H is for Hypotheses


Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty

“I’m a researcher! Why has no one ever told me?”

Teachers are inherently researchers, driven by natural curiosity to understand their students’ problems and to consider ways of addressing them. Sometimes they apply old approaches and methods that may have been key to their own first or second language acquisition. Sometimes teachers become creative and innovate new approaches and methods. In doing so, they tend to follow the scientific method:

  • ask a question
  • research the question
  • construct a hypothesis (a guess)
  • test the hypothesis with an experiment
  • analyze the data and draw a conclusion
  • share results

For example, a teacher asks a question: Why are students doing poorly on tests? She is surprised because she thinks they know (or should know) the content on which they’re being tested. Doing some research (starting online), she finds a variety of variables that could be responsible:

  • The tests are held after lunch; maybe students are too sleepy after eating.
  • The tests are one hour long; maybe students need more time to demonstrate what they know.
  • The tests are written; maybe students don’t perform as well when writing because most of the teacher’s evidence of their abilities is based on their spoken output.
  • The tests are too narrow; students have to study one or more chapters of material, but are only assessed on a small portion.

The teacher expands her research to directly ask her students what they think. She decides this last problem, of the tests being too narrow, is the possible pedagogical culprit.

Based on this research and student feedback, the teacher formulates a hypothesis. It’s messy at first because she isn’t exactly sure how to word it to cover all contingencies, but it basically looks like this:

Students asked to demonstrate what they know do better on tests than students who are asked to recall a subset of what the teacher expects them to know.

Hmm. It’s a bit vague, but that’s okay at this point because designing an experiment will help to make it clearer. It can be refined as the teacher goes along. She decides to use the class’s current area of study, the ten most common irregular verbs. This is the content for which the teacher expects her students to demonstrate mastery:

Base form Past tense Past participle
say said said
make made made
go went gone
take took taken
come came come
see saw seen
know knew known
get got got/gotten
give gave given
find found found

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