How can I improve students' learning by increasing their interest and confidence in learning English... A case study of AR into College English by Wang Ying

June 2004



How can I improve the students’ learning by increasing their interest and confidence in learning English? This report shows how I changed my teaching methods in order to help my students learn more effectively. As the New Curriculum in China for the teaching of English demands, I had to change from didactic lecturer to facilitator and organizer. I show how my imagined solutions to improving the living situation played a big role in helping my students learn better. The results are encouraging, as students begin more and more to play an active role in their classroom learning. The most significant achievement is the students’ new ability to learn by, and think for, themselves, which I think will benefit them all their lives. At the same time, I learn a lot and develop new methodologies for teaching. My paper reveals how I have used the connections between my research process and the New Curriculum values like students’ interest, motivation and attitudes, to enhance the learning process.


My context:

When I was in junior school, I admired my English teacher very much for his fluent spoken English and profound knowledge. From the time he taught us, I was determined to devote myself to English teaching, so I strove to realize my dream. Fortunately it was in 1996 that I was enrolled in Ningxia University and just as I had expected, majoring in English teaching. During the course of my studies at the University, I made great efforts to catch every chance to listen to my excellent teachers' lectures. I was very grateful for God's blessing that He sent such good teachers for us.


All my teachers were diligent, strict and knowledgeable, and they imparted their knowledge to their students as much as they could. Therefore I had to be engrossed in listening and taking notes during the whole class, because most teachers spoke so fast and seldom wrote the main points on the blackboard. In those four years, I almost spent all my time learning English. Consequently I won several prizes, which made me feel my hard work had been worthwhile. After graduation, I came to Guyuan Teachers' College and became a college teacher. I was assigned to teach college English in the first two years. Seeing that I was deeply influenced by my teachers, I believed that good teachers were those who passed on all their knowledge to the students as much as they could. However, I gradually found that I restricted my students' imagination and initiative in learning English while imitating my teachers' teaching patterns. Their performance in class showed that they learned English mechanically and passively but not actively.


Just at that time, I began to know something about action research with Moira Laidlaw's help, and this guided me to improve my teaching and students' learning. Action Research is an enquiry by the self into the self... It is always to do with learning, and learning is to do with education and growth (McNiff, 2002). It works through a systematic cycle of reflection and action, called the action plan, which reads like this:

. I have a concern/ what would I like to improve?

. Why am I concerned?

. How might I improve it?

. Who can help me and how?

. How will I know it has improved? (Whitehead, 1985)


The theory was so convincing that I did believe that my students and I could benefit from it, so I started the project.


What was my concern?

Before I was aware of the seriousness of the situation in class, I had believed that I was a good and responsible teacher because I spent so much time preparing my lesson and teaching my students what I had learned as much as I could. However, I worked very hard only to meet failure in class. Students' silence, poor speaking and writing pervaded each class so that I did was unable to see their unique learning needs.


Why was I concerned?

I've often felt frustrated and disappointed in myself after finishing my class. During a lesson, most students just kept silent and acted as my audience. They seldom spoke English or raised their hands to answer my questions voluntarily, and some even fell asleep. It seemed that they were attaching little importance to their English lesson. Such an unbearable situation made me feel suffocated so I had to reflect on my teaching by asking following questions:


ŠDid I pay enough attention to my students while giving a class?

ŠDid I know whether my students understood or digested what I have taught?

ŠDid I know something about my students, such as their English levels and interest in learning English?


The answers to these questions were "No". At the same time, I made a survey among students in order to understand their indifference to our English class more fully. The questions I designed in the survey were as follows:


There were two main reasons for their non-participation: one was that some students had lost interest in learning English when they were in high school, and the other was others lost hope in learning English due to their poor rudimentary knowledge. I've realized that if I continued teaching them like this, I would be negating my educational values. I was mistakenly thinking that the teaching methods my teachers applied were not suitable to my students. If I continued teaching like before my students might not say "Hello" to anyone in English in the future, for they were just learning "Dumb English". For the moment I was experiencing myself as a living contradiction (Whitehead, 1989), in that I believed my students learned well and I taught well yet I was systematically denying these values in my practice. Under Dr. Moira Laidlaw's help, I finished filling in the action plan and identified an aspect I wanted to improve. Therefore my question was: "How can I improve students' learning by increasing their interest and confidence in learning English?"


What could I do?

Stephen Kemmis and Robin McTaggart have said: "The linking of the terms action and research highlights the essential feature of the method: trying out ideas in practice as a means of improvement and as a means of increasing knowledge....", so I was determined to find ways to change this dull situation so that my students and I felt at ease in class. The following was what I imagined according to the present situation:


. The relations between teacher and students

. Teacher's encouragement and students' self-confidence

. Their participation in discussion and class activities

. Their interest in learning English

. Their homework


What did I do?

Guided by the imaginary solutions, I started to work on specific actions. The following points are what I have done:


Changing my role

After my survey, I found out a lot about my students, especially their psychological aspects. Either because of their uninterested factors or because of feelings of hopelessness, students feared to lose face. Under such conditions, if the teacher were too strict and serious, they would lose their confidence, and not participate voluntarily. Considering this, I tried to put myself into my students' place, thinking about their difficulties in learning English. I tried to be more active, thoughtful, and humorous while giving a class. For instance, I once taught my students a proverb, "Love me, love my dog." While I interpreted the meaning to students, I asked them,

"OK, class, before understanding this proverb, you'd better answer my question: 'Do you like me?' "

"Of course, we do," answered my students.

"That's great. If you like me, you'd better like English. So that's the meaning of this proverb," I said.


Finally, all my students nodded their heads with a smile. From then on, I realized that teacher's words and actions influence students very much. My students started to make jokes with me sometimes, which had never happened before. I still remember that once I gave them a topic about the equality between men and women for discussion. Most girls considered that women were still unequal to men in society, but boys disagreed with them. One boy named Ma Yue said:


"If women are not equal to men, why am I always seeing Mr Zhang (my husband) do the cooking whereas our English teacher was just standing aside?"


(Because of the old Chinese tradition, it was wives but not husbands who were always cooking, which showed that men had high status in family.)


Hearing his words, the whole class burst into laughter. Consequently, I was really building a good relationship with my students. One girl wrote to me:


"You are not only my teacher, but also my friends, even elder sister."


Just as the New Curriculum (2002) says, teachers’ role has to be changed from that of knowledge distributor to facilitator, organizer, participant and advisor, so changing my role was an indispensable part in improvement the living situation.  


Encouragement written in their homework

Writing, to some extent, is closely related to speaking (at least I think so), so I always encouraged my students to write English articles, that could improve their abilities of thinking in English patterns. In addition, the New Curriculum requires that writing is one of the language skills students must grasp. At first some of them were not even able to write a complete sentence. Their articles were piled with many disordered words. Their sentences were like the following:


Even though it was hard for me to correct their writing, I still made corrections carefully and added some encouraging words like these:


"I can understand your article very well. Don't worry about it, I can help you improve your writing if you would like to keep on!" "Your handwriting is so beautiful! Hope your essay is as beautiful as your handwriting." "I've never read such an interesting story!"


Although my comments were so ordinary, I believe they really influenced my students deeply. For example, they were able to finish their homework on time, and some students even wrote "Thank you " (from Zhao Xiaohong) at the end of my comments, which showed that they cared about teacher's remarks.


Daily-report and group discussion

I was anxious to motivate my students to speak English in class so that they could get rid of the dumb English. I told students to prepare a short report in turn. Before I gave them the class, I would assign one student to do a daily-report. Let's take one student's report as an example. The girl whose name is Zhang Rui told us a story about the theft happening on the bus. After her report, students asked such questions:


Such a method could really motivate students' participation in class. They asked questions voluntarily, and with my help, the reporter answered their questions successfully. Her answers were the following:

"No, it is not a real one."

"No, never!" 


As for group-discussion, I designed a topic related to the text or some contemporary issues before explaining the text, then divided students into several groups to discuss. Usually each group appointed one person as a representative to show their opinions on the platform. (They could not choose same person each time.) Students who performed on the platform constantly received teacher's praise and classmates' applause, which made them more confident. The New Curriculum requires that students are encouraged to experience the language, participate in discussion and negotiation activities, and the speaking is also one basic skill students must grasp.



The New Curriculum targets stress the significance of students’ interests, confidence, and participation. In order to build up students' interest in learning English, especially understanding of the text, I told them to make a performance according to the text we've learned before. After class, they had to make a full preparation for it. Not only did they make-up dialogues but they also kept them in their minds. In this case, a very long and difficult text became simple dialogues. If it was in the next class that they would do a performance, students usually made a proper setting before class for the purpose that they had enough space to show their performances. Every time I watched their performances, I was touched by their elaborate preparation. They even recorded the warning sounds and made some props by hand. That's why their performances were so vivid and wonderful, which were much better than I had expected. Gradually more and more students participated in this activity.


The appeal of marks (ways to remember words)

Students were always complaining that nothing was more difficult than reciting new words in English. I made an investigation among them. My question was "What's your main purpose of learning English?" I found that 80% students wrote "passing examination". In other words, most students were concerned about their marks in examinations, which could force them to learn new words by heart. As soon as I completed one unit, I would give them a quiz about new words. Everyone had to prepare for it, because I would appoint any student to write words on the blackboard, giving them marks face to face. In the New Curriculum, the evaluation should be designed and administrated to encourage the learners rather to frustrate them. It should be carried out in terms of what students can do rather than what they cannot do. Therefore, I usually read different words to different students. Students who were good at memorisation wrote more difficult words than those who were slow in learning English. Gradually, because of increasing self-esteem and the appeal of high marks, students consciously started to remember more words; some students even rushed to the blackboard to get high marks, such as Zhang Rui, Zhu Chao, Chen Chunyan, and Liu Liang. To my delight the method turned out to be effective in the Mid-term examination, in which word dictation counted for 30%. The result was that six students got full marks; ten students' scores were between twenty and thirty; the others' scores were between ten and twenty.


After having put all these into practice, I found that my students no longer kept silent in class. They gave active responses to my questions and participated in discussion enthusiastically. Sometimes they even stood up and showed their opinions half in English and half in Chinese. For instance, there was one time when we were learning the text about "Trends for the 21st century". I confined their topics to population, food production, energy, and health; moreover, they were allowed to imagine any possibilities that might happen in the 21st century. As they talked about these topics, their views became quite interesting. For instance, Liu Liang's views on health:


 "In the future we do not need any doctor, a kind of machine can directly diagnose our diseases."


Speaking of energy and population, Zhang Guoyong said:


"The cars in the future are made from waste paper and driven by a computer, so we can have our breakfast and read newspaper into the car. With the increase of population in China there is no enough space for us to live in. Thus, living on the moon and 'haidi' is the best solution to it." (He did not know how to say 'haidi' – ‘sea-bed’ in English.)


Gradually, they were no longer timid and scared of losing face while answering questions. During this process, I chose three students at different levels of proficiency as the participants--these are the people who were going to be part of my research project. One of them, Zhang Wenbo, was probably the poorest and most silent student in this class. With my encouragement and help, he has changed a lot. Although it is still difficult for him to speak fluently, at least he began to read new words or answer questions voluntarily. (See later on for more evidence.)

What evidence could I produce to show my actions were influencing my situation?

I collected a great deal of data during my project, not only the raw data relating to activities, but also feedback from a variety of sources. My data-gathering techniques included the following:


1. Students' self-evaluation report

At the end of the term, I required my students to write a short report about their English learning. My question was "What have I learned in my English class this term?" I chose three students' reports. (They are my research foci.) Their reports included these comments:


"In my heart I felt Miss Wang taught us very well. First of all, her pronunciation influenced me so much that I gradually improved my oral speaking and listening... Although it is still difficult for me to understand the whole text thoroughly, I begin to take great interest in learning English since Miss Wang have taught us..." (Comments from Zhang Wenbo)


"Before I came to the college, I learned English by rote, so learning English was a heavy burden for me, and I learned it passively. After I came to college, college English was totally different from high-school English. At first, in English class my English teacher Miss Wang talked with us in simple English. Her teaching method completely broke up the traditional one-'Dumb English. Secondly, before we were going to learn a new text, she often gave us some topics related to the text, which not only made us develop our imagination bravely but also provided a good chance for us to communicate. Thirdly, to consolidate and deepen the understanding to the text, she also organized us to make up short play so that a long and boring text became a vivid and interesting play, so we had deep impression on each text. Therefore I have learned English easily and relaxed for a whole year and I've made much progress in English reading, writing, speaking and listening. English is no longer a burden for me; on the contrary I 'm eager to learn it every day."(Comments for Wang Huiyuan)


2. Colleague's comments

Colleague Liu visited my class. Comments from him were these: "The students were more active than any other classes. Some of them had an excellent pronunciation and their dialogue was almost perfect. Teacher's guidance was proper and teaching methods were suitable to those students. In all, this class showed high involvement and participation."


3. Students' E-mails

I received my students' E-mails after I put an end to my research. Maybe their words can have some significance here. Remarks from Li Chengmei:


"I almost did not learn English in high school so that my English was so poor. At the beginning of the last term I still disliked English, but I liked your character--lovely and active. I began to like English under your influence. I said to myself, ' There is no reason for me not to learn English well because of such a good teacher.' Now I spend much time learning English and I will never give it up. " Another comments from Zhao Xiaohong: " Thank you for your teaching us so well. I like English very much, but I can't study it well. Can you help me?"


What conclusion can I draw from my evidence?

I believe that what I have done really contributed to an enhanced learning experience for the students and for myself. Through my research I was able to evaluate the students' learning and my teaching. I believe I encouraged and motivated my students to learn English willingly and voluntarily so that they could reflect critically on their own work, and make decisions how to learn and improve their English.  As it says in the New Curriculum, new learning strategies should be incorporated into the language curriculum so that students can become autonomous learners, which is fundamental for life-long learning. 


For myself, I have moved from a position of judging my work in terms of testing to assessing it as a form of praxis--Praxis is informed, committed action that gives rise to knowledge rather than just successful action. (McNiff, 2002) I judge my practice in terms of whether I am fulfilling my values of teaching and voluntary learning. Students’ interest and confidence play a critical role in their learning and teacher's teaching. I think all these aspects are evident in my work as it impacts on the quality of learning of the students.


The research has also raised interesting new questions for me, such as

ŠHow do I improve students techniques of grasping the main ideas in the paragraphs so that they could understand the text effectively?


This question becomes the beginning of new action enquiries. Now that I am on my learning journey, there is no stopping me.


In short, action research spurs me to reflect on my previous teaching thoroughly and acquire some understanding of teaching and learning. Teaching is concerned not only teaching but also learning, and the methods put into the class are not constant but pliable. Now I firmly believe that teaching is much like a flowing river. If the water in the river cannot flow, it will fester. Teaching is like this. Teaching methods should be changed with the circumstances. Otherwise teaching is a dead river, which will dry up gradually. In addition, the evaluations on teachers' work should be based not on how much the teacher has taught but on how much the students have learned. As for students' learning, especially foreign language learning, their confidence and interest have unforeseeable effects on it. As the saying goes: "Failure is the mother of invention." If it possible, I would like to say, "Interest is the father of success."


The New Curriculum says that language leaning is most effective when students’ interest, motivation and attitudes are taken into consideration. This is what I have found too. Anyhow, I now believe that action research can help everyone reflect on their actions critically and enhance their professional development.



McNiff, J., with Whitehead, J., (2002), Action Research: Principles and Practice, Routledge, London and New York

McNiff, J., Lomax, P., Whitehead, J.,(1996), You and Your Research Project, Hyde Publications, Dorset, U.K.

Petty, G., (2001), Teaching Today, Nelson Thornes Ltd, U.K.

Richard, C. Jack, and Rodgers, Theodores S. (1989), Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching, Syndicate of the University of Cambridge