Friday, 10 April 2015

Action Research at the Fachhochschule Düsseldorf

The fourth issue of the BELTA Bulletin was published in the first half of March this year. Here is Rob and my column from the Winter issue of 2014.

On the Radar - Action Research at the Fachhochschule Düsseldorf

by Pete Rutherford and Rob Szabó

In the last column we spoke with Gareth Humphrey, Director of Studies at Marcus Evans Linguarama Düsseldorf, about the introduction of a radar chart model (previous BELTA Bulletin, p. 14-17) for visually representing the various aspects of communicative competence. He expressed a number of reservations regarding the practical applications of including socio-cultural capabilities alongside linguistic skills. This unease was echoed by others from human resources and psychology backgrounds. It seemed clear at that point that in order to gain wider acceptance of our model, we would need to conduct a series of real-world case studies testing their relevance and utility. Indeed, one of the reasons that Pete and I initially approached Vicky Loras at the BELTA Bulletin about writing this column was that we both felt that ongoing professional development and evidence-based practice was critical for the professional integrity of business English as a field. A simple and effective motor for this development is provided by the concept of action research.

Action research is a form of investigation designed for use by teachers to

attempt to solve problems and improve professional practices in their own
classrooms. It involves systematic observations and data collection which
can then be used by the practitioner-researcher in reflection, decision-making
and the development of more effective classroom strategies.
Parsons & Brown (2002)

With this in mind, we were only too happy to accept when we were invited by Erica Williams to work with the Bachelor of International Management (BIM) students at the Fachhochschule Düsseldorf (the Düsseldorf University of Applied Sciences). Erica had attended a talk that Pete gave at the University of Graz in Austria on using radar charts to represent communicative competence. She explained that she was interested in a session exploring what being a C1 speaker means in the corporate environment with specific focus on the responsibility of the non-native speaker for effective communication.

BIM students require a B2 level on the Common European Framework as a minimum to enter the course and have intensive English classes over 4 semesters with the 5th semester spent abroad. They are expected to reach C1 by completion. The module that we will be assisting with (Corporate Culture & Communication) is a new module in the 7th semester just before the students graduate. The CC module is designed to build awareness of corporate culture and to analyse how communication works or breaks down due to culture.

Our action research will follow a similar pattern to that which Kurt Lewin laid out in 1946.

Initial Reflection

In this stage we consider the real-world problem that we want to focus on. In this case, the issue is that pre-work students of business English often have an under-developed or vague sense of their own communicative competence in a corporate context. A lack of business experience makes it difficult for them to assess their own ability. This means that lecturers working at business schools can face a very different teaching experience to those training in-company. We were interested in how we could help pre-work students develop the accuracy of their self-evaluations regarding their communication skills in English, raising an interesting discussion around what we mean by this accuracy. Validity is a term often used in social sciences academia:

Validity in self-assessment typically means agreement with teacher judgments (considered to be the gold standard) or peer rankings (usually the mean of multiple judges which tend to be more accurate than the results from a single judge).

(Ross, 2006)


Now that we have established our objective, we must go on to define a strategy in the classroom. We have decided to use a lesson plan that employs blank radar charts that students fill in and present in groups. We will also be looking at different aspects of communication common within the working world and presenting common issues reported by our in-company students. We will be working with large groups and it is vital that we present a relevant and challenging session. To do this, we need to be clear in our practitioner-researcher roles. This is where the ethics of action research will be relevant.


What actually happens in the classroom will surely deviate from our imagined structure at various points. The skill is in adapting and remembering that our objectives are realisable in various ways. If new insights arise, they should be integrated into our thinking. Evidence will be collected at this stage: completed charts and interview excerpts, for example.


This may take the form of a follow-up evaluation by the regular lecturer further down the line. We would be interested in seeing if these self-perceptions of ability shift over time and what is behind any changes that may occur.


This is a critical stage involving the summary of what worked, what didn’t, what we have learned and how we are going to adapt our professional approach in future. Russell Mayne has been active in bringing evidence-based practice into the ESOL world and his arguments have been controversial and disruptive. You can discover more about his talk at IATEFL Harrogate on his blog:

We will be conducting our action research over the next few months and plan to report back in the next issue of the BELTA Bulletin.


Lewin, K. (1946) Action research and minority problems. J Soc. Issues 2(4): 34-46.

Ross, John A. (2006). The Reliability, Validity, and Utility of Self-Assessment. Practical Assessment 
Research & Evaluation, 11(10). Available online:

Stages of an Action Research Project accessed 28/10/2014

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