There is another path to your GS TESOL MA degree that doesn’t refer back to your coursework or require you to prepare a portfolio of lesson plans. This path can take you very far forward--to readily marketable skills for sustained academic writing and even more valuable reading and thinking skills that will enable you to do Ph.D. level work if you so choose. You choose a research question, you design an original piece of research, you read extensively but selectively in the literature, you gather and analyze data, and with the help of a supervisor and with the approval of the thesis committee appointed to oversee your work, you write a master’s thesis. Let’s consider the steps one by one and see if this path is right for you.

Choosing a Research Question

A thesis is an answer, so your first step will be asking an unanswered research question. Start with your own data—preferably, data that you know firsthand, from your own teaching or from a teaching and learning situation you know particularly well. Sometimes you can get a good research question just by recording a short stretch of classroom dialogue (with the permission of the participants) and transcribing it. Consider the problems of teaching and learning that you see and hear. Don’t just consider the products of teaching (“What is the best way to teach X?” is rarely a good thesis topic). Consider the processes of teaching and learning, asking and answering, listening and understanding, thinking and saying too (“What kinds of questions get satisfactory answers with these students?’ is much more promising).

Designing the Research

Because you are starting with an unanswered question, you won’t find a ready-made research plan that you can simply take down from the shelf and apply. It’s usually more fruitful to work backwards from your unanswered question to the research design you will need to answer it. Your research design should be non-invasive (for example, it should not disrupt teaching that you are being paid for). It should be sustainable (you should be able to continue doing this research even after you graduate). But it should also have internal and external validity. Internal validity means that you are really measuring what you say you are measuring—you are not simply measuring differences in general proficiency when you say you are measuring vocabulary gain. External validity means that other people should be interested in your result, because it might apply to them—you are not simply looking at one unusually lucky child.

Reading the literature extensively but selectively

You need to know what has already been done. The problem is that for most topics of interest, it is often overly time-consuming to conduct an exhaustive literature survey, and for many problems it’s no longer even possible (for example, there is simply too much work on corrective feedback to be able to read it all). One good approach would be to design your literature survey around the theoretical constructs you will need to measure and discuss your data. For example, if you are studying the effect of teacher uptake on exchange length, you need to read and summarize work on teacher uptake, on defining and measuring exchanges, and also on why it all matters. In this way you can make your literature survey extensive—but selective, and you can guarantee relevance to your project.

Gathering and Analyzing Data

You need data. The closer you are to the data, the better you will understand it, However, be careful to ask your students before you record them (if you are recording classroom interaction) and get permission from students before you study them. It’s very useful to gather data and analyze it bit by bit; if you let the data pile up, you will find analyzing it an almost impossible task. There are very useful courses to help you with data analysis, including two versions of “Research Methods”, one for quantitative methods and the other for more qualitative ones.

Writing and Defending the Thesis

It’s not as hard as you think. In fact, many of our students find that even ninety pages of sustained writing insufficient to detail their research: the introduction to the topic and the motivation for the study, the theoretical background and the ideas, the research questions and hypotheses, the results and the discussion—and finally, the conclusion. When you finally get to the top, you may well find that you wish to keep climbing.