A guide to conducting school-based research
April 18, 2015
Conducting research in schools is like training for a marathon. It is time-consuming and challenging, takes planning and perseverance, and there are so many ways in which it could go terribly wrong. This form of research can be a real struggle. However, it is a great opportunity to conduct research in a natural environment, increase external validity, and develop partnerships with teachers in order to better support students. If you are currently involved in school-based research and are in need of some help or guidance, then keep reading; because like marathon training, there are ways to do it to minimize the risk of failure and ensure you reach the finish line.
The first key to success when doing research in schools is communication. If doing the intervention and collecting data is like running the actual marathon, then communicating well is like making sure you take care of your body by eating right, stretching, and preventing injuries while training. Communicating ensures that the extra strain on the daily routine is managed well.
LISTEN. The most important part of communicating with teachers is listening first and hearing their concerns. Teachers care about their students, not your research. They won’t be afraid to tell you all of the barriers they see to implementing your research project before agreeing to participate. Your job is to listen to all of those reasons why your research won’t work in their classroom. Then you can start to provide solutions to overcoming those barriers that allow teachers to take ownership of the project and to foster their interest in implementing the intervention. In order to do this you have to speak their language. Don’t resort to scientific jargon to make your research sound impressive. They don’t care and it will only turn them off. Use language that they use, that they will be able to understand and that they will be willing to adopt. For example, if you are implementing an intervention, provide them with new vocabulary that is simple and easy to use with students but that also validates teachers’ current practices by giving them new words to describe skills that they have already been teaching their students for a long time.
In addition to keeping your language simple, you should do the same while presenting your material. Information should be as simple and clear as possible. Make it visually appealing and clear. Provide printouts of any presentation slides, as well as sheets summarizing the important questions. Teachers will likely have questions that come up long after you’re gone, and these materials may save them the trouble of having to call you or write you an email, by addressing things they may have simply missed during the meeting.
In communicating this information, be explicit as well. Address every detail of the research that will impact a teacher’s daily life. For example, be transparent about the process, what data collection will look like, what forms will need to be filled out and how long it will take. Also be ready to answer questions about how much time the intervention takes to implement as well as how much preparation time is involved, and what materials are needed. A detailed schedule outlining the timeline, in addition to the roles and responsibilities of each actor involved may be helpful in getting everyone on the same page and making everyone accountable for their part in the process. Most importantly, be clear and explicit in the way that you present the intervention itself. What does it actually look like? What are the teachers required to do? What do you expect from them?
Time and patience is needed when dealing with these details because teachers don’t necessarily share your vision. As such, you must be ready to explain things several times to different people or several times to the same people until they start to see the value of the project. Make everything as clear and easy for the teachers, the administration, the students, and anyone else who may be involved in the project.
Finally, once research has started in the school, it is crucial to stay in contact with teachers. Check in and ask them how they are doing, and if they need anything from you. Provide them with additional information, materials, and individual support as needed. Respond in kindly to the feedback given by the teachers and the school. Make adjustments as you move forward to show them that you value their concerns and want to make their lives as easy as possible. Be patient, be kind, and be persistent. At times it may seem like no one is on board, but keeping those lines of communication open for honest discussion is the first step toward ensuring your success when doing research in schools.
Building collaboration to ensure success
One of the most vital roles you take on as a researcher in a school is that of a collaborator. Your participants are humans, not subjects, and you need to be aware of the underlying hierarchical structure of the school and the possible political tensions that exist within the system. By understanding the needs and motivations of each faction, you will be able to find allies within the school system who can advocate on your behalf, consequently making the research more enjoyable for all parties. Returning to our marathon analogy, building collaboration is the part of marathon training where you motivate yourself by knowing exactly why you want to run, and finding people to run with, and mutually encouraging each other to pursue that common goal.
There are some practical ways to ease some of the tension experienced by teachers when you solicit collaboration. First, always remember to be sensitive to what teachers’ pressures are. These may include time, content adherence to curriculum, administrative issues, or ethical issues. Seeking out all the necessary information beforehand can minimize some of the foreseeable constraints that would render your school visit unsuccessful. Secondly, as we mentioned earlier, understand that you are not the teacher’s priority. Given the amount of duties the teachers already have, it is reasonable that some teachers will not be as excited about the research as you are. Solution? Share your interest. Engage the teachers. Motivate them. Convince them that your presence is time-affordable and productive. Teachers love seeing university students engage in the experience and engage with their own students. By creating a warm and engaging environment between the researchers and the students, it will be a lot easier for the teachers to feel comfortable to do the same. Third, tailor your school visit to the cultural needs of the school. Be sensitive to language! If you know you are visiting a French school, you better hope to have French speakers among you. Teachers love students who at least try to speak their language and sometimes, saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ will be enough to at least start establishing a trustful collaboration. Fourth, value the input of the collaborators from the school. Never forget that this would not be possible without their help. Last, rewarding participants and teachers for their time and effort shows them that you care and that the collaboration is rewarding for you. I’m not saying to spend funding on new boats for everyone. But remember, even the little things count. These strategies will prove useful for you in establishing positive relations with your collaborators, and particularly with teachers. The quality of this relationship will determine the outcome of your research and will ensure its success.
Being professional is an important part of conducting research in schools; it will make the process easier and will increase chances of future collaboration. Professionalism is about how you present yourself: you want to show that you are 1) competent, and 2) appropriate. In marathon-speak, this is the equivalent of wearing good training clothes, and using technology to track your progress – it isn’t strictly “necessary”, but it helps you reach your goal.
Presenting competence means that anyone directly in contact with school staff (whether a graduate student or an undergraduate volunteer) is well-versed in the material being presented. Not knowing your stuff is an excellent way to not be taken seriously; indirectly, this suggests that you really shouldn’t bring anyone to meetings who doesn’t know the project well, or who isn’t good at presenting on behalf of the research team. If there are questions you can’t answer on the spot, then you should note them down and answer them within a week. In a similar vein, come to every meeting fully prepared with presentation materials and handouts. Remember to take minutes of every meeting, and don’t rely on your memory – or record the meeting if the teachers give permission.
In such situations, appearing competent sometimes has less to do with the actual expertise and knowledge you (hopefully) have than it does with certain other aspects that rely more on presentation and are purely psychological. For instance, materials presented should bear the logo of your university and of your own lab (if you have one), along with contact information; thus, some of the credibility of your university is magically bestowed on you. Also make sure to welcome your supervisor at initial meetings and during the planning stages as much as possible, in order to reinforce the idea that an official authority figure representing the university is backing the endeavour. Doing so also allows the school staff to know that you are working as a team, even if there are only a few people in regular contact with the school or collecting data. For example, we have found the presence of our own supervisor, Dr. Shaw, to be invaluable at certain meetings, despite the fact that these took place in French (even though his French speaking skills are dubious).
The other element of professionalism involves being appropriate, in every sense of the word. Always dress appropriately – when in doubt, wear what you would wear to an interview. Silence your phone, keep it out of sight, and refrain from checking it at all. Be polite, punctual, and (at the risk of sounding like an alien visitor to this world) follow the prevalent conventional social norms. For example, when speaking in French, be sure to address all school collaborators using formal pronouns, even when some of these collaborators (especially teachers) might be close to your own age. Though you may be a free spirit whose very soul defies convention and social expectations (or alternatively, that your legs just look great in jean cut-offs), your hope to convince school staff to become involved in your project does not call for this type of self-expression. Being professional usually has little to do with the quality of the research or the proposed intervention. But without it, you don’t have much of a chance of convincing anyone to invest their time and energy in helping you.
Overall, communication, collaboration-building, and professionalism are essential skills that will help carry you across the finish line at the end of the marathon run that is research. Our experiences with school-based research have allowed us to distil the essentials here for the benefit of others. We should keep in mind that each school culture is different, and one of the best ways of ensuring success is to be flexible and responsive to the context. It is important to remember that you may follow all this advice and the collaboration might still fail. If you sense that you are putting in all the work but that the administration or teachers are not particularly invested, beware of getting all your data from once source.
Shalaka Shah, Marie-Michelle Boulanger, and Damyan Edwards
Specific feedback from teachers is key to improving the effectiveness and delivery of teacher-mediated interventions
The Connections Lab members developed an Emotional Regulation (ER) curriculum to improve school outcomes of students at highest risk for academic problems. As students learn positive strategies to engage in adaptive emotional regulation during stressful situations, the goal is for teachers to devote less time to behavioural management in the classroom, and the focus of teacher time is then placed on teaching. The ER curriculum consists of 10 lessons of thirty to forty-five minutes in length.
All lessons are available for no charge or commitment at: http://www.mcgill.ca/connectionslab/resources
Last year, we began the pilot project during which the ER lessons were implemented by teachers in classrooms of students with borderline intellectual functioning. Our main goal was to provide teachers with the tools to foster their students’ use of adaptive emotional regulation strategies and give them the flexibility to change aspects of the lesson to fit the culture of their classroom. Evidence-based interventions typically require that the intervention be implemented without the possibility of any deviations or changes made to the original intervention guidelines. The reality is, however, that for these interventions to be able to produce positive outcomes for students they may need to be adapted to the specific needs and abilities of the students. Therefore, listening to teachers’ suggestions and specific feedback on what works and does not work for their students is a key to improving the effectiveness and delivery of teacher-mediated interventions. During our pilot project at the school board we collaborated with, teachers were given the opportunity to become main players in this project given they would be directly involved in the delivery of the intervention and their knowledge and expertise is valued and respected. Their feedback and suggestions were welcomed as we understand that they know their students best and are well aware of the unique needs and challenges of their classroom environment.
First Line of Feedback
The lessons were introduced to teachers during a teacher training meeting at the school. As expected, teachers had a lot of questions concerning the delivery approach of this lesson plan. This was a good thing and it demonstrated the teachers’ interest and enthusiasm to become part of this project and to work together to make this lesson plan the most applicable to their students. Some of the questions that were raised by teachers during the meeting were: Can I modify or add to these lessons? Can we combine two lesson plans (one negative ER strategy with a positive one)? Can I prepare or consult with another teacher in preparation to implementing the lesson plans in my classroom?
The first two questions are especially interesting because it made us realize that lesson plans that may appear perfect and well-designed on paper may not translate perfectly into practice. The teachers’ delivery styles as well as the needs of the students are important factors in determining the applicability of evidence-based interventions. The last question is also important because it highlights the need for feedback discussions and collaboration among teachers to improving the delivery of lesson content. Teachers may feel pressured or unclear of the best way to implement evidence-based interventions in their classrooms. Although, when provided with the flexibility to consult with other colleagues and to modify a given aspect of the lesson to meet the specific needs of their students, teachers’ pre-existing concerns may be resolved. They can share their ideas and specific feedback to improve evidence-based interventions that will work best for their students. Although the core content and structure remained the same, the teachers had the option to modify examples in the activity and assessment sections of the ER lessons to better fit the abilities of their students.
Feedback from Teachers and Collaborators throughout the Process
The feedback received from teachers and collaborators throughout the pilot project significantly improved the structure and delivery of our lesson plan. Some examples include:
- Activities were modified to better match the students’ grade level and abilities
- Activity sheets were adapted to improve delivery and understanding of the content for these students
- Additional examples were added to enrich the generalizability and applicability of positive and negative strategies taught throughout the lesson plan
- Lessons were combined to introduce students with a positive strategy to use in place of a negative strategy
By using a model that is more flexible and gives teachers the opportunity to modify aspects of an intervention to account for resources, classroom needs, and teacher comfort level results in the implementation of evidence-based interventions geared towards meeting the needs of diverse student populations.
- Teachers are more willing to become collaborators in the process if their feedback on the delivery approach is valued and implemented.
- There is the possibility of using existing specific feedback from teachers to improve the delivery approach of future lesson plan development.
- Teachers’ specific feedback can also serve to adapt existing lesson plans to improve the delivery and effectiveness of future teacher-mediated interventions.
- Teachers’ feedback on the specific needs of their students will result in the development of new lesson plans for teaching students non-cognitive skills to promote school success (e.g., peer-relationship skills, study skills).
- Working closely with teachers is the best way to develop research effective methods of intervening with students and improving implementation of evidence-based interventions.
Laura Varona Prevez