Using data to improve learning

Ishita Ghoshal

A teacher always plans a lesson but hardly records her students’ experiences, her own experience of the lesson or the learning that occurred for both. A teacher is trained to structure and plan her class, but is not often trained to reflect whether her lesson plan has met its objectives and if it didn’t why it didn’t. It is common practice among teachers to think about the quantitative outcome of learning but reflecting upon one’s plan, methods, practices, environment, reasons for variations in expectations and outcome and other micro dynamics of teaching learning is almost never done.

Action research is a tool that can aid the teacher in enhancing her reflective practices. It gives the teacher evidence of learning patterns, learning attitudes, gaps in learning and empowers her to use fact-based data to drive, explore and experiment to improve or innovate upon these patterns. Let me illustrate this with an example from my own experience.

Even in high school we often find that students’ writing skills leave a lot to be desired. Sentence structure, grammar and expression are inappropriately used in writing. My class was no different.

We form opinions reading students’ work and make judgments or suggestions to improve their writing based on popular generic practices and beliefs. For instance, when a student’s writing is poor a teacher will say that he/she does not read enough, needs to think in English to write well, must increase vocabulary, share answers or writings of students who have better skills, etc. But none of these practices has been specifically diagnosed as the cause of a child’s poor writing skill. Hence, I chose to first understand why my students weren’t writing as well as they should have been. But before I concluded that this was the problem, I collected samples of their writings in other subjects, asked what other teachers and the students themselves thought about their language skills.

After my one-on-one conversations with my students and other teachers, I found that the students lacked appropriate vocabulary and expression to write. The reason was that they didn’t know enough to express.

Further data collection revealed the root cause to be lack of quality reading, since the students had never been exposed to the varied language nuances enough through reading to know their usage and functions in different kind of situations and contexts. Reading exposes students to how words can be used in a variety of sentences and to emote or express various moods. Fine expressions in written language can only develop through reading. This introspection was done using the data collected to understand the causes leading to poor writing skills in students. Data based analysis was then followed by a phased intervention to help improve reading. Based on my additional research on how reading can improve writing, we also analyzed all the good material we were reading so that the students could imbibe good writing techniques.

Students now started reviewing their writing pieces progressively and also moved from one technique to another as well as tried their hand at different genres. Over a period of 7-8 months students showed an inclination to read and developed an attitude to challenge their own writing each time.

Had I not bothered to find the cause of poor writing, I would have assumed that my students didn’t know how to write. Based on this assumption, I would have asked them to think in English, refer the thesaurus for more words and expressions of similar kinds, practice writing more and would have left the students struggling to write. Such judgment would not have given specific and corrective results.

This is how action research can help identify and resolve an issue in teaching-learning practices and bring improvement consistently and permanently.

The author teaches English and is Principal, Kothari International School, Pune. She can be reached at

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