How can I improve my students' participation in class for non-English majors so that they have more interest in learning English?... A case study of AR into college English by Wang Ying, Chinas Experimental Centre for Educational Action Research, Guyuan Teachers College.


My context:

When I was in the Junior school, I admired my English teacher very much for his excellent oral speaking and rich knowledge. 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 enrolled in Ningxia University in what I had hoped - majoring in English teaching. During the course of my studying in University, I made great effort to catch every minute to listen to my excellent teachers' lectures. I was very grateful for God's blessing that He can send such good teachers for us. All my teachers were diligent, strict and knowledgeable, and they imparted their knowledge to their students as fully as they were able. 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 spent almost all my time learning English. Consequently I was granted several awards, which made me feel my hard-work was worthwhile.


After graduation, I came to Guyuan Teachers' College and became a college teacher. I was assigned to teach College English for the first two years. Because I had been deeply influenced by my teachers, I still believed that good teachers were those who passed on all their knowledge to the students as empty vessels. However, I gradually found that I was restricting my students' imagination and initiative in learning English when imitating my teachers' teaching patterns. Their performances in class showed that they were learning English mechanically and passively but not actively.


Just at this time I began to know about Action Research under Moira Laidlaw's guidance, which would be capable of helping 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 (Jean McNiff, 1992). 


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? (Jack Whitehead, 1986)

The theory was so convincing that I believed 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 lessons and taught my students what I had learned as much as I could. However I worked very hard only to find my failure in class. Students' silence, poor speaking and writing ruled in each class in which I did not see their uniqueness and their backgrounds as unique. (See later on for question.)


Why am I concerned?

I've often felt frustrated and disappointed in myself after finishing my English class. During the whole class, most students just kept silent and acted as my audience. They seldom spoke English or raised their hands to answer teacher's 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 that I had to reflect on my teaching by asking following questions:


Did I pay more attention to my students while giving a class?

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

Did 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 English class more fully. There were two main reasons for their non-participations:


             one was that some students had lost their interest in learning English when they were in high school,

and the other was:

             others lost heart in learning English due to their poor rudimentary knowledge.


I've realized that if I continued teaching them like this, I would lose my educational values. In the future, and my students might not say "Hello" to anyone in English, for they just learned "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 my students' participation in class for non-English majors so that they have more interest in learning English?"


What could I do?

Stephen Kemmis and Robin McTaggart, 1992, 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 the specific actions. The following points are what I have done:


Changing my role

After my survey, I've discovered a lot about my students, especially their psychological aspects. Either because of their boredom or because of a lack of hope, students feared to lose face. Under such conditions, if the teacher were too strict and serious, they would have lost their confidence, let alone voluntarily participate. Considering this, I always 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've realized that teacher's words and actions influence students very much. My students make jokes with me sometimes, which has 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?" (According to Chinese tradition, it was wives not husbands who did the cooking, which showed that men had a high status in the family.)


Hearing his words, my whole class burst into laughter. As a result, I really started to build a good relationship with my students. One girl wrote to me:


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


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 an English article, which could improve their abilities of thinking in English patterns. At first some of them were not even able to write a complete sentence. Their articles were loaded with many words. Their sentences were always like the following:


"He very love me."

"You go to see watching TV, I cooking."  

"My father is farmer, but his how to do man can influence my all the living."


  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 with it!"

"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 could finish their homework on time, and some students even wrote "Thank you " (Zhao Xiaohong) at the end of my comments, which showed that they cared about their 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 their stumbling English. I told my 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 a theft happening on the bus. After her report, students asked such questions as:


"Is your story a real one?"

"Has it ever happened to you?"

"If you meet one thief on the bus, what will you do?"

"How do you think of it?" 


Such a method could really motivate my 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.



In order to build students' interest in learning English, especially I an understanding of the text, I told them to make a performance according to the text we'd learned before. After class, they had to make a full preparation for it. Not only did they make-up dialogues but they also learnt them by heart. In this case a very long and difficult text became simple dialogues. If it was in that 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.


Marks' appeal (way to remember words)

Students were always complaining that nothing was more difficult than reciting new words in leaning 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 the 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. Usually I read different words to different students. Students who were good at memory wrote more difficult words than those who were slow in learning English. Owing to their self-esteem and marks' appeal, students consciously remembered 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 enjoyment 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 I had 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, the 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 21st century. When they talked about these topics, their views were 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 the 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 not 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' (bottom of the sea) in English) At last they were no longer timid and scared of losing face while answering questions.


During this process, I chose three students at different levels of ability as the participants - these are the people who are going to be part of my research project (Jean McNiff, 1992). 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.


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 reflective comments 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 is "What have I learned in my English class this term?" I chose three students' reports, of those who participated in my research. 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 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 easely 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."(comment for Wang Huiyuan)


2.  Colleague's comments

Colleague Liu visited my class. Comments from him:


"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 comment 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 did 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, make decisions how to learn and improve their English.


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). 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:


How 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 has spurred me to reflect on my previous teaching thoroughly and acquire some understanding of teaching and learning. Teaching is a concern not only to teachers but also to students, and the methods put into the class are not constant but pliable. The evaluations on teachers' work are not based 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 an almost unaccountable effect on it.


As the saying goes: "Failure is the mother of success." I think I can say, "Interest is the father of success." Anyhow, action research can help everyone reflect on their actions critically and improve  their professional development effectively.



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

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

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

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