All posts by aliyabaratova

No gain without pain

There is an old adage “Practice makes perfect”. It has acquired a special importance for me during the last two years of my study at Graduate School of Education here at NU. Its message is clear: if you work hard doing something over and over again, then you will progress.

Studying at Master’s turns you to a young researcher with a different view to things you did not possess before. While conducting interviews and analyzing data, I came to conclusion that experience and tuition play a greater role in success than natural talent or giftedness. Being armed with data on challenges novice teachers face at their workplaces (as it is my research topic), made me think that mostly those teachers succeeded at their workplaces who did their best to blend into unknown environment and get knowledge and skills they lacked at university.

I am getting more and more convinced that experts are invariably made, not born. My studies into becoming a teacher have shown that high achievers are in fact no more talented than their contemporaries. Conversely, the difference lies in the amount of practice and hard work they put in it. Yes, there are numerous other factors that influence effectiveness like supportive environment and high motivation that should not be overlooked. However, from my own experience, I can conclude that I would not be in this timeline of finishing my Degree without using all the reasonable diligence and putting the most efforts into study.

People say that in order to succeed one need to leave a comfort zone. Studying here does make you leave your comfort zone which is challenging and rewarding at the same time. It is challenging because you start doing things you never did before, and rewarding because these things eventually open new perspectives and horizons.

Most people practice doing what they CAN do rather than what they CAN’T do, while the key success lies in working and mastering at what you can’t do. If a person believes that he or she must be talented to excel in certain areas, then they are generally mistaken as they will question their own abilities every time they need to act and even give up trying as a result. By contrast, a person who believes that they have capacity to learn, improve and learn from mistakes will more likely succeed. We often refer to people as, for instance, “gifted composer” or “born leader” wrongly implying that their success is a product of their innate talent. However, have you ever thought how much their achievement and success is due to genes and how much is due to hard work and time they invested into practicing their abilities to succeed in chosen path? In other words, keep it up and leave your comfort zone, and the next time when you question your ability to excel, just think that successful people are not born, they are made.

PS. This last post made me sad. Just yesterday we stepped into Leadership Program at NUGSE, and two years just have gone. I want to thank my groupmates who shared their experience here and not only. I will miss all classes, group presentations, finals. A special thanks to Philip Montgomery who was teaching us best academic and thesis writing English tips. Special appreciation for your instant and effective feedback.

 

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Just thoughts to share…

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According to my own observations, there are at least two main types of people writing a thesis: the first – consider writing it as merely a formal step in their academic career. In fact, they are writing a typical “verbose statement about slight increase of their salary”. The second view writing the thesis by way of Samurai as they write it to make it beautiful and  try to perfect the “weapon” irrespectively whether someone will see it or not. It is up to you whether to write the next mediocre plastic hand-made article or to make the sparkling blade.

I have chosen “a way of the Samurai”, and I will not be wrong having said that all my fellow students have chosen the same way. Won’t it be pleasant to open this work on any page and be proud of it?

However, this work is not as straightforward as it seems to be. Though you just need to tie yourself to a chair every single day for at least 2-3 hours, have 2-3 dozens of reviews on the subject and, certainly your computer in front of you. Such a simple set and such a big complexity! Not every person manages to plug away on one place if only this place does not bring joy. You must be assiduous enough. It is crucial to cultivate this attribute along with abilities of critical analysis and synthesis, strong argumentation, concise writing, meeting deadlines and other skills that are defined as course learning outcomes we must achieve in the end of our Thesis Writing Course.

Apart from assiduity, incentives are also vital. Control! Some people need someone who stands over their neck, others need praise, or on the contrary, a stick. As for me, I need an adult who will guide me, push me, and even scold me, if necessary. Who, if not the adult, thinks of a debt and obligations? Without this “internal adult” (he can be internal or real one – it is optional), the person will not be sensible of responsibility. If you are not able to develop your internal adult, then, your “external adult”, in supervisor’s face, will not give you a chance to chill and procrastinate. Here at NUGSE we are lucky to have very approachable supervisors, Shanyrak consultation centre and course instructors, who monitor our progress and explain all the intricacies of writing a thesis.

And, what incentives do you have for yourself not to give up and get inspiration to sit and write your chapters each and every day?

Are you writing your thesis?

Let’s play a word-association game. Choosing a topic, problem statement, “How to write a thesis tips”, despair, changing the topic, panic, central phenomena, litreview, panic, procrastination, APA, interview, academic writing, inspiration, findings… Yes, all of these things and even more are about a journey that every graduate student has to go through.

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Writing a thesis is both daunting and rewarding experience. In my case, and I think, in case of most of my group mates, it is challenging in terms of holding job obligations and thesis writing together. Both responsibilities require high concentration, time and energy consumption, and you cannot sacrifice thesis interests to work, and vice versa. Conclusion? Thesis is a huge work that requires all idle moments of your life. Yes, and time. Entering Master’s Degree and writing my thesis made me appreciate every minute of my life.

However, it is extremely gratifying to gain colossal practice while conducting research, and what is more, I have noticed some changes in myself, like developing this habit of putting “pop-up ideas” on the paper immediately they come to my mind, or, being judgmental and critical to opinions and searching for another side of the coin. I believe that it is research that is leaving an imprint on the way of our thinking and behaviour. Conclusion: for a long life-learner, the research is a mine of information as while doing research you get more and more skills and knowledge.

During this journey I have faced several challenges climbing up every step of my research and I have worked out my own understanding and tips I wish I had known before. First, it is certainly experiencing a culture shock in a new territory. To get an idea “Where am I?” and “What to do with it?”, I started reading tips by graduate students who went through all fire and water. Looking at all those tips made me feel even worse as the number one tip always told about starting it earlier. For left-it-to-the-last-minute type of student, who also works full-time, it seems to be sarcasm but not an advice. Conclusion: the best word of advice you can get from your Research Advisors who are masters at their craft.

Then… How can I know whether enough literature I reviewed or not? My research Advisor once told me that, in fact, in academic world we never stop reading literature as every researcher should be aware of the latest studies conducted by their colleagues, or just to be aware of what is happening in the field of your research. Yes, it is true. However, I still believe that there should be a way of prioritizing literature. The thing is that it is practically impossible to read all the articles published. To illustrate, one credible search engine like Taylor & Francis provides me with more than 8 000 peer-reviewed articles on my topic, and if I read at least 5 a day, I will need more than 4 years to go through all of them. Conclusion: do not try to read everything that search engine offers to you but rationally select what to read. In our circumstances, for students who aim to submit thesis on time, there should be a dead-end point where you stop adding new concepts and try concentrating on what you already have to shape your paper.

And I want to conclude my blog post with great words by great person, a physicist and the developer of the theory of relativity Albert Einstein: “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer”. This is true about writing your thesis. It is not that pivotal to be know-it-all, it is just how much time and care you devote to your paper and how passionate and enthusiastic you are about it.

p.s. The photo was taken by me and posted upon approval of the model)

Conducting my first interview – its rise and fall

No matter what and how you plan your data collection process, it will in any way be different from what you have planned, once you sit next to your interviewee!

While embarking on the first practical research project in my early career as a young researcher, namely my mini-research thesis on online learning, I came to conclusion that in reality research is far more challenging than it is described in majourity books. While reading different sources on dealing with methodology section, submitting my IRB to the Research Committee and attending thesis seminar this fall, I have understood that this part is challenging by its limits. Since much emphasis is given to ethical considerations, you must be careful about recruiting participants, taking into account their feelings, appreciating their time and ensuring confidentiality along with anonymity.

Thus, for me, recruiting my first participants was not an easy task to do as every time they agreed to participate in my study, I perceived it as an act of generosity on their part, and an act of invasion on their privacy, on my part. Therefore, I found myself a little at odds while my first encounter with interviewee.

Another obstacle impeding my interview, I think, was finding right time. The only window of opportunity that we could find to talk was after the lunch, and at the beginning, almost all my participants were in a dormant condition. So, to ensure that we were on the same page, I tried to set their minds on interview by asking general questions not related to my study, first. To my surprise, it turned to be a sure-fire way to humanize the interaction with the participant, and I am going to apply this technique in my study as well. Another lesson that I picked for myself up was to choose the most convenient time and place for the participant without any distractions and background noises.

What I liked most about this experience was talking to interesting people face to face. I also enjoyed trying to puzzle participants by asking questions that made them stop for a while and think a little to respond. The greatest compliment that my interviewee told me was, “Let me think, I have never really thought about this question before.” There is a technique that lawyers usually employ while interviewing a witness which involves seeking the reply to the question the answer of which they already know. I think that researchers should do the opposite and ask such types of questions that will spark interesting and fruitful discussion. Lawyers beware of surprises. As a young researcher – I love them as surprises mean I have something that possibly has not been identified yet.

With a common survey or yes-no answer questions typical to quantitative research design such opportunity to elicit in-depth and valuable information from the participant would not have been reached. I believe that the strongest feature of the qualitative interview-based research design is portraying participants’ innermost feelings and thoughts behind their answers, not merely getting “agree or disagree” answers.

To sum up, yes, interviews are time-consuming and transcribing them is even more laborious task compared to conducting 50 or 60 quantitative surveys in a go. But, it is worth all that hard work and time spent because you can be insured with real-life reflections full of interviwee’s feelings and thoughts. Personally I think that better method to study why things are the way they are and why people behave the way they do like interview has not been developed yet.

I am still learning, and this experience of carrying out mini-thesis was a good opportunity to hone my skills on conducting interviewes and interacting with participants on one to one basis.

Shift your lecturing out of your classroom!

In most traditional classrooms including higher education in Kazakhstan, the main focus is on presenting information in a form of a lecture where practice is left behind. In such classes students are given a little time to experiment with learned concept or dig dipper into the matter of this concept. The true reality is that students end up memorizing facts and figures for an exam not being able to absorb and therefore, apply those concepts in practice.

How can we our students to learn and comprehend newer material given by program, if they have not grasped the previous one yet? I do not want to fault teachers for it since they are given certain limit of time to deliver “everything-seems-necessary” program according to established curriculum leaving practice for homework. As a result, students are left to digest all that vast amount of information themselves not being able to ask questions to each other and a tutor, engage into discourse coming down to the brass tacks.

I think it is high time to change the landscape of our education by integrating innovative methods into learning process. Flipped learning is gaining more and more speed around the globe forcing us to look at our classroom beyond the hardened beliefs and norms. I was inspired by Aaron Sams, a Flipped Learning Pioneer, watching him to explain all the benefits that educators can gain from such type of classroom. The great idea of this innovation is that students watch video of their teacher’s lecture on their own time and at their own pace ultimately spending their class time more gainfully to employ learned knowledge during the lesson. Thus, passive delivery and consumption of a lecture is replaced here by rich discussions and disputes about the concept and subject matter illuminating new students’ skills and capabilities.

On the surface, it might seem to be alien to teachers, parents and even students, but deep down, such method will bring myriads of advantages in terms of devoting class time for more active learning not merely lecturing, along with assisting those students who missed your class for some reasons giving them a second chance to attend your “classroom”. Moreover, such videos or podcasts can be helpful for slow learners too as they will have opportunities to watch it as many times as they need.

I have become interested in applying this method one day in my classroom and I believe that flipped learning holds promise for future in Kazakhstan being not so costly and doable as flipping does not necessarilly mean using cutting edge technology.

Just stop by and watch “Teaching for Tomorrow: Flipped Learning” video by Aaron Sams and his students sharing their impressions about learning in this type of classroom.

And, what about you? Would you like to flip your classroom?

Reference

GOOD.IS. (2012, September, 28). Teaching For Tomorrow: Flipped Learning. [Video file]. Retrieved October 7, 2015 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4a7NbUIr_iQ

Where am I in the overall writing and editing process? Well…

Literature review is one of the crucial “milestones” in developing your research paper as this period gives you a full understanding of the scope and content of your research problem.

For me, literature review seems to be a “discourse” with other scholars on topic of my research. A discourse you are trying to have while looking through all those piles of articles related to your topic. My issue is the more “discourse” I have with scholars the more I get confused. Dozens of thoughts come to my mind while scrutinizing the ideas. You think about your contribution to an issue not duplicating someone’s work. It may sound cliché but I do not fancy discovering the continents again. I seek for a new and open problem, at least, aspect of the problem. Or, for example, how can I suggest promising solutions to the issue related to Kazakhstani context and many other questions.

What I am trying to do in this case is putting all those ideas into a system. After reading an article I completed a table with main research questions and findings of this article I read, which seemed a bit systematic. However, the most interesting stage of confusion came later on. At this stage I realized that merely a third share of all articles I read was relevant to my topic. Others were appropriate but not in such “close proximity” to my topic as I expected them to be after reading the title. So, titles can sometimes be misleading. Keywords and an abstract are helpful here though.

Another challenge I faced was being a distant student, not in terms of being an online-learner but in terms of a distance from Nazarbayev University Library. While on campus, I could easily access NU library login and download necessary articles, thanks to an extensive database of our library. However, from home, being 450 km from Astana, it appears to be impossible. What is more, the issue is not in access to database but in downloading articles. However, I am lucky enough to have very approachable group-mates who downloaded necessary articles and shared some with me. I am really grateful to them.

Where am I in the overall writing and editing process? Well, I am still in the process of searching and assessing articles in accordance with the relevance to my topic, ethical considerations and credibility of the sources.

I have a plan. I compiled a tentave must-read list of literature, half-of-read and half is not. First, I am going to read as much literature as I can to get acquainted with significant researchers in my field of reseacrh. It is amazing how one issue can be investigated and looked by many scholars from different perspectives. Once I critically studied and analysed all facets of my research question, I am going to start shaping my literature review.

I would just recommend those young researchers who do not know where to start their literature reviews from – just start reading.  Do not wait for the Eureka moment to happen thinking that all ideas will fall from the sky. Start your “discourse” with researchers.

And, what is your path in writing literature review? A smooth one or not without “bumps” on it? Can you share main difficulties you have with, and most importantly, what are your solutions to address those challenges?

Thank you

APA formatting. The devil is still in the details…

I have always believed that a content of your work should play a more important role than its look. However, it cannot be argued that the first impression is often based on the look and needless to say that it goes for formatting academic paper. In spite of the fact that the content of such work is studied to the great depth and less is done to the layout and trivialities like comma and hyphen, the entire impression and quality of the paper risks to suffer from neglect of APA formatting.

Yes, it is not that much fun. And while at the first year of Master’s I often was puzzled by the question: why do we have to adhere to those guidelines?

The answer is rather simple and counter intuitive: the formatting, vice versa, enables for the emphasis to be placed on the academic paper content during the review process. The fact that all submitted papers share unified format allows for the reviewers to concentrate on the content without being distracted by irregular and “each in his own fashion” formatting and reporting styles.

As for my experience, prior to August 2014, the first session at Nazarbayev University, I did not have the least clue that most academic journals and articles follow the American Psychological Association’s Style (APA, 2009). The APA manual is widespread and used on almost every continent. It counts an impressive 273 pages and caused some confusion for me for the first time. However, it covers the basic sections of APA style research papers, including the general formatting and reference formatting of the paper.

The great challenge for me was in details like errors in the pagination numbers, running head, title page and font. The most painful was reference list. All those commas, full stops, years, names and sources, where each one has its own style of formatting. It seemed to be insoluble mystery. But that was because I did not consulted with the book. I just did not give due consideration to APA until my marks were lowered for these reasons.

Now, I understand that writing research papers in APA style requires in depth learning and practice, without which slight errors can pose great blunders, which in their turn, can lead to disaster.  The issue with referencing should not be underestimated as a failure to correctly indicate used sources might lead to accusation of plagiarism. Correct referencing requires vast amounts of time, patience, and attention to details when doing it manually. However, there are different types of programs like Citation Machine (2000) using which would solve each of these problems within a few clicks.

Great researchers know that first impression does matter. Those formatting issues constitute the first thing one notices in a paper. Therefore, it is better to make the paper look good.

Wish everybody good luck in exploring and using APA!

References

American Psychological Association. (2009). Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Warlick, D. (2000). Citation machine. Retrieved from: http://www.citationmachine.net/apa/

Online Learning Environment: successful completion or dropping out of the course?

The first word that comes to my mind referring to online learning environment is flexibility. As Stanford-Bowers, D. (2008) puts it, “online learning allows students greater flexibility in building a course schedule that caters to their lifestyle” (p. 1).

In contrast to the traditional classes, online learning offers more flexibility and can fit any schedule making it easier to keep up with work and family balance. Apart from wider variety of programs to choose from, which are not available in certain area, online learning appeals majority with accelerated pace providing fast-track to finish for those who wish faster completion.

However, while scrutinizing scholarly articles, great many cases of students’ dropping out online courses have become evident through the literature. Thus, I have been bewildered with a question: What are the reasons of online students dropping out the course? I believe that it is high time to challenge this issue now as we are standing at the threshold of building online learning communities. As cited by Corry, M. (2014), “high attrition rates continue to be a concern for academic leaders as they feel this remains a barrier to the growth of online instruction (Allen & Seaman, 2013; Xu & Jaggars, 2011; Zatynsky, 2013, p.11).

Corry, M. in his article Transforming and Turning Around Low-Performing Schools: The Role of Online Learning covers the benefits of online learning and challenges students face during their studies. According to Corry, M. (2014), possible explanations for high attrition rates in online learning environments have been attributed to “technical challenges, difficulties navigating the online platform, a sense of isolation, lack of face-to-face accountability, personal obligations, and general lack of support” (p. 11).

Conducting the review and meta-analysis of the literature, Corry, M. (2014) found out that online learning has the potential to be a core strategy for curricular reform, offering:

a. broad band: able to reach more students at any place and at any time increasing the availability for all students;

b. flexibility: offers students opportunities to learn at their own pace with expanded learning time to master complex content;

c. broadly accessible content: provides a range of topics, complexity;

d. continuous access to a variety of learning materials (p. 23).

I cannot but agree with Corry with the fact that the backbone of online learning is accent to a broad access for all students regardless the area they live, along with providing opportunities for them to recover course credit.  In addition to flexible and self-paced nature of online learning, such courses provide highly differentiated environments allowing for personalized learning.

However, apart from well-known and often cited benefits of online learning, what are its main drawbacks?

I believe that the main challenge lies in virtual not eye-to-eye contact with instructors – lack of instructors’ supervision, support or not sufficient live feedback. Therefore, every online learner should remember that just because the instructor is not in the same room with him/her, does not mean that he/she is not available. Before the course starts, it is vital to talk to supervisor, develop study schedule that will delineates study time and will not conflict with work and life balance.

Certainly, there can be some technical difficulties since it is online course and needs technical support. I would not honestly call it a challenge as you merely need to make sure your computer is set up to run the course along with reliable internet connection.

The second article that I found worthwhile to share is an article by Batts, D. Comparison of Student and Instructor Perceptions of Best Practices in Online Technology Courses. In the article he reflects Seven Principles that have been employed to set standards for undergraduate education. As cited by Batts, D. (2008), Cross (1999) stated that “the best known, certainly the most widely distributed list, is the ‘Seven Principles for Good Practice”:

  1. Principle One states that good practice promotes student-faculty contact and enhances student’s motivation, intellectual commitment and the students’ personal development (Chickering & Gamson, 1991);
  2. Principle Two emphasizes cooperation among students;
  3. Principle Three encourages active learning;
  4. Principle Four stresses prompt feedback referring to instructor’s efficiently providing feedback on assignments, quizzes, tests and questions;
  5. Principle Five emphasizes time on task. As cited by Batts, D. (2008), Chickering and Gamson (1991) noted that, “there is some evidence that effective use of time in the college classroom means effective teaching for faculty and effective learning for students” (p.20);
  6. Principle Six encourages high expectations and maintains that instructors must develop high student goals which are also attainable. Chickering and Gamson (1991) reported that high expectations are crucial for all types of students;
  7. Principle Seven focuses on respect on diverse talents and ways of learning. Chickering and Gamson (1991) noted that “Faculty who show respect for their students’ unique interests and talents are likely to facilitate students growth and development in every sphere – academic, social, personal, and vocational” (p. 20).

These principles represent collaborative expert opinion and are built on 50 years of research on good practices. I totally agree and accept the idea without reserve that in order to be successful and not being doomed to failure, online students should exhibit and possess some characteristics. In terms of technical issues, it is, for instance, having an appropriate technology and being able to use this technology effectively. Regarding environmental factors, it is having an appropriate time-space management skills. As far as personal factors are concerned, it is possessing a healthy balance between study and “the rest of life”.  From my own observations studying at Master’s, I would also stress various learning characteristics important to drive the successful completion of the course that are more independent and self-directed learning style, as well as better-than-average reading skills and being able to communicate well in writing.

How to be persistent in online learning environment and not to be destined for failure?

I think it is all about self-discipline. Being what means having an ability to self-manage time, ability to cope with non-structured settings and even often checking email. And it is motivation. Motivation is an extremely important characteristic for any student and particularly for the online learner. Online learners must utilize a different level of initiative and self-discipline that students in traditional classes may not possess.

And what positive either negative experience of inline leaning can you share?

References

Batts, D. (2008). Comparison of Student and Instructor Perceptions of Best Practices in Online Technology Courses. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 4(4). Retrieved from http://jolt.merlot.org/vol4no4/batts_1208.pdf

Corry, M. (2014). Transforming and Turning Around Low-Performing Schools: The Role of Online Learning. Journal of Educators Online, 1-30. Retrieved from ERIC http://eric.ed.gov/?q=Transforming+and+Turning+Around+Low-Performing+Schools%3a+The+Role+of+Online+Learning&id=EJ1033256

Stanford-Bowers, D. (2008). Persistence in Online Classes: A Study of Perceptions among Communty College Stakeholders. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 4(1). Retrieved from http://jolt.merlot.org/vol4no1/stanford-bowers0308.pdf

Motivations and factors influencing English teachers to pursue teaching career

School graduates choose to teach for a myriad of different reasons. Some people want a work and life balance. Some of them want to give something back to their communities. Others want a career that provides opportunities for personal development, and some want a high-paid job with conditions and benefits. As Kagan (1992) states “Students enter teaching education with personal believes about teaching, experiences with good teachers, images of self as a teacher and memories of themselves as pupils” (p.130).el201406_numbersofnote

Over the last three years, facing challenges in attracting qualified teachers to the profession, I am constantly puzzled by the question: Where do all those graduates of English Philology faculties go to pursue their career if they do not go to schools? They either do not choose teaching as a career or if they choose teaching, they tend to quit during their initial years. By exploring English pre-service teachers’ experiences, I aim to shed light on their initial motivations to become teachers, their perceptions of teaching and further career decisions. I hope to get answers to the above question and contribute to understanding of English teacher retention in Kazakhstan. Understanding this is important for developing effective policies and programs designed to maintain stable and qualified teaching staff at Kazakhstani schools.

The teacher shortage is not just a Kazakhstani problem. An OECD (2009) report indicates that there are insufficient numbers of qualified teachers is a problem for all OECD countries. One of the causes of this shortage is the high turnover rate of teachers, partly attributed to the discrepancy in experiences during teacher education and the actual work of teaching afterwards. This discrepancy can be reflected in the difference between original motivations for becoming a teacher, and the real functions which a teacher needs to perform.

In my study I am going to explore similarities and differences in pre-service teachers’ initial motivations for choosing teaching as a career, their perceptions of teaching and further career choice satisfaction. Understanding these initial motivations and career choice satisfaction is vital for several reasons. First, there is a worldwide known fact that the success of any educational reform is heavily dependent on the quality and performance of teachers. Second, the effects of teaching quality on student achievement have been attributed largely to the kinds of teacher preparation they experience. I believe that a deeper understanding about pre-service teachers’ initial motivations and satisfaction with their career decision to become teachers will contribute to an important knowledge for teacher education policies and programs designed to improve the quality of teachers and teaching practice.

Therefore, more information is needed on how to retain pre-service teachers in the teaching profession after graduation and how to sustain their devotion to the profession.

References

Kagan, D.M. (1992). Professional growth among pre-service and beginning teachers. Review of Educational Research, 62(2), 129–169.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2009). Education at a glance. OECD indicators. Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.