Which is better for learning — small groups or full-classroom instruction? Does individual teacher attention really improve a struggling student’s reading? How do you get rambunctious boys to behave? Those were just a few of the questions that Baylor School of Education (SOE) seniors tackled as part of the 2014 Action Research Symposium. After designing and implementing research projects in the classrooms where they are teaching as full-time interns, one hundred Baylor seniors presented their findings on April 1. The teaching interns worked with mentor teachers in their classrooms to develop and implement the research, and many of those mentors were on hand at the Symposium, along with school principals and the superintendents from area districts.
Senior intern Alexa Samuel researched a question that her principal at Connally Elementary suggested. She studied the difference in learning provided by whole-class instruction or small groups working at stations.
“In one class, I did only small groups, and in another I did whole-group instruction for four straight weeks,” Samuel said. She gave a pre-test and a post-test and took notes during the four-week fifth-grade math unit on measurement. While she found little difference in the overall results, there was a big difference depending on the particular math topic. “Anything having to do with area or perimeter did better in groups, and I think it was because they had been exposed to it before,” Samuel concluded. “But I would want to test that out more.”
Danielle LaCoste (pictured at right) also studied small groups of fifth graders; she was an intern at River Valley Intermediate in Midway ISD. LaCoste measured both test results and confidence level through two different kinds of groups. In one classroom, she paired high-achieving students with mid-level ones and mid-level ones with lower achievers. But in the other room, she paired students of similar abilities.
While all students gained confidence, LaCoste found that mixed groups provided more learning. In the mixed-ability groups, La
Coste said, “The higher-level students really stepped up into the teacher role, and as they explain the subject, they learn more.”
LaCoste said she frequently assigns partner work, so she studied something she was curious about. That’s the point of the Action Research Symposium and the reason it’s called “The Science of Wondering,” said SOE dean Dr. Jon Engelhardt — for students to pursue something they are wondering about.
“Action Research is a form of professional development,” Engelhardt said. “You don’t depend just on a workshop offered by the school district. You are your own best professional development manager, and you do that by studying your own performance, asking questions, and wondering about something. Then try to answer that question with good experiments, comparisons, or close observations.”
Dr. Doug Rogers, associate dean for undergraduate studies in the SOE, said the research project is a capstone experience for seniors. “Action research is the essence of what we expect of them as professionals — to study their own practice,” he said.
While many students conducted whole-classroom experiments, Stephanie Limes at Hillcrest Professional Development School (PDS) in Waco ISD focused on individual students with reading problems to see if her attention would make a difference. One student, who had limited English proficiency, sounded like a proficient reader, Limes said. “He had voice inflection and intonation,” she noted, “but it was really hard for him to recall the facts.” After Limes spent one-on-one time with him and provided incremental reading goals, his content recall improved, she said.
Limes’ mentor teacher, Dr. Bianca Ochoa, said this student is an avid reader now. “He was doing everything to look like he was reading, but now he is really a reader,” she said. “And it just gives you chills.”
A couple of SOE interns zeroed in on classroom problems dealing with boys. Senior Jenna Zerebny, who taught at Spring Valley Elementary in Midway ISD, said that upon entering her first-grade classroom, “The first thing I noticed was the large amount of talkative boys.” So Zerebny designed a seven-week study to see if “brain break” activities would improve the boys’ behavior. She alternated weeks providing a short three-to-five-minute activity or not providing it. “I found that taking at least one brain break per day both increased the engagement of the students and decreased the negative behavior,” she said. “I also saw that it improved as we went along; I got better at it.”
Kevin Sikes, an intern at Robinson High School, also noticed a negative dynamic among some boys in his classroom. “Every class has it — the buddies who want to sit together,” he said. So Sikes created a seating chart that put the five boys in opposite corners of the room. “On average, grades went up 12.9 percent after the seating chart change,” he said. “So we’ve been using the seating chart ever since.” —Meg Cullar
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