thinking with the subject matter. Devise a series of “transfer tasks” (i.e., assignments in which students apply newly-learned concepts to novel situations or problems). Examine the extent to which they can use new knowledge.

•  Progressive discourse. How does students' understanding develop from class discussions? Devise a way to evaluate the quality of class discussion in terms of how students interact and what kinds of ideas they produce.

•  Field-test Teaching for Understanding (TfU) assignments. Try out a new TfU assignment. Evaluate students' learning and use the results to redesign the assignment. Test it again the following term.

Leaving legacies. Ask students in your class to create materials, analyses, advise, etc. for students taking the class in the future.


© 2004 Bill Cerbin and Bryan Kopp, All Rights Reserved.

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