Reflections on Finding My Research Focus as a New PGR
Making decisions on the correct methodology for your research project can be daunting, particularly when you are still in the process of refining your research question. Dangeni, a first year PGR in the School of Education, takes us through her first few months of finding her way with a challenging topic.
My research focus is on Chinese TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) learners in UK universities, and my interests include teacher education, student engagement, and academic acculturation of international students.
Starting my PhD journey from September, I have attended several sessions on research methods while reading relevant literature about my research focus. My research topic comes from my personal experience as a TESOL learner in my Master’s study. During that time, I saw myself more as a learner rather than a pre-service teacher, and I was not exactly sure how to implement what I was learning towards my future career. But my previous working experience made me reflect critically on how the TESOL programme can help me implement theory into practice. It made me think about how the programme can help my own career in a Chinese context and also the way in which my thinking changed from a TESOL learner to a language teacher.
One really important aspect of any PhD project is the research methodology. This is the blueprint for my research project so it is really important for me to get it right. I will have to spend a lot of time reading and carefully considering my methodological approach. This involves reflecting on the philosophical underpinnings, the research design, the sampling, data collection and analysis, and the ethical considerations throughout the research phase. To help with this task I am taking courses provided by the Graduate School of Social Science such as Applied Qualitative Methods and The Introduction of Social Theory, which will help me learn more about the development of my research design.
In order to narrow down my research focus of understanding what is going on among the Chinese learners in the TESOL programme, I wanted to observe real classrooms and see the learners’ performance and their engagement. Through getting permission from the programme organiser and relevant lecturers, I was allowed to join the MSc TESOL programme at Glasgow to conduct an informal observation in one linguistics-related lecture and the follow-up workshops for two weeks. My main focus was on Chinese learners’ engagement and their cognitive development. My supervisors were very encouraging and they have kindly offered to help during my observation sessions. Even though I have only observed a few sessions due to the time limit and busy schedule, these informal observations have been very helpful for narrowing down my research focus and clarifying what I really want to know. They have also led me to reconsider some of the things I had read from the literature.
The first thing I began thinking about was class engagement among TESOL students. I noticed that Chinese learners are ‘less engaged’ during class time compared with their peers from other cultural backgrounds, in terms of raising questions for clarifications and taking notes when key terms were mentioned by the lecturers. There are some possible explanations for their behaviour; it could be their insufficient linguistic competence limits their willingness to express; it might be the influence of Chinese or Confucius culture, that learners have to respect the teacher and always listen to the teacher’s talk. This made me think about the literature I had been reading and how it was relating to what I was seeing in the classroom. To narrow my research focus I began thinking about the factors that have an impact on engagement: cultural background, language competence, or understanding of the topic.
Another observation that made me think about how I was going to approach my research was the realization that many of the TESOL learners were using Chinese during class to communicate information about the tasks. This is because the number of Chinese learners makes almost half of the learners in the lectures and workshops I attended. I would have to be careful when designing my study to reflect this distribution. In terms of the data collection phase, the language used in interview sessions will be carefully chosen.
After these initial observations, I realized that what I had observed is purely the students’ performance in the classrooms, i.e. the behavioural engagement from learners. The affective and cognitive engagement which asks for feelings and sense-making cannot be easily observed from the classroom. What I need is to search for and consider methods which can listen to learners’ voices about every aspect of their engagement. Additionally, what I really want to know is how their engagement helps their cognitive development in becoming a second language teacher; that is to say, instead of knowing what they are doing, I want to know how does their engagement influence the teacher cognition in a more in-depth way. By visiting the classes I managed to refine my research interest and guide my literature search and I am now reviewing literature in a new area.