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3 Guidelines for writing small research papers and a sample study

You receive the following document on your Research Methodology class and this is how you are expected to structure your research papers for your seminars. These are all papers that you may later on include in your teaching portfolio.

The following guideline was written by Marianne Nikolov (2011), as part of the document entitled Guidelines (1.3) for MA in TEFL students on how to design and implement an empirical study, how to analyze data and how to structure and write up research papers and a thesis.

Read the guideline carefully, bearing in mind that it was written for a specific seminar (Research Methology) and its aim is to help course participants write a research proposal only. This means that on seminars when you are expected to write an empirical study, these guidelines should be followed with a view to what your new aim is. For example, in your research paper it you will write about the research you already carried out instead of merely presenting a plan of your research (as required below).

Guidelines for writing small research papers

Structure to follow in a short research paper

Author's name:

Programme: MA in TEFL

Academic year:



Title of paper:



The focus and the aim of the paper

(Write 1 paragraph on what it is about and why.)


A short literature review on the topic

(Write 3-4 paragraphs in your research proposal [RP]; 3-4 pages in the paper, on what other authors have found out about your topic. You must refer to others' papers/chapters by using APA (Author, year, p. x). Make sure you cite between 3-5 sources related to the focus of your research.)


The context of research

(Write a paragraph about the school, class, etc. with exact name and location, or titles or sources of texts.)


Research questions

(Ask specific [wh] questions you want to find answers to by implementing your study.)


Participants (or materials)

(Describe who/what you work with.)


Data collection instrument (s)

(Choose from instruments we discussed in class, you read about in the book or in the texts relevant to your study, for example other studies.)



(Give a short narrative account of how you are planning to [in your RP] and how you went about collecting and analyzing your data in your study. Use future tense in RP and past tense in final paper.)



(Answer your research questions one by one based on the data you collected and analyzed. The research questions can serve as subheadings.)



(In this section relate your findings to the literature you read or to questions that you can relate to. The difference between this and the above section is that here you go beyond answering the specific research questions.)



(Sum up your main findings and conclude your paper in 2-3 paragraphs.)



(List all the sources of information you used in your research, but only the ones you cite in the text. In other words: all names you cite in the main text must be listed in the References section and vice versa. Here is an example from the text above.)

Dörnyei, Z. (2007). Research methods in applied linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


All seminar research papers and your thesis should follow the APA tradition. The easiest way of doing so is to read the APA manual (in coospace) and published articles in journals using APA (e.g., Language Learning, Modern Language Journal, find sample copies on the internet). Also, please consult TESOL Quarterly Guidelines in Coospace.



(Include all materials you used in your study: data collection instruments, transcribed data, teaching materials etc.)

Nikolov, M. (2011). Guidelines (1.3) for MA in TEFL students on how to design and implement an empirical study, how to analyze data and how to structure and write up research papers and a thesis



Sample study

This section of the document will take you through a sample study. While reading it, keep in mind the required structure for your research papers, as suggested in the guideline above.

Every now and then you will find that the text is interrupted for the sake of involving you into a dialogue. This will help you develop critical thinking about the studies that you read and write.

"I will think about this...."

A case study with a lower-primary school teacher of English


The following study grew out of the need to change a teacher's practice. When it comes to the need to introduce changes in the teaching-learning process, action research is the most appropriate means of research. As you will see, in the action research below, small changes were gradually implemented and observed, for the benefit of the young learners involved, their teacher, and the researcher.

The context and the aim of the study

In this article I will report on the preliminary findings of a case study which started as a rather annoying experience. Four times a week, my elder daughter (aged 10) attended her compulsory English lessons. This meant that four times a week I received first-hand information about what was going on in primary EFL education in a prestigious primary school in Pécs (Hungary). Informal feedback gained from other pupils and parents also came down to the same point: the teacher appeared to be in need of materials and teaching techniques for young learners.

After having observed the teacher's lesson on an open-day, when parents were welcome to visit lessons, I concluded that my informants had all the reasons to worry: the teacher did not succeed in keeping the children interested, nor did the materials and the techniques used appear to scaffold learners' foreign language development. It was then that I decided to examine how the teacher's beliefs and practice relate, and to think about the most appropriate support she could receive in her professional development.

The aim of the study was therefore, to uncover the teacher's beliefs about teaching and learning, and to help her question her beliefs. I intended to accomplish this by involving the teacher into professional discussions, and also by involving her into what I thought would be motivating activities for children, namely: using authentic picture books in her classes. I hoped that by gaining more articulate knowledge of her own practice, the teacher would be able to provide more conscious support for young learners in the long run. In this article I will only focus on findings related to the teacher's beliefs about teaching and learning, and the process of slow change that these beliefs started undergoing.


The majority of the children participating in the study come from well-educated, supportive homes, where both staff and parents are supportive of any experiments the teachers might want to undertake. The school also places considerable emphasis on art education, as well as on instilling traditional values in children and nurturing a spirit of cooperation.

In terms of foreign language education, the school had voluntarily adopted a program originally developed for adults, and therefore hardly appropriate for children either in terms of content or methodology. The coursebook contains rather abstract dialogues organized around grammatical structures. In the lessons the children first listen to the dialogues, then read out the projected text along with the tape, and finally read a word by word translation of the text, which is also provided by the course-book. The school sticks to this programme for teaching English, German and French, despite pupils' and parents' obvious dissatisfaction and the lack of success in the long run.

Vera is a young lower-primary school teacher specialized in English. At the time of the study she had been teaching in this school for two years, and according to informal feedback gained from pupils and parents, she was not a popular teacher at all. To get a more suggestive picture of the teacher at work, I will briefly describe the lesson I observed on the open day. The lesson started with a warm-up in which most learners took turns: the teacher said a word in Hungarian, while throwing a plush animal to a pupil, who was supposed to say the word in English. Next, the children listened to a course-book dialogue and read it out loudly in chorus along with the tape. After each English sentence they also read out the Hungarian translation, which was projected on the board. Most of the time it seemed that the pupils did not understand what they were reading and repeating. Finally, the 45-minute lesson was concluded by the children playing "What's the time, Mr. Wolf?" for fifteen minutes in the schoolyard. Apart from listening to the tape, in these 45 minutes, the children hardly had the opportunity to hear the target language, let alone hearing it in a motivating and memorable context. The teacher did not use the target language herself, and even the simplest commands were in the first language.


We will now stop for a while so that you have the chance to think over a few questions before reading on the study:


Think about it:

1. Ask research questions which are in line with the aim of the study. (Make sure you ask open questions and ones that can be answered in this context.)

2. How would you collect data in order to find answers to your research questions? Name at least three data collection instruments that seem suitable in this context and explain why.

3. Why do you need more than one data collection instrument in this case?

4. How would you go about organizing and carrying out this research? (i.e. Procedures)

5. What are the ethical considerations that you must keep in mind in this context?

6. In this extract, we have not included the literature review. When you have read the whole study, you will be asked to think about the underlying theoretical assuptions. What would you include in the literature review of this study?



Data collection instruments

In collecting data for the study I relied on classroom observation, and evidence gained from children and children's notebooks. I also had access to the teacher's ideas through informal discussions and through a semi-structured interview I carried out with her in May 2008. The interview was recorded, then transcribed and analyzed together with the notes taken after classroom observation and after our informal discussions.


Partly because art education was highly valued in the school, and partly because of my beliefs in the power of good stories, I believed that one of the ways to promote good practice was to involve Vera in using authentic English picture books on a regular basis. Studies on using authentic picture books in primary language education (Elley, 1989, Jones Mourao, 2006). support the benefits of these books for children's language and literacy development, for group dynamics and for teachers' professional growth. The latter being a sensitive issue, I knew I had to be careful about wording my aims to the participant teacher. Therefore, I asked permission to experiment with picture books in her lessons with one group: I requested a 10-15 minute time-slot when I would share picture books with the children, and occasionally involve them in follow-up tasks. While one of the aims was to increase children's motivation and create positive attitudes, my hidden agenda was also to increase the teacher's motivation and encourage her to develop more awareness as to the needs of young learners.


I started using picture books in Vera's class in March 2008. The initial three weekly sessions were reduced in the following school year (2009) to one or two per week. After using the books in the experimental group, Vera regularly borrowed them so that she could use them in other classes, too. I also lent her with methodology books containing teaching tips for young learners. On our several informal meetings we also had the chance to talk over professional matters in a fairly informal manner.


You will now read about the findings of the study. When you get to this point in your own research paper, it is important to keep in mind the research questions you asked and to organize your discussion in line with those questions. Resist the temptation to tell a linear narrative of what happened at which point and why. Rather, think in terms of the main ideas that emerged. Therefore, read your research questions and read your data. Which are the main ideas that emerge from the data? How do they match your research questions? Is there anything else that also came up, although you never even thought of it at the time of planning your research? Where are you going to fit those issues? The process of organizing your data in a way that they match your research questions may take some thinking and some time, but it is nothing you can't cope with at this stage.

Another thing to remember is that it makes it easier for the audience to read an academic piece of writing if it is clearly organized in paragraphs and if there is an indication at the beginning of each section of what the coming section is about. Therefore, you may use expressions like: "In this section I discuss...". You will also find this introductory summary helpful as a writer: whenever you get stuck with your writing , look at what you had in mind at the beginning and go through all the points you promised you would touch upon.

Finally, make sure you make links to the underlying theories discussed in your literature review. This will contextualize your findings and show your audience that you have a clear understanding of the theoretical issues involved in apparently minor classroom events.


Discussion of findings

In what follows I will discuss preliminary findings of the study related to the participant teacher's beliefs and practice. Based on data gained from classroom observation, from the interview and from children's feedback, I will examine Vera's practice in the light of her learning experiences as an EFL learner, a trainee, and as an in-service teacher. I will particularly focus on how experiences gathered in the teacher training college shaped her practice, and I will also point out implications for teacher education. Finally, I will touch upon the changes that have emerged in Vera's practice since the beginning of the project, and draw conclusions.

"Boring but useful"

What I have witnessed out of Vera's practice (through observation and through data collected from children) suggests that she lacked a repertoire of appropriate techniques and materials for young learners. Therefore, in the interview I decided to ask her about the areas I thought she relied on as models for her teaching: I inquired about her own experiences as an EFL learner, about the role of the lower primary teacher training college in shaping her practice, and about any other potential sources for beliefs, such as colleagues.

"Boring, but useful" was the way Vera described her English lessons in secondary school. She claimed that the only memorable and positive experiences during these four years were songs and listening activities, which she liked, but interestingly, does not implement in her lessons now. The "boring, but useful" belief is one that pervades her own primary school practice, as suggested by classroom observation and by her claim that "there are certain tasks, however boring, that you have to do in the lesson even as a young learner .... such as translation, learning the words...."

She claimed that her experience as an au-pair in the US (3 years) was useful in that it gave her the chance to pick up language in context a lot faster and more easily than at school, but she also thought she could have done without it: "One can learn English well enough at school. This is how we all did it, after all." Although she highlighted the positive side of picking up language in a natural and meaningful context, neither classroom observation, nor feedback gained from children suggested that what was going on in her classes appropriated natural conditions for language acquisition. The activities she used with 10 year-olds were in tune with her own learning experiences, and with the educational tradition she had been socialized into: they were predominantly form-focused, including translation, repetition drills and reading aloud. As far as she could remember, this is how she was taught herself, and she felt "she did it."



"It was all very useful ... I don't remember anything:" Reflections on teacher training

Vera's reflections on her experiences gained in the teacher training college turned out to be among the most controversial parts of the study. While at the beginning of the interview Vera referred to the education received in the lower primary teacher training college as very useful, she could not recollect anything that she felt truly significant in her education as a teacher of English: "It was all very useful, very useful. ... For example, we learned a lot of interesting things about literature. Don't ask me what, because I don't remember anything."

Far from doubting the experience of "usefulness" that she cherished in connection with her years of study, the lapse in memory she displayed still suggests that the courses Vera attended at her teacher training college did not offer memorable input. This is reinforced by her evocation of her methodology courses, : "Yes, the methodology classes were also very useful... well, actually, they were good then, but now I don't know... No, I can't recall anything...For example, we had a subject called Classroom organization where we talked about seating arrangement... Then there were the teaching methods... you know, the kind of methods you can use in teaching. That was interesting, but even then I felt this was not enough ... it didn't teach me how to teach. So there's nothing left of them now."

The extracts above seem to reveal a lot about Vera's education as a pre-service teacher, and interestingly, they do so by the lack of information they offer. Vera could only vaguely evoke the content of her studies. Up to a certain point she kept maintaining that it had all been very useful, but when it came to giving concrete examples, she appeared lost. What she could recollect were some of the titles and main topics dealt with during her courses. One of the possible explanations to the fact that she remembered only disconnected bits from her fairly recent training might be that most knowledge she received was not appropriately contextualized. Child psychologist Margaret Donaldson (1987) talks about embededness as a key notion in successful education: we understand and retain information embedded in a context that makes sense to us. In the interview Vera repeatedly claimed that in her classroom practice she could not rely on what she heard on theoretical courses. Referring to a course in psychology, she commented: "it didn't really link to what we were supposed to know about real life in classrooms." A very similar comment was made when she talked about her ELT methods course, which she found interesting, but not really helpful in practical terms ("... it didn't teach me how to teach").



Vera did not sound convinced of the dynamic interaction between theory and practice. Apparently, her training failed to make her see how theory and practice continuously inform each other in the classroom setting. Studies dealing with in-service teachers' beliefs and practice in Hungary imply that teachers fail to integrate into their daily practice the theoretical knowledge received at universities and training colleges (Lugossy, 2006; Nikolov, 2002). Thus, even in the cases when they are familiar with the relevant psychological and linguistic theories, most teachers tend to teach the way they were taught, without examining whether their routines are in tune with the theories they at times explicitly believe in. These findings highlight the role of teacher education programmes in promoting a dynamic view of pedagogical knowledge, one which is constructed from insights into theory and practice alike. One of the ways to achieve this is by embedding relevant theories into trainees' personal learning experiences, and raising awareness of the principles that underlie certain choices in the classroom.

"As a matter of fact, we did not get any answers:" Teacher training revisited

It is interesting to note that although she started assessing her methodology training on a fairly positive note, Vera gradually allowed herself to shift from her apparent satisfaction and unquestioning attitude into a more critical stance. After the first sign of criticism (i.e. "... I felt this was not enough ... it didn't teach me how to teach"), she also commmented on the futility of certain tasks that were considered important in the training programme, such as trainees having to write quasi-fictitious lesson-plans for the lessons they were going to teach: "And then the lesson-plan.... that was killing me. We had to write down the questions we were going to ask and the answers we were supposed to get... But how was I to know the kind of answers children would give me? They are all different."

Finally, she concluded her memories about the value of EFL methodology training by stating: "as a matter of fact, we did not get any answers." This is a bold statement from someone who, not long before sounded fairly happy with her courses. By the end of her narrative, though, she grew more aware that her college education and her life in the classroom were on two separate levels, instead of being part of the same relational and integrated process of her learning to be a teacher. Even worse than not getting any answers seemed to be the fact would-be teachers were not socialized into the culture of asking questions related to their professional lives, including the belief systems which had shaped their practice. This also implies that they were not given the tools to change their age-old assumptions about teaching and learning and to adapt new theory to their teaching contexts. Thus, they could hardly believe that their development was in their own hands.


Vera's recall of her pre-service experiences highlights another important finding, which relates to the role of teachers' professional narratives in developing teacher cognition. While she was unfolding the story of her education, Vera appeared to gain a more detached view and a more complex understanding of past events that she could now relate to her professional practice. This is in light with the schemata theory, which claims that we construct an understanding of the world based on narrative patterns (Schank & Abelson, 1995).

Vera: the in-service teacher

As an in-service teacher of English, Vera's beliefs and practice had been predominantly shaped by colleagues ("When I didn't know something I asked my colleagues...") and, as discussed before, by her earlier experiences as a learner of English. In the interview she also recalled a video film on teaching English to young learners, which she liked due to the naturalness of the approach, and which had a short-lived impact on her beliefs: "I used to think that the best way to teach children is to have a huge carpet, with children sitting and standing and hopping all around, chanting rhymes, playing games, ... we tell stories. This is what I saw on a video..." However, she chose to reframe these beliefs in order to match the expectations of her environment: "I still think that's important, but it's also important for them to know that they [i.e. the pupils] are on the lesson and not in a play-house... otherwise there would be a huge contrast between English and the other school subjects."

The pedagogy presented on the video was obviously very different from Vera's experiences of teaching and learning in any school subject in terms of teaching techniques, teacher and pupil roles, seating arrangement, and materials used. Although she liked the atmosphere and activities on the video, she most probably could not integrate these teaching tips into a coherent theoretical framework, and could not have argued why chanting, hopping and telling stories in the young learner classroom made sense in the long run. Therefore, she felt the need to resort to teaching methods she was familiar with either from her own experience as a learner, or from her colleagues' practice.



The issue of discipline seemed to be one of Vera's main concerns in connection with using non-traditional techniques. This is also apparent from the negative overtone with which she used the "play-house" metaphor in order to refer to a classroom which may involve less teacher control and a higher level of noise than traditional classrooms. Vera's fear of not being in control as a young teacher was made more explicit when she referred to the other school subjects as the norm against which she should compare her EFL practice, thus implying the dangers of doing something in a different fashion. When asked about what she meant by the "huge contrast between English and the other school subjects" and why this should be a problem, she pointed out that in Hungary pupils were used to lessons being more controlled, while a too democratic atmosphere in the English classes might cause discipline problems in the long run.

A point which was not articulated by the interviewee, but which may have contributed to her fear of "contrast," and which therefore kept her on the old path, was the lack of support from the environment. Classroom-based research, such as Nikolov's negotiation project in the young EFL class, reveals that both parents and colleagues take innovations in teaching with suspicion, and find too much autonomy on the learners's side unpleasant (Nikolov, 2000).

One of the conclusions that can be drawn from this case is that merely seeing examples of good practice is not enough for professional development.Empirical research on teacher cognition also reinforced that the shift in teachers' understanding does not occur through imposing new external resources, but by bringing into alignment teachers' underlying beliefs about teaching and learning with their explicit theories (Johnson, 2006; Johnson & Golombek, 2003). I have already pointed out the importance of relevant theoretical frameworks as well as a reflective view on knowledge. Vera's portrait of her pre-service years, as discussed earlier in this paper, suggests that while she certainly received theoretical knowledge, these theories were not linked to relevant practice. This may be one of the reasons why she could not benefit from the positive lessons from the video: without understanding the rationale behind the teaching techniques she saw, Vera was stuck at perceiving them as isolated bits of her craft, and as such, she did not seem convinced of their effectiveness in the long run. Instead, she chose to subdue to silent peer pressure.


An important part of the study refers to the changes that have occurred in Vera's classroom practice, as well as in her understanding of teaching and learning. Her first attempts to use the picture books were followed by enthusiastic reports on children's interest and the differences she perceived between how the groups reacted to the shared readings. Then she took to frequenting the local English teachers' resource centre library in order to borrow more picture books, which she regularly used in her lessons in all groups. Recently, she has also set up a small library in the English room. Finally, according to feedback gained from children: "sometimes she even talks in English" in her classes. No wonder that the pupils I have asked claim to find more pleasure in their English classes than before.

As said before, the regular informal professional discussions as well as the semi-structured interview gave me opportunities to see more deeply into Vera's ideas about teaching and learning. The discussions we had created a context for sharing and negotiating our understanding of education, in particular language and literacy development. Phrases like:


"This is true. Now that you put it like this... I guess it's true,"or: "...Yes, maybe.... I will think about this. Actually, this is all ongoing thinking...." revealed Vera as a teacher who was open to reflect on her previous ideas, and as someone who recognizes teaching as a profession which involves not only doing, but also thinking (Freeman, 1992). I need to add that it crossed my mind that Vera was this willing to accept my points due to the Hawthorne effect: she said what she thought she was expected to say. However, based on what I have seen out of her personality during our shared work, and on the changes in her practice, I prefer to see her as a teacher who is truly open to learning.


When you think you have discussed all the points that emerged from your data, it is time to conclude your study. You are not supposed to come up with new ideas in your conclusion. Think about your results and pull strings together so that readers have a clear understanding of what your findings are. By no means should you repeat word by word what you already wrote down before.

Add what you have learned: How did writing this study make you a better professional? Also write about the limitations of your study, adding how this opens the way to further research.

Think about it:

When reading the Conclusions below, identify the findings and the links to the general background theoretical.



The conclusions of this case study are manifold. On the first level they refer to teacher development, and suggest the need for teachers to take new challenges in their practice. Menacing as it may first seem, adopting new techniques and materials opens the way for teachers to rethink whether their current beliefs are in tune with their practice. This may eventually lead to changing some of their beliefs, and finally implement further changes in their teaching.

The study also brings evidence for the importance of teachers' working together. Vera's exposure to using authentic picture books and her gradual involvement in similar techniques helped her gain a new perspective on the opportunities she had in the young learner classroom. The innovations she introduced in her classes out of her own initiative (e.g. reading new books, setting up a small library where children could read when they finished a task) show that she also gained confidence, and did not mind taking risks, which is an essential element in implementing change. I also benefited from the shared work with Vera. First, because in her classes I had the privilege to share picture books with young EFL learners on a regular basis, with all the beauties and difficulties this may present for teachers. Also, as a teacher educator I benefited greatly from the professional discussions we had. These discussions allowed me insights into the ideas which had shaped Vera's practice, and challenged me to rethink and share my own understanding of teaching and learning. In this sense, the importance of a discourse community in constructing knowledge in dialogue has appeared crucial. This also links to the role of narratives in organising knowledge: stories of professional experience may help teachers to perceive apparently isolated phenomena in a broader perspective, and grow more conscious practitioners. By telling the stories of her learning and teaching, Vera attained a more complex and a more subtle understanding of what she had so far taken for granted.



The power of qualitative studies resides in gaining a more in-depth picture of human behaviours and socio-cultural patterns which underlie behaviours (Webster & Mertova, 2007), partly due to the fact that they involve few participants. This also implies that the findings are less concerned with generalizability (Mackey & Gass, 2005). This is sad, because it would be fortunate to have more teachers willing to examine their beliefs and practice and see professional development not as a burden, but rather as an opportunity to grow and become happier. On the other hand, if the findings that have emerged were generalisible, this would raise serious doubts concerning the effectiveness of time spent during formal teacher training.

However, as stated before, this study is by no means representative, and further research is necessary to uncover more general patterns in teacher development. But even this one case is disheartening enough to make teacher educators reflect on their beliefs and optimize their own practice.


Think about it:

As pointed out earlier, these extracts from the study do not contain the literature review. You are now asked to think about the underlying theoretical assumptions. What would you include in the literature review of this study?

Practical Steps for and Action Research

As a teacher you often find that you don't quite like the way things are going on in the classroom. Why not change? One of the easiest and most practical ways to start implementing change is to start with a small change at a time. Read the following Action Research Design is based on suggestions made by Griffee (2012) and think about how you can use it in your own teaching context.

Action research is small-scale investigation carried out by teachers. Its aim is to:

  • solve specific problems within a programme or community
  • professional development
  • curriculum development, future practice


What are the practical steps in developing your action research?

  1. Identify a problem, jot it down, consider what is involved
  2. Observe the class (keep a diary to document more exactly what is going on)
  3. Decide what action to take, brainstorm all possible solutions, experiment: try something different: „What happens when I ....?"
  4. Search the literature: How did others deal with the problem?
  5. Develop possible research questions; Are they specific enough? Can they be answered? Why?


You may find the following research questions useful when thinking about your own classroom context:

  • What kind of tasks do I use?
  • What happens when tasks are grammar /meaning focused?
  • How do tasks encourage students' questions?
  • What kind of questions do I ask? Yes-no? Wh-? (display vs. referential, genuine)
  • What is the content of my questions?(Study of language? People's / Students' lives?)
  • How long do I wait to get a response?
  • How do I treat errors?
  • When do students switch to L1? Why? How do I react?
  • When do I switch to L1? Why?




What are the advantages of an action research? Action research has a simple, easy-to-follow protocol and does not demand you to do anything that is an extra burden or that cannot be integrated in your daily teaching routine. You decide on the focus of your research because you are genuinely interested in why something happens the way it does in the class (e.g. What prevents Ss from talking?). You also collect data quite easily and naturally, by participant observation.

Finally, action research encourages teachers to reflect on their practice, to experiment and take risks. Therefore, it also empowers teachers, as they feel more in control of what happens in the class.

Now it is the time for you to reflect on your own class and come up with a problem or issue that you would like to solve. What are the issues involved? Formulate two research questions. And remember: „Small changes can have big consequences" (John Fanselow, 1987).