|Promoting autonomy through action research: a case study with undergraduate translation students
Ana Maria da Silva Cravo
Instituto Politécnico de Castelo Branco - Escola Superior de Educação
The ideas presented in this paper are derived from the research in which I was involved for my Master of Education in Supervision for Nottingham University completed in 1999. It was a longitudinal action research project that was carried out with Translation students from the School of Education of the Polytechnic of Castelo Branco (ESECB) between 1996-1997 and 1998-1999.
In 1996-1997 German was one of two D languages for the Translation and International Relations six-semester-degree-programme. With an average of 270 minutes per week to work with mixed ability classes of undergraduate students with basic or no knowledge of German, I soon realized how difficult the task would be. Internally we had decided to divide those 6 semesters in two different stages of three semesters each. The first one would be for intensive language learning, trying to go through the four skills of reading, listening, speaking and writing, without forgetting grammar and what we might call a few exercises of pedagogical translation, the main aim being to familiarize the students with basic resources they could use in the documentation process, such as dictionaries, grammars and phrase books (both bilingual and monolingual). During the second stage the students would be led to do internet research and to work with specialized dictionaries as well as with parallel texts for their translation project.
Dissatisfied with the way I was teaching German I thought that from all the research methodologies used in the education field, that I had studied, the only one that would suit my purpose of intervention and change was action research. I wanted to promote the students autonomy and for that purpose I would have to reflect on my own practice, to incorporate those reflections and subsequently to change my practice. Being at the same time the teacher and the researcher I felt greatly inspired by the work of David Hopkins, namely by his book A teacher’s guide to classroom research (1993).
The study was exploratory in nature and was developed simultaneously with two case studies. It was a project of change based on reflection both of the teacher-researcher and the students which was designed, implemented and evaluated to assess:
1. The extent to which increasing responsibility of the students for their grammar learning process would enable a better management of the language classes for reading, listening, writing, speaking and translation practice;
2.The extent to which a greater increasing responsibility of the students for their grammar learning process would lead to better results in language learning.
Four hypotheses were formulated. Three of them concerning the students’ route, namely:
i. Shared responsibility between teacher and students in the process of German grammar learning contributes for the improvement of the outcomes in German language learning.
ii. A training route for autonomy in the field of German grammar learning leads the students to identify themselves more with some grammar teaching strategies than with others.
iii. A training route for autonomy in the field of German grammar leads the students to become aware of the grammar learning strategies used to develop their linguistic capacity.
Concerning the teacher-researcher’s route one hypothesis was formulated:
iv. Shared responsibility between teacher and students in the process of German grammar learning contributes to a reduction of the time used in the classroom for the explicit teaching of grammar.
These hypotheses were sub-divided into sub-hypothesis in order to facilitate data collection.
The students we followed were observed for a period of four semesters, each semester consisting of a cycle of action research. In each cycle a predominant way of teaching German grammar was used, gradually requiring, from the students, a more and more responsible and independent way of learning, and leaving more time to the training of reading, listening, writing, speaking and translation inside the classroom.
There is an extensive literature on learning to learn, on developing independent learning and on autonomy (see, e.g., Novack and Gowin 1984; Holec 1989; Dickinson 1987; Wenden 1987; Ellis and Sinclair 1989; Rampillon 1989; Gick 1989; Prokop 1993; Vieira 1994 and 1996; Esch 1996; Benson 1996; Lee 1996; Cardoso et al 1996; Benson and Voller 1997; Nunan 1997; Harris 1997; Little 1997; Beresford 2003).
A route to autonomy in the context I was working meant preparing the translation students to take responsibility in the learning process, allowing them to recognize their strengths and their weaknesses in the German language. By tackling different teaching and learning strategies they were induced to learn more about the way they learned best, becoming involved in a cooperation process of learning, in and out of the classroom, more and more without the teacher interference. They were induced to use both cognitive and metacognitive strategies, because thinking about what we know, what we don’t know and the reasons why, that is, thinking about our own learning process and our learning difficulties may lead us to reach a higher level of our intellectual capacities (Cruz and Valente 1993: 87, Peixoto 1991 and 1995, Rosário 1997).
Learning to learn is something that can be taught and trained. Wenden (1987, 159) talks about “blind training” and “informed training”. According to the author the former leaves the trainees in the dark about the importance of the activities they are being induced to use, while the latter places emphasis on learning to learn. Informed training was one of the teaching strategies I used, because although linguistic knowledge may be implicit what is defended in a pedagogy for autonomy is the need to make that knowledge explicit - conscious and understood -, through reflection and practice (Vieira, 1996: 45).
To have autonomous students we need to have reflective teachers (Vieira 1996, Cravo 1999). As a higher education teacher, who had recently become responsible for the teaching of a language D for the specific purpose of translation, I felt I had to change. I needed to know what other teachers in the field were doing and I began attending seminars on translation to try to learn from the experiences shared by other practitioners. But that wasn’t enough. I had to become reflective of my own practices and be prepared to adapt myself to different learning needs. On the other hand, I was also taking my first steps in the field of research. It was like going through a double training process at the same time: training myself as a higher education teacher and as a researcher. Unlike the training I had done a few years before, in order to become a secondary teacher, this time I would have to monitor my own teaching, because I was not going to have a supervisor inside the classroom to observe and assess my practice. That would have to give place to a lot of reflection about what I was doing, what I intended to do and how I was going to do it.
To achieve these multiple education purposes, I needed a methodology that, from the perspective of the teacher-researcher, could also work as a self-education strategy (Cravo 1999). Therefore I decided to get involved in action research.
Action research has been used in education for the past 60 years, and it is seen by many (see, e.g., Ebbutt 1985; Kelly 1985; Kemmis and McTaggart 1988; McNiff 1988; Oja and Smulyan 1989; Elliot 1991; Altrichter 1993; Hopkins 1993; Nunan 1993; Cohen and Manion 1994; Moreira 1996; Silva 1996; Fueyo and Koorland 1997), as a powerful tool both for researchers and practitioners. For researchers who want to understand and describe what the practitioners do, and for practitioners who want to improve their practices being prepared to change them through a process of continuous reflection and action.
According to McNiff (1988: 1), action research is a form of self-reflective enquiry. It encourages a teacher to be reflective of his own practice in order to enhance the quality of education for himself and his students. McNiff isn’t necessarily talking about higher education teachers, but I agree with Koogan (2001) when in his paper on “Self-evaluation, education of teachers and quality in higher education” he says that academics should begin to look seriously at recent work on learning and teaching theory.
My study was a project of change based on my reflections both as a teacher and as a researcher and the reflections of the students. I was aware of the importance of promoting the students autonomy in language learning and to achieve that goal I knew I had to be prepared to change my own practices.
One of the main characteristics of this process was the self-reflective, self-critical and pro-active attitude of the teacher (Cravo 1999: 20). According to Vieira (1993: 28) any teacher can supervise (monitor) his own practice. That’s what I have tried to do. But it wasn’t easy to expose myself in such a way. I was not doing research about what other people were doing. I was describing what I was doing, running the risk of showing my weaknesses as a teacher who had just started to tackle the field of translator education. Nevertheless, sharing my difficulties and the strategies I used in order to overcome them could give rise to a discussion of different and hopefully better solutions to the problems I would present. That alone, for someone who seriously believes in the need for the education and training of higher education teachers, was a very good reason to proceed with my work.
The theoretical framework for the design of the project followed four action research cycles based in the model of action research described by Nunan (1993:). This is one model, among many, but the reason why I chose it is the simplicity of the way it is presented by the author. Simple, clear and effective. According to Nunan a cycle of action research includes: 1. Problem identification; 2. Preliminary investigation; 3. Hypotheses; 4. Plan intervention; 5. Outcomes; 6. Reporting.
The participants were students from Translation and International Relations - a six-semester-programme that was replaced by a eight-semester Translation and Secretarial degree programme in the 2000-2001 academic year. The whole class - a mixture of beginners (71%) and false beginners (29%) -, was involved in the study. Nevertheless we decided to focus our research on two case studies only: one was a false beginner (we will call her Maria) and the other one a beginner (we will call her Cecília).
The project was longitudinal and I worked with the same group of students for 6 semesters. German was a Language D, always taught at beginners level.
The data I collected is from the first, second, third and fifth semesters. That is, from the first stage of the programme – as I have mentioned in the Introduction -, and from the middle of the second stage. Each of them consisted of a different action research cycle. During the first and the second semester, classes met at the school for 300 minutes per week, from October 1996 through January 1997 and from March 1997 through June 1997. During the third and the fifth semesters classes met for 240 minutes per week – from October 1997 through January 1998 and from October 1998 through January 1999.
Procedures and instruments
Teaching German in a mixed ability class with beginners and just a few false beginners, I believed that unless I began to work towards the promotion of the students’ autonomy in language learning, I wouldn’t be able to do much in a period of three years time in such a context. To reach that goal I felt that something in the way I was teaching had to change.
I decided to keep written notes of everything I did in the classroom, willing to understand the amount of time I spent with the presentation and training of each of the four skills as well as with grammar.
After a few weeks and as I was going through my notes, I realized I was spending too much time with grammar. I thought that one first step to reduce the time used with grammar would be to introduce the new contents in the classroom (explicitly) and to ask the students to do the exercises at home. This way I thought I would be able to dedicate more time to the practice of skills that would enable the students to use German in real situations of oral and written communication.
With that aim in mind, I organized a collection of grammar exercises for the students to do at home, leaving the correction to be done in the classroom. This was my first grammar teaching strategy.
At the end of the semester I realized I had been able to dedicate more time to other components. Yet, going through my daily programming notes, I realized I was still using too much time with explicit grammar teaching .
As I was starting my second action research cycle I thought that if I gave the students not only the grammar exercises, but also the key, they would be able to correct them at home and more time would be left for the practice of skills that would enable the students to use German in real situations of oral and written communication.
Therefore, during this cycle new contents were explained (explicitly) in the classroom and instructions were given in terms of which exercises had to be done and corrected by the students at home. The contents that had not been understood could be explained by the teacher in the following class. During this cycle the students were submitted to three formative grammar tests about all the grammar contents they had studied. During this cycle they were also asked to reflect about the results of each of these three formative tests. The strategies used were both cognitive and metacognitive. This was my second grammar teaching strategy.
At the end of the semester I realized I had been able not only to dedicate even more time to train other components, such as reading, listening, writing, speaking and translation, but also to spend time with the use of metacognitive strategies to help the students learn how to learn.
So, I decided to go one step further in this training route for autonomy in grammar learning. I thought that if the students organized a personal file with rules, examples and exercises about the grammar contents of the third semester, before the teacher introduced them explicitly in the classroom, they would be able to develop their research skills with grammar books, grammar exercise-books and dictionaries. Moreover, I thought that if I could conciliate the use of explicit and implicit grammar teaching strategies the students might get better results.
In the third action research cycle, during the first half of the semester, there was no explicit grammar teaching in the classroom. Classes were used for reading, speaking, writing, listening, and translation - using bilingual and monolingual dictionaries of general and specialized language. Meanwhile the students were given a list with the grammar contents they would have to study and were asked to organize their personal files. During the second half of the semester, after the files were organized, some time was dedicated to explicit grammar teaching. The exercises done at home were corrected in the classroom by the students and for that purpose I used transparencies with the key. This was my third grammar teaching strategy.
At the end of the semester the students had had the opportunity to improve their research capacities. One of the implications of the second hypothesis formulated for this cycle was the change in the way students were assessed. Instead of the former two written tests per semester the students were now assessed through six different tests: reading comprehension, listening comprehension, speaking, writing, grammar and translation.
At the end of the third action research cycle I interviewed the students and I thought that if they became responsible for their grammar learning process I would be able to start focusing more and more on translation. This was my fourth strategy.
During the fifth semester there was no explicit grammar teaching. Several strategies were used in order to train the four skills and the students were involved in a translation project. At our school, one of the Physical Education teachers was implicated in International Projects with more than one institution in Germany. That teacher didn’t speak German, but he had to read several papers of which there was no translation into Portuguese. So, the challenge was to involve the students in the translation of a ten-page paper entitled “Das mobile Klassenzimmer” von G. Landau.
As a teacher it was my first experience with a translation project of this kind and by then I didn’t know much about the way scholars such as Gouadec and Kiraly were working. Since the level of German of the majority of my students could not be considered above intermediate, the final product wasn’t but a first draft of the translation. The experience was considered positive and as a result more people are becoming interested in this strategy in our school.
Two case studies is obviously a constraint which makes interpretation of the results limited. This longitudinal action research project, being exploratory in nature, could never lead us to draw any general conclusions. Anyway, and going back to the hypothesis presented in the introduction of this paper I will try to summarize some of the most important issues. I will start with Maria – the student with previous knowledge of German -, then the true beginner Cecília and finally the teacher-researcher.
From the four strategies I used to teach German grammar, Maria identified herself strongly with the one used during the second cycle. She was responsible enough to solve the exercises without looking at the key. And for her, having the key was very important, because she could have immediate feedback, as she admitted during the interview.
Anyway, it was with the strategy used in the third cycle that she got her best results in grammar (98,5%). Therefore it was not using her favourite grammar learning strategy that she was able to get a better mark.
Her best final marks were obtained during the first and the third cycle (90%). One of the cycles in which Maria obtained one of her best final marks (the third one – 90%), was the cycle in which she had her best results in grammar.
During the interview which took place at the end of the third cycle, Maria stated that she believed she had a good visual memory, and that she learned better by using tables produced by herself to memorize the declensions. She also believed she could memorize word gender better by using the code of colours suggested by me (pink for female; blue for male; yellow for neuter and orange for plural). Maria felt it was by doing many exercises that she learned best. And as far as the her personal file was concerned she said she organized it in such a way that whenever she had a doubt she would be able to rapidly find what she was looking for.
Strategies such as clarifying, verifying, memorizing, practising and monitoring seemed to be important for Maria.
The strategy used during the third action research cycle, was Cecília’s favourite. And it was in the third cycle she got her best results in grammar (88,5%) as well as her best final mark (80%). So, with Cecília the cycle in which she obtained her best final mark, was the cycle in which she had her best results in grammar using her favourite grammar learning strategy.
During the interview Cecília stated she was not responsible enough to solve the exercises without looking at the key. She preferred to correct the exercises in the classroom with the teacher. That way, she would be able to clarify her doubts immediately. But the strategy she liked best was that from the third cycle. The organization of her personal file pleased her very much. She realized she is fond of doing research, going through different kinds of resources.
Strategies such as clarifying, verifying, practising and monitoring seemed to be important for Cecília. Cecília, unlike Maria, seems to prefer strategies that keep her more dependent from the teacher.
From what I have just said it is possible to see that each of the students traced her own route to autonomy in German grammar learning through distinct choices and preferences in terms of teaching and learning strategies.
As we used both cognitive and metacognitive strategies, the students were able not only to try different learning strategies, but also to identify those they preferred. And they also seemed to have understood that preferring a learning strategy doesn’t necessarily mean that using it will lead us to learn better or to obtain better results.
Concerning the students route to autonomy in German grammar learning three hypothesis were formulated in the introduction. And after going through data analysis I would say that shared responsibility between teacher and students in the process of German grammar learning seems to contribute for the improvement of the outcomes in German language learning; that a training route for autonomy in the field of German grammar learning may lead the students to identify themselves more with some grammar teaching strategies than with others and that a training route for autonomy in the field of German grammar may lead the students to become aware of the grammar learning strategies used to develop their linguistic capacity.
Although the teacher and the researcher were the same person, I would like to analyse the outcomes separately.
I understood that to help my students to become more autonomous in grammar learning, I would have to think about what I was doing in my classes and to change the way I was teaching. I had to become critical about my work and be prepared to change and use different strategies in order to achieve my purpose. Reflection before, during and after action was imperative. I had to think about several things. What am I doing? Why am I doing it this way? Are the materials I am using adequate to the aims I have in mind?
As a researcher I became aware of the power of action research in educational contexts whenever a teacher believes he can do something in order to improve their practices as well as the outcomes of their students.
Concerning the teacher-researcher’s route one hypothesis was formulated in the introduction. And after going through data analysis I would have to say that shared responsibility between teacher and students in the process of German grammar learning contributes to a reduction of the time used in the classroom to the explicit teaching of grammar.
McNiff (1988, 4) said that “applied to classrooms, action research is an approach to improving education through change, by encouraging teachers to be aware of their own practice, to be critical of that practice, and to be prepared to change it.”
In the past 60 years action research has played a very important role in education. The interest in the discussion of the formation of higher education teachers seems to have become an important issue in the past few years (see, e.g., Reimão 2001, Leclercq 2001, Cachapuz 2001, Dias 2001, Patrício 2001, Ambrósio 2001, Kogan 2001, Veiga Simão 2001). I do believe that higher education teachers involved in translator education or translator training may find in action research the support they need in order to improve their practices.
Suggestions for future research
As a result of the findings from the research reported here, and as a consequence of the limitations of the study, there are several issues which are worth considering for future research.
The study I reported here took place between 1996-1997 and 1998-1999. Those were my initial efforts to deal with teaching a foreign language for the specific purpose of translation. Although it was a language D, I did and I still do believe that something can be done in order to improve the students’ outcomes. While promoting their autonomy in grammar learning the implications went further beyond the strict domain of grammar. But it would be interesting to get a closer look at those implications.
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