Tags: Curriculum Manager | Director of Studies | Teaching and Learning

Penelope A Beard presents a piece of action research on PE with results that extend to other subjects. Her work also demonstrates how a piece of well constructed action research can shine a light on practice and form the basis for further professional thinking.

This article describes the use of action research to bring about change in a strand of the PE curriculum which appears to have been neglected, namely Evaluation and Improvement of Performance (DfEE/QCA: 1999:6). As a newly enrolled student on a Masters course in educational improvement, development and change at York St John College, I was able to explore this issue in the introductory practitioner enquiry module. The results were to be quite striking and implications potentially far-reaching.


As an experienced teacher and adviser for PE, I was concerned at the level of performance of this strand among pupils and the level of awareness of PE staff. A survey conducted on a small number of specialist PE teachers indicated that none of them felt that it was as important as the practical elements of performance, even though each strand is given equal weighting in the GCSE syllabus. My concerns focused on the need for subject-specific terminology to be taught in order for the pupils to be able to articulate their judgements. My hypothesis was that if the pupils had the tools to critique performance, this would enhance their judgement and, in turn, their own performance. The specific focus was on giving the pupils the tools and the opportunity to improve by carefully evaluating their own and others’ performance.

The study

The research was carried out in a state secondary school in the north of England. It involved a group of 24 year 8 girls who had previously experienced 18 hours gymnastics at key stage 3. Initially, evidence was gathered on the pupils’ existing abilities in evaluating and improving performance by constructing a questionnaire which required pupils to consider subject-specific terminology, points of technique of particular skills, perceptions of necessary components of sequence work and video analysis of specific actions which required improvement. This questionnaire was repeated after a unit of four hours’ work in order to allow comparison of responses, thus indicating any improvement in skills of evaluation and improving performance along with any increase in their use of subject-specific terminology.

The aim of the completed task was for pupils to compose a sequence with a partner which included seven balances, starting and finishing positions and linking movements. Emphasis was placed on levels, pathways and speed in addition to quality of movement. The teaching styles adopted were designed to facilitate pupil, peer and self assessment. As Black et al (2002:12) state: ‘The use of both reciprocal and self-check teaching styles enhance pupil competence in the effective use of subject-specific terminology.’

Peer and self assessment make unique contributions to the development of pupils’ learning – they secure aims that cannot be achieved in any other way.

In the first week, pupils were asked to copy and refine seven balances presented to them on a sheet, checking their progress against the criteria set out. Week 2 progressed to include reciprocal work where pupils were asked to compose an individual sequence using the illustrated balances. In pairs, pupils were then asked to observe and evaluate each other’s performance offering feedback to improve it. They were then asked to improve their work in light of their partners’ comments. During this stage of the unit, all pupils were exposed to a number of evaluative descriptions of the task throughout the lessons. This ensured that pupils were able to use these descriptions when evaluating and improving their own and others’ performance.

During weeks three and four, pupils were asked to complete the task of composing a partner sequence using their previous experience/learning of the seven illustrated balances and to include ideas of their own. During these lessons, at least 15% of the time allocated for practical work was given over to pupils for constructive discussion and feedback to take place after observing others’ performance.


The responses to both pre- and post-intervention questionnaires were then compared.

  • Question one asked pupils to write down as many different words as they could to describe gymnastic movement. In the first trial, 37% of words used were evaluative, this increased to 43% after completion of the unit of work.
  • Question two asked pupils to say what qualities contribute to the correct performance of four specific gymnastic skills: handstand, forward roll, cartwheel and headstand. The results showed that, in the first trial, pupils offered an average of 4.7 factors. This rose to 5.9 in the second trial, representing an increase of 25%.
  • Question three asked pupils to offer suggestions as to how they and a partner would produce a good sequence. In the first trial, 35 responses were evaluative, making the average response 1.6 factors per pupil. This had increased to 92 evaluative responses in trial 2, making the average response 4.2 factors per pupil. In percentage terms, this represents an increase of 162%.
  • Question four asked pupils to use their evaluative skills when improving performance of the same four skills used in question two through observation of these skills on video. This showed an overall increase of 50% in the use of evaluative skills.


It would seem that the use of both reciprocal and self-check teaching styles enhance pupil competence in the effective use of subject-specific terminology. In using these styles in the delivery of this unit, it became clear that pupils (through teacher observations) were indeed far more confident in their use of subject-specific language in evaluating their own work and in offering constructive feedback to others. Question three showed a dramatic increase in percentage terms in the pupils’ ability to describe a ‘good’ sequence of work. A factor felt to be in part responsible for this significant increase in their abilities is an increase in pupils’ self confidence and self-esteem. Pupils, through the use of specific teaching styles, (along with others) are rather drawn into the assessment process, rather than being outside it. Being inside the process implies an ownership by the pupils over their learning, and with that comes a responsibility and desire to improve it.

As Weeden, et al (2000) states:
Linking teaching, learning and self-assessment can be an important motivator… Motivated pupils tend to learn better and behave better. Pupils often see assessment as a threatening event. The merging of teaching and self-assessment can put it back into its true place as a supportive, motivating part of the learning process.

Black and Wiliam (2002) suggest that where teaching is reliant on external rewards such as merits, house points, etc pupils tend to look for the ‘best marks’ rather than at the needs of their learning which would be a reflection of these marks. However, by definition, the teaching styles used did not offer external rewards, but rather concentrated on an improvement in learning through receiving effective feedback which would then increase pupils’ intrinsic motivation. It is my belief that the culture of receiving and positively using effective feedback was created within the unit of teaching, and could, therefore, account in some part for the significant increases in pupils’ abilities.


It seems that increased teacher awareness of the value of the planned use of reciprocal and self-check teaching styles as a tool to enhance pupil use and understanding of subject-specific terminology is a priority. Inherent in this is the requirement of an appreciation from teaching staff that the attainment target for physical education consists of four equally weighted assessment strands. By adopting a more varied approach, teachers are ensuring that pupils are engaged in a wider range of learning activities which, as this research suggests, will not only improve their learning, but will also enable more of them to achieve higher levels of attainment. It is also possible that the skills learned here may be transferred to other curriculum areas, thus giving pupils the confidence to extend their learning. There is much scope for more research in this area. As practitioners it is our responsibility to continually develop our professional knowledge and skills, with the aim of enhancing student outcomes and strengthening the culture of schools as learning organisations.

The tutors’ perspective

The action research article represents a condensed version of Penny’s 6,000-word assignment submitted in February 2005. The research was carried out over a three-month period as a first piece of work on the Masters course. It represents many of the powerful features of action research and, thus, has been recommended for publication. Here are 10 reasons why we think that Penny’s work deserves attention.

  1. It is an example of a very experienced teacher and adviser who, by using action research as a vehicle, was able to examine fundamental aspects of her practice, uncovering a serious concern about curriculum coverage of a strand of PE provision as well as identifying key aspects of pedagogy that could bring about improvements in learning.
  2. It is an economical study. The time-frame, the research and the findings are tightly focused and enable clear findings to emerge.
  3. Linked to the last point, the study relates directly to Penny’s own context. She was genuinely excited by improving the climate for learning and the results that her girls achieved.
  4. It is easy to see the outline of the study: initial reconnaissance; selection of area and specific focus; identification of data collection methods (questionnaire and observation); clearly stated findings and discussion of those findings; and finally recommendations and future directions.
  5. Penny draws on the literature and others’ findings to inform her study. As they say, there is nothing as practical as good theory.
  6. As often happens, there are unexpected outcomes. Penny reports increases in self-confidence and self-esteem in the pupils as they take on more ownership of their learning and become more confident with the tools for critiquing their work.
  7. As with all good action research, it doesn’t stop at the end. There are further questions and new directions to follow up. As David Hopkins says in A Teacher’s Guide to Classroom Research, it is not about knowing all the answers but asking better quality questions. In this case, she suggests that the transfer value of the newly acquired skills and practices might well be high in other areas of the curriculum.
  8. The study is the result of extensive dialogue. Extensive tutoring, presentation of her ongoing study to the group and peer discussion all helped to develop Penny’s focus from a hypothesis to a well-worked study in a constructive, systematic way.
  9. The work represents powerful professional learning for Penny and is a good example of the potency of practitioner enquiry as a form of CPD.
  10. Finally, through wider dissemination it has the potential to make a valuable contribution to the professional learning of other colleagues too.

Dr Mike Calvert, Head of CPD York St John College

Dr Margaret Wood, Head of Masters Programme


Black, P, Harrison, C, Lee, C, Marshall, B and Wiliam, D (2002). Working Inside the Black Box: Assessment for Learning in the Classroom. London: Department of Education and Professional Studies, King’s College.

DfEE/QCA (1999). Physical Education – The National Curriculum for England and Wales. London: DfEE/QCA.

Weeden, P, Winter, J and Broadfoot, P (2002). Assessment – What’s in it for schools? London: RoutledgeFalmer.

This article first appeared in CPD Update – Sep 2005

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